GM Daniels: 'We're a better club today'
INDIANAPOLIS -- The Texas Rangers departed the Major League Baseball winter meetings Thursday looking forward to a little rest.
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What was supposed to be a relatively quiet week because of the Rangers' lack of funds turned into a whirlwind four days that included trading the club's No. 1 starter, agreeing to a deal with a talented starter with an injury history and getting close to adding a big right-handed bat. The club also picked up some key pieces for the bullpen along with way.
"I'm pleased with what we were able to do," general manager Jon Daniels said just after Thursday's Rule 5 draft, in which the club picked up a left-handed reliever. "We're a better club today than we were when we got here. There are still some things we need to address, and we're working through those."
Let's break down how the Rangers addressed some of their needs during the four-day stay inside a suite at the downtown Marriott in Indianapolis:
It wasn't a priority coming into the meetings, but in order to create some financial flexibility, the Rangers traded starter Kevin Millwood and $3 million to the Orioles for reliever Chris Ray and a player to be named, which ended up being left-handed reliever Ben Snyder, who was taken third overall in the Rule 5 draft.
The deal saved the Rangers about $8 million, most of which they spent on free-agent starter Rich Harden, who was in Arlington on Thursday for a physical. The deal, which will go through pending no red flags from the doctors, pays Harden $6.5 million in 2010 and includes a mutual option for $11.5 million for 2011 with a $1 million buyout.
Essentially, the Rangers replaced the veteran Millwood, who turns 35 on Christmas Eve, with a 28-year-old starter with more upside. But it's also a risk.
Millwood has shown an ability to pitch a lot of innings, even though he dealt with hamstring, groin and back issues at times during his four-year stay in Texas. Harden has the reputation for having amazing athleticism and No. 1-starter stuff but little durability. He's pitched more than 148 innings just once in his seven-year career. And that was in 2004.
The Rangers hope their training staff and pitching coach Mike Maddux can help Harden stay healthy. If he can keep himself in the rotation every five days, the Rangers may have secured a bargain. Harden, by the way, also gives the rotation something they haven't had in a while: a true strikeout pitcher. Harden had the best rate of strikeouts per nine innings of any pitcher with more than 100 innings last season.
After Harden, Scott Feldman also has a place in the rotation. From there, a gaggle of players will compete for starting spots, including (among others) Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, Brandon McCarthy, Dustin Nippert, Doug Mathis, Neftali Feliz and C.J. Wilson.
Daniels acknowledged that the Red Sox and Rangers "understand the general parameters" of a deal involving Mike Lowell. Daniels said the deal isn't done yet, but various reports have the trade as nearly completed except for commissioner Bud Selig's approval. Word is that Boston would take on $9 million of Lowell's $12 million.
If the deal goes through as expected, Lowell would serve primarily as a DH but also play some in the infield. Lowell hasn't played first base but might be asked to do so at times with Texas if the deal goes through.
Lowell struggled defensively last season. Fangraphs.com, which tracks UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating), has Lowell among the AL's worst defensive third basemen last year, a huge drop-off from the year before, when he was third-best. Lowell, who turns 36 in February, had hip surgery after the 2008 season and played in just 119 games after missing some time on the disabled list with a strained hip.
But he can still hit, batting .290 with 17 homers and 75 RBIs in 2009. Lowell would certainly give the Rangers the right-handed bat they are looking for.
For the Rangers to seriously consider moving Feliz, the hard-throwing pitching prospect who dazzled fans with his ability in the second half of last season, into the rotation, they have to be confident in the bullpen pieces.
They took some steps toward gaining that confidence this week. Ray was acquired as part of the Millwood deal and is expected to pitch in a late-inning set-up role. He had Tommy John surgery and missed 2008. He returned last season and struggled.
But the Rangers believe the trend is that pitchers perform better the second year after surgery. Ray had 49 saves for the Orioles, including 33 in 2006. So he has the talent to get the job done if he can find his command and stay healthy. But the club admits there's a risk in taking a guy like Ray.
Texas also added a few hurlers to compete for the situational lefty job. The club acquired Clay Rapada from Detroit for cash considerations or a player to be named later. A few scouts who have seen Rapada say that with the right pitching coach and some minor changes to his mechanics, he could make a contribution with his live arm. Ben Snyder, who came to Texas from the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft to complete the Millwood deal, impressed Rangers scouts with his breaking ball to left-handed hitters. He'll also be in the situational lefty mix.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia's uncertain health situation has made obtaining a veteran catcher a priority. Daniels said he wants one who can handle "the bulk of the workload" if needed. It means the club isn't certain that Taylor Teagarden is ready to start. And they want to be sure they have some insurance in case Saltalamacchia, who experienced discomfort in his shoulder as he attempted to play winter ball in the Dominican Republic recently, is less than 100 percent by spring training.
The Rangers have interest in Dioner Navarro and Rod Barajas. They wanted to re-sign Pudge Rodriguez and were looking at Jason Kendall, but Rodriguez signed a two-year deal with the Nationals, and Kendall will likely get a two-year contract as well.
Daniels said the club does not want to sign a catcher to a two-year deal, so they'll wait and see what the market does and who might be available for a one-year contract.
The wish list includes someone who can step in at various infield spots, but most importantly at shortstop. With Elvis Andrus manning the position, the Rangers believe they are in good hands. But the club needs to have a player who can step in and handle shortstop when necessary, as Omar Vizquel could in 2009.
Texas is inquiring about Arizona shortstop Augie Ojeda. He hit .246 with one homer and 16 RBIs in 264 at-bats. Ojeda played second base, shortstop and third base for the Diamondbacks last season and would fit the Rangers' mold of a utility player who can play shortstop. But Arizona isn't sure it wants to deal Ojeda based on its infield situation.
Daniels said utility infielder and catcher will move up on the priority list because they've filled some other needs.
Richard Durrett covers the Texas Rangers for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.