Everything's bigger in Texas
Ace-starved, playoff-hungry Rangers acquire Cliff Lee, send Justin Smoak to Seattle
The last time the Texas Rangers were this relevant on a national scale, general manager Doug Melvin was standing on a podium at Major League Baseball's 2000 winter meetings announcing that the club had just signed Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252 million contract. The deal was too outrageous to justify on any rational level, but owner Tom Hicks seemed determined to make waves in the American League West, and he sure talked like a guy with a plan.
We all know how that one worked out.
Once a decade or so, the Rangers can't resist doing something dramatic to distract Metroplex sports fans from the Dallas Cowboys' backup quarterback situation. This time the news was big enough that it had to be delivered by three people -- manager Ron Washington, general manager Jon Daniels and team president Nolan Ryan, who still throws a pretty good heater at age 63.
Pitcher Cliff Lee is now a Ranger, and that comes as a surprise to a lot of people. Let's start with the New York Yankees, who apparently thought they had a deal in place with the Seattle Mariners for Lee until realizing that, well, they didn't.
The Twins, Reds, Mets and other clubs that had designs on Lee will now have to regroup and decide if they can muster the same enthusiasm for a run at Ted Lilly, Roy Oswalt or one of the other top starting pitcher options on the market.
"Personally, I thought our package was better,'' said the GM of one prominent Lee suitor, after assessing the four-player package that Texas surrendered for Lee and reliever Mark Lowe.
Finally, the trade comes as a shock to people who figured that a team in mid-bankruptcy might have a hard time landing the prize of the non-waiver trade deadline season. It was instructive that Ryan spent more time at Friday's news conference answering questions about the Rangers' creditors than the shifting dynamic in the AL West.
Most observers, of course, want to know what impact Friday's six-player deal is going to have on the American League playoff landscape, and the answer to that question is clear: Assuming the Rangers get past the Los Angeles Angels, they've taken a quantum leap from first-round cannon fodder to a team with the potential to make opponents extremely nervous in October.
"They've got the lead in the division and a No. 1 starter,'' said an NL assistant general manager. "That's pretty good for a team in bankruptcy.''
A top-of-the-rotation horse was the one thing Texas lacked this season. The Rangers rank third in the league with 445 runs scored and a .775 team OPS. They have a Triple Crown candidate in Josh Hamilton, a resurgent Vladimir Guerrero at DH, steady leadership and production from Michael Young and Ian Kinsler and one of the game's dynamic young shortstops in Elvis Andrus. The bullpen is solid, but Darren Oliver, Darren O'Day et al have logged the fifth heaviest workload in the game this season. Colby Lewis and C.J. Wilson are nice pitchers, but they could only take this team so far in the playoffs.
Lee alters the equation because he's a strike-throwing machine who's impervious to pressure. He went 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA in the playoffs and World Series with the Phillies last October, and he didn't even have the carrot of a huge free-agent payday as motivation. With 89 strikeouts and six walks, he's the best pitcher in baseball who doesn't answer to the name "Ubaldo.''
How much did the Rangers give up for him? The consensus is that young first baseman Justin Smoak, the center piece of Texas' package, is better than any of the seven players surrendered by Philadelphia and Seattle in the two previous trades involving Lee in the past year. Even though Smoak was hitting .209 with a .316 OBP in 70 games with Texas, he was tied for second on the team with 38 walks. The middle of Texas' lineup is populated by free swingers, and Smoak had the ability to slow the game down, run deep counts and make opposing pitchers work.
But his appeal as a switch-hitter might be overrated. In 87 plate appearances from the right side as a Ranger, Smoak was hitting .139 with a .207 OBP and a .266 slugging percentage.
"He's good, but not a perennial All-Star,'' said one player personnel man, who told ESPN.com's Jayson Stark that Smoak is "maybe Garrett Jones.''
The other three players in the deal have lower ceilings. Pitcher Blake Beavan, Texas' No. 1 draft pick in 2007, was 10-5 with a 2.78 ERA and a 68-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio for Frisco in the Double-A Texas League. He's considered a potential No. 4 starter for a big league club. Pitcher Josh Lueke and second baseman Matthew Lawson, the other two players in the trade, are regarded more as organizational inventory.
That Garrett Jones comment notwithstanding, most scouts think Smoak, at age 23, has plenty of room to grow.
"Smoak could be a star player,'' an AL scouting director told Stark. "They're putting all their eggs in his basket. Not a bad bet. Basically, this is Lee and Lowe for Smoak.''
As Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro can tell you after trading CC Sabathia and Lee in a two-year span, acquiring a bonanza of prospects in return, these big pitcher trade extravaganzas take a while to assess. The only sure thing at the moment is that Seattle's Jack Zduriencik can feel free to exhale for the first time in a few weeks, and Daniels and the Rangers mean business.
Friday was a great day for the folks dispensing updates at the MLB Trade Rumors website. The next three weeks may or may not be filled with activity. But rest assured they won't be any more chaotic.
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