THE NEWBERG REPORT — JULY 31, 2007: THE MARK TEIXEIRA TRADE
I’d been thinking for weeks about what I would write when The Trade happened. I changed my mind half a dozen times, and then gave up.
Despite efforts to lay the column out in my head in advance, ultimately I knew it would have to be a visceral sitdown at the keyboard. I was going to have to let the game come to me.
The thing about news of a trade like this breaking on a weekday morning is that sitting down to write about it gets shelved for 10 or 12 hours. As a result, even after there was news that Mark Teixeira had been traded, rather than just speculation, I once again changed direction over and over mentally as I imagined how I’d write this one up.
It comes down to this for me: This is a twofold issue. First, trading Teixeira. Second, the Teixeira trade.
The first one is more difficult to articulate. I never wanted Texas to trade Teixeira. He’s as complete a baseball player as anyone who has ever worn a Rangers uniform. My kids love watching him play. He and his wife Leigh have done great things in the community.
I wrote this on May 16, well before the subject of trading Teixeira became a topic of local discussion:
"I’ve come to what feels like an inescapable conclusion, after years of heavy, blind, wishful denial, that Mark Teixeira won’t be a Texas Ranger a year from today. It is with a great deal of sadness and reluctance that I now admit that to myself."
Factoring in some of Teixeira’s remarks to the press, the obvious history that his agent’s clients have of testing free agency, and the idea that the Union is probably encouraging him to hit the open market after the 2008 season and establish a new benchmark contract, it just added up that he was not going to extend long-term here. Waiting until the winter made sense if teams weren’t acting with the right amount of desperation in July, but waiting until this time in 2008 was too risky, because if the team found itself arguably in the race in the season’s fourth month, trading Teixeira at that point simply wouldn’t have been an option.
As I thought about Teixeira’s eventual departure, what occurred to me, maybe for the first time as a sports fan, was that in that role I’m not a free agent myself. I don’t get to survey the landscape and decide what team I want to latch onto. I’m in it for the long haul. The Rangers are part of my core.
And, maybe unrealistically, I’ve always hoped, in some cases more than others, that the best players on my team felt that way, too.
Though I’ve never doubted for a second that Teixeira gave it everything he had every time he stepped on the field for the Rangers, which was basically every night, there was always that underlying feeling that he wanted to play for the Yankees or Orioles or Braves, and establish his legacy there. I always hoped that nagging sense was off-base.
Instead, we all felt that Sunday was going to be Teixeira’s final game as a Ranger, the final act of his five years in Texas that end with his RBI total frozen at 499, prevented from reaching 500 by a quad injury that cost him five weeks this year (and by Larry Young and Tom Hallion on June 27, 2006 in San Francisco).
And it was the final act. As far as my team trading Teixeira is concerned, from an emotional standpoint, it makes me sad. I’m sure there are plenty of you reading this whose kids cried a bit yesterday when they found out Teixeira is no longer going to play for the Rangers. I would have when I was Erica’s age. I’m only glad that Max isn’t quite three years old — a couple years older, and this would have hit him really, really hard.
Emotionally, I wish it hadn’t come to this. But I’m glad he’s going to Atlanta, at least for now, a place where I can pull for him all season long, a place where he went to college and met Leigh, a place that isn’t New York or Boston or Anaheim.
And I’ll get over the sting of the thought that Teixeira will have great years somewhere else, that the factors that caused him to fall to the fifth pick in the 2001 draft are among those that probably led to his departure. For now, the thing that helps me get over that sting is to accept the reality that sunk in back on May 16, and to objectively look at what Jon Daniels, confronted with what could be the most important challenge of his career, was able to get done.
And that brings me to Part Two of this discussion: the trade itself.
Teixeira and lefthander Ron Mahay to the Braves for 22-year-old big league catcher-first baseman Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 18-year-old High A shortstop Elvis Andrus, 18-year-old Advanced Rookie-Level righthander Neftali Feliz, and one more pitcher to be named later, from a list that reportedly includes AA lefthander Matt Harrison. The deal is dependent only on a review of medicals, which will take place before this afternoon’s trade deadline.
A significant number of national columnists confidently claimed earlier this month that Daniels was going to find it impossible to get what he should for Teixeira, because in this baseball economy teams aren’t as willing to part with their best prospects as they used to be. Rangers fans were going to be extremely disappointed, said the high-profile scribes.
If they’re right, then Baseball America is dead wrong.
The industry standard ranked Saltalamacchia as Atlanta’s number one prospect going into the season. It ranked Andrus number two. It ranked Harrison number three. And all three were in the publication’s ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball.
If you happen to be one of those who treats Baseball America with a dose of skepticism when it comes to prospect rankings, especially in the case of the some of the more allegedly manipulative organizations — like the Braves — consider that John Sickels, whose prospect evaluations carry as much weight for me as anyone’s other than Baseball America’s, had all three in his top 100 as well.
If the reports were accurate that the Dodgers and Angels had backed out of the bidding for Teixeira over the weekend, and that the Diamondbacks were only halfheartedly in the mix, then Daniels succeeded in pulling off the seemingly impossible, getting a standout package of prospects despite this apparent trend of teams hoarding their kids and the real possibility that Atlanta had secured a bit of leverage as its competition for Teixeira ducked out.
The key to the deal is unquestionably Saltalamacchia, the switch-hitting catcher whose first professional game at a different position, at any level, came this June, when he appeared at first base for the big club. One local report says this morning that he’ll share catching duties with Gerald Laird the rest of the way, seeing some time at first and at DH, while another says he’ll play first primarily, filling in from time to time behind the plate.
When Saltalamacchia hit .314/.394/.519 with 35 doubles, 19 home runs, and 81 RBI in 129 games for High A Myrtle Beach in 2005, two years after the Braves had made him the 36th pick in the draft, he was widely considered the top all-around catching prospect in baseball. That, however, was the same year that Atlanta broke Brian McCann into the big leagues, and McCann (who signed a six-year, $26.8 million contract four months ago) is just a year older than Saltalamacchia. For the two to coexist as Braves, Saltalamacchia was going to have to find a new position.
Will he have to in Texas?
Regardless of what position he plays most often over these final two months, the idea might be to evaluate his readiness behind the plate, assess the risk of watering down a young player’s offensive potential by keeping him at catcher, and decide in the off-season whether to deal Laird, who would certainly have meaningful trade value. (That’s not to say Texas couldn’t trade Laird today, but that would be a longshot — and forget those crazy rumors out of Chicago yesterday afternoon that the Cubs were floating center fielder Felix Pie for Laird and a reliever. Chicago’s not going to do that.)
Saltalamacchia struggled in 2006, hampered by a wrist injury that dogged him for most of the season (remind anyone else of Adrian Gonzalez’s first season in the Rangers farm system?), hitting just .230/.353/.380 for AA Mississippi before going on a tear in the Olympic qualifying tournament and Arizona Fall League.
Atlanta returned him to Mississippi this spring but this stay in the Southern League lasted just four weeks. Hitting .309/.404/.617 with seven doubles and six homers in 22 games, Saltalamacchia got the call on his 22nd birthday (May 2), a day after McCann bruised a finger and, later in the same game, backup catcher Brayan Pena sustained a concussion, hit in the head on the follow-through of Phillies pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs’s swing.
McCann missed a couple days and Pena was sidelined for just two weeks, but Saltalamacchia kept his roster spot, hitting .284/.333/.411 with six doubles and four home runs in 141 at-bats (including a .313/.405/.438 May and .327/.352/.558 June). He was slightly better against left-handed pitching, in keeping with his 2006 production but just the opposite of how he’d fared in 2005 and over the first month of this season while still in AA.
Scouts praise Saltalamacchia’s smooth swing and ability to drive the ball from both sides of the plate, his strong arm behind the plate, and his work ethic. Many project him to be a 30-homer, 110-RBI force, suggesting his bat will play on a corner — but I keep thinking Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada. If keeping Saltalamacchia at catcher means he’ll only be a 25-90 guy but plays solid defense, that’s more than acceptable. You keep him at catcher.
If he can stay behind the plate, there’s no other hitter (James Loney, Casey Kotchman, Conor Jackson) I would have rather had from the teams who were most firmly in on Teixeira these last few days.
Teixeira broke into the big leagues at age 23, hitting .259/.331/.480 as the Rangers’ everyday first baseman. Put Saltalamacchia’s .284/.333/.411 at age 22 in that context. Teixeira is now a perennial .290/.380/.550 hitter. There are some who believe Saltalamacchia could settle into a similar level of productivity. It’s not a lock, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, and Texas controls him for six years after this one.
What does this mean for Taylor Teagarden and the rest of the Rangers’ stable of catcher prospects? Much too soon to worry about that, especially before we know what the Rangers’ defensive plans are for Saltalamacchia. And the good thing is that too much catching, as we discussed when Texas acquired Max Ramirez for Kenny Lofton a few days ago, just means more trade ammunition.
Three years ago, Texas acquired 19-year-old shortstop Joaquin Arias as the second piece in a blockbuster trade. The Rangers are banking on the 18-year-old Andrus, the second piece in this deal, to become everything that Arias has thus far failed to become.
Andrus shows the plus range, plus arm, and fluid hands that Arias has always shown, not to mention the athleticism and promise of offensive productivity as his body matures. He exhibits an advanced ability to use the entire field with the bat, his walk rates are unusually good, and he’s an instinctive player in all phases.
Andrus is an unfinished product, to be sure, but he’s holding his own in High Class A at an age when his United States contemporaries started the year as high school seniors and are just now getting in their pro debuts, mostly three levels lower in the complex leagues in Arizona and Florida, if not still negotiating their signing bonuses. Andrus is hitting .244/.330/.335 in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Carolina League. He had a 14-game hit streak a month ago.
And this is key — away from the severe pitchers’ park he plays his home games in, he’s a .296/.379/.413 hitter. Against pitchers four years older than he is. Let that sink in.
In Baseball America’s "Baseball for the Ages" feature in 2005, the two players named as honorable mention 16-year-olds were Andrus — who was at the time the youngest player in pro ball — and righthander Blake Beavan, the Rangers’ top pick in last month’s draft.
It’s been written that Andrus "plays with a joy and energy that’s infectious," which separates him in one sense from Arias, at least at the time that the latter arrived in the Alex Rodriguez/Alfonso Soriano trade. The Arias I saw in camp in 2004 appeared introverted, seemingly lonely and bewildered at times. I couldn’t have conceived of anyone describing an "infectious energy" when talking about Arias as a teenager. Andrus has also become fluent in English since arriving from Venezuela in January 2005.
In Baseball America’s "Best Tools" survey earlier this season, Carolina League managers called Andrus the league’s Most Exciting Player, a testament to the reputation he has developed and the potential that baseball people believe he has. He needs to polish his game and get stronger, but he’s got enormous potential. Sickels invokes the names of Edgar Renteria as a possible comp, if it all comes together. Others in the game have said Andrus reminds them of Derek Jeter or Miguel Tejada.
Andrus and Max Ramirez were Danville (Appalachian League) teammates in 2005 and Rome (South Atlantic League) teammates in 2006.
Andrus won’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2009 season, if he hasn’t reached the big leagues by then.
Feliz is on the same 40-man roster track as Andrus, and he’ll surely need all of that time before the Rangers would even consider his big league candidacy. But his upside is enormous.
The lanky righthander signed with Atlanta in 2005, pitching briefly in the Dominican Summer League that summer (four runs on seven hits [no home runs] and 11 walks in 10 innings, fanning eight) and only slightly more in 2006, when he arrived stateside and pitched in the Gulf Coast League.
In 29 innings last year, Feliz used a mid-90s fastball that reportedly touches 98 with late life, plus a still-immature slider and change, to hold hitters to a .192 average — and no home runs — issuing 14 walks and punching out 42 hapless opponents. He was at his best down the stretch, logging 11 scoreless innings in four August appearances, scattering four hits and one walk while fanning 15 hitters. At the conclusion of the season, Baseball America judged his fastball to be the best in the entire Braves system, despite just 39 innings of work in his two pro seasons combined.
And despite that limited body of work, Baseball Prospectus went so far as to name Feliz the number 98 prospect in baseball going into this season, saying: "This is a teenager with a lightning arm who could turn into a frontline starter or a dominant closer, but right now, he’s a teenager with a lightning arm."
Atlanta assigned Feliz to Danville this summer (the developmental equivalent of the Rangers’ affiliate in Spokane), and in six starts and a relief appearance, he’s gone 2-0, 2.05. In 26.1 innings, he’s permitted 16 hits (.178 opponents’ average) and 12 walks, striking out 28 and again keeping the opposition homerless. Lefthanders and righties have been equally inept against him.
Harrison, by most accounts, is one of Atlanta’s top two pitching prospects (along with fellow southpaw Jo-Jo Reyes), and it may be that the reason that the trade currently includes one player to be named is that the Rangers want to be sure that Harrison’s arm is sound before committing to him as the final piece to the deal.
The 6’5" lefthander hasn’t missed a start for AA Mississippi but over the weekend it was being reported that a potential shoulder strain led to an MRI. Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus reports that the diagnostics came back clean, and in fact the 21-year-old touched the mid-90s in his last start on Wednesday. But there was one unconfirmed report that Harrison will nonetheless miss a start or two, and might have been placed on the AA disabled list.
The Braves’ second of two third-round picks in 2003, Harrison came into the 2007 season with a four-season record of 30-20, 3.45, with 314 strikeouts and only 82 walks in 430.2 innings of work. He reached AA in 2006, at age 20, invoking the standard Tom Glavine comparison with his command of three pitches. He works down in the zone, consistently coaxing more groundouts than flyouts and keeping the ball in the yard.
Harrison hasn’t shown himself to be a strikeout pitcher, but scouts praise his coachability and his potential for getting the most out of his repertoire. He’s producing results at age 21 in AA, and that bodes well.
Harrison would have been Rule 5-eligible this past winter had it not been for the CBA revisions. Instead, he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster this off-season.
Again, however, recognize that Harrison is not a confirmed part of the trade, though multiple reports indicate that he’s on the list of candidates Texas can choose from to round out the deal. I’ve seen about six or seven other names that could be on the list and won’t spend time going through their profiles until the names are confirmed.
Of interest, however, is that one of the rumored names is 23-year-old righthander Joey Devine, the Braves’ 2005 first-rounder and occasional holder of the club’s closer-in-waiting label. Devine is currently at AAA Richmond (one run on five hits and two walks in 5.1 innings, six strikeouts), after stints with AA Mississippi (2-4, 2.06 with 16 saves, 26 hits and 13 walks in 35 innings, with 51 strikeouts and just one home run allowed) and Atlanta (one run on four hits and one walk in three innings, two strikeouts).
I’m not here to predict that this deal will produce for Texas what Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to Montreal for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Lee Stevens gave Cleveland five years ago, but this is a remarkable return, given all the factors at play.
Are the Rangers done? Chances are that Daniels has another move or two in him before this afternoon’s 3:00 trade deadline. The rumored deal that would send Octavio Dotel from Kansas City to the Braves helps Texas in that teams that were in on Dotel may now be turning their attention to Gagné. The good thing as far as Gagné is concerned is we’re virtually assured of getting two picks in the first two rounds if we keep him and he leaves via free agency, so that’s where the trade offers begin — prospect(s) that are worth more to us than two premium draft picks. The Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Cubs, and Brewers are reportedly showing interest.
The Dodgers had shown interest in Joaquin Benoit as part of a Teixeira deal — would Los Angeles part with someone like outfielder Andre Ethier or minor league closer Jonathan Meloan, two players rumored to be involved in the Teixeira talks, in a one-for-one deal for Benoit?
I’m still saying a prayer for the Mets to decide they will be marginally better off with Sammy Sosa.
If Daniels adds Ramirez, Saltalamacchia, Andrus, Feliz, Harrison, and another prospect or two for Gagné and/or Benoit this week, and if the Rangers get deals done with first-rounders Beavan and Neil Ramirez and some other relatively high unsigned picks in the next two weeks, and if the organization adds a handful of high-ceiling Latin American teenagers this summer as it has the past few years, this farm system is going to look amazingly different from the way it looked when the season started.
But so will the big league lineup, which for the next two months will feature Jarrod Saltalamacchia at-bats that once belonged to Mark Teixeira. I’m looking forward to seeing Saltalamacchia injected into the order, hopefully along with Jason Botts, but to be honest I’m not sure how it will feel not to have Teixeira there as a fixture, as the Rangers’ most feared weapon.
I know this, though: a Teixeira trade had become virtually inevitable, and from that standpoint I’m excited about what Jon Daniels pulled off. I’m looking forward to checking those Elvis Andrus box scores in Bakersfield and those Neftali Feliz short-season pitching lines, and to imagining what my team’s roster could look like two years from now, when Saltalamacchia could be part of the Rangers’ identity, and Teixeira may very well be in pinstripes or adorned by an orange and black bird, as the Braves work to try and sign the two draft picks they received when Teixeira left for the Coast.