Swapping Stories: The Ugueth Urbina Trade of 2003

July 11, 2003: Texas trades closer Ugueth Urbina and cash to Florida for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, lefthander Ryan Snare, and outfielder Will Smith.

Everyone who has played in a Rotisserie league thinks he or she can be a big league general manager. We all know how to value players, right?

But among the hundred reasons none of us could ever be Major League GM’s is that until you’ve been in the game, and in management, you can’t fully appreciate how critical timing is, and how important it is to have both an understanding and a knack for taking advantage of it.

Timing was essential to the Rangers’ acquisition of Ugueth Urbina in December 2002, and the club’s trade of the closer to Florida seven months later.

The Rangers were coming off a 90-loss season in 2002. General Manager John Hart was relatively quiet that off-season in terms of roster turnover, with two notable, related exceptions. Having made the decision to allow Ivan Rodriguez to leave via free agency, he engineered a trade with his former organization, sending hitter Travis Hafner and righthander Aaron Myette to Cleveland for catcher Einar Diaz and righthander Ryan Drese on December 6.

What preceded and followed were several less significant moves, many of which were aimed at patching up a bullpen that had suffered in 2002 from lackluster performances turned in by Hideki Irabu, John Rocker, and Todd Van Poppel. The pen led baseball with 33 blown saves, 38 losses, 266 walks, and 71 home runs surrendered, and Hart set out to overhaul his relief corps. Non-roster deals for Ron Mahay and Brian Shouse, among others, were followed by a bigger move on December 23, when Hart signed Urbina.

Despite coming off a terrific season and a third saving games for Boston, the 28-year-old had to take a significant pay cut from the $6.7 million he’d earned as an All-Star in 2002. Whether the Rangers, who had 27-year-old Francisco Cordero coming off his own breakthrough season (two earned runs after May), went into the winter with plans to add a veteran closer is unclear. But when they were able to get Urbina for $4 million (plus $500,000 deferred), it was a move they couldn’t pass up.

The timing was exquisite. In an off-season remarkably light on available proven closers – and teams needing them – Hart capitalized on Urbina’s slow market and signed him to the one-year deal. In July, Hart timed things perfectly once again.

Cordero, back in a set-up role to get the ball to Urbina, hit his groove in late June. After a stretch of four straight games and five out of six in mid-June in which he’d surrendered runs, he put zeroes up in 11 of his next 12 appearances, registering 13 strikeouts and just one walk in 14 innings over that span. Meanwhile, the club was 18 games out of the division lead as of July 10, and Hart knew by then that several contenders were picturing Urbina (leading the AL with 26 saves despite the Rangers’ poor record) in the eighth or ninth for their own stretch run. The relatively modest investment that Texas had made in Urbina was about to reap benefits, just three months into his Rangers career, beyond the mentoring of Cordero.

Juan Gonzalez had just vetoed a trade to the Expos. Rafael Palmeiro was about to kill a Cubs deal. Urbina, on the other hand, was willing to join a contender.

There were a number of available relievers on the trade market. Among the late-inning relievers traded in July were Armando Benitez, Mike Williams, Curt Leskanic, Matt Herges, Scott Williamson, Mike DeJean, Kent Mercker, and Brandon Lyon. Leskanic was the first to go, heading from Milwaukee to AL Central-leading Kansas City on July 10. Texas acted the following day.

Among the teams reported to be most interested in Urbina were the Yankees (Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Atlanta were others). Most accounts had Texas asking New York for first baseman Nick Johnson or lefthander Brandon Claussen or catcher Dioner Navarro, with the Yankees instead offering a package of lefthander Alex Graman and righthander Jorge DePaula. There were conflicting reports as to whether outfielder Juan Rivera was on the table.

But the Marlins stepped up and offered first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the first overall pick in the 2000 draft. Hart knew he had his deal, and there was no use waiting – either for Florida to decide that its 4.5-game deficit in the Wild Card hunt was insurmountable or for the reliever market to establish a lower price in players.

At one point the Rangers and Marlins were discussing a package that would have sent either Gonzalez or fellow first baseman Jason Stokes (Texas preferred Gonzalez), plus catcher/corner infielder-outfielder Josh Willingham and lefthander Ryan Snare to Texas. Ultimately, the Marlins forced the Rangers to choose between Gonzalez and Willingham, agreeing to insert outfielder Will Smith as a third player in the deal. Hart pulled the trigger.

“Several clubs were dancing, but when Gonzalez was included I knew where we were going,” Hart said. “You’re never afraid to jump early if the right pieces are there.”

Texas agreed to send approximately $1.5 million to Florida to cover most of what remained on Urbina’s contract. The Rangers considered it a small price to pay for the chance to get Gonzalez. Considering that the Mets acquired forgettable prospects Jason Anderson, Anderson Garcia, and Ryan Bicondoa from the Yankees for Armando Benitez less than a week later, it seems pretty clear that Hart timed things exactly right.

Gonzalez, age 21, was a brilliant defender who had shown an ability to hit for average and moderate power, confirming the John Olerud/Mark Grace projections that he was labeled with since being drafted number one three years earlier. A .312/.382/.486 Low A season in 2001 was followed by a .266/.344/.437 AA season in 2002, and in 2003 he was assigned to AAA. But he struggled, hitting a punchless .216/.286/.288, and at the end of May he was returned to AA.

Texas trusted its scouting reports, writing Gonzalez’s slow AAA start off to December wrist surgery. Had it not been for that slow start, the Marlins’ developmental surplus at first base, and their prescient sense that they were still in the race, Gonzalez probably wouldn’t have been available. Again, it’s all about timing.

Snare and Smith had their ups and downs in the Rangers system. Snare lasted until 2005, getting one big league appearance for Texas in 2004. Smith hung around until 2006. But Gonzalez was the key, and after an uninspiring first summer in AA with the Rangers, he busted out with a big 2004 (.304/.364/.457 in AAA) and a spectacular 2005 (.338/.399/.561 in AAA), getting brief big league looks both years, including a surprise spot on the 2005 Opening Day big league roster – as a DH – after a big camp in which he hit .392/.402/.557 and was among the league leaders with 22 RBI. There was even a momentary experiment in right field when Gonzalez returned to Texas at the end of the season.

Several months later, the Padres insisted that Texas include Gonzalez, who grew up in San Diego, in the January 2006 trade that sent Chris Young and Terrmel Sledge to the Padres for Akinori Otsuka, Adam Eaton, and Billy Killian. The Rangers agreed, and in Gonzalez the Padres now have what should be a perennial candidate for the National League All-Star team.

Florida certainly wouldn’t redo their own trade that sent Gonzalez to Texas. Urbina eventually assumed the Marlins’ closer role and won three games, saved six, and posted a 1.41 ERA to help them get to the post-season. He then recorded four saves in the playoffs, including two in the World Series.

The same vision is probably infiltrating several front offices right now, as clubs imagine what Eric Gagné could do for their playoff chances. Meanwhile, the Rangers are likewise assessing an opportunity to take a reliever they signed to a one-year winter deal and converting him – by timing things right – into a piece or more that could impact the franchise long-term.

Both Texas and the clubs on the other end of the phone can look back four years to the Urbina-Gonzalez trade for inspiration.

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.

1 Comment

And Texas can look back at that trade with the Padres with regret.


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