According to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, the Rangers are trying to trade away Koji Uehara, and his $4 million salary, in order to clear room to purchase the services of a left-handed reliever, most likely Mike Gonzalez. A couple thoughts come to mind:
First, is this really a necessary move, or is this more of what seems to be a pathological need to clear out much of ineffective portion of the bullpen from last season’s playoffs? Since the offseason began, we’ve seen Feliz be transitioned into a starting role (although I’ll concede that was probably part of the plan all along), Darren Oliver not being resigned despite being very affordable this offseason, and now Koji Uehara being traded away. All of them failed at critical times during the playoffs, leading to blown saves. I realize that its important to be able to perform when it counts the most, but during the regular season all three of those guys were very effective out of the bullpen. Oliver and Feliz were our two most valuable relievers by far, pitching 51 innings at 2.77 FIP, and 62 innings at 3.57 FIP, respectively. Koji was less effective, but his 2.03 xFIP with the Rangers (basically FIP, but adjusted to normalize home run rates, which are inconsistent year-to-year) was very promising. If he is just slightly luckier with the long ball next season, he will return to being the dominant reliever he’s been throughout his entire career. Plus, if you look at his entire season, he managed 65 innings with a 3.03 FIP. On the other hand, if you examine some peripheral stats, Uehara might be a prime candidate for some serious regression next season. His Left on Base% was 94.9%, higher than his career 76.5% meaning his distribution of outs was largely favorable in escaping from situations with men on base. Also, his BABIP, or Batting Average on Balls in Play, was .196, compared to a career line of .268. Considering Koji has little control over what happens to the balls once they are in play, it seems 2011 was a fortunate season in that respect for him as well.
Maybe I’m just overthinking it. Darren Oliver is still the oldest reliever in baseball, and the Rangers, who know his medical history better than anyone, might have a solid reason for letting him go. Feliz spent his time in the minors as a starter, and was probably expected to undergo the closer-to-starter transition the Rangers are so fond of recently. And there could be some other mitigating circumstances that have caused the Rangers to re-evaluate Koji’s worth in the bullpen. For example, he has stated on his blog that he wishes he could be traded back to the Orioles, and that he misses Baltimore. Also, given that Alexi Ogando will join the bullpen and will have roughly identical role to Koji, it makes sense to trade redundant assets for prospects and/or salary relief, and acquire the left-handed Mike Gonzalez instead to increase the bullpen possibilities for Mike Maddux.
Regardless of the motivation, what can the Rangers expect to receive in return for Koji? An excellent starting point is the deadline deal the Rangers completed to get him, sending Tommy Hunter, a fringe-fifth starter, probably should be a reliever kind of guy, and Chris Davis, who is basically worthless. The Rangers also received $2 million. Basically a terrific deal for the Rangers; however, considering that was a deadline deal, which is usually favorable to the seller, Koji’s trade value was evidently fairly low even then. I suspect that if the Rangers try to complete a deal for a legitimate prospect, they might completely hit a wall, especially considering Koji can veto trades to 5 more teams like he did with the Blue Jays last week. Also, since that deadline deal (when Koji was working as a closer), he has been demoted down to 7th-inning relief, and hasn’t had a chance to accumulate saves. Even though I think the importance of a closer is vastly overstated, I suspect many MLB teams still value a 9nth-inning role, and Koji hasn’t served in that capacity for a while.
Ideally, I would like see the Rangers acquire a kind of mid to high ceiling young prospect with a very low floor, in a position of scarcity for the Rangers minor league system, like an outfielder or catcher. For example, a prospect with some power and some defensive ability, but who has trouble making contact or who has horrendous plate discipline or something. If he turns into a huge asset, fantastic. If not, oh well. I don’t think its worth trying for more of a sure thing, especially because the onus is on the Rangers to trade Koji, so the team loses much of its leverage in negotiations.
The only teams that are likely to be interested in Koji are fringe-playoff teams who need an extra piece in the bullpen to put them over the top. The Yankees and Red Sox are out, due to payroll concerns and having recently fortified their respective bullpens. The Rays probably do not have the payroll space either, and the Tigers and Indians already have excellent bullpens. Unless the Rangers can work something out with the Orioles, who have expressed interest in re-acquiring their former closer, we need to look over to the NL. The Braves, Phillies, Cardinals and Nationals are already pretty stacked, Marlins have already made a significant bullpen investment this year by acquiring Heath Bell, the Diamondbacks have acquired Brad Ziegler, the Reds acquired Ryan Madson, and the Brewers are trying to cut payroll themselves. In essence, the NL looks bleak.
I don’t have any inside information as to the front-office operations of these teams, so its entirely possible I’m missing something. At a minimum though, I think the Rangers will have trouble establishing much of a competitive bidding process for Uehara, the way the Athletics did with Gio Gonzalez to maximize their prospect package, for example. On the other hand, T.R. Sullivan, the Rangers correspondent for MLB.com, claims that Koji is drawing considerable interest from a variety of teams.
I’ll close out this relatively speculative post by pointing out that this is still a win-win situation for the Rangers. Worst case scenario, the Rangers are stuck slightly overpaying for a league-average 6th or 7th inning reliever, and aren’t able to sign Mike Gonzalez. I can live with that.