Ray(s) of hope: Tampa Bay the key to Texas’ pitching revival

When I first started playing fantasy football in 1995, I joined an existing league and one of the veteran owners warned me, “That guy is the devil. Don’t make any trades with the devil, you’ll regret it later!” Not that he was actually Satan but in this case”The Devil” meant that in the tradition of Faust, if you’ve made a deal with The Devil, even if you think it’s a good deal at the time you’ll wind up regretting it down the line.

My co-owner and I had both Drew Bledsoe and a young Brett Favre on our roster, and were in need of a wide receiver. The draft had already taken place, and the only owner who would entertain trade talks with us was the Devil. He was probably thinking he could fleece the new guys. We agonized over which QB to keep and which to trade. Bledsoe had thrown what seemed like 50 passes a game (that was a lot in 1995) for a couple years running, and was expected to lead all of football in touchdowns and yards.  Favre was young and unproven. He was a loose cannon who threw a lot of interceptions, and the Packers weren’t very good (yet). Keep the guy with the track record and higher projections, or the younger guy with more potential upside but more potential flaws?

We decided to keep Favre and trade Bledsoe. We got Isaac Bruce in the trade, plus The Devil threw in his backup quarterback so we would have someone to use during the bye week.  Bruce was a 2nd year guy who had projected upside, but only had 200+ receiving yards the year before in 12 games.  He wound up being the second leading receiver in the NFL in 1995 and was near the top for several years. Bledsoe had a very disappointing 1995 (compared to expectations), while Favre led the NFL in most passing categories. The backup quarterback he “threw in” to the trade wound up having a better year than Bledsoe and we managed to trade him in a deal mid-season that improved our roster.

Turned out we were the Devil, and maybe the greatest trick the Devil ever played was convincing everyone else in the league that someone else was the Devil.

Jon Daniels might be the Devil of MLB GMs. His trade record is remarkably solid, with a few questionable moves in recent years (perhaps to throw people off the scent)? Somehow he has managed to keep the other GMs from believing he is the Devil, even after he fleeced the Braves in the Mark Teixeira trade. I’m no fan of Josh Hamilton, but the fact that JD somehow talked the Angels into giving up Hamilton for nothing in return while still paying all but a tiny fraction of his salary completely escapes my ability to understand.

JD may not be the guy all the players love, but he’s a good judge of talent and shrewd judge of other GMs around the league. The Cole Hamels trade last year was brilliant though I didn’t think so at the time. I’m not usually one to over value prospects, but I was VERY reluctant to give up Jorge Alfaro, even for a top of the rotation guy that’s under control for a couple seasons. I will gladly eat crow on that one. Alfaro is developing into a nice minor league hitter, but still isn’t concerned about improving his defense. Other than Yu Darvish, Hamels has easily been the best pitcher the Rangers have had since 2010.

Before scouting teams for trade targets, one must determine one’s needs that can be addressed via trade. Currently, the Rangers have many areas that can be improved:  starting pitchers of all kinds are needed to fill gaps caused by injury and disappointing play. Colby Lewis’ injury and Derek Holland’s vexing cocktail of injuries and disappointing performance over the last 3 seasons are the glaring holes, but total ineffectiveness on the part of Nick Martinez, Chi Chi Gonzales, and Kyle Lohse has been the theme lately. That doesn’t take into account the complete lack of big league ready rotation options in the minor leagues.

The bullpen needs attention at all levels; long man, middle/setup innings, and late inning high leverage are all areas that could use some help. The bullpen was believed to be an area of strength going into 2016, but reality has been quite different. The relief corps has been the weakest link in the chain, with Shawn Tolleson and Tom Wilhemsen showing early on a stunning lack of ability to get outs. Tolleson has recovered somewhat but still shouldn’t be trusted in any important situation. Wilhelmsen had the dreaded “infinity” ERA after his first performance, but managed to bring it down to just above 10 before the Rangers decided that the bullpen was better off without him. He was sent to the minor leagues, refused his assignment and wound up back in Seattle. At least if he’s going to be terrible, he can enjoy the cooler weather.

The production from first base has been deplorable this season. 1B/DH should be one of the top offensive production areas on every roster. There is a lot of money and experience tied up in Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder, the two players that get the bulk of 1B/DH time despite there being three system options that are arguably better options. Here is a look at the basic stat lines that the Rangers are getting from 1B and DH as positions (not player specific):

1B: .244 BA (6th), .715 OPS (8th), 14 HR (5th), 47RBI (6th), 40 R (8th)

DH: .224 BA (9th), .663 OPS (9th), 9HR (8th), 48 RBI (5th), 31 R (9th)

This does take into account the handful of games that Ryan Rua and Jurickson Profar have played first base, slightly raising the offensive numbers, as well as the games that other players have been given semi-days off as the DH. By and large, these numbers reflect what Mitch Moreland and Prince Fielder bring to the plate (i.e., next to nothing). Ideally, 1B and DH should be the two strongest offensive production positions on the team. If they’re not top two, they should at least crack the top 4. 1B and DH are near the bottom for most offensive categories for the 2016 Rangers, and taken as a whole are the worst offensively for the Rangers.

Catcher is also in this zone, but most teams will say, “I don’t mind weak offensive production from my catcher as long as he gives us what we need defensively.”  There is no such caveat for DH or 1B.  These are positions where you hide your stellar hitters who have defensive shortcomings; the guys who you can accept having a ham fist for a glove as long as they hit .290, mash 32 home runs, and drive in 135 RBI.  Moreland’s defense is somewhere at or above league average, but not enough to balance out his anemic production this season, which at least has been better than Fielder’s. Moreland is Moreland.  He’s a .250 hitter who will hit 18 home runs and drive in 75 runs a season, give or take. He’s capable of impressive hot streaks, but he’s not going to win any silver slugger awards at 1B because when he’s not hot, he’s below average.

Speaking of catcher, the catcher committee has done yeoman’s work at the plate. Beyond what anybody could have expected. If we’re honest with each other, a platoon of Bobby Wilson and Robinson Chirinos (and occasionally Bryan Holaday) likely leaves most fans of the Rangers wanting more from their C. To borrow a phrase from football, “If you have two catchers, you don’t have one.”  The Bobby and Robby show has held down the fort admirably this season, but nobody believes that they are the future, or are even capable of maintaining the production from the first third of the season through October and November. However, I’m ok with Chirinos and Wilson as the catching committee for the rest of the season if it means being able to focus trade talk on other areas.

The injury to Fielder (same type of injury that left him sidelined for most of 2014, just a different vertebra) has landed him on the 15 day disabled list, but the reality is that he is likely out for much longer, possibly the rest of the season.  It’s a shame when any player is injured. I don’t wish that on anyone (well, maybe one or two… *cough* Bautista *cough*) but this actually does solve a problem at least short term. Fielder has been a black hole in the lineup this year.  I understand the likely push from management to play the guy who’s costing us over $20 million a season. They feel a need to justify the trade and salary and get their money’s worth by letting him play through his slump.

The problem is that it’s happening at the cost of victories. I’m not a big advanced metrics guy. I see their value in many cases, but I trust what I see on the field more than FIPs and BABiPs, which seem more like sound effects than statistics. Onomatopoeias aside, I do place some value in WAR because it’s a decent comparison to the other players in the league and measures how a player contributes to wins or losses. Fielder’s WAR (wins above replacement) has historically been 5-6 in his peak seasons and has never been negative until this season.  In 2016, Fielder’s WAR rating is -1.4, which means that if a spare replacement level dude was playing DH for the Rangers this year, they’d have 1-2 more victories than they do now. I always picture Adam Rosales as the R in WAR.  He’s a prototypical spare part replacement-type guy. And it amuses me. Of 9 players in the AL who are regularly playing DH, Fielder is last in average, RBI, Home Runs, OPS, and WAR.  Replacing Fielder at DH with literally any position player on the 25 man roster will improve the production from DH. I hope that this doesn’t mean the end of Fielder’s career, but I have to say I’m relieved that the game day decision of whether to play Fielder or not every day is out of Banister’s hands. Wednesday’s lineup which saw Jurickson Profar starting at 2nd and Rougned Odor at DH is the best overall offensive and defensive infield+DH this team can offer. It improves the offense by essentially replacing Fielder’s bat and Odor’s glove with Profar.  At least for the time being, the offense’s chief problem has been addressed.

Based on all of this analysis, the most pressing need isn’t offense, it isn’t catcher, and it’s not relief pitching. Though all these are important needs, the one that tops the list is starting pitching. Hamels has been excellent (albeit with a couple hiccups recently) and everyone expects Darvish to return to form in short order.  Beyond that, we’re looking at A.J. Griffin who was surprisingly good before his shoulder injury, but since his return from the DL has shown an inability to get outs after one time through the lineup. Perhaps he’s not completely healthy yet and can get back to where he was before the injury. Kyle Lohse has major league skins on the wall, but in terms of “what have you done for me lately?” hasn’t been good. 3-4 innings of OK stuff then it falls apart with no indication from the last 2 years that he will be anything more than that. Martin Perez is still wildly inconsistent.  He’s starting to track like Derek Holland in my mind; he can have a handful of really good games, a handful of really terrible games, and the rest is just average. Not what you want from your #3 starter. He has decent potential, but while his control over his emotions is non-existent, he’s not going to be able to rein in anger and frustration to keep those average games to spiraling into the terrible games.

Since the Rangers have already missed out on Fernando Rodney and Brad Ziegler, the bullpen market seems to be depleted somewhat.The best relief arms being still mentioned are the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, whose prices are going to be exorbitant. So it it boils down to this: if the Rangers want to maintain their lead (or likely, regain it at the rate they’re losing and the Astros are winning right now) then the area that can make the most immediate impact without breaking the bank is a #2/3 starting pitcher.  The pieces that will be discussed from the Rangers’ standpoint are the big 3 prospects: Joey Gallo, Profar, and Lewis Brinson. There are some who still consider Nomar Mazara to be a prospect, but he should be considered part of the fabric of the team now. That doesn’t make him untradeable, but it does alter his value somewhat in that he’s not just a prospect. The gap he’d leave in the current roster would have to be addressed. So for the purposes of this article, we will assume that the cost paid for a starter would be prospects.

I believe the best organization to deal with at the trade deadline is the Tampa Bay Rays.  They have already said they’re interested in selling a starter. They have three promising options that would improve the Rangers’ rotation. I won’t bore you with advanced sabermetric breakdowns of all three. In a nutshell, here are their vitals:

Jake Odorizzi is age 26, controllable through 2019 via arbitration. 2016 ERA – 4.93 (3.92 career) K/9 – 8.5 (8.4 career) WHIP 1.274 (1.235 career.)

Matt Moore is age 27, controllable through 2019 via team options. 2017-19. 2016 ERA – 4.33 (3.93 career) K/9 – 7.6 (8.3 career) WHIP – 1.298 (1.347 career.)

Drew Smyly is age 27, controllable through 2018 via arbitration. 2016 ERA – 5.64 (career 3.74) K/9 – 9.5 (8.9 career) WHIP – 1.358 (1.207 career.)

I left out wins and losses because the Rays are bad this year, and that’s not a valuable measuring stick of a pitcher’s quality. A 4-12 starter on a bad team could easily be a 12-4 starter on a good team. I also left off FIP because it’s too convoluted for quick use and unless you know the formula, the number itself is useless. These three pitchers are all similar in the areas I listed above. I like K/9 (strikeouts per 9 innings) and WHIP (Walks and hits per innings pitched) because they simple numbers and are more of an indicator of how they fare in pitcher vs hitter match ups rather than the game as a whole depending on their team to score runs to get a win. None of the three distances himself over the others.  Odorizzi seems to be the most actively discussed currently in trade rumors and could be the best pitcher of the three. Drew Smyly may be the most widely known name. To me, Matt Moore is the most attractive trade target as the one who would bring the most to the table for the lowest cost.

The Rangers are clearly dealing from a position of desperation. They’re in a slide that everyone in baseball has noticed. Their obvious need is pitching, and they are rich in baseball’s top prospects, so teams in a position to sell starting pitching are salivating at an opportunity to rake The Devil over the coals, to pry Profar or Joey Gallo out of his hands.

But I believe JD has a plan.

My plan would be to approach the Rays with interest in their ace Chris Archer, but the Rays will likely tell the Rangers to talk to the hand.  It’s OK… you always start high so you can fall back to your true target. Next on the list is Odorizzi. Rays GM Matthew Silverman would of course demand Profar or Gallo. Knowing that the Rays’ outfield is lacking in star power, I would counter with an offer of Lewis Brinson (and lesser prospects to round out the deal if needed,) who is still a blue chip prospect but clearly the 3rd and furthest from major league-ready on the list of the top 3 prospects but he fits a position of need for the Rays more than Gallo does.

When Silverman balks at this, I offer Gallo for Odorizzi. If they don’t like that, make it Gallo for Moore who is probably slightly less-valued that Odorizzi by the Rays. He has successfully returned from Tommy John surgery with a few MPH off his top fastball, but he’s using his other pitches effectively. He’s due $7M in a team option after this season, one the Rays aren’t eager to spend, but that $7M could be a bargain if he pans out as a #3 for a team with a winning record and established #1 and #2 starters in place for the next 2 seasons.  So while there are downsides and upsides, both sides could play into the Rangers’ hand. Knowing his lost MPH from surgery and impending $7M team option are things the Rays are worried about, the Rangers may be able to pull an end-around and get him for substantially less cost than Odorizzi would require.

Most fans will not agree with my plan. Everyone loves Gallo, because he hits big home runs. Rangers management has said he is practically untouchable in trade talks. Realistically, Gallo has no position to play in Arlington in the near future. Adrian Beltre has been signed for 2 more seasons. Gallo isn’t a good defender, and sticking him in the outfield is a short sighted solution designed to get him more at bats that will cost them runs in the long term. He’s a possible fit at first base, considering Moreland is likely wearing another uniform next season. Referring back to the position of 1B discussed earlier in the article, Gallo is an offensive liability. He’s never been better than a .250 hitter in the minor leagues, but hasn’t shown much ability to hit major league pitching yet. Yes, he has hit a ton of home runs. He’s also struck out 652 times vs. getting 411 hits in 1600 at-bats in the minor leagues. He’s the 2016 version of Rob Deer (career 162 game average was .220 BA, 32 HR, 120 Hits, and 198 strikeouts). In terms of overall value to the Rangers organization, Gallo’s greatest contribution could be as a trade chip.

I don’t see the point in offering Profar right now. I don’t have a problem trading him in the right deal, but unless a true #1 or #2 starter is available, the cost is too high. Profar for a #3 is a net loss for the Rangers. Lewis Brinson, being an outfielder, plays a position that is easier to fill so the Rangers likely consider him to be the most expendable of the big three prospects. Joey Gallo is second, likely more for fan appeal and butts-in-seats value than actual on-the-field contributions. Profar has handily proven his value; the ability to play all infield positions well, he’s a switch hitter with power from both sides. I fear that the other teams will be stubborn in their insistence that Profar be the key, but I hope that JD works from a more conservative position where Profar is concerned, and not a position of desperation. Wheel and deal with Gallo or Brinson to get a starting pitcher.  Get what you can, but save Profar for the future or for the big blockbuster trade.

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Jeremy Stroop
I'm a life-long baseball and Rangers fan from about 1975. My dad covered the Rangers for the Associated Press when I was a kid, so I went to a LOT of games. I'm not a Rusty Rose-colored glasses-wearing Pollyanna Rangers fanboy. I love the Rangers like no other sports team, but I'm a realist. My wedding had a Texas Rangers theme. Public servant. Outdoor enthusiast. The details of my life are quite inconsequential.

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