Springtime Storylines: Will the Rangers be able to survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: The defending AL Champs, the Texas Rangers

The Big Question: Will the Rangers survive the departure of Cliff Lee?

Well, sure, why wouldn’t they be able to? They only had him for 15 starts last year, and they were five and a half games up in the West on the day they traded for him.  Indeed, my asking this question isn’t because I’m truly concerned about the rotation sans Lee, but because I really wanted an excuse to note that Lee, while a wonderful addition, didn’t make the Rangers 2010 season as much as lot of people think he did. At least they think he did if the questions I’m asked about the Rangers prospects this year by readers and radio hosts and stuff is any indication.

The fact is that the Rangers rotation heading into 2011 looks to be just fine even without Lee.  C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis were major surprises last season, but I don’t believe they were flukes. Neither seemed to be the recipients of uncommon luck, and their peripheral stats looked strong.  I’m likewise high on Derrek Holland who, assuming he stays healthy, seems poised to come into his own as a starter.  And all of the Rangers’ pitchers will benefit by having Adrian Beltre take over at third base.

The key, though, is Neftali Feliz. Last year’s closer is being groomed to return to his roots as a starting pitcher, a role at which he excelled in the minor leagues (a final decision on whether he starts could come as soon as today).  Yes, there will be questions about his durability — he has never pitched more than 127 innings in a season, and that was three years ago — but if he is given ample rest and a sensible ramp-up, he could emerge as a front-end starter. Maybe even one that apes Cliff Lee’s half-season production in Texas.

The upshot: I think the rotation, while not the strongest in baseball, will be quite capable and won’t be a drag on the Rangers’ drive to repeat.

So what else is going on?

  • If the Rangers do put Feliz in the rotation, who closes? Ron Washington has said he wants an “experienced closer.” Which is kind of silly considering that he won a pennant with Feliz as his closer and he had never done it before.  Still, it wouldn’t shock me if Washington begins the year with some sort of closer-by-committee thing, shuffling in old hands Arthur Rhodes, Darren Oliver and God knows who else through the ninth inning role. The best bet, though, is that Alexi Ogando will move into the role eventually.  He went 4-1 with a 1.30 ERA and 39/16 K/BB ratio in 42 innings last season and throws fire. Looks like a closer to me.
  • Michael Young’s dissatisfaction with being pushed into a 1B/DH/super utility role has taken up a lot of column inches this spring, but he’s apparently not going anywhere, trade demand notwithstanding. This may make life uncomfortable for everyone, but there are a lot of contending teams who would like to have the kind of depth the Rangers have on offense.  They’ll shuttle Young, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland and — if a space opens up due to injury or whatever — Chris Davis between DH first base, pinch hitting duties and wherever else a bat with some upside is needed.
  • And while offense is a clear strength for the Rangers, there is a big question when it comes to health. The big guns — Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz and Ian Kinsler — have all had injury trouble in recent years. Not a lot that can be done about it — hamstrings are hamstrings — but it does make the Rangers vulnerable. A bad day or two for these fragile stars and the balance of power in the division could shift toward Oakland.
  • Of course, that’s where Adrian Beltre comes in.  He’s missed some time this spring with an owie or two, but aside from that freak injury in Seattle in 2009 of which we will say no more lest we cringe, he has been outrageously durable for most of the past decade. Fenway Park treated him well last year. The Ballpark in Arlington figures to do the same. One of the more underrated pickups of the offseason.

So how are they going to do?

Quite well, thanks.  Health is always a factor in division races so it goes without saying that the Rangers need to stay healthy (drat, I just said it).  But if they do, I don’t see anyone seriously challenging them for the AL West crown.  If they win it, then it will be time to talk more seriously about the loss of Cliff Lee who did make quite a difference in the playoffs last year.  But that’s a long time from now.  As we sit here on the eve of the 2011 season, the Rangers seem to be just fine.

It is not Tony Clark’s job to compromise. His job is to advocate for the players.

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Ken Rosenthal published a column today that I cannot describe as anything other than bizarre.

The news nugget in the column: the league and the union met on Monday to talk about certain proposed rules changes which, by now, are pretty familiar to you: a pitch clock, a further reduction of mound visits and, at least in spring training and in the All-Star Game, putting a man on second base to begin the 10th inning in tie games. You know, pace of play stuff that has been much discussed in this space and elsewhere.

The idea here is that the league wants the players to agree to implement these things. If the players do not, the league — after a one year waiting period which we’ve already gone through — can unilaterally implement them. Rob Manfred, for a lot of reasons, doesn’t want to do that, so he’s continuing to seek the players’ agreement. The players have never been big fans of in-game changes, so they resist. That all makes sense as far as it goes. It’s nothing new.

The bizarre part: Rosenthal spends most of the column arguing that the players need to set aside their own desires and compromise with the league “for the good of the sport.” (the headline actually uses that phrase). He argues that they should set aside the dissatisfaction they have over all manner of financial issues in the game right now and address the owners’ priorities. He says Tony Clark needs to lead them in this compromise:

For the good of the sport – a sport he loves as much as anyone – Clark needs to serve as a calming force, build a consensus for positive change and demonstrate greater leadership than before. Clark is aware league officials portray him as someone who says “no” to everything when he is responsive at all. This is his chance – an important chance, with far greater battles ahead – to prove that perception wrong.

This is crazy. For a number of reasons.

  • It’s crazy because presumes that it’s Tony Clark’s job to act a an intermediary between the owners and players and to prod the players to compromise when that is precisely the opposite of his job. He is their advocate. It is his job to fight for them, not to play the good cop for Rob Manfred;
  • It’s crazy because if there can be anything said about Clark’s style before now, being too tough a negotiator is not one of them. Sure, he may offer a quick “no” on small things like rules changes, but he has said “yes” to more major owner ideas in his six years at the helm of the union than his three predecessors did in the previous 45 years combined. I mean, we have a soft salary cap and specific rules aimed at depressing free agent salaries now. Clark actually said yes to those things. Marvin Miller is still spinning in his grave;
  • It’s crazy because there is no call whatsoever for the owners to make any compromises with respect to players’ current concerns over the slow free agent market and players’ suspicions of collusion. Indeed, there’s a paragraph in there that says, in short, “if players have a beef about that stuff they should file a grievance or else shut up about it.” I mean, it’s Rosenthal and he’s a very nice and polite man so, no, he does not put it that bluntly, but that’s the takeaway;
  • It’s crazy because the advice it proposes to Clark — any matters that the owners bring up should be handled piecemeal and that players should not ask for anything* that addresses their own priorities when the owners seek concessions from players on their priorities — is exactly the opposite of how organized labor works. Indeed, handling workplace matters in piecemeal fashion whenever management brings stuff up is exactly the situation that existed before the MLBPA had any power at all. It’s exactly how management would draw things up if they had it to do over again. 

Clark is not an intermediary between the owners and the players. He is an advocate for them. He is, quite literally and by specific design, on their side and it is his job to fight for what they want and for what is in their best interests. It is not his job to “compromise.” What’s more, the owners cannot expect the players — many of whom are hopping mad at how the past two offseasons have gone — to pretend none of that is happening and approach the owners with totally open minds and agree to do thing they don’t really want to do “for the good of the game.”

Should the players have negotiated a better deal on money stuff two years ago? Absolutely. But then again maybe the owners should’ve asked for these rules changes they want now back then too. That Rosenthal expects one party’s concerns to be “case closed” and the other party’s concerns to be perpetually subject to renegotiation makes no sense to me at all. In reality, everything is negotiable, always. Rules touching on every aspect of the game, on-field and off-field, have been renegotiated or altered in between CBA bargaining sessions over the years. If one side wants to re-open the CBA they can’t expect the other side not to do it too.

Rob Manfred and the owners have every right to come to the players and ask for stuff. They cannot, however, expect the players to pretend everything else is hunky dory and assume a “compromise” stance “for the good of the game.” And let’s be honest, if the “for the good of the game” standard is what triggers renegotiation of things, I’d argue that it’s high time to renegotiate the financial parts of the CBA, because the current state of affairs is doing the game no favors.

Whatever the case, Rosenthal’s column reads like a message passed from owners to the players with little regard for the realities of the current relationship between them. As one of my Twitter followers observed a little while ago, it reads like one of those political columns in which a member of one political party writes about how the other party “really needs to nominate someone who can reach across the aisle and compromise.” Maybe that’s what the writer would love to see, but it’s unrealistic in the extreme and flies in the face of what’s best for the other party. Same too here with the owners and the players.

I’m not sure where this column came from, honestly. It reads like a leaked strategy memo from the owners.

*UPDATE: To be fair, Rosenthal does say that the players should “work around the edges of the CBA” and propose “non-economic measures” that could possibly address teams’ seeming lack of a desire to compete and sign players. For my part I feel like that’s an artificial distinction — asking for the moon if you really just want a rock is not the worst way to get something in a negotiation — but it’s not as if Rosenthal is proposing a complete unilateral disarming of the players’ negotiating position.