I'm not jumping on the "Andrew Friedman is quickly moving up the ranks as one of the smartest baseball executives around" bandwagon just yet, but the moves (and non-moves) made by the Rays prior to the trade deadline show Friedman and the whole organization gets what it takes to start turning the corner.
As with any trade, only time will tell how successful the Rays were in the moves they made and didn't make. But on the surface, this may be the best July 31st action in the history of the franchise, even topping the now legendary Victor Zambrano-for-Scott Kazmir trade of 2004.
The biggest trade involved one of the Rays' biggest chips, Ty Wigginton, for Astros reliever Dan Wheeler. Wheeler is better than his numbers show this season, although there is a good argument that he couldn't handle closer duties in Houston when Brad Lidge was faltering earlier this season. Then again, one can argue the Astros weren't exactly setting the world on fire to begin with in the weak National League Central division. It's also hard to say if Wigginton will actually help the 'Stros climb over St. Louis, Chicago, and Milwaukee while 11 1/2 games out of the lead. It certainly seems like a move for next season, and the final farewell to Morgan Ensberg.
For the Rays, the move was a great one simply because Wheeler is an experienced veteran at the tender age of 29. Pitching coach Jim Hickey is credited for reviving Wheeler's career in Houston, and if there's anyone who can give Wheeler an ounce of confidence you would hope it would be Hickey. Most of the Rays' bullpen problems have come in the middle innings, after the starter left and before anyone would think of throwing Al Reyes into a game. Wheeler will be counted on to set up Reyes for the remainder of the season, and possibly into next season. If the Rays keep Wheeler, and move Reyes, Wheeler could get another crack at being the closer here (More on trading Wheeler and Reyes later). For those afraid the Rays were merely "dumping" Wigginton's salary, Wheeler makes only $600,000 less than Wigginton and will likely have a similar gap in pay compared to Wiggy next season. That is hardly a salary dump.
The Jorge Cantu/Shaun Cumberland trade for Brian Shackelford and Calvin Medlock has received some criticism from people who wanted more for Cantu. But I ask, what more could you get for a disgruntled pine-rider who had one great season in 2005? Two AAA-level pitchers, one of whom has some major league experience, for a guy who clearly was never going to factor into the Rays success now or later to me is a great deal. The ultimate irony in the deal is Cantu is still in AAA, this time in Louisville, as he waits behind the steady Brandon Phillips and uber-utility infielder Ryan Freel for his chance to return to the majors. I guess that's what a "me first" attitude will get you, call it "karma" if you will. Cumberland was a fairly average 23-year-old outfielder for double-A Montgomery. With the Rays outfield pretty much set for the near future, he was expendable and probably won't be a major loss for the Rays.
Shackelford's numbers in AAA this season are hardly spectacular, but a plus is he's left-handed and could prove to be an upgrade over Casey Fossum and Jon Switzer down the road. Of course, a drunk fan sitting in section 142 after eight innings of Budweiser swigging is a better option than Fossum in most cases, but I digress. The real "gem" of this deal is Medlock, a soon-to-be 25-year-old righty who has performed well in three locales this season. With Charlotte, Louisville, and Durham, Medlock has gone 5-3 while allowing 53 hits over 66 2/3 innings.
The eye-popping stats is his strikeout-to-walk ratio (almost 4:1) and his opponant's batting average (.216). It'll be interesting to see if this kid can mature into a late inning specialist. There's some questions as to how Shackelford and Medlock play into the Rays' future, but there's no question Cantu clearly didn't.
The same can be said for Seth McClung who had the talent, but not enough grey matter between the ears to ascend to the majors and stay there. Like Cantu, McClung is also staying in AAA (with Milwaukee's top club Nashville), as the Rays pick up an experienced reliever they can contractually control for another season. Balfour hits 30 in December, has recently recovered from Tommy John surgery, and has limited major league experience over the previous six seasons. Like Wheeler, Balfour may be better than his numbers suggest. His big league numbers are not exciting (5-3, 69 hits over 74 1/3 innings, 80 K, 44 BB, 5.33 ERA), but he has put together an impressive season in Nashville featuring a strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost 5:1. The big factor in this trade though is Balfour is ready for the majors, McClung still isn't. Balfour's biggest problem is his name, pronunced "BALL-four", a big no-no for pitchers. But hey, Dick Green lasted 12 years and won three World Series with Oakland so I guess the situation could be worse.
Of course the moves may not be done for the Rays, who could make some waiver trades before the end of August. Waiver trades are a bit trickier since you may end up having a team you don't want to deal with claiming a player you're trying to move, but there are still some options for the Rays. This is where I hope things don't get screwed up too much, specifically with Wheeler. With the need for relievers still ripe amongst the other playoff contenders, there is a temptation to move Wheeler. Unless the deal really "knocks the socks" off the Rays, to borrow a laughable phrase from old Chuck Lamar, I'd like to see Wheeler stick around (for reasons expressed earlier in this column). As for Reyes, that's a different story.
By keeping Reyes, at least for now, the Rays are putting an awful lot of faith on a soon-to-be 37-year-old closer who has progressively gotten worse as the season has gone along. I'm not saying Reyes has lost the handle, he just clearly isn't as razor sharp as he was at the start of the season. For the sake of the Rays and their fans, we can only hope Reyes regains the edge he lost from earlier this season and that he maintains that form of play in 2008. With Wheeler on board there is a chance he could become the closer next season, and Reyes could still be dealt for a key piece in the building of this team for the long-term and not just what's left in this season.
I applaud the Rays for hanging on to (for now) Carlos Pena. You finally found your defensively sound, power-hitting first baseman. Keep him here please. Hearing that Edwin Jackson may be a big part of a trade also excites me simply because he's doing no one any good sitting up here since he's out of options. If the Rays can get anything worthwhile for him, it will only be another feather in the cap of Friedman and company. But there is still work to be done if the NDRO truly is commited to a winner.
I'm not going to go through the whole rant again, simply because that was a key piece to my column from last week. But the building has to continue during the offseason in the form of getting those couple of veteran arms in the rotation and bullpen to help curb this franchise's biggest problem: pitching.
There still is work to do, and hopefully it'll be done in November or December. In the meantime, the trades have already shown some merit. In Monday night's exciting 11-inning, 5-4 win over Toronto, the crew of Wheeler, Fossum, Balfour, Reyes, and Scott Dohmann combined for 4 1/3 innings of relief. During that time three hits were given up, four were walked, and four struck out. Most importantly though, no runs scored, allowing the Rays to come back and win. Despite the questions that surround some of the new arms brought into the bullpen, that one game showed that a couple of good veterans could pull off what the McClungs and Ruddy Lugos of the world couldn't regularly do in Devil Ray green.
A couple of quick notes from Raysland:
- Another good side effect of the Wigginton trade: it gave the Rays another good reason to promote Evan Longoria to AAA. We should see this talented youngster by 2009, and I can hardly wait.
- Don't worry about the Rays not signing first round pick David Price just yet. Luke Hochevar signed with the Royals on August 4th last season and was going around the draft his second time. Both sides in this negotiation are eager to get something done and there's two weeks to do so... plenty of time in negotiation terms.
- According to the Denver Post, the Colorado Rockies were in talks with the Rays about acquiring Wheeler but apparently the asking price was too much. The same situation played out between the Rocks and Yankees in discussions for Kyle Farnsworth.
- Nice coup by the Pirates in getting Matt Morris from the Giants. Now they just need about eight more pitchers and four more position players before their 16-year "rebuilding" effort shows some progress.
- When you're in rebuilding mode and you have to move one of your highest paid players, ALWAYS place the blame on the guy you're moving. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports Mark Teixera turned down an eight-year, $140 million contract extension before getting sent to the Braves. The Brewers did the same thing with Carlos Lee last season: make a last ditch effort when the player already knows he's out the door just to make yourself look good. Teixera has bolstered the Braves' lineup and he has no need to languish in last place with the Rangers as they go through another rebuilding effort.
- Barry Bonds is about to (allegedly) HGH his way to 756 home runs, Michael Vick (allegedly) tortured dogs in a lucrative dog fighting ring, and the NBA (allegedly) had a referee placing bets on games he officiated. Who would have thunk the NHL would be the "shining star" of the four major sports leagues this summer?
- Finally, a quick plug for a friend of mine and his new radio show. Check out Toby David, and his co-host, on Sports Radio 1010 this Saturday morning from 8 to 9. It's only an hour now, but Toby is very talented, smart, and (what so few talk radio hosts aren't) entertaining. Give him a break though, it is his first show, but definately tune in.