The Rangers have made their first splash in the trade deadline market by adding Orioles setup man Koji Uehara, one of the best relief pitchers in major league baseball this season. To get him, Texas parted with two favorite sons, Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis.
For weeks Jon Daniels has been in the market for relief help, and Padres closer Heath Bell had appeared to be at the center of the discussion. Jed Hoyer reportedly started with an astronomical asking price and hadn’t reduced it enough for Daniels’ taste as the deadline approached. Daniels intensified his search elsewhere and came up with a reliever who has faced AL East competition in a much less favorable park than Bell’s, and has posted vastly superior numbers. In particular, strikeout to walk ratios are a fine exhibit of the strike zone dominance of a pitcher or hitter, and Uehara’s dominant 117:13 in his two seasons as a reliever tower over Bell’s 31:16 number that has declined by almost 50% from the past two years.
Uehara is not a hard thrower, but his impeccable control and arsenal of offspeed pitches allow him to have success against both left-handed and right-handed hitters. The Rangers will owe him about $1 million of his $3 million contract for 2011, and the Orioles kicked in $2 million, or half of his 2012 salary that kicks in if he makes 12 more appearances. He figures to slot in with Mark Lowe as the two primary right-handed setup men in the Rangers’ bullpen and allows Yoshinori Tateyama and Darren Oliver to be used more liberally in specialist situations.
The cost of Tommy Hunter and Chris Davis is an interesting contrast to most of the Rangers’ rumored trade talks, which were reported to involve highly regarded prospects. Several tweets from national reporters just after the deal became public suggested that Daniels could still be interested in pursuing Bell or another reliever.
Davis has been a tease for Rangers fans. He’s been a stereotypical 4A hitter for the past three years after bursting onto the scene by hitting .285/.341/.549 in 2008 as a rookie. Most troubling, despite his absurd power show at Round Rock this year – he’s hit 24 home runs and posted an absurd .368/.405/.824 slash line – he still managed to not control the strike zone (58 SO, 11 BB), and he’s made no significant changes to a swing that has not worked against major league pitching.
Davis is in his last option year, which means that starting in 2012 his team must either keep him on the major league roster or subject him to league-wide waiver claims. That means no more time for swing progression and most likely a bench role in the near future if he had stayed with the Rangers. He profiles as the kind of hitter who may figure things out in his late 20’s, but because of his option situation (as with many of those hitters) it just wasn’t likely to happen with his original team.
Hunter’s inclusion in a trade for immediate help represents impressive restraint by Daniels. The temptation for most general managers is to pay more promising minor league players in deadline deals, rather than risking anyone who could contribute to the team. Daniels choosing to go a route that sent two players currently contributing to the club allowed him to reduce the overall price and keep his options for additional deals open.
Hunter was the fifth of five high picks in the 2007 draft and was pitching in the major leagues before the end of 2008. He made 41 starts for good teams in 2009 and 2010 and pitched like someone with the potential to be an innings eater. He also struggled mightily in three playoff starts last fall and may already be very near his ceiling as a third or fourth starter for a midleague caliber team. That's solid value for a poor Orioles team that is trading a 36-year-old reliever, but it doesn't match the upside of a group of high level minor league arms discussed in other deals, and that's important for the Rangers.
The deal is expected to become official late Saturday or early Sunday.