Sometimes the press release reverberates with a cannonball splash, like four years ago today, when Texas was awarded the exclusive rights to negotiate with Nippon Ham righthander Yu Darvish after submitting a record posting bid of $51.7 million.
Other times it registers with a mild ripple, like the anticipated reunion with Colby Lewis, the free agent signing of 33-year-old journeyman Justin Ruggiano, or last spring’s trade, days before the season opened, of a player to be named later or cash for out-of-options and out-of-the-Cardinals’-plans lefthander Sam Freeman.
The thing about that second category is those moves often make the whole greater than the sum of its parts — without wiping out the chance at that cannonball.
Freeman — who will join us Tuesday night at Bedford Ice House for the Newberg Report Book Release Party, along with (so far) Jeff Banister and Rangers minor league hitting coordinator Josue Perez — wasn’t going to make the St. Louis roster coming out of camp last spring, as the Cardinals were going with southpaws Randy Choate and Kevin Siegrist in their pen.
The Rangers acquired Freeman on March 28, got him into three spring training games, and after he gave up six runs (five earned) on 10 hits in two innings, they designated him for assignment, opting to go with zero lefties in their bullpen on the Opening Day roster. The Carrollton Hebron product slid through waivers unclaimed, was assigned to AAA Round Rock, and after eight effective appearances through early May, he was purchased by Texas.
A couple uneven weeks followed, but after May 28 Freeman was nails for the club, posting a 2.18 ERA (and stranding 82 percent of the 39 runners he inherited) the rest of the way, limiting hitters to a .198 batting average and .298 slug and punching out 37 in 33 innings of work.
The “player to be named later or cash” that Texas owed St. Louis turned out to be $75,000, which is pocket lint on the MLB scale.
If Houston and Washington get that sort of production out of lefty specialists Tony Sipp and Oliver Perez, respectively, they won’t regret the three years/$18 million and two years/$7 million they agreed, respectively, to pay those two veterans earlier this month.
Meanwhile, Freeman will make a little more than $500,000 in 2016.
Ruggiano, a veteran of seven big league seasons and five big league clubs, signed a one-year, $1.65 million deal with the Rangers this week. According to Jon Heyman (CBS Sports), only $500,000 is guaranteed. Ruggiano can get up to another $1.25 million if he reaches six plate appearance incentives, the final one of which is 500 trips to the plate.
Texas had only five hitters make 500 plate appearances in 2015.
Five in 2014.
Six in 2013.
It’s a modest contract.
And one that makes a lot of sense.
You can imagine that the profile for one of the bench pieces Texas went into the winter seeking looked something like this:
* Hits right-handed
* Hits left-handed pitching
* Capable of playing center field
* Capable of everyday duties in left field for stretches of time
* Capable of playing right field
* Inexpensive, given that ideally he’s part of the bench — which would also keep the possibility of a bigger splash alive
Ruggiano checks every box. Hitting from the right side, he’s a career .272/.336/.520 (.856 OPS) hitter against left-handed pitching, including a robust .301/.370/.578 (.948 OPS) in 83 plate appearances in 2015. He’s appeared in all three outfield spots in every one of his big league seasons, and was primarily a center fielder as recently as 2012 and 2013. Traded by Seattle to the Dodgers this year on August 31 (the deadline to acquire players and have them eligible for the playoffs), the Austin native and Texas A&M product played in 21 of Los Angeles’s final 32 games and hit .291/.350/.618.
This move gives Texas added insurance against Josh Hamilton’s health. He’s got a track record that fellow left field candidates Ryan Rua and Patrick Kivlehan don’t yet have, and he promises substantially more offensively than fellow center field candidate James Jones. There’s even talk that Ruggiano could get some work in Surprise at first base (he logged one minor league inning at that position for AAA Oklahoma City in the Houston system in 2012), to see how that looks, especially now that Mike Napoli has taken Cleveland’s guaranteed $7 million, which could stretch to $10 million.
(I have July 20 down as the date on which Texas sends 20-year-old righthander Jonathan Hernandez to the Indians to bring Napoli back here for a third term.)
The Rangers tend to face lots of lefthanders, and adding a right-handed bat like Ruggiano — especially at those dollar levels — can help balance the lineup on those days.
Lewis returns on a one-year, $6 million contract, pending a physical. It will be the most the 36-year-old has ever earned in a season, stateside or in Japan.
The way I feel about Lewis is probably no different from any of you. He’s a beast, a warrior, the kind of veteran you want young players to learn from, an emblematic member of the best Rangers teams in franchise history. While he’s a back-of-rotation type at this stage of his career, it would have been disappointing to see him pitching in anyone else’s uniform.
Texas will open the season (hopefully) with Lewis added to a rotation of Cole Hamels, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Chi Chi Gonzalez — though Jon Morosi (Fox Sports) reported yesterday that the Rangers were “still trying to trade for a starter, [with Tampa Bay’s Jake] Odorizzi, [Cleveland’s Carlos] Carrasco [and Danny] Salazar, [and San Diego’s Andrew] Cashner among [the] possibilities.” Yu Darvish is expected to return in the second half of May. Nick Martinez is still around.
Lewis’s return ensures that Texas isn’t faced with relying on Hamels, Holland, Perez, Gonzalez, and Martinez for a quarter of the season, in case no trade materializes. He may never again approach the career-high 17 wins or career-high 204.2 regular season innings he contributed last year (pitching much of it with a torn meniscus in his right push-off knee, which was recently repaired), but he offers a certain level of reliability — especially at that relatively modest financial commitment — and a ton of toughness, and that’s significant. Big difference having him back on board.
At the end of the Winter Meetings, Jon Daniels told reporters: “We have a good club. We’re not looking to shake it up, to make major changes. . . . There’s no sense of urgency or necessity to make a big splash.”
That’s because the big splash for 2016 (and beyond, not to mention before) was in July, when Texas brought in Hamels and Sam Dyson and Jake Diekman to a club that will be getting Darvish back.
But the thing about adding Colby Lewis and Justin Ruggiano to this club is that, while moves like that add stability to the rotation and flexibility and balance to the lineup, they don’t preclude the possibility of another one of those splashes.
Like adding Dyson and Diekman and a subsidized Napoli and Freeman and Delino DeShields and Chris Gimenez and Ross Ohlendorf and Will Venable’s and Drew Stubbs’s gloves and even Wandy Rodriguez and Kyle Blanks last year (Hamilton, too, I guess, given who’s funding his paychecks), and perhaps Tom Wilhelmsen and Tony Barnette and Kivlehan and Jones so far this winter, it’s not only the moves designed to put you over the top that have a significant impact.
It’s also the additions that quietly, and methodically, help round things out to better your chances to be in a position, come July, to go after that over-the-top, explosive, cannonball move.