Rangers New Roadmap to October
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As the Rangers have stumbled and bumbled to an 11-10 start in the surprisingly mediocre AL West, they are at a crossroads that, in the coming weeks, will result in either cellar-dweller perdition or October-glory. While some have suggested sending Nomar Mazara down as the smart business decision, another gutsy option remains if Jon Daniels can stomach it.
There is an elephant in the room and his name is Prince Fielder. His performance is weighing down the defending pennant winners and, unfortunately for Prince, he is tipping the scales in the wrong direction for this team. There is an option, however, that fits this club like a glove and goes together like a fat kid in an ice cream shop: trade Prince Fielder to the Chicago White Sox.
SOUTHPAW TO THE SOUTH SIDE
This makes sense on so many levels. Consider the following:
Current Needs. The White Sox, despite playing in the offensively-friendly confines of U.S. Cellular Field, currently have a lackluster offense (84 wRC+; Weighted Runs Created Plus–a measure of overall offensive production where 100 is league average). In fact, the White Sox offense has been the worst offense in baseball in terms of Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2011. Furthermore, their current DH, Avisail Garcia (.226 OBP, .292 OPS), is punching his ticket towards Triple-A and has been decidedly below-average (88 wRC+) in his career thus far.
While Prince Fielder does not represent a current upgrade, as he’s dealing with his own early-season slump, he certainly would be a welcome addition to manager Robin Ventura’s daily lineup. Adam Eaton is currently the only true left-handed bat (albeit they do have three switch-hitters), and Fielder’s .378 OBP from last season would easily best any current hitter in the lineup.
History. Rick Hahn, the current GM of the White Sox, like his predecessor and current executive vice president Kenny Williams, is not afraid of signing veteran sluggers to their roster. Like Paul Konerko, Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche, and Todd Frazier before him, Prince Fielder would join a long list of formerly viable yet past-their-prime sluggers whose mighty girth would only be outweighed by their equally bloated contracts.
Money. Speaking of money, the White Sox have spent the 16th most in baseball this season ($116.3mm), which puts them in between the New York Mets and Colorado Rockies. After a frugal offseason, coupled with Adam LaRoche walking away from $13mm, the White Sox have money to spend. They could, in theory, take on a bulk of Fielder’s contract without having to give a lot in return. Surely the Rangers would be happy to dump that salary elsewhere and start fresh while the Sox could protect their improving farm assets.
Timing. The White Sox are 14-6 and leading the AL Central by 1.5 games despite their obvious flaws on offense. They are currently projected to win 88 games and, according to fivethirtyeight.com have a 56% chance of making the playoffs. They just came off of an impressive home sweep versus the Rangers and hammered the Toronto Blue Jays last night 10-1. The timing could not be better for JD to make the call. The Pale Hose front office would have to be willing to listen to the obvious upgrade at their doorstep.
RANGER ROYALTY TO THE RESCUE
While the Prince would be dethroned in Arlington, the new regime would quickly ascend to new heights:
Free the DH. The potential Rangers’ logjam panic is already in full effect. However, this really is the best solution to the return of Josh Hamilton, Yu Darvish, and Shin-Soo Choo. The large silhouette left by Fielder in the DH role would be aptly filled by Shin-Soo Choo, whose career -8.0 dWAR (Defensive Wins Above Replacement), cries out for him to be a bat-only Ranger. Since 2009 among players with at least 3,000 PAs, Choo’s total offensive output—as measured by Fangraphs’ Total Offense stat (Off)—trails only four active players (Mike Trout did not qualify): Andrew McCutchen, Jose Bautista, Ryan Braun, and Matt Holliday. Unfortunately, his defense during that same time period is in the bottom 10 in all of baseball. It’s time to retire the glove, and a Fielder trade would enhance the traits that still make Choo a good ballplayer.
Free Mazara. Despite my colleague’s sound financial reasoning behind sending Mazara down, there are just as many reasons for keeping him up. First, he is proving himself against major league pitchers. Including last night’s 2 for 4 performance, Mazara has posted above average walk rates (10%) and strikeout rates (15%), the latter of which tends to stabilize around 60 plate attempts. Second, he’s an automatic upgrade defensively in right field. That’s not to say he’s an all-star glove, but that even his average defense will be better going forward than anyone else on the current 25-man roster, and it is not close. Third, read what Bernie Pleskoff had to say about him in his most recent scouting report:
He will get better and better with time and experience. He profiles to be an all-star-caliber offensive force with skill enough to be an average defensive right fielder. Base runners had best not test his throwing arm, as it is extremely powerful and accurate.
Mazara profiles to be a consistent middle-of-the-order force to be accounted for. While he may continue to scuffle a bit with left-handed pitching, he projects to exhibit improvement in that area as time passes and he gains experience.
Mazara has not had the same type of publicity and hype that some recent high-profile prospects have experienced. However, he should be in every Rookie of the Year and impact prospect discussion. He’s that good.
There is reason to believe that he can play every day against righties and eased in against lower-tier lefties. As he gains confidence, Mazara will hone his approach and improve, as Pleskoff has suggested. In the meantime, Ryan Rua (career 107 wRC+ versus LHP) could spell him against tough southpaws if need be. Considering his overall upside, and the early indications that the AL West could be a contested battle all year long, every win counts and the Rangers would be wise to maximize the talent that is already on the roster.
Free the Rest of the Roster. The dominoes begin to fall in order after this. Ian Desmond stays in left field with 15/15 upside in the bat, Delino Deshields continues patrolling center, Josh Hamilton can platoon with Mitch Moreland at first base, spell Desmond in left, and DH on occasion. It’s Jeff Banister’s intention to play him less in order to keep him healthy moving forward, so 3-4 games per week in this rotation would seem to fit the bill. Certainly having a $2mm utility bat like Hamilton’s is the best-case scenario at this point in his career. A four-man bench would consist of any combination of Bryan Holaday (during Chirinos‘ absence), Hanser Alberto, Ryan Rua, and Hamilton. That’s not a bad setup at all.
Timing. There should be a sense of urgency for the Rangers’ front office. This team was built to win now, and their surprise finish and playoff appearance last season confirmed what Daniels already suspected: this team can win the AL West. A healthy return for Yu Darvish coupled with Cole Hamels, a deep and talented (yet underperforming) bullpen, and an exciting blend of veteran talent and young upside has Rangers’ fans hoping for another pennant.
The Rangers have no time to waste on an aging Fielder, who is obviously not the power-hitting lefty they envisioned pounding moonshots out to right field on a nightly basis. Although they should have cashed in this offseason after his comeback-player-of-the-year performance, there is still time to salvage what is left with a new crop of talent coming up through their minor-league system. Dumping Fielder’s contract would be a tacit acknowledgment of a large, 275-pound mistake signing, but it would also signal that this team and front office take winning seriously.
The Rangers and Sox have a history of past dealings—A.J. Pierzynski, Brandon McCarthy, and Alex Rios come to mind—and this trade could be very timely and beneficial for both clubs. Adding by subtraction seems to be the course of action here. Of course, if this deal doesn’t get done soon, there will be hell to pay, even for the most well-intentioned GM.