THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 13, 2006

There’s not a lot of analysis to be done on this one. Signing Eric Gagne makes an apparent Rangers strength even stronger, potentially exponentially stronger, and gives Texas considerable flexibility as the winter effort to shape the 2007 club continues.

Word broke Tuesday morning that the Rangers had emerged as victors in the competition among several teams to land the 30-year-old reliever, agreeing to terms on a one-year deal worth a reported $6 million, with an extra $5 million in appearance incentives that, if reached, will probably mean Gagne seized the ninth inning role in Texas and earned every bit of his salary.

The deal, naturally, is subject to Gagne passing a physical, but the Rangers are apparently confident that his elbow and back issues are behind him. The righthander had elbow surgery in June 2005 (after he pitched only 14 times that year) and again in April 2006, returning to action in early June but pitching only two times before needing low back surgery (to repair a herniated disc) that cost him the rest of the season.

The Dodgers had a $12 million option on Gagne for 2007 but declined it in October, making him a free agent. At least half a dozen teams were reported as being seriously interested — including clubs with question marks (if not vacancies) at closer like Boston — but he chose the Rangers, likely to close games since his agent Scott Boras had suggested through the press that he would only sign with a team that planned to make him its closer (a stance that makes sense since Gagne will be pitching for a mega-contract in 2007).

That of course raises the question as to whether Akinori Otsuka’s immediate future is in the eighth inning (the role he was acquired to fill a year ago), or with another club. More on that in a bit.

Prior to his injury-marred 2005 and 2006 seasons, there was no better closer in baseball than Gagne, and maybe none who’d put together a better three-year stretch saving games in the history of the game. Between 2002 and 2004, Gagne nailed down 152 saves in 158 opportunities — including a spotless 55 saves in 2003 (his Cy Young season) and a record 84 straight overall — with these ridiculous secondary numbers in 247 innings: 145 hits, 58 walks, and 365 strikeouts (so about half his outs on strikes). His ERA was 1.79 and opponents hit a sickly .168/.228/.248, putting up no fight against his 98 mph fastball and perhaps the most devastating changeup in baseball.

Will Gagne ever be that guy again? Anybody’s guess. Can he be an impact pitcher, even if he doesn’t regain the same level of dominance? Absolutely.

Here’s the thing: Danys Baez landed three years and $19 million this winter to pitch in a set-up role. Justin Speier got four years and $18 million to set up, if not pitch the seventh. Jamie Walker — Jamie Walker! — got three years and $12 million. Among the relievers who remain available on the market are Danny Kolb, David Riske, Scott Schoeneweis, and another dozen or so guys just like them. Lots of mediocrity, and given the way the relief market has been set, none of them will come inexpensively.

Octavio Dotel got $5 million from Kansas City. Want him more than Gagne?

The next question might be why would Texas sign a reliever at all. A few answers come to mind.

Remember how the Rangers teams of a decade ago got to the playoffs: deep bullpens backing up a decent, unspectacular rotation. There’s a lot of depth in relief right now, but mostly unproven arms. Adding a veteran like Gagne, assuming he’s healthy (he’s expected to be ready to pitch by spring training), prevents Texas from having to push any of its young relievers into roles they may not be quite ready for. It also adds another veteran presence to the unit, a guy who has consistently made critical pitches in pennant races. From a leadership and mentoring standpoint, Gagne could be huge.

Adding Gagne makes it easier to consider trading Otsuka, or Nick Masset or Josh Rupe or C.J. Wilson or Wes Littleton or Frankie Francisco. And again, in this bizarre relief market, pre-arbitration arms like those have a ton of trade value.

As for the idea of moving Otsuka, whose trade value ought to be as high as it will ever get, consider also that by signing Gagne, Texas took what might be the last legitimate closer candidate off the market. Otsuka’s value might go up simply by virtue of more teams getting interested in him now. He’s not only a healthy closer, but one who can’t be a free agent for another three years. The 34-year-old will be under team control as long as his club offers him arbitration for the 2008 and 2009 seasons, as Texas did last night for the 2007 season (along with Brad Wilkerson, Rick Bauer, and Joaquin Benoit).

At $6 million, the addition of Gagne shouldn’t take Texas out of the mix for Barry Zito or Mark Mulder or any starting pitcher they might be looking to trade for.

Maybe most importantly, the Rangers have a chance to hit a grand slam here, without a tremendous amount of risk, relatively speaking. The Dodgers not only declined his option but also declined to offer him arbitration (which may or may not have been contractually stipulated by Boras), meaning the Rangers don’t give up a draft pick by signing the Type A free agent.

How can there be any dissent over this move?

If the addition of Gagne and Kenny Lofton conjures up thoughts for you of Caminiti/Galarraga/Velarde/Petkovsek/Brantley (six winters ago) or Park/Powell/Van Poppel/Gonzalez (five), it shouldn’t. First, the Rangers haven’t compromised future drafts by signing Gagne and Lofton. Second, both come in on one-year commitments, which doesn’t affect the long-term plan and, theoretically, enhances the odds of the two veterans playing at peak intensity this year. Third, Lofton’s game hasn’t really fallen off (despite his 39 years of age), and Gagne is just 30.

If you’re ready to start imagining what the ninth inning is going to feel like in Ameriquest Field this spring, might as well go ahead and load “Welcome to the Jungle” on your iPod. The only question, for me, that the Gagne signing raises is whether you need to remove “****’s Bells.” It should be a win-win: either Otsuka sets Gagne up in a lights-out tandem in the eighth and ninth, or Texas moves Otsuka to the team willing to be the highest bidder in terms of the rotation help it has to offer.

The Jon Daniels game of chess continues to unfold.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

2 Comments

Box Score:
Zito 6 1/3 W

Otusuka 2/3 H

Cagne 1.0 S

Dude, that’s only 8 innings. I like the way you’re thinking, though.

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