The Man in the Arena: Jon Daniels and the quest to find a complimentary ace in the hole
This is an installment in our Trade Week series, where writers focus on potential moves the Rangers might make ahead of the July 31st trade deadline.
“…The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly… who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
– Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic” speech, April 23, 1910
I don’t think Teddy Roosevelt ever surfed. I’m pretty sure that sport was ahead of his time. But I think his spirit would have appreciated the notion of, “Go big or go home.”
So should Jon Daniels.
Despite a dismal close to the first half this Rangers team is, for my money, a match for any in franchise history…when healthy.
Fifty four wins equals the 2013 squad, which played 5 more games going into the All Star Break, so the win percentage is unequaled. But remember, that 2013 team, with its great first half, faded down the stretch, going just 37-31 in the second half, including 12-16 in September. They were in first place in the AL West as late as the first week of September, but momentum was non-existent. Despite an MVP caliber season from Adrian Beltre and a Cy Young runner-up finish for Yu Darvish, Oakland rushed past the Rangers through September, while Tampa Bay and Cleveland both held on for the Wild Card spots.
That team made only one significant deadline deal, one that would go down as one of Jon Daniels’ worst. On July 22, 2013 Jon Daniels pulled the trigger on a deal with the Cubs for a leading, if suspect, starter. Coming the Rangers way was Matt Garza who, for an unspectacular North Side squad, had gone 6-1 with a 3.17 ERA. His metrics did portent trouble; his Fielding Independent Pitching number, which measures how well a starter gets himself into and out of trouble, was a full 0.6 runs higher than his ERA. His strikeout to walk rate was solid (3:1) but he had never performed to quite this level in his career before. At the time many of us, myself included, ignored that. In a better hitters park (Wrigley vs. his long time Tampa Bay and Minnesota home parks) he was putting up solid numbers. And he was tagged with the timeless “winner” and “bulldog” tags, akin to Jack Morris, who gave up 4 runs when he got 6, but only 1 if he got 2. He was seen as a pitcher who adjusted to let the situation dictate how urgently he bore down. I’ve personally never subscribed to that theory, because I think the game is too hard to flip a switch and turn it on and off at will.
Part of the problem was Garza’s post Chicago crash and burn in Texas. Comparing some key metrics, what many of us remember as his implosion becomes as stark as the page’s ink; other than walks and strikeouts, which actually stayed the same or improved, he became much more hittable in Texas:
The second problem with the Garza deal was that he was a free agent at years end, and so he gave us all of three months of baseball before signing with Milwaukee.
The biggest problem, however, was that we gave up for better-than-average players for him: Mike Olt, Justin Grimm, Neil Ramirez, and C. J. (now Carl) Edwards. Olt was a solid utility guy in Texas and continued to be in Chicago. Grimm was optioned to Triple A for 2013, only working a handful of games and finishing the 2014 season with a 5–2 record, a 3.78 ERA and 70 strikeouts over 69 innings pitched. Solid bullpen work for any strong team, which Texas still hoped to be by 2014 (then 2014 actually happened). Ramirez has bounced around since 2013, but been solid everywhere he’s gone posting a 2.97 ERA with a solid 2.52 K/BB rate and 10.7 Ks per 9 innings.
Edwards was the real loss. He immediately became one of the Cubs leading prospects, being named MiLB pitcher of the year for his 2013 performance between Texas and Chicago affiliates while making an All Star Futures game, and ascending to the 28th spot among all baseball prospects by early 2014. He made his debut for the Cubs in late 2015 and, despite limited playing time in 2016, he’s put up the following across 10 late innings for Chicago:
Now 9 games is a small sample, but here’s what JD said about the Garza trade and the loss of Edwards, courtesy the late, great Richard Durrett in spring of 2014:
“I thought way too short-term with the Garza deal last year,” Daniels said. “That one’s got a chance to haunt us and haunt me.”
The 2013 deadline featured few if any other sure fire starters. The most prominent, beyond Garza, among those dealt was Jake Peavy, who readers can be forgiven for thinking of as an asset given his 2016 season, but who was a true shut down stopper in the rotation for Chicago and eventual World Champion Boston that 2013 season.
The most meaningful move, on multiple levels, was one the Red Sox didn’t make. Before settling on Peavy, they reached into a well the Rangers had drunk from before, inquiring about the Phillies’ Cliff Lee. The asking price was a minor league shortstop as the cornerstone of what would come back to Boston. Wisely they hung onto Xander Bogaerts, while Cliff Lee retired too soon with irreparable arm troubles.
Garza was a gamble; while he had no track record to suggest he’d continue what he’d done the first half in Chicago, with an in his prime pitcher (29 at the time), you sometimes gamble. Garza just showed up suddenly very hittable.
So who, if anyone, might be this year’s Matt Garza? Who might be the 2013 Cliff Lee or, conversely, the 2011 Cliff Lee?
Among the arms rumored to be on the block (now that Drew Pomeranz is gone), I like one above the rest as likely to be the closest thing to a true stopper in the rotation, a guy who, night in and night out, can close down the Ballpark with a bunch of zeroes in the runs column. He’s Atlanta’s Julio Teheran.
Teheran ranks fourth in all of baseball in WHIP (0.97), joining Clayton Kershaw, Madison Bumgarner, and Max Scherzer as the only sub-one qualifying pitchers in either league. His K/BB percentage is a very solid 4.28. He’s struck out 8.2 per 9 innings, holding opponents to a .205 batting average and, perhaps most critically, has kept a very strong attitude and presence on the mound despite a poor 3-7 record for the horrible Braves. His FIP worries me a bit, as it suggests he should regress somewhat (3.91 vs his ERA almost a run lower). This mirrors another Ranger, one who’s been the only anchor in a rotation rife with leaks: Cole Hamels. His ERA of 3.21 hides a FIP of 4.56, the second widest negative margin in all of baseball.
Most importantly, he’s controllable through 2020 at a reasonable price if you absolutely wanted to play hard ball with him.
This is FanGraphs on Teheran in 2013, before he made the Braves roster:
“Julio Teheran’s fastball velocity sat 93-95 mph and frequently neared triple digits. His curveball, while erratic, showed promise. It featured a tight 11-5 break and, when thrown well, caused the Triple-A Rays to flail. His changeup was his best offering. After he established his fastball, hitters were helpless against his low- to-mid-80s changeup.”
Eno Sarris at Fangraphs did some great analysis on whether Teheran is an ace. That is, will he maintain his performance late into and beyond this year? Sarris points to two areas that worry me, but uncovered a comfort. The worries are that Teheran can get high in the zone, and when he does he gets hit, often out of the park. He doesn’t throw terribly hard (low 90s), but he has an above average changeup that induces popups galore. So, to quote Sarris
“As long as Teheran maintains his ability to get the pop-up, he should be fine, even if maybe not quite as good as his ERA would suggest. And if you look at pitchers most like Julio Teheran — pitchers with a three-year demonstrated ability to get the pop-up — they’re at least a good bet for the next three years.”
So what are you willing to give up for a guy that might bridge the gap in a playoff rotation, with a changeup fastball separation that, if it can only develop a bit more, could make him an ace (remember, the kid is only 25)?
The long and short is going to be “a lot”.
Teheran is probably the best pitcher still on the market, at least the best young one, and teams like the Dodgers, Boston, New York Mets, and Toronto all covet him. It’s a sellers’ market this year for arms, due not to the paucity of candidates as much as the devastation dealt to staffs in Los Angeles, New York, and in Arlington.
To get Teheran, at least one of three guys is going to have to go: Jurickson Profar, Lewis Brinson, or Joey Gallo. Given Gallo’s struggles at the big league level last year, think of him as the least favorable option for Atlanta, and someone who is going to cost you more in younger, high-ceiling prospects if he’s your cornerstone.
I don’t want to deal Profar. Part of that is me doing what you’re not supposed to do, involving emotion, but I believe Profar is a future superstar. One whom I have as much confidence in developing as I do Teheran’s. Simply put, if Teheran is our version of Johnny Cueto for last year’s Royals, name your price. But he’s not. He doesn’t have the track record or the advanced metrics, yet.
So I’ll have a conversation exploring possible out there scenarios, 3 team deals and the like, but if the Braves give me a take it or leave it Profar ultimatum, I walk away.
Not so on Lewis Brinson, who I think forms the cornerstone of your package. I covered Brinson in depth here earlier this year, but he’s one of those remarkable athletes who just happens to also see his baseball skills continue to develop. The odds are at least 40% that he develops into a solid top of the order power bat and CF defender within 2 years. I’d put it at least at 30% that he’s an All Star here or somewhere else.
That’s not going to be nearly enough for Atlanta. They’re going to then ask for one of either Dillon Tate or Luis Ortiz. I go with Ortiz, as I think Tate is a true, tested shutdown arm, possibly as a starter, but at a minimum in the late innings from his college days. Trading Ortiz would be a big loss for the system. He’s a stud prospect with a stocky, strong build that can hit 92-97 and great feel for pitching at his age.
So we’re at Brinson and Ortiz. I think Atlanta is going to try and find a future double play partner for Dansby Swanson, and that means we need to look at a guy blocked by the likes of Rougned Odor, Profar, and Elvis Andrus: Travis Demeritte. I saw him in the Futures game and have watched him some on highlights from High Desert. His bat speed and size seem to project power, but we already have Andrus and Profar with more advanced hit and power tools, and Profar at least has a better glove.
Like I said: I’ll at least discuss Profar, but that’s likely where I end it. I’ll include Brinson or Gallo, along with some combination of Ortiz and Demeritte or prospects that profile like them. I really don’t want to include Tate if I don’t have to, as I just think he’s a special, hybrid kind of arm and incredible character guy. However, with Demeritte already having been pinched for PEDs once, I would not be surprised if Josh Morgan’s name comes up in place of Demeritte, regardless of his impressive High Desert(despite it’s status as a known hitter’s heaven) stats.
It’s a steep price, but for a controllable young pitcher who has top of the rotation potential, negotiating with a GM who knows you need to add arms, you pay a premium. Fortune favors the bold, and proven is almost always a worthwhile risk, when contracts are yours for more than three months.
Jon Daniels needs to make himself the man in the arena. I’ll respect him a lot more than I would those poor and timid GMs who know neither deadline steal nor defeat.