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When it Hits the Fan
by Jamey Newberg
Previous Columns

Carlos Pena Trade Analysis - 01/15/2002

Printed with permission of Jamey Newberg
www.newbergreport.com

Make absolutely no mistake. The Rangers' next general manager has already made his first trade. And -- strictly from a personnel standpoint -- it is really the first controversial move Texas has made all winter. Grady Fuson, the Rangers' assistant general manager in charge of scouting and player development and John Hart's right-hand man, relegated Hart to the passenger seat on this one, and Hart apparently was happy to ride shotgun. Texas got together with Oakland, Fuson's old club, and engineered a six-player deal, one in which the Rangers gave up the one major leaguer involved and the best of the five prospects involved.

And both teams appear to be thrilled. The A's come away with southpaw specialist Mike Venafro and first baseman Carlos Pena, and the Rangers add lefthander Mario Ramos, outfielder Ryan Ludwick, first baseman Jason Hart, and catcher Gerald Laird.

Scouting reports on other teams' players are perhaps the most valuable trade secrets (so to speak) that an organization possesses, but I suspect they are not compiled every day on every player. No team has that kind of scouting budget. The beauty (for now) of this deal, from a Ranger perspective, is that Fuson did have daily reports on the four prospects coming to Texas, as they were all drafted in the first six rounds of the 1998 and 1999 drafts by the Athletics while Fuson was that organization's scouting director.

Trades like this provoke borderline sensory overload for someone who professes to educate Ranger fans on the club's young players. As I have said before, one of the benefits of not being part of the conventional media is that I have no editor and therefore no space constraints or inverted pyramid rules to adhere to. So, that being the case, rather than just dive into a mess of statistics, I ask you to indulge my non-linear excursion through the meaningful aspects of this trade. Statistical information interspersed.

RAMBLINGS

  1. Oakland is probably better today than it was yesterday. Same goes for Texas. Of course, if you are surprised by either of those sentences, then you don't understand why trades are so difficult to consummate. If both teams in any given trade didn't feel better about themselves as a result of the deal, then there is no deal. For what it is worth, Baseball America, in its upcoming AL West Top Ten issue, had Ramos, Ludwick, Hart, and Laird ranked, respectively, as Oakland's number one, two, nine, and 12 prospects. Pena, of course, probably would have been slotted at number two for Texas (behind Hank Blalock), and will be number one for the A's.

  2. Venafro will wear a major league uniform for a long time, and the nature of set-up relievers is that they rarely wear just one. And if you want to know my honest opinion, it will not surprise me if he is wearing a third set of threads before the season begins. Work with me here: We know the Rockies were interested in Venafro when reports surfaced in December that Texas and Colorado had discussed a Venafro/Kevin Mench-for-John Thomson deal . . . . The Rockies just traded their left-handed specialist, Mike Myers, a week ago to Arizona . . . . They got first baseman-outfielder Jack Cust from the Diamondbacks in that deal . . . . Cust is a designated hitter of an outfielder (which is akin to having a face made for radio) -- it would make sense that he would be American League-bound . . . . It seems like I read somewhere recently that Oakland was interested in Cust or Erubiel Durazo, and with Pena in the fold I suppose Cust could still be acquired to DH . . . . Hart and Fuson said at yesterday's press conference yesterday that the Texas-Oakland trade was in the works for about a week -- and recognize that Cust was traded to Colorado eight days ago . . . . Oakland added lefty Mike Holtz to its bullpen recently and already had Mike Magnante . . . . Could it be that the A's wanted Venafro in order to facilitate a trade to get Cust from the Rockies? I will be far from stunned if Venafro ends up in purple. Lots of the evidence points in that direction.

  3. Venafro had a tough year in 2001 -- actually, just a tough August and September -- but relievers go through funky stretches all the time and I expect him to resume his place as one of the league's premier left-handed set-up men. We all know the Hart preference for fireballers in the bullpen, and the arrival of John Rocker, the presence of Juan Moreno, the acceptance of a minor league deal by Chris Michalak, and the addition of Bill Pulsipher gave Texas enough alternatives in southpaw relief that the loss of Venafro -- who is arbitration-eligible -- could be withstood by the club in order to make the deal happen.

  4. Should the A's get Cust for Venafro, they will have replaced Hart with Pena, and Ludwick with Cust, basically at the cost of Ramos. (Laird was likely excess in that organization.) Nice work.

  5. In Sunday's report, I asked what the big delay has been regarding the league's ruling on Oakland's charges that Texas tampered with Fuson by offering him the job he accepted when permission had apparently been granted only for the Rangers to discuss their vacant GM spot with him. Did we somehow make as part of this trade a stipulation that Oakland would drop its complaint? Otherwise, why would we ever agree to deal with a team that is asking the league to assess an unprecedented sanction against us, with a decision still pending? If Major League Baseball is stupid enough to swipe Hank Blalock from Texas, imagine this club having to face a division rival for the next six years with Pena and Blalock in the middle of its lineup. I wonder if the tampering issue was somehow stamped out as part of this trade. The Dallas Morning News reports that the grievance remains, however, and that the trade did not impact that situation at all.

  6. Roll back to the June 1998 draft. Texas took Pena in round one, eight spots after the A's took Mark Mulder. Texas took Cody Nowlin in round two, eight spots after the A's took Laird. Oakland did what a team picking earlier in the round should do -- it made better picks. Texas made a better selection in the third round, however. Oakland picked shortstop Kevin Miller, who lasted just one year. Texas outsmarted them later in the round, selecting a lefthander named Barry Zito. Uhh, whoops. Round five? The A's landed Hart, while the Rangers drafted Ryan Dittfurth.

  7. Now to the 1999 draft. Oakland was slotted ninth in each round, Texas 21st. The A's got Zito with their first pick, the Rangers (without a first-rounder) got Colby Lewis with their first sandwich pick. In the second round, Oakland took Ludwick, and Texas selected Nick Regilio. The Rangers made their biggest splash in the third round, taking Blalock, while Oakland stole Ramos in the sixth.

  8. Hart and Travis Hafner, in a sense, are redundant. Both are 6'3", 220-ish, both feature prodigious power and, although improving, defense at first base that will never overshadow what they bring to the plate. The one interesting thing is that they hit from opposite sides of the plate . . . but of course Mark Teixeira hits from opposite sides of the plate by himself, which could make Hart or Hafner, if not both, additional trade ammunition. The Yankees have made this an art form, an example of which was when they dealt Mike Lowell (who had no spot with Scott Brosius around) to Florida before the 1999 season for Ed Yarnall, Mark Johnson, and Todd Noel. A year later, Yarnall made up part of the Yankee package to get Denny Neagle. In between those two deals, New York traded Hideki Irabu to Montreal for Jake Westbrook, Ted Lilly, and Christian Parker . . . before moving Westbrook to Cleveland in the Dave Justice trade midway through the following season. Stocking the cupboard includes trading for players we can eventually trade for something else.

  9. Fuson compared Ludwick to Gabe Kapler, but there is a tie between Hart and Kapler as well. Hart was named Topps Minor League Player of the Year in 2000, just as Kapler was in 1998 (.322-28-146 with Detroit's Class AA affiliate at Jacksonville). Hart put up .326-30-121 numbers for Class AA Midland in 2000 (after .305-19-123 in Class A in 1999), before regressing in AAA last year with a .247-19-75 season. After that huge 2000 season, he was named as the first baseman on BA's Minor League All-Star Team -- Hafner was the second-teamer. Fuson raved at the press conference about Hart's work ethic, particularly on defense, and he even went so far as to suggest an argument could be made that Pena and Hart are the same player. That's the one statement Fuson made that concerns me. I don't want to acknowledge the gnawing fear that he might be overvaluing the players with which he is most familiar, because I really do like the players we got, but to make that assertion regarding Pena and Hart was a bit overboard.

  10. I understand that Hart and Ludwick were on the Oakland 40-man roster, while Ramos and Laird had not been added yet since they wouldn't be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft until next off-season. That doesn't ring true since Ramos signed in August of 1999 and was over 18 years old at the time, but maybe since he signed a 2000 contract it bought the A's an additional year for Rule 5 purposes. (Of course, if Ramos reaches the bigs during the 2002 season, he will have to be added then, rather than next November.) If only Hart and Ludwick transfer to the Ranger 40, it will have 41 occupants once Juan Gonzalez officially signs. With Gonzalez and Ludwick arriving, Chris Magruder's roster spot has to be in some jeopardy. Eight outfielders is too many, especially when that does not include infielders Frank Catalanotto or Jason Romano, who have added outfield to their arsenals, or even Michael Young.

  11. Ramos is the key for Texas, and not just because he happens to be the one pitcher the Rangers got in the deal. A small southpaw who is actually similar to Venafro and Andy Pratt in build, he starred for a Rice University squad that reached the College World Series twice. He is a bundle of intangibles -- command, deception, poise, intelligence, presence, intensity, an idea -- who also produces tangible results. Despite not busting it up there at 90 miles per hour, he strikes batters out (Fuson noted yesterday that he has a knack for getting his fastball by people) and he wins. Ramos has a 30-9, 2.88 minor league record in 56 starts and two relief appearances, walking fewer than three batters per nine innings and punching out nearly eight per nine. He split his first season between Class A and AA and last year between AA and AAA, posting astonishing numbers in 2001 -- in a pair of hitters' parks -- that had him on the precipice of actually joining the big club if another starter was needed down the stretch. He went 8-1, 3.07 at AA Midland, permitting 71 hits (.204 opponents' average) and 28 walks in 93.2 innings, striking out 68, after which he went 8-3, 3.14 for AAA Sacramento, allowing 74 hits (.241) and 27 walks in 80.1 frames, fanning 82. There is something intriguing about a guy who not only strikes guys out without overpowering stuff, but who seems to improve in that area with the competition: AAA was the first level at which he fanned more than a batter per inning. Terrific change-up, improving curve, locates all his pitches, "prevents good swings" (a Fuson description). The Glavine/Moyer comparisons will be inevitable. And they will start up right away -- Ramos ought to be in the mix with Dave Burba, Aaron Myette, Rob Bell, Joaquin Benoit, Hideki Irabu, and Steve Woodard for the number four and five spots out of spring training. Ramos, of course, not only has all his options left but won't even require one this year unless he reaches the bigs and is then sent back down.

  12. A year ago, just before the 2001 season (again, in which he went 16-4, 3.10 between AA and AAA, earning the second-most wins in the minor leagues), Ramos earned the following caveat from the writers at Baseball America: "Midland will provide a stern test for Ramos, who will face AA hitters in an unforgiving home ballpark." Four times in 2001 he took no-hitters into the eighth inning. He aced the test.

  13. As for Ludwick, one of those inexplicably rare players who hits from the right side and throws left-handed (Rickey Henderson, Dave McCarty, Mark Carreon), he probably steps in as the heir apparent in center field. Or does he? (More on that later.) After a promising .264-29-102 season at Class A Modesto in 2000, he hit for nearly the same numbers in 2001, posting .264-26-103 numbers between AA and AAA. His power numbers and his ability to play plus defense anywhere in the outfield remind Fuson of Kapler (Mac Engel of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram quotes Fuson today as suggesting that Ludwick has a "[g]reat body, arm strength, . . . [and] bad mechanics in his lower half") but they also sound a little bit like Carl Everett. Ludwick's toolbox also reminds me of another player the Rangers may or may not have in the fold before June: Clemson outfielder Patrick Boyd, the seventh-rounder in 2001 whom Texas is monitoring as a draft-and-follow.

  14. To stretch out the tenuous thread of connections, Laird -- like Boyd -- is a Scott Boras client. Athlete behind the plate and a catch-and-throw guy, compared by Baseball America to Mike Lieberthal and Jason Kendall when he was drafted out of high school four years ago. BA ranked him as the top catcher in that draft, including college backstops (number two was high schooler Trent Pratt, whom the Rangers selected in the 38th round but were unable to sign), and the 29th-rated prospect overall. Ranked behind Laird among Southern California draft-eligibles were a couple guys named Zito and Prior . . . . Laird has a similar set of tools to that of Scott Heard, and there was not a catcher in the Ranger system ahead of Heard's timeline who was realistically expected to help the big club eventually. Laird, who has evidently gained 25 pounds this winter, becomes that player.

  15. And bingo! After an August stalemate in negotiations with Boyd (Texas was reportedly offering $300,000 in response to Boyd's $1 million signing bonus demand), the Dallas Morning News reports today that the two sides could agree soon on a bonus in the $600,000 range.

  16. How was it that Erik Hiljus's name got inserted into the deal in Ludwick's place in more than half the reports that preceded the official announcement? Is it because there is an Eric Ludwick who pitched for Oakland briefly a couple years ago, and someone malapropped his name into the mix, leading the wires to pick up on it? I do like the deal considerably better with Ludwick in it than the 29-year-old Hiljus. Ramos, for what it's worth, was slated to go to camp with Oakland battling Hiljus for the Athletics' number five spot this spring.

  17. Pena had a rough final month in the Dominican Republic Winter League, finishing at .255/.374/.465 with 51 strikeouts in 157 at-bats after a monster start (he was at .311/.414/.649 halfway into the season), but I haven't soured on him a bit. He will star for Oakland (at least for the next six years, after which he may very well go the way of so many other Athletics stars: free agency). But there was obviously a glut at first base here, and the solution was to find a team that wanted to relieve that glut by giving us something we needed.

  18. Among Pena's Oakland teammates will not only be Venafro and Randy Velarde, but potentially Jason Grabowski, whom the A's took in the Rule 5 Draft last month from Seattle. Last year was the first since Pena was drafted in 1998 that he and Grabber were not teammates at some point.

  19. In BA's 2001 season-ending issue, Ramos was named to the publication's second-team All-Minor League rotation, and was identified as the Texas League's number six prospect and the Pacific Coast League's number 17 prospect.

  20. Here is the real question, as far as I am concerned: I like the four players we got. We were thin in outfield prospects and in upper-level catcher prospects, and we addressed both of those areas. We moved a top first base prospect but brought one back, which keeps the trade ammunition well stocked. Most importantly, we added a left-handed pitcher who most likely becomes our top pitching prospect right away and immediately figures into the mix for a rotation spot. And we did these things without depleting an area in which we didn't have a substantial excess. So what's the question? Simply put, did we shop Pena around? Was there a better deal available that we either turned down, or worse, didn't solicit? Hard to say. Was Javier Vazquez or Josh Beckett or Bud Smith or Dennis Tankersley available? Surely not. Would a young veteran like Jeff Suppan or Matt Clement or Sidney Ponson have been worth moving Pena? No. All that I would hope is that we didn't lock in on Ramos to the exclusion of every other pitcher in baseball. I like Ramos a lot. And I understand why you trade Pena. I just hope we did our due diligence and satisfied ourselves that nobody was going to outbid Oakland to get him.

REPERCUSSIONS

  1. Rafael Palmeiro -- Maintains his full-time hold on first base. Sort of like what would result if the Stars were to trade Marty Turco . . . like Eddie Belfour, Palmeiro was going to start no matter what this season, but it wouldn't have been shocking to see Pena slowly phased in at some point in the summer with Palmeiro getting increased time at DH. Now Palmeiro's backup will likely be Frank Catalanotto or Herbert Perry or Rusty Greer, none of whom features the kind of defense Pena does, and so Palmeiro will likely play virtually every day defensively, assuming his knees hold up.

  2. Travis Hafner -- With the arrival of Hart, will Hafner play first base at Oklahoma this year? Surely he cannot go back to Tulsa, where he hit .282-20-74 with a .941 OPS in just 323 at-bats last year. Maybe the two alternate at first and at DH for the RedHawks.

  3. Jason Romano -- Center field, left field, or second base for the RedHawks? Ludwick's arrival makes this an interesting question. Which one is considered the guy to develop as Carl Everett's understudy? Is Romano possibly on his way to a Catalanotto-type role if he remains with the Rangers?

  4. Mark Teixeira -- Although Fuson said yesterday that Teixeira will not move to first base yet, it could happen before long. Regardless of his position, a quick start with the bat by the 2001 first-rounder could go a long way towards validating the Pena trade, even if Ramos does not produce in the bigs right away.

  5. Hank Blalock -- It seems far more clear today than it did before that Blalock will remain at third base, with Teixeira the more likely candidate to change positions.

  6. Jason Botts and Jason Jones -- Just keep producing, Jason's. The trade of Pena didn't quite thin out the crowded situation ahead of you, since the acquisition of Jason Hart stocked the upper levels with another first base prospect. Keep producing, though, and you will get your shot somewhere.

  7. Frank Catalanotto and Gabe Kapler -- Their situation probably doesn't change too much. But let's say this: Just because Pena was moved for a pitcher does not mean the Rangers will no longer be on the hunt for useful arms. Catalanotto and Kapler remain among the organization's top trade ammunition. Engel writes today that "Hart said the Rangers are not interested in dealing Gabe Kapler or Catalanotto, although Yankees starter Orlando Hernandez and possibly the Expos' Javier Vasquez are reportedly available via trades." I would be stunned if Vazquez (or any of his teammates) were truly available right now, considering the state of flux the Montreal organization is in.

  8. John Hart -- One less arbitration case to settle. Venafro, who made $310,000 last season, will go to arbitration with Oakland unless the two sides can agree on a deal, while only Jeff Zimmerman and Catalanotto remain as arb-eligibles in Texas.

  9. Lee Tunnell -- Wow. His AAA staff could include a rotation of Joaquin Benoit, Colby Lewis, Andy Pratt, Justin Duchscherer, and either Mario Ramos or Aaron Myette. Five legitimate prospects. And that's assuming guys like Steve Woodard, Hideki Irabu, and Jeremi Gonzalez don't factor in when and if they fail to make the big club. The bullpen could feature Francisco Cordero, Bill Pulsipher, Chris Michalak, R.A. Dickey, Anthony Telford, Spike Lundberg, and Brian Schmack. The importance of Tunnell's work with the RedHawk staff cannot be overstated.

  10. Grady Fuson -- Here's his first real test. Has he correctly evaluated the true worth of four guys he was responsible for developing the last several years, not to mention the blue-chip first baseman he had inherited with Texas? Also, as far as the draft is concerned, it remains emasculated, as Texas will not have a pick after its first June selection until the sixth round, but this trade (and a possible signing of Patrick Boyd) could give the Ranger system a quick infusion of premium-round talent.

SUMMATION

  1. Dealing from excess, we got deeper, cheaper, and reduced our number of holes. That said, the best player in the deal went to the other team.

  2. The trade makes loads of sense -- for both Texas and Oakland. The question is not whether it was right for the Rangers to trade Pena; the question is whether it was right to trade him now and for this specific package. I am cautiously optimistic.

  3. I feel sorry for the people responsible for finalizing the 2002 media guide.

(c) Jamey Newberg

Printed with permission of Jamey Newberg
www.newbergreport.com


by Jamey Newberg

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