New superpowers reside out West
Remember the height of the Yankees-Red Sox cold war, when the two superpowers always were mindful — and fearful — of the other’s next step?
The Rangers and Angels cannot match the history of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. But they’re beginning to match the intensity, fueled by their new local television contracts with FOX.
We saw it last offseason, when the Rangers invested more than $107 million in Japanese right-hander Yu Darvish and the Angels signed free-agent first baseman Albert Pujols and left-hander C.J. Wilson for a combined $317.5 million.
And we’re seeing it in the weeks leading to the July 31 non-waiver deadline, as the two AL West rivals shadow each other’s steps, seemingly in pursuit of the same starting pitchers.
In the AL East, the Yankees are sitting on an eight-game lead, the Red Sox are trying to stay above .500 and both teams are fretting over luxury-tax issues.
The greater intrigue, for now, is in the AL West.
The Angels scouted Brewers right-hander Zack Greinke on Saturday and Phillies lefty Cole Hamels on Sunday, according to major league sources.
The Rangers, who prefer Hamels, also saw him pitch on Sunday, and have scouted Greinke on multiple occasions.
Neither pitcher is certain to become available — the Phillies want to sign Hamels to an extension, and the Brewers could keep Greinke if they crawl back into contention.
But the Brewers, as they plot possible scenarios with Greinke, have talked about exploiting the Rangers-Angels rivalry the way sellers once exploited the Yankees and Red Sox, sources say.
The Rangers’ farm system is considerably deeper than the Angels’, but as I reported Saturday on the FOX pregame show, the Rangers’ reluctance to trade top prospects for rentals could create openings for the Angels and other clubs.
The Angels’ future commitments are sizable — $92.3 million next season, $95.1 million in 2014 and $79.3 million in ’15, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.
But a pitcher such as Greinke, if the Angels signed him long-term, could replace righty Dan Haren and/or righty Ervin Santana. The team holds a $15.5 million option on Haren for next season and a $13 million option on Santana.
The Rangers’ position is different — they’ve got more long-term candidates for their rotation than the Angels, and would view the addition of Hamels or Greinke strictly as a rental.
The team’s future commitments — $84.3 million next season, $59.6 million in ’14 and $56.1 million in ’15 — are less onerous than the Angels’. But outfielder Josh Hamilton and catcher Mike Napoli are among the Rangers’ potential free agents.
Both AL West powers say they are reluctant to trade young, inexpensive players. Both say they’ve already exceeded their payroll budgets.
You hear a lot of such talk at this time of year. But from the superpowers, you also see a lot of action and reaction.
The Rangers and Angels are superpowers now.
Many executives believe that if Hamels and Greinke are moved, the returns will be surprisingly low due to the new rule that eliminates draft-pick compensation for players traded in the middle of a season.
Well, all it takes is one team to make a dramatic statement, but the landscape is indeed different. Even the most similar recent trade to the ones that might take place — Carlos Beltran for Zack Wheeler last July — is not quite analogous.
Beltran’s contract stated that he could not be offered arbitration, so it was not possible for him to bring back draft picks as a free agent. But that clause applied both to the team that traded him, the Mets, as well as the team that acquired him, the Giants.
Hamels and Greinke, on the other hand, hold greater value if they remain with their present clubs — both can yield a supplemental pick between the first and second rounds as long as they are offered a one-year deal in the $12 million range (the substitute for an arbitration offer in the new agreement).
Any prospect package would need to exceed the value of that pick, but who’s to say that the Brewers or Phillies only would want young players? The Brewers, in particular, need major league help. Three of their five starting pitchers — Greinke, right-hander Shaun Marcum and lefty Randy Wolf — are potential free agents.
GMs can be quite creative. Expect to see interesting, different types of deals at the deadline.
THE DECISION BELONGS TO DEMPSTER
Remember this as the Ryan Dempster trade talks intensify: The Cubs’ right-hander, as a player with 10 years of service, five with the same club, has full veto power over any deal, and can effectively choose his next team.
Dempster, 35, told me several weeks back that he is open-minded to any contender, but surely he would prefer some clubs to others. For one thing, he has spent his entire 15-year career in the more pitcher-friendly National League, and might not want to pitch in the AL in his final two months before becoming a free agent.
Maybe Dempster would approve a major AL power such as the Yankees (who do not appear to be terribly interested in meeting the Cubs’ price).
Maybe he would agree to reunite with the old Marlins’ gang in Detroit — Tigers GM David Dombrowski acquired him for the Marlins in 1996, and Dempster played for manager Jim Leyland in ’98.
Dempster is good friends with Dodgers left-hander Ted Lilly; perhaps that will sway him. Or, perhaps he will just work closely with the Cubs to arrange a deal that is satisfactory for both sides.
The possibility of a contract extension is one other factor to consider.
While Dempster hardly seems the type to demand an extension in exchange for waiving his no-trade rights, the team that acquires him might be interested in such a condition as part of the deal.
The Cubs want to assume the majority of the nearly $7 million remaining on Dempster’s contract to secure better prospects. So, given the high acquisition cost, it makes sense that the acquiring team might want to enhance its own return by getting an extra year or two out of Dempster.
Such a deal would not necessarily happen right away; Dempster might want to familiarize himself with his new environment first. But if a team cannot get draft-pick compensation for Dempster, it might opt for something even better: Dempster himself.
PHILLIES PROBLEMS, CHAPTER 36
One rival executive says that Phillies second baseman Chase Utley looks quite slow in the field and that he might need to move to first base in the near future.
Good luck with that in Philadelphia; first baseman Ryan Howard is signed through 2016. Utley, meanwhile, will earn $15 million next season in the final year of his contract.
Speaking of the Phillies, I noted their potential luxury-tax problems on the FOX pregame show Saturday. Trading shortstop Jimmy Rollins would be one way to ease the burden, but good luck with that, too.
Rollins, 33, theoretically would make sense for any number of teams that would benefit from an upgrade at shortstop — the Dodgers, Giants, Pirates, Athletics and Diamondbacks all come to mind.
But as one rival executive says, “That contract, boy oh boy . . .”
Rollins, re-signed as a free agent by the Phils last offseason, is guaranteed salaries of $11 million through 2014, and his deal also includes a player or club option for ’15 that will be worth a minimum of $5 million.
A team might want him, but not at that price and not for that long.
PIRATES’ MARTE: TOO MUCH HYPE?
Scouts and executives from multiple clubs continue to express doubt about the ability of Pirates Triple-A outfielder Starling Marte to become a star.
Marte, who turns 24 on Oct. 9, generally draws raves for his defense, but one scout describes him as a “tweener” with shaky instincts in center field and not enough power for left.
The scout also says that Marte struggles with good fastballs and too frequently is caught stealing; Marte has succeeded in only 18 of 30 attempts, or 60 percent.
Marte has improved his walk rate this season and still has time of develop. But at this point, it seems unlikely that he could be the centerpiece of a trade for a player such as Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton.
WHY THE ROCKIES LIKE RAMON
Sometimes, veteran players have more value to their present club than they would in a trade. Rockies catcher Ramon Hernandez could be a case in point.
The Rockies signed Hernandez last offseason to help rookie Wilin Rosario with his game-calling and receiving.
Rosario, 23, might learn more by playing less — something that the Reds’ rookie backup, Devin Mesoraco, says has been helpful in his own development.
The problem is that the Rockies’ other catcher, Wil Nieves, doesn’t hit well enough to merit consistent playing time (and currently is on the disabled list with turf toe).
So, while the idea of trading Hernandez to say, the Mets, seems logical enough, the Rockies aren’t sure it would be best for Rosario.
They would move Hernandez, but only at their price.
THE CUB WHO GOT AWAY
Rockies outfielder Tyler Colvin is proving one of the best trade acquisitions of last offseason, especially considering that he is under club control through 2015.
Colvin, who turns 27 on Sept. 5, is batting .299 with a .941 OPS in 212 plate appearances — and that includes an .833 OPS away from Coors Field.
The Rockies acquired Colvin and infielder DJ LeMahieu from the Cubs last Dec. 8 for third baseman Ian Stewart and right-hander Casey Weathers.
LeMahieu, currently at Triple A, projects as a solid utility type. Stewart just underwent wrist surgery. Weathers has a 5.62 ERA in 20 relief appearances at Double A.
AROUND THE HORN
• The Brewers opened the second half by winning two of three from the Pirates, and could pass on selling if they continue to play well in their next two series against the Cardinals and Reds.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers’ interest in third baseman Aramis Ramirez, first reported by Yahoo! Sports, makes sense given the scarcity of right-handed power hitters in the trade market.
Ramirez’s salary rises from $6 million this season to $10 million in 2013 to $16 million in ’14, but that last year is not quite as onerous as it sounds — $6 million is deferred without interest, with $3 million to be paid in 2017 and $3 million in ’18, according to a major league source.
• The Cubs, according to one rival executive, sought a package for right-hander Matt Garza last offseason similar to what the Athletics received for lefty Gio Gonzalez — catcher Derek Norris, lefty Tommy Milone and righties Brad Peacock and A.J. Cole.
At the time, Gonzalez was three years away from free agency, Garza two. Now Garza is down to one year plus two months, but the Cubs still could get a significant return. The extra year — and possibility of a draft pick on the back end — enhances Garza’s value.
• The Tigers are scouting Rockies second baseman Marco Scutaro, who is batting .273 but with only a .693 OPS. The Brewers, in search of a shortstop, inquired on Scutaro at one point, but talks failed to progress.
• Outfielder Nate McLouth got off to a slow start with the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate, but in his last 10 games he has batted .325 with a 1.188 OPS. The Orioles must promote him by the end of the month, or McLouth can exercise an out in his contract.