will take over rightfield in Texas. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
In this summer's thin trade market, Alex Rios rated among the top available bats, if not the easiest player to deal given a no-trade clause and a substantial remaining salary commitment. Particularly with glaring needs on contenders such as the Pirates, Orioles and Rangers -- all of whom could have stood to upgrade at corner outfielder or designated hitter, if not both -- it rated as a surprise that even with those caveats, the July 31 nonwaiver deadline passed without the White Sox dealing him. Nine days into the August waiver period, and mere minutes before their claim was set to expire, the Rangers finally made their move, acquiring Rios and $1 million for a player to be named later, reportedly infielder Leury Garcia.
The 32-year-old Rios isn't exactly having a banner year, hitting just .277/.328/.421 with 12 homers in 465 plate appearances, a significant drop from last year's stellar .304/.334/.516 performance. After hitting .279/.338/.498 with 10 homers through the end of May, he's slid to a thin .275/.318/.354 with two homers since, a slump that some attributed to uncertainty over his fate. Of course, the fact is that Rios had significant control over that fate, via a limited no-trade clause that could prevent him from being dealt to six teams, said to be the A’s, Astros, Diamondbacks, Rockies, Royals and Yankees. Even so, the money remaining on this year's $12.5 million salary plus $12.5 million next year and a $1 million buyout of a $13.5 million club option for 2015 was enough to give teams -- particularly the Pirates -- pause.
The Rangers appeared to be an obvious fit weeks ago because of their recent difficulty scoring runs. After averaging 4.76 per game through May, they sank to 3.67 over the next two months. As July 31 dawned, they had fallen five games back in the AL West and one game behind in the wild-card race. Yet they too were scared away by his price tag, which according to ESPN's Buster Olney was said to be two top prospects and a lesser player in addition to the assumption of his remaining contract.
In retrospect, the Rangers (now 65-50, tied for first in the AL West) look shrewd for waiting for the price to drop, but there's no denying the need still exists even after they've won nine out of their last 10 while scoring 6.4 runs per game. Rightfielder Nelson Cruz was hitting .269/.330/.511 with a team-high 27 homers before he decided to forgo appealing his 50-game suspension for his Biogenesis connection; he'll be eligible to return for the postseason, but it remains to be seen if the team welcomes him back. Leftfielder David Murphy has hit just .224/.284/.383 with 12 homers in 398 plate appearances this year, with last year's small-sample magic against southpaws having proved just as fleeting as you might expect given increased exposure; he's a career .258/.306/.348 hitter against lefties, and he's been even worse than that (.214/.264/.276 in 106 PA) this year. Their designated hitter for the first half of the season, Lance Berkman, hit just .254/.355/.377 before going on the DL in early July due to hip inflammation and pondering retirement when the situation didn't improve. While Texas could have attempted to move prospect Mike Olt off of third base to fill one of those slots, they ultimately chose to trade him to the Cubs to acquire Matt Garza.
For the moment, Rios is almost certainly an improvement over the cobbled-together platoon of rookie lefty Engel Beltre (.286/.306/.314 in all of 37 PA) and veteran righty Craig Gentry (.248/.344/.355) that manager Ron Washington has deployed in the four games since Cruz's suspension. In a division decided by a single game last year and dead even at the moment, even the one-win upgrade that Rios could represent over the remainder of the season has the potential to make a difference between another wild-card appearance and a division title.
Once defense comes into the equation, the gap between Rios and the infamously iron-gloved Cruz washes away. In fact, Rios has been worth 5.5 Wins Above Replacement since the beginning of 2012 (4.6 last year, 0.9 this year), while Cruz has been worth 2.5 (0.4 in 2012, 2.1 this year). As for the rest of the outfield, Gentry can go back to platooning with Leonys Martin in centerfield, though that still leaves Murphy overexposed. With Murphy, Cruz and Berkman set for free agency after this season, Rios provides some continuity for next year, particularly given a thin pool of options in the team's farm system; that said, with Carlos Beltran and Shin-Soo Choo as free agents, rightfield may be one of the few positions with top-shelf free agent options this winter.
As for the White Sox, officially they'll receive a player to be named later, because anybody they would get will have to pass through waivers just as Rios did. Recall that in last year's late-August Dodgers-Red Sox blockbuster, Rubby de la Rosa couldn't officially be sent to the Red Sox until Oct. 4, since he didn't make it through waivers. Multiple sources have indicated that the player the White Sox will get back is Garcia, a 22-year-old, 5-foot-7 infielder who can play second base, shortstop or even third base. Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2007, Garcia has spent six years climbing methodically through the Rangers' system, earning high marks for his collection of tools but not cracking the top 10 prospect rankings of either Baseball Prospectus or Baseball America (which ranked him 20th in their 2013 Prospect Handbook) in a deep system. Here's what Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks had to say about Garcia coming off a year in which he hit .292/.337/.398 with two homers and 31 steals in 100 games at Double-A Frisco:
In a system full of toolsy shortstop prospects, Garcia might have the loudest tools of the bunch. With a plus-plus arm, smooth actions, and 8 run, the diminutive yet catalytic player has positioned himself as a future super-utility option at the highest level. At the plate, he can make contact and get his legs involved, and on defense, he can play on the left side of the infield and has even logged time in the outfield.
By "8 run," Parks is referring to an 80 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale, which means his speed tool is elite, though that hasn't yet translated into a pile of stolen bases. This year, Garcia has hit .264/.314/.409 with four homers and 12 steals in 47 games at Triple-A Round Rock and .192/.236/.231 with one steal in 25 games for the Rangers. With Elvis Andrus and Ian Kinsler signed to long-term deals, overall number one prospect Jurickson Profar scuffling for at-bats in a utility role and 19-year-old Rougned Odor recently promoted to Double-A, Texas has such a glut of talented middle infielders that it could afford to give up Garcia.
With the trades of Rios and Jake Peavy, the going-nowhere White Sox have saved themselves about $9 million in salary over the remainder of this season and $28 million in future obligations, not including Peavy's all-but-unattainable 2015 vesting option. They may still have more to deal this month in the form of Adam Dunn, who has cleared waivers but is still owed around $20 million through next season. His chances of being dealt have improved considerably thanks to a .289/.401/.532 showing with 14 homers since June 1, but his defensive ineptitude probably limits him to an AL buyer. Alexei Ramirez, who's owed around $23 million through 2015, could be dealt as well, though that may hinge on whether Garcia can make it through waivers. Meanwhile, Avasail Garcia, who was obtained from the Tigers in the three-way Peavy trade, has been recalled from Triple-A to fill Rios' spot.
In all, the Rangers added a much-needed bat at a fairly reasonable price, though Rios alone can't solve the offensive woes of a team that never adequately replaced Josh Hamilton
before losing Cruz. The White Sox shed money and a player they could easily part with for one who may become an up-the-midde regular if not necessarily a star. It's a good move for both.