Hot Stove Forecast: Rangers can survive without re-signing Lee
As much as losing the World Series in five games may hurt, the Rangers and their fans can take solace not only in the success they had, but in that this was not likely to be their last chance at a postseason run. With a credible lineup core, a deep well of pitching and a strong farm system, the Rangers are positioned be to the AL West in the 2010s what the Angels were to it in the 2000s. Add in new ownership that has at least made verbal commitments to sustaining a high payroll, and the promise of $150 million a year in local TV money, and the Rangers look to have a very bright future.
First things first: The Rangers should decline Vladimir Guerrero's $9 million option, paying him a $1 million buyout. Guerrero had a strong first half, but faded rapidly after that, showing continued weakness against right-handed pitching and on the bases. As we saw in the World Series, he's just not capable of handling the field any longer. He's not worth the extra $8 million it would take to bring him back, not in a market loaded with DH types or for a team that may be better off going without a full-time DH. The constant injury problems of Nelson Cruz, Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler argue for using the DH slot to provide rest days for regulars. The Rangers should pick up Darren Oliver's $3.25 million option, however; having the veteran southpaw around provides some depth as they sort through everyone's roles next spring, and he has trade value at that price if the bullpen gets too crowded.
The importance of any one player to a team is generally overstated. Adding or subtracting one guy doesn't make a team a contender or doom them to failure. So the Rangers should pursue Cliff Lee, but they don't "need" him, and if the bidding gets out of hand they can comfortably decline to sign him. Lee is an important piece, a true No. 1 starter on a team that lacks not only that kind of top-end guy, but is also a little thin heading into 2011 due to the trades of Michael Main and Blake Beavan -- two nearly-ready prospects. There's an assumption that the Yankees will sign the 32-year-old Lee, but that may be generous; the Yankees have $40 million already tied up in two starters, they will pay the luxury tax again next year and the team's overall aging has become a concern for Brian Cashman.
The Rangers, due to their low-experience core, have lots of room between the payroll they have and the payroll they can afford: $33 million committed to five players for 2011, with healthy raises expected for the arbitration-eligible Hamilton, Cruz and C.J. Wilson, and a handful of other players reaching arb-eligibility for the first time. Even at that, the Rangers' 2011 payroll without Lee should be around $65-70 million. They can afford one $20 million player. Lee is three years older than CC Sabathia was when Sabathia hit the market, and not as durable, so Sabathia's seven-year, $161 million deal likely represents a ceiling. If the price is $20-$23 million for five or six years, the Rangers can pay that.
The better question is, "Should they?" Long-term commitments to starting pitchers have had a tendency to go bad. The Yankees have been happy with Sabathia so far, but less so with A.J. Burnett (5/$82M). The Rangers just lost to a team that left Barry Zito (7/$119M) off its playoff roster. The Mets haven't gotten their money's worth from Johan Santana (6/$138M) and the Cubs' relationship with Carlos Zambrano (5/$92M) is strained at best. By and large, signing free-agent pitchers to long-term contracts for $15 million or more fails as a strategy. It's a tough spot for the Rangers, whose new ownership wants to buy credibility and who could use a pitcher such as Lee over the next couple of years. On balance, I think I would sign him while trying to keep the commitment to five years, even if the average annual value had to be a bit higher.
What else the Rangers should do hinges on whether they sign Lee. If they don't, they could turn their attention to Carl Crawford, who as a left-handed-hitting outfielder with speed would be a good fit for them as a No. 2 hitter. Adding Crawford would allow Hamilton, Cruz and David Murphy to rotate through the other two outfield slots and DH. Crawford is a safer bet than is Lee, and he's also attractive in that keeping him away from the Angels, who desperately need offense, would benefit the Rangers. Texas' best trait last year was a stifling defense; Crawford would make it even better.
Working down the list, the free agent who best fits the Rangers' needs is Victor Martinez. The only catcher they have under contract for 2011 is Taylor Teagarden, who is at best a backup option. Martinez is a switch-hitter with a high OBP and, over his career, not much of a platoon split. He would be the perfect No. 5 hitter for the 2011 Rangers, and having an offense-first catcher would even make Teagarden's limited skill set appropriate as a backup. (The 2010 combo of Molina/Treanor -- two slow, glove-first, right-handed-hitting catchers -- was poor roster construction.) Given a choice between Lee at his price and Martinez at his, I'd sign Martinez every day.
This is not a strong free-agent market, so beyond the top three, the Rangers would be best to stay out of the field and see what's left in January. Lance Berkman would be a fair pickup as a DH, or Hiroki Kuroda as a mid-rotation starter, but until you know what the rest of the team looks like, it's hard to tell if those pieces fit. The Rangers have some depth from which to trade, but remember that they surrendered a lot of value this summer to make acquisitions without paying out 2010 salaries, so crafting an offer for, say, Zack Greinke or Matt Cain won't be as easy as it might have been.
One issue that will come up this winter is what to do with Hamilton. Hamilton is arb-eligible and likely to show up at the hearing with the AL MVP Award in his pocket. There will be some sentiment to sign him for the long term. Hamilton, however, is a special case, already 29 and apparently unable to play a full season. It may be indelicate to point this out, but we have no way of knowing what damage his early-20s lifestyle did to his body. What we do know is that Hamilton has yet to be healthy and effective for a full season in four MLB years, and that he'll be 30 in 2011. If a two- or even three-year deal for $10-12 million -- Corey Hart money, loosely speaking -- is out there, then it's worth doing, but a longer deal at superstar money isn't. Just go year to year.
It's an important offseason for the Rangers, but it won't determine their fate. Their talent base is so strong that any one decision, right or wrong, isn't enough to alter what looks like a very bright future. As long as they continue acquiring talent and filling their farm system with good players plucked in the draft and signed from overseas, they'll be the AL West's big dog for years to come.