THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 27, 2006
When I got out of law school in 1994, I went in on two Mavericks seats at Reunion Arena with a couple UT Law classmates. The seats weren’t great, but that was in deference to the chunk that our law school tuition loans were taking out of our first-year salaries — it certainly wasn’t because the Mavs were a tough ticket. Dallas was coming off of historically awful 11-win and 13-win seasons.
The idea was to get in the door so we’d be there, in better seats, when things got better. The Mavs drafted Jason Kidd a few weeks after our last law school finals and a few weeks before the bar exam, and there was the rumor that the team would have a new arena to play in before long. We were long-term investors.
Then Dallas traded Kidd in December of 1996 (in fact, 10 years ago last night), and I gave up my stake in the seats.
I learned a little lesson there. I’m not really sure I’ve had the chance to apply that lesson since. Maybe this is that chance. Investing in the Mavs and Kidd felt smart, smarter every year — folding when he was traded was, in retrospect, short-sighted and overly emotional.
Investing not money but faith in John Danks and Nick Masset, which felt smarter every year, made Saturday’s trade for Brandon McCarthy, when I first heard about it, seem less like the strategic decision that it was and more like a slug to the gut.
But this time I’m not folding.
Now that’s not to say I’m going to sit here and tell you the Rangers just pulled off their Herschel Trade, or made up for The Hafner Deal. Instead, I’m going to remind you where these reports that I write come from: a deep, often stubborn passion for the Texas Rangers, a sometimes blind faith that the best is yet to come, and a complete confidence in Jon Daniels, which includes the recognition of Daniels’ confidence in his pro scouts.
It will be impossible for me to believe Danks and Masset aren’t going to fulfill expectations unless and until they fall short on the big league mound. The emotional attachment that develops when you see a kid become a professional ballplayer as a teenager and get better and get better and get better is hard to sever, and I don’t really feel like trying to sever it.
The thing I’d like to do would be to look back at the Herschel Trade and say, “Hey, look how a trade like this can reshape your future.” Or refer to that trade of a draft pick that was used on Shawn Marion, and how the backup point guard we got back — Steve Nash — was in fact ready to explode. Or point to the fact that trading 18-year-old Jarome Iginla wasn’t the worst thing in the world since adding Joe Nieuwendyk might very well have been the difference between bringing a Stanley Cup to Dallas and falling short.
But precedent is failing me. I can’t think of the last time — any time in my life of following baseball — that top-tier young pitchers were traded for each other, basically alone. No veterans. No contract issues or pending free agents.
This was a baseball card trade. I’ll give you a Strawberry and a Joe Carter for your Mattingly.
There have been plenty of trades keyed by top prospects or young players on both sides. Taubensee for Lofton. Konerko for Cameron. Barfield for Kouzmanoff. But those weren’t pitchers.
Jon Garland for Matt Karchner? Garland, 18 years old at the time, was a disappointing year into his pro career. Karchner was 31. Not nearly the same.
Dustin Hermanson for Quilvio Veras? Nope. Just one pitcher.
Kirk Saarloos for Chad Harville? Umm, no.
You know what trading John Danks and Nick Masset feels like? Like trading Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr. for six-year veteran Pedro Martinez, like Boston did nine years ago.
And Chicago trading McCarthy? Like Atlanta trading Jason Schmidt to key a deal for Denny Neagle.
What you don’t find is precedent for a team taking its Pavano and Armas and trading them for another team’s Schmidt.
And that’s probably because those types of trades are incredibly risky. If Pavano or Armas or Schmidt or A.J. Burnett or Dontrelle Willis or Scott Kazmir hit it big, you can justify it to yourself and your team’s fans by pointing out that you were selling future for present (Martinez, Neagle, Al Leiter, Matt Clement, and, um, Victor Zambrano).
Trade those 1984 Donruss cards, Strawberry and Carter for Mattingly, and if it doesn’t work out for you, you just tell the other guy he owes you one.
Not so easy when it’s young pitching for young pitching, with real-life accountability, setting up a relatively easy scoreboard on which the trade will be able to be measured.
Two questions I can’t shake:
1. What veteran pitcher could Texas have gotten for Danks and Masset (and righthander Jake Rasner)?
2. What veteran pitcher could Chicago have gotten for McCarthy (and outfielder David Paisano)?
But here’s the thing: the Rangers didn’t want a veteran pitcher when they could instead get McCarthy, whom they will control for five years. And the Sox didn’t really want another veteran for their rotation, which already boasts Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Jon Garland, and Javier Vazquez (with Danks joining a mix for the fifth spot that includes Charlie Haeger and Gavin Floyd). That’s why neither team traded its prized young pitching for expensive veteran help in this case, and probably resisted any real opportunity to do so.
General managers aren’t supposed to get unreasonably attached to their own players (it’s that whole “trading a guy a year too late” thing). But you and I aren’t so enjoined, and that’s probably why, on Saturday, there was so much fan dissent about this trade — on both sides. While McCarthy is more of a known quantity than Danks or Masset, he isn’t in North Texas, because of talk radio and three-letter acronyms and Mike Hindman. We’re all attached to Danks and Masset, me included, because those two have grown up in the Rangers system, a system that has had so much difficulty in its 35 years developing young arms.
That’s understandable. Nobody feels more of an attachment than I do to Danks, who made the three-hour drive up from Round Rock with his mother two weeks ago to spend more than three hours with us at the Bound Edition Book Release Party (before driving back that same night), or to Masset, who flew to Arlington on his own dime in 2003 just to experience the Rangers’ Winter Banquet and Winter Warmup, sitting with us for the duration at both. They are great kids with great families and great futures playing a great game at a level a lot of us wanted to play it, and from that standpoint I’ll pull for both of those guys to accomplish everything possible on the baseball field, except when it’s at the expense of the Rangers.
Which brings me back, though not easily, to focusing less on Danks and Masset as a fan of theirs and more, for now and going forward, on how this deal could make Texas a better team.
First, would I rather have McCarthy than Garland or Javier Vazquez, two pitchers that Chicago was reportedly shopping for Danks and Masset before talks shifted to McCarthy about a week before the deal went down? Without question. Jason Jennings? Another tough call, but if the question is whether I’d rather have five years of McCarthy or one of Jennings, then that’s a simple answer as well.
Would I rather have McCarthy than Josh Beckett, whom Texas nearly traded Danks for a year ago (with an added exchange of Hank Blalock and Mike Lowell)? Tougher question for me, but if the Rangers are able to sign Barry Zito (which will or won’t happen by this weekend, reportedly) or — more realistically — get Michael Young or Mark Teixeira extended by virtue of having McCarthy rather than Beckett on the payroll, then the answer is obvious.
The fascinating thing about the acquisition of McCarthy is that it ensures that the club’s top four starters are all guaranteed to be here past the expiration of Young’s and Teixeira’s current obligations. The fact that Texas can keep Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla here another four years under their contracts, and that McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda are under control for another five, puts the Rangers in a position that I’m not sure they’ve ever been in. For the next few years, they won’t have to be in the market for overpaid free agent starting pitchers, merely to field a rotation, nor will they have to tap into their top tier of prospects to bring decent one-year veterans like Adam Eaton in.
It also means that that fifth spot in the rotation no longer has to go to a journeyman or a kid who isn’t ready. This year it might go to Josh Rupe or Kameron Loe or John Koronka, Edinson Volquez or John Rheinecker. A year from now, more candidates could arrive: maybe Eric Hurley will be ready, or Thomas Diamond or Kea Kometani. Maybe Armando Galarraga or Daniel Haigwood will assert himself. And how long will it be before Fabio Castillo or Kasey Kiker or Omar Poveda or Michael Schlact or Zach Phillips factors in?
A few years, sure. But Millwood and Padilla and McCarthy and Tejeda will still be here when all of those guys are ready or close to it, as long as the Rangers want them to be.
Plus, if you don’t think that, a year from now, there will be additional names at the front of those lists from the five first-round and supplemental first-round picks Texas has this June, or from the organization’s intensified efforts in Latin America, think again.
But, you say, all the above would still be the case if this trade hadn’t gone down. Danks wouldn’t be part of the front four — yet — but he’d be as close as anyone among the doorstep group. And the problem I see with this deal is if both McCarthy and Danks develop into dependable, middle-to-top-of-the-rotation guys and, meanwhile, even if McCarthy proves to be more effective, Masset steps in and pitches big innings for the Sox in relief.
But here’s how I resolve that in my mind, admitting to you and to myself that I badly want this trade to work out well for my team:
1. McCarthy’s minor league track record is even more impressive than the one Danks has put together. More on that in a bit.
2. McCarthy’s extreme effectiveness against left-handed hitters (due to a wicked changeup) helps to erase the issue of his being right-handed in a ballpark that favors southpaw pitchers. In his two years in the big leagues, McCarthy has held lefties to an anemic .201/.274/.356 clip, striking out one hitter for every four at-bats. Danks was far tougher on left-handed hitters than righties in AAA, but had reverse splits in AA, where lefties hit .300 and slugged .525 against him in 80 trips.
3. The way the bullpen sets up right now, Texas almost certainly would have used an option (its last) on Masset this spring. And if, pitching behind Akinori Otsuka and Eric Gagne, the bullpen is going to consist of young arms like Wes Littleton and a healthy Frankie Francisco from the right side, possibly Rupe as well (depending on how the rotation competition works out), and C.J. Wilson as one of the better young left-handed relievers in the league, there’s a question as to how Masset would eventually fit.
On that last one, I admit it’s just one way to look at it. I do think Masset is going to be an effective reliever (not to foreclose the possibility that he could start one day), but I also think this: Masset’s trade value has never been higher, and it’s not close. With the depth that the Rangers have begun to build to address the seventh and eighth inning and the last couple spots in the rotation over the next two or three years, it made sense for Daniels to exploit this winter’s crazy middle relief market and see what he could get for one of those arms. And aside from Rupe and Wilson, who should fill key roles in Texas right away, there’s not a reliever Daniels could have gotten more for than Masset, who stands a very good chance of playing a big role in a Chicago bullpen full of good arms but very few fixtures.
Let’s face it: if Sox GM Kenny Williams really did trade Freddy Garcia to once and for all make rotation room for McCarthy just three weeks ago, then the fact that he then turned around and moved McCarthy for a pitcher who isn’t ready for the major league ball 35 times surely means this deal doesn’t get done without Chicago getting Masset as well. There is no doubt: Masset has the chance to be this trade’s Edwin Encarnacion.
McCarthy is two years older than Danks and, though he was drafted just one year earlier than Danks, he’d basically about two years ahead of him developmentally. Chicago’s 17th-round pick in 2002 (in a draft in which the Sox took Rupe in the third round and Haigwood in the 16th), McCarthy pitched in the Arizona League in his first summer, just as Danks did before finishing his first season in the Northwest League. In McCarthy’s second season, he pitched all summer in the rookie-level Pioneer League after remaining in extended during the spring, while Danks split his second year between Low A and High A.
McCarthy’s third season was his breakthrough campaign, as he went 17-6, 3.14 between Low A, High A, and AA, fanning 202 (tops in all of minor league baseball) and walking only 30 in 172 combined innings. Danks split his third year between High A Bakersfield (where he dominated) and AA Frisco (where he struggled).
In 2005, his fourth year as a pro, McCarthy went 7-7, 3.92 for AAA Charlotte, earning 10 starts and two relief appearances for Chicago in its championship season, going 3-2, 4.03 in those 12 games. Danks went 9-9, 4.24 between Frisco and Oklahoma in 2006 (his fourth season), and he finished strong. Danks’s 2007 stands to be like McCarthy’s 2005, as he probably won’t break camp with the Sox but could figure in by mid-season.
(Chicago, incidentally, ignored Danks’s brother Jordan’s insistence seven months ago that he was headed for the University of Texas and went ahead and drafted the high school outfielder in the 19th round. Don’t rule out the possibility that the Sox will draft Jordan again when he’s next eligible in 2008.)
The elder Danks has punched out 9.27 batters per nine innings as a minor leaguer. McCarthy, in his minor league time, fanned 10.25. Danks has walked 3.31 per nine, McCarthy 1.76. Danks has permitted 1.01 home runs per nine innings, McCarthy 0.84. Danks has held opponents to a .261 batting average, McCarthy has limited minor leaguers to a .238 clip.
But those numbers aren’t there to suggest that McCarthy is the better pitcher. They’re there to point out that as exciting as Danks’s numbers have been, McCarthy’s stats on the farm were extraordinary.
Much has been made of McCarthy’s proneness to the long ball in the big leagues and his relegation to middle relief in his sophomore season after pitching mainly in the rotation as a rookie. But both of those things happen to young pitchers, and we certainly can’t assume that they won’t happen to Danks when he reaches the majors. But here’s a few things you might find interesting.
As far as the home runs are concerned, there have been more bombs hit in U.S. Cellular Field the past four years (909) than in Ameriquest Field (904), and considering the starting pitching has been far more established in Chicago over that time, maybe that’s significant. (It should be pointed out, however, that McCarthy has been almost as homer-prone on the road as at home.)
In 2005, when McCarthy first arrived, his ERA stood at 8.14 after five appearances, three of which were bad (including one in Arlington, his first big league loss). Thereafter, starting with a spectacular August 30 effort against Volquez in the latter’s big league debut, McCarthy finished the season by going 3-1, 1.69 in five starts and two relief appearances, holding opponents to a .201 average. The August 30 gem (7.2 shutout innings, two hits and one walk) was McCarthy’s first big league win.
In 2006, McCarthy pitched 53 times for Chicago but started only twice: a crummy effort in Tampa on May 16 (three runs on five hits [two homers] and a walk in four innings, fanning four) and a brilliant game to finish his season in Cleveland on September 27 (one run on two hits and a walk in 5.1 frames, punching out eight).
Situationally speaking: 21 of the 30 homers McCarthy has allowed as a big leaguer have come with the bases empty. With runners on, the opposition has hit only .220/.289/.381 against the 6’7″ righty, as opposed to .256/.314/.490 with the bases clear. As a starting pitcher, McCarthy has a 4.12 big league ERA and, able to work with his full repertoire and more effectively set hitters up, holds opponents to a line of .237/.287/.455. In relief, his ERA is 4.61 with an opponents’ line of .247/.318/.443. His strikeout rate is similar between the two roles, but he walks more as a reliever (3.64 per nine innings) than as a starter (2.13 per nine).
Do we throw those relief numbers out, since McCarthy was probably forced to be more fine in most situations and since he probably reduced his arsenal to his fastball and change when coming in from the pen? No. But it does seem clear that he’s more suited to start, which of course is what he’ll do here.
All told, McCarthy has fewer allowed hits (139) than innings pitched (151.2) in his two big league seasons, seven strikeouts per nine innings, three walks per nine, and an opponents’ line of .243/.305/.449. If Danks had put together anything close to that sort of performance over his first two seasons in Texas, then forget Kenny Rogers: we’d be dialing back to Kevin Brown when trying to come up with the last young Rangers pitcher with as much promise.
And that’s sort of the point. It’s easy not to be as fired up about Brandon McCarthy, despite those numbers, because (1) he’s not homegrown (and thus familiar to us) like John Danks and (2) we had to give Danks up to get him. I’m really, really excited about McCarthy. But I expect Danks to be outstanding, too.
You can flip their names in those last two sentences and it would apply equally to White Sox fans, who appear almost exclusively to be enraged by this trade.
Was I smart to hang onto all those Juan Gonzalez rookie cards in 1990 when I might have had an opportunity to trade them for a bunch of Frank Thomas rookies? Depends on what the measure is. Emotionally, sentimentally, I did the right thing. Collecting cards is all about being a fan (at least, it should be) and getting fired up about your own players.
Building a baseball team, as opposed to a baseball card collection, is measured differently. Emotion and sentimentality have to be tossed aside. That’s not to say that replacing your Michael Young or Mark Teixeira with an equivalent player from another club carries no negative upshot — I would submit that the core guys on the big club do more than hit with runners in scoring position and catch the ball. They help create an identity and a mindset that define a team.
With prospects, it’s different. Being “homegrown” matters to the extent that the player can play, but doesn’t impact whether the player stays. Texas fans can be bitter about Travis Hafner just like Toronto fans can resent the loss of Michael Young, but it’s because of what their teams got in return. The memory of John Smoltz isn’t as unpleasant in Detroit. Though Texas fans might regret the trade of Adrian Gonzalez, Florida fans can’t. Most Stars fans probably don’t even realize that Dallas traded Iginla.
And with that, I bring this report back to where it began, a concession that what I am is not an objective reporter but a passionate fan. And in that vein, the transition that I’m making, one that I need to make in order to satisfy my intense desire for this trade to work out for Texas, is from an emotional attachment to John Danks and Nick Masset and a belief in their upsides, to an excitement about the potential results and potential stability that Brandon McCarthy brings to the Texas rotation.
And above all, a sincere hope that my team’s pro scouts did a better job of evaluating and projecting young, seemingly untouchable pitchers than the other team’s did.