Sometime over the last couple weeks, Jon Daniels and his group struck up a dialogue with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer and theirs, with Texas looking to get stronger and the Cubs looking to get younger.
Somewhere along the way names began to get exchanged, and the conversation ventured off into different directions.
I’d like to think this happened at some point:
“No, Jed, we’d trade those guys, but that’s more than we’d give up for Soto.”
“Jon, those are good names, names that fit, and that’s a start, but if you want to play ball on Garza, that’s not enough. We need more.”
You get where I’m going with this.
Hitters (if not lineups) get into bad habits. Pitchers lose their edge. Teams go into stretches of epic Flat.
But the better General Managers in the game don’t slump as often.
That’s not to say that their moves always work out, or that the ones they’d like to make even happen at all, but whatever the talent accumulation equivalent is of the no-out, first-pitch pop-up with runners in scoring position, or the four-pitch walk to the number nine hitter, or the hit batsman on 0-2, you just don’t fear that with some GM’s. You don’t fear that with Jon Daniels.
The number three starter and the center fielder and the manager and the AA third baseman all have jobs to do, and so does the GM. The GM in Texas did his.
These last few days, there were more reports tying Texas to Garza than to Dempster and Soto combined. Did the Rangers push on Garza to develop a feel for which players in the Texas system the Cubs liked? Did they make Soto a priority before Tuesday just to zero in on which second- or third-tier Ranger prospects Chicago wanted most, in case the Dempster possibility developed?
Certainly whatever the Cubs’ ask for the controllable Garza was, Texas could reasonably insist on a lesser demand for Dempster, who will be a free agent at year’s end.
Pushing on Soto on Monday rather than approaching Chicago on a package deal for the catcher and the pitcher did more, maybe, than put Dempster’s battery mate in Texas as an added enticement for the righthander to waive his 10-5 veto rights.
It’s not exactly like Texas going down the road with San Diego last summer on Heath Bell before redirecting talks toward Mike Adams, but there’s some similarity there, a tactical effort to define the price and then change the commodity.
Maybe none of this played out the way I like to imagine it. Maybe I want to believe my team’s GM had a meticulously devised plan and executed it because I don’t want to think about my team’s offense or pitching staff’s own efforts to do the same thing right now.
You won’t talk me out of it. The track record being what it is, I expect this front office to execute. Every time.
This is why I’ve stuck with this project for 14 years. It’s why I decided this past winter to write a book about this team’s baseball operations group. The process of building a baseball team fascinates me. It did for decades when it provided the only hope for a franchise that had never won anything, and it continues to do so now as the effort has shifted to finding a way to get that one last out and one final win, and to create a window that’s going to stay open for years.
On May 23, 1998, two days before the very first Newberg Report email, 21-year-old Ryan Dempster made his big league debut, mopping up in the eighth and ninth innings of a 10-4 Marlins loss to Pittsburgh. Three years earlier, Texas had drafted him in the third round out of a Canadian high school, a year after which the Rangers, headed toward their first-ever playoff berth, traded the Class A starter and a player to be named later (Rick Helling) to Florida for John Burkett.
Burkett was far from a number one when Texas acquired him – in fact, he cleared National League waivers and most of the American League before the August deal was completed – but he came up big for the Rangers down the stretch and even bigger in October, earning what would be the franchise’s lone post-season victory until Cliff Lee won one in Tampa 14 years later.
Lee evidently wasn’t available for Texas to reacquire this week, at least not on terms the Rangers could accept, and Dempster is probably closer now to what Burkett was. When the Rangers traded Dempster, they did so to get a reliable veteran who would help them win their first division title. In trading for Dempster, they’re hoping they’ve added a reliable veteran who will help them win their first World Series.
Was Dempster (whose contract, which has about $5 million remaining on it, the Rangers will cover) the club’s first choice? Probably not. For one, he was traded to Atlanta a week ago before exercising his 10-5 rights and killing the deal. Texas was said to be after bigger catches, from Cole Hamels to Zack Greinke to controllable pitchers like Josh Johnson and Garza and possibly Lee and James Shields. A report overnight from Rob Bradford (WEEI) suggests that the Rangers even discussed a huge deal with Boston that involved Josh Beckett, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Kelly Shoppach (no names on the Texas side were divulged), and Bob Nightengale (USA Today) reports that the Rangers approached Houston about Bud Norris.
Even as late as 1:00 on Tuesday, two hours before the deadline, Nightengale reports that Texas was “running third” in the chase to acquire Dempster before making its charge in the final 20 minutes before time expired. Dempster says he was asked to waive his veto rights with about five minutes to go.
Daniels says “the deal changed a little at the end” and the teams agreed on Myrtle Beach third baseman Christian Villanueva and his teammate, righthander Kyle Hendricks, as the return. Both have had very good months, not an insignificant thing considering the heightened scouting efforts that go on in July. Villanueva hit .333/.440/.479 for the month, while Hendricks fanned 32 and issued six walks in 31 innings over five starts (3.77 ERA).
Neither is a blue-chip prospect. I had Villanueva number 13 in the Rangers system this winter, and Hendricks number 43. Today, I’d have Villenueva at about the same place, maybe a couple spots higher, and Hendricks somewhere in the late 20’s or 30’s. When asked yesterday if Hendricks (or Jake Brigham, the Frisco righthander whom Texas sent Chicago on Monday for Soto) would fit in the Cubs’ top 30 prospects, Baseball America’s Ben Badler said they have a “[c]hance to,” as the “[s]ystem has very little pitching.”
I’m a Villanueva fan. While he may not hit with classic third base power, he is, as Kevin Goldstein (Baseball Prospectus) puts it, “one of those players whose greatest strength might be a lack of weaknesses.” Signed out of Mexico in 2008 for a relatively modest signing bonus, the 21-year-old may profile as an Edgardo Alfonzo type (he’s seen some time at second base this season), and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. With Adrian Beltre and Mike Olt ahead of him and Joey Gallo and Drew Robinson behind him, however, Villanueva was part of a healthy Texas inventory at third base and a player that the Rangers – who would have had to protect him this winter on the 40-man roster – could afford to move.
As for Hendricks, a 22-year-old drafted in the eighth round last year out of Dartmouth, he’s one of those pitchers with an advanced idea on the mound and a high floor that compensates for what is probably a low ceiling. The righthander has average stuff but he pounds the strike zone, having punched out 150 pro hitters in 166.1 innings, walking only 21. He’s probably a back-of-the-rotation starter if everything falls into place. There’s value in that, but it’s also the type of player that good teams with deep systems are able to part with.
Two great scouting and development success stories.
And less than I figured it would take to get Dempster, particularly on July 31. If Hendricks had been replaced in the deal by someone like Justin Grimm or Cody Buckel or Nick Tepesch or Chad Bell, it wouldn’t have surprised me. This was a case in which Dempster’s 10-5 rights (and perhaps the delayed announcement of Neftali Feliz’s need for surgery) helped Texas considerably.
As we talk about in this space all the time, the hope ought to be that Villanueva and Hendricks work out tremendously for the Cubs. When the Rangers’ tier three prospects turn out to be productive pickups, as opposed to hyped names that don’t pan out, it encourages future trades.
Interestingly, the Dodgers (who were said to be in on Dempster until the end) made four prospects (pitchers Zach Lee, Allen Webster, Chris Reed, and the injured Rubby De La Rosa) untouchable for Dempster. If that means theoretically that their fifth and sixth prospects were on the table, then that says something meaningful about the Texas system, considering Villanueva and Hendricks were nowhere near that level on the depth chart here and still won the day.
But the pair was certainly a lesser return than righthander Randall Delgado, whom the Braves were set to ship to the Cubs last week had Dempster not banged that deal. “Not even close,” says Goldstein.
What would the Rangers have done had Dempster permitted the Cubs-Braves trade to go through?
Don’t know. But they would have done something.
And they still might do more.
Jeff Passan (Yahoo! Sports) thinks so, at least: “Even though they snaked Dempster, the Rangers aren’t done. They’d like to find another starter from outside the organization during August.”
Could that be Beckett (who exited his start last night with back spasms)? (Ellsbury would never get to Texas on trade waivers, so forget about that larger deal during the season.) Or Lee? Or Johnson? There are good pitchers with bad contracts who could be eligible to be traded this month.
With Colby Lewis and now Feliz done for the year and Roy Oswalt pitching terribly, Texas won’t stop looking for ways to improve the rotation. But as Peter Gammons said yesterday, in spite of those developments, Daniels never panicked, and “never wavered from the best long-term interest of the franchise.”
Namely, Daniels didn’t trade Olt or Martin Perez for a rental or for a starter with a real injury concern, and he still added a pitcher having a terrific season (.210/.263/.324 opponents’ slash, 2.25 ERA, getting into the seventh inning on average in the pinch-hitter league) and, like Beltre and Mike Napoli a year ago, a veteran hungry to play in his first World Series – in a career that’s lasted so long that his three seasons as Greg Maddux’s teammate (2004-06) were actually in the second half of his time in the big leagues.
(And on the subject of the right-handed hitter for the bench that we all believe Texas will trade for this month: If you can catch lightning in a bottle and get a version of 2010 Jeff Francoeur rather than 2010 Jorge Cantu, great – maybe it costs Julio Borbon or some other version of 2010 Joaquin Arias – but if you’re going to have to trade a key prospect for someone like Scott Hairston [who would never get to Texas on trade waivers] or Carlos Lee, are we really sure Olt wouldn’t be just as productive? Discussion for another time.)
Whether Texas has an interest in re-signing Dempster this winter, and whether he’s open to the idea himself, is something that won’t even be considered until we see how this all plays out over the next three months. The Rangers’ 2013 rotation picture is less defined than it was a few weeks ago, but Dempster is in line for a big payday.
For now, though, the focus is solely on tomorrow night, when the first-time American Leaguer takes the mound in the first inning and peers in for Soto’s signs, just as he’s done close to 100 times since Soto arrived in the big leagues seven years ago. Dempster’s mound opponent will be C.J. Wilson, who for Texas was the latest example – after Burkett and after Lee – of how regular season results aren’t always predictive of post-season success.
You can put Lewis, the pitcher whose role Dempster is essentially assuming, in that same category, if you like. Dempster’s no ace. But neither was Lewis, who will go down in Rangers history as one of the franchise’s great playoff warriors.
Would I trade Villanueva and Hendricks for the ability to get a healthy Lewis back right now? You bet.
That’s the type of pitcher and competitor Texas is hoping Dempster turns out to be.
The product on the field has been sloppy and really frustrating to watch for too long now, and that has to change. Ryan Dempster can’t help this team work pitch counts or hit with runners in scoring position, and neither can Jon Daniels, but they both have their own job to do, and if Dempster – once a Class A pitcher traded for a stretch run boost and now on the other side of one of those deals – delivers nearly as reliably as Daniels, he’s going to help this team get to October and maybe even stand out once he gets there, just as the player he was traded for 16 years ago once did for this franchise himself.