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Welcome To The July Sweepstakes

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Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Dan Haren are among the big names available before baseball's trade deadline hits. The Rangers would be well served staying the course rather than overpaying for any of the trio.

With less than a month to go now until the non-waiver trade deadline hits, trade rumors in Major League Baseball are going to be running rampant. While much of the media has been paying attention to the NBA free agency pool for being the deepest and greatest ever, headlined of course by LeBron James, the quality of the players potentially available via trade this summer are also excellent.  The Rangers financial situation might not allow them to acquire a major piece, but it does seem that general manager Jon Daniels will try to work through that. Even if the Rangers aren’t able to secure one of the top arms available, the movement of certain players could have an impact on the Rangers and their playoff chances.

The most notable and lusted after player at this deadline (Megan Fox did get married after all) is Cliff Lee. As it turns out, Lee isn’t the only heralded pitcher available. Roy Oswalt has asked to be traded from the Astros and has been linked in trade talks to the Rangers and Mets among others. The Diamondbacks are shopping Dan Haren. Lee, Oswalt and Haren are pitchers who can pitch at the top of, and anchor, a rotation. Pitchers like former Ranger Kevin Milwood, Ben Sheets and Jake Westbrook appear to be available as well.

Offensively, not as much is available. The struggling Lance Berkman said he would accept a trade, and it would make all the sense in the world for Houston to deal both him and Oswalt, but trading for player making nearly $15 million this year with a .769 OPS isn’t terribly appealing. It seems as if the Nationals would listen for offers on Adam Dunn, but they’re more apt to try to ink him to a long term contract extension rather than deal him. It isn’t likely that we’ll see a true impact bat dealt.

As aforementioned, Lee is the most attractive starting pitcher available. The Mariners seem intent on dealing him at this point and Lee even thinks he’s made his last start as a Mariner. Lee has been nothing short of incredible for the Mariners this year. In 95.2 innings, he’s given up 83 hits and issued only five walks. That gives him a BB/9 rate of .47 which is nothing short of incredible. His performance dating back to last year and how well he pitched in Philadelphia would have had his value high, but what he’s accomplished this year has added a lot to the price tag on Lee. The catch is, of course, that he’s a free agent after the year and seems intent on testing the free agent market. Lee is essentially a rental piece, and that’s not something many teams are in a position to do. Most recently, the Cardinals, Mets, Twins and Rangers have inquired about Lee. Any of those four teams would have to part with at least one top prospect in order to acquire Lee. 

The Rangers have an 86.8 percent chance of making the playoffs as of July 1 according to Baseball Prospectus. It doesn’t seem that adding a front-line starting pitcher will dramatically increase already incredible odds to make the playoffs. While the possibility of having Lee/Colby Lewis pitch 1-2 in a playoff series is tantalizing, it’s not only unlikely, it’s not wise to pay the price that the Mariners would be looking for. One would have to conclude that either Tanning Scheppers or Martin Perez would have to head to Seattle as well as another lower tier prospect, somebody like Miguel Velazquez. The Rangers, given their financial situation, are simply unlikely to be able to re-sign Lee at the end of the year if they were to acquire him. Sending at least one top prospect to the rival Mariners isn’t worth two months of Cliff Lee, period.

With that said, it doesn’t seem many American League teams are interested in Lee’s services. The second place Anaheim Angels don’t seem to be in the market for any of the prized starting pitchers, which is good news. The Yankees, as always, will be linked to Lee and aside from that, the Twins are the only American League team to be linked with Lee. It’s more likely that he’ll be dealt to one of the National League contenders, with the Mets being the most likely landing spot. It seems a non-deal in this case would not come back to haunt the Rangers as they don’t have to worry about the Angels acquiring him and using him as fuel to vault past Texas.

Oswalt has been linked to the Rangers in the past and Nolan Ryan has said himself that he covets him. Unlike Lee, Oswalt is held under contract for 2011 and will cost $16 million. At the very least, he’s not a rental piece. The devil in that is the salary for the remainder of this year (he’s set to earn $15 million before 2010 ends) and next year. Oswalt shouldn’t command as much as Lee should by way of a trade, but the difference is clearly offset in the financial obligation. It’s not feasible for the Rangers in their current situation to add that much salary for the duration of the year – and I shudder to think what Daniels would include to get Oswalt to get Houston to eat salary (see: Michael Main and Bengie Molina).

As with Lee, if Oswalt is traded, it doesn’t seem as though he’ll go to a team that could hurt the Rangers and their playoff chances. While the Twins have been linked to Lee, it’s unlikely they’d be willing to take on the financial burden of Oswalt for next year in order to bolster their playoff chances. Should the Mets be unable to acquire Lee, my money would be on Omar Minaya and the Metropolitans trading for Oswalt.

The most interesting pitcher available to me at the deadline is Dan Haren. He was nothing short of excellent last year, posting the ninth best WAR for a starting pitcher (6.1), but has struggled this year thanks to his penchant for the long ball. Despite that, his K/BB is still a very nice 5.23 and he’d likely benefit from a change of scenery.  Haren sports an ERA of 4.56 and a WHIP of 1.32 this year which should help drive his value in a trade down. Don’t be fooled though: his BABIP is an absurdly high .345, partially due to a home run rate of 1.47 HR/9. Still, the BABIP will come down in time and Haren will resume his dominance.

While I’ve yet to see Texas linked to him, nor do I expect them to be, the money would be the hang up once again. He’s signed through 2012 at nearly $13 million for the next two years and is an affordable eight and a quarter million for this year. There’s also a club option for 2013. That contract in the grand scheme of things is pretty club friendly. It’s really unfortunate from my perspective that the Rangers won’t be able to have the financial flexibility to trade for him.

The teams that have inquired on Haren or linked to him in rumors have been the Nationals, Phillies and Cardinals of late. Like Lee and Oswalt, it doesn’t seem that Haren is going to go to a team that could damage the Rangers' playoff chances or in the playoffs themselves should Texas make it.

If, and it’s a large if, the Rangers sale goes through before the trade deadline, I would personally like to see the Rangers try to acquire either Haren or Oswalt. Neither would be a two month rental, and both should cost less than Lee. Further, the prospects being sent for either wouldn’t be sent to a division rival. A top of the rotation of Haren or Oswalt and Lewis in the playoffs would give the Rangers an excellent chance to win any series they’ve involved in.

With that said, assuming the sale does go through; the Rangers management needs to make sure their focus remains long term. The Rangers window of success isn’t just 2010; the Rangers are set up currently to compete for years. It would be foolish to sell the farm system for two months of Lee or pay an over the top price for Oswalt. Texas will be able to make the playoffs as it stands with their current roster as long as their players’ one: remain healthy and two: play up to their ability. Winning in the playoffs isn’t solely about starting pitching. Having an excellent bullpen goes a long way to a successful October run. Tanning Scheppers would be better served in the Rangers bullpen to form a bullpen featuring Francisco, Scheppers, Ogando, Feliz et al rather than being sent to Seattle for two months of Lee.

I’m fully expecting the Rangers to stand essentially pat at the trade deadline, and that’s not a bad thing. Should Rich Harden come back and actually be healthy and effective, that will be like trading for a front line starting pitcher, but giving up nothing in the way of prospects or financial resources. The Rangers can win the division with their roster as it stands. Their playoff fate will not be ruined by passing on a trade for either Oswalt, Lee or Haren and their rivals aren’t going to be the beneficiary of the Rangers financial burdens or their hesitance to pull the trigger on a trade. If Texas is going to succeed for the duration of the year and not only make the playoffs but make a playoff run, they’re going to have to do it on the shoulders of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler. Colby Lewis will have to maintain his excellence while Harden and Feldman find their grooves. The Rangers bullpen has a chance to be the best in all of baseball – and that will go a long way in terms of success. The best move the Rangers can make this month is to simply not make one at all and make sure that the organization stays the course. Texas is in an excellent position to achieve AL West dominance, and there’s no reason to throw it away now.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.