Swapping Stories: The Ruben Mateo Trade of 2001

June 15, 2001: Texas trades outfielder Ruben Mateo and third baseman Edwin Encarnacion
to Cincinnati for righthander Rob Bell.

There’s a baseball adage about the hazard of trading a player a year too late rather than a

year too early. Hindsight tells us that things would have turned out to be very different

in Texas had the club traded outfielder Ruben Mateo in 1999 rather than 2001, but at the

time the Rangers had rightfully made the five-tool prospect almost untouchable.

Almost.

After Pudge Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and Sammy Sosa had arrived in the big leagues, Mateo

was undoubtedly the most complete player that Texas had developed from Latin America.

Nobody had more arm strength, and few were blessed with the combination of power and speed

that he boasted offensively.

Tom Goodwin roamed center field for Texas in 1998 and 1999, its last two playoff seasons,

but he took free agency and left the Rangers for Colorado after the 1999 season. The club

didn’t stand in Goodwin’s way, ready to usher in the Mateo Era by anointing the 22-year-old

as its starting center fielder in 2000. Mateo was coming off a dominant 1999 season in AAA,

hitting .336/.385/.597 with 18 home runs and 62 RBI in 63 games before spending the rest of

the year in Texas, a 32-game look that was limited by two stints on the disabled list.

But Mateo’s 1999 season almost happened in another organization. Rangers general manager

Doug Melvin, after consistently refusing to make the right-handed hitter available in trade,

reportedly agreed to send him to Toronto that February, in a package with righthanders

Esteban Loaiza and Jonathan Johnson, in exchange for Roger Clemens. Texas thought the deal

was done, when the Yankees jumped in and offered David Wells, Graeme Lloyd, and Homer Bush,

getting Clemens.

Mateo thus remained Rangers property and parlayed his strong 1999 season into a starting big

league role in 2000. He was hitting .291 with seven home runs and a team-leading six stolen

bases when, on June 2, he sustained a horrific injury to his upper leg, breaking his right

femur in an awkward effort to beat out an infield grounder. He missed the remainder of the

year.

On Draft Day that summer, three days after the freak Mateo injury, Texas used its

ninth-round pick on Edwin Encarnacion, a 17-year-old Dominican third baseman who had gone to

high school in Puerto Rico. He garnered as much attention as any round nine selection

would, which is to say he was virtually anonymous even through his pro debut, a homerless

.311/.381/.379 campaign with the Rangers’ rookie-level squad in the Gulf Coast League.

Mateo went to spring training in 2001 hoping to prove to Texas that he was healthy enough to

reclaim the center field job. He hit .343 and slugged .672 in camp, going deep five times

– one homer short of club leader Alex Rodriguez, who had just signed with the Rangers.

Center field once again belonged to Mateo.

But none of the momentum Mateo built up in Port Charlotte followed him to Texas. After 129

at-bats, he was hitting just .248/.322/.341 and Texas, off to an 18-31 start, optioned him

back to AAA.

Reds general manager Jim Bowden had tried for years to pry Mateo loose from the Rangers,

summarily rejected time after time. But he wasn’t dissuaded by Mateo’s apparent inability

to bounce back from the leg injury. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity.

In June, with Mateo hitting .216/.241/.333 in Oklahoma, Bowden offered Texas righthander Rob

Bell, Cincinnati’s top pitching prospect, a 24-year-old with a power curve to go along with

low-90s heat. He’d fanned more than a batter per inning as a minor leaguer, walking just

2.5 batters per nine, and he had 35 big league starts (7-13, 5.12) under his belt. Melvin

saw a chance to pounce on another pitcher he thought was primed to break through, just as

he’d done four years earlier when he acquired Aaron Sele from Boston.

But Bowden said he needed another player to make the deal, considering Mateo’s injury

history (aside from the leg fracture, he’d also lost time to a broken wrist, a pulled

hamstring, a bruised chest, and a pulled groin muscle since reaching the big leagues).

Bowden asked for Encarnacion, who was hitting .306/.355/.453 for Low A Savannah. The

Rangers had third base depth with Mike Lamb in place, Hank Blalock in the midst of his

breakthrough season with High A Charlotte, and new draftee Mark Teixeira in talks to sign

with the organization.

But Rangers manager Jerry Narron wasn’t crazy about the idea. Three months earlier, he’d

watched Encarnacion in the teenager’s first spring training. When the trade was on the

table in June, Narron told Melvin that Mateo wasn’t the player that would make Texas look

bad in the deal. It was Encarnacion.

Melvin made the deal anyway, sending Mateo and Encarnacion to the Reds for Bell on June 15,

2001.

Mateo struggled as a Red, languishing in AAA the rest of 2001 and splitting both 2002 and

2003 between Cincinnati and AAA, before leaving the organization after the 2003 season and

bouncing around between a number of clubs (including Bowden’s Washington Nationals). Bell

went 9-8, 6.73 in two disappointing seasons in Texas, earning his release before the 2003

season began.

Meanwhile, Encarnacion methodically progressed, arriving in Cincinnati in 2005. Dan

O’Brien, who had been Melvin’s assistant general manager when Texas drafted Encarnacion and

traded him, was the Reds’ general manager. Narron was Cincinnati’s skipper.

In just 211 big league at-bats in 2005, Encarnacion hit nine homers with 31 RBI. In 406

at-bats the following season, he went deep 15 times, drove in 72 runs, and hit

.276/.359/.473, all at age 23. His 2007 season started out in disappointing fashion,

prompting a brief wake-up call option to AAA, but he’s back with the Reds and hitting

.273/.351/.393.

Mateo’s in AA, trying to get back to the big leagues. Bell toils in AAA.

Had Texas been able to close the deal with Toronto in 1999, Clemens would have been a Texas

Ranger. And the organization presumably would have capitalized a bit more on Encarnacion,

if not as a future third baseman in Arlington then at least as more than a tack-on to a

trade that, from several angles, was simply an exercise in bad timing.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor

to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of

scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead

of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the

big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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