It is tough to criticize the Texas Rangers’ decisions. If the current standings hold up, they will win the American League Westfor the third time in four years. Even if Oakland catches up, the Rangers will still probably make the playoffs for the fourth season in a row. They went to the World Series in 2010 and 2011. No team has a spotless record when it comes to personnel decisions either at the time or in hindsight. Every team enjoys some good luck and suffers some bad luck. These days, no team has a lineup full of superstars or even above-average players. Most teams have to get by with at least one or two mediocre players, usually to save money so that it can be spent elsewhere.
Thus, it is not completely strange that Rangers are making do with Mitch Moreland as their primary first baseman once again. Moreland got off to a hot start this season, but came back to earth with a current seasonal line of .244/.306/.446 (98 wRC+). He is is even starting to lose playing time in a semi-platoon with journeyman Jeff Baker. Moreland was only a bit better last season, which he finished with a 105 wRC+ after splitting first base duties with Michael Young and Mike Napoli. Moreland is pretty much a league average bat, which does not cut it as a first baseman, even if it does not kill the Rangers given their other strengths. As written above, few teams are without a weak spot on the diamond.
Nonetheless, the Rangers would obviously like to be better at first base. From that perspective, it is interesting to see the talented first baseman that came up with Texas over the last decade or so and have since moved on.
This is meant as more of a semi-historical reflection than any sort of analysis, particularly of the Rangers’ decision-making. Only one of these players would likely be still in Texas even if he had stayed. But still, it is interesting to see all the talented first basemen that have come through Texas and moved on.
The first of these moves actually happened before Jon Daniels became General Manager of the team after the 2005 season (again, this is not really meant as commentary on the current front office), and stretches the notion of who counts as a first baseman a bit, but is interesting enough in this connection that he is worth including: Travis Hafner.
Hafner, a high school valedictorian in a class of eight, was drafted by the Rangers in 1996 the 31st round. He was never seen as much of an option at first base, and was going to be 26 in 2003. So prior to that season, the Rangers traded him to Cleveland along with Aaron Myette for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese (you can look them up to get a sense of how this worked out). This may be hard to remember now given that Hafner basically fell off of a cliff after 2006 or 2007 with poor performance and injuries, but from 2005 to 2006, he was one of the three best hitters in baseball according to wRC+, surpassed only by Barry Bonds and Albert Pujols. Those were years under which the Rangers could have had him under team control. Who were the Rangers’ primary designated hitters in those seasons? Brad Fullmer, Dave Dellucci, and Phil Nevin.
The Rangers seemed to more than make up for it, though, the next summer (2004) when they pulled off the following: sending Ugueth Urbina (for the young ones: an intermittently good reliever who later was convicted of attempted murder in Venezuela)_ for two lesser prospects and the Marlins’ #1 overall pick from 2000: Adrian Gonzalez. Hey, the Marlins went on to win the World Series, who are we to argue? Gonzalez got a few plate appearances with the Rangers in 2004 and 2005, but the Rangers had another young, hotshot first baseman in the big leagues, so they decided to sell.
That is not a terrible idea in itself. The execution left something to be desired: after the 2005 season, they traded Gonzalez, Termel Sledge, and Chris Young (the pitcher) to the Padres for Billy Killian, Adam Eaton (the pitcher), and reliever Akinori Otsuka. Gonzalez immediately became a productive major league first baseman in the 2006 season, and by 2009 was a superstar. The Rangers’ return did not fare so well. But as good as a Gonzalez/Hafner 1B/DH combination might have been (at least for a short while), can you imagine either of them teamed up in Texas with Mark Teixeira?
Teixeira was the reason the Rangers felt okay about trading Gonzalez, and, while the return on Gonzlaez did not turn out well, one can at least understand the team’s preference for Teixeira over Gonzalez. Teixeira was the fifth overall pick in the 2001 draft, and was Baseball America‘s #1 overall prospect going into the 2003 season. Teixeira mostly played third base in the minors, and although he spent some a little time there in his rookie year, the Rangers were clearly set for years there with Hank Blalock (ahem), and he moved to first. Teixeira hit decently as a rookie, then pretty much raked starting in 2004 and ending two or three years ago (depending on what your definition of “rake” is).
It became pretty clear that Teixeira was not going to sign a long-term extension with Texas prior to hitting free agency, and so in mid-2007, the Rangers traded Teixeira (who had one arbitration year left) and Ron Mahay to Atlanta in what might be seen as the anti-Gonzalez trade, receiving back Elvis Andrus (later to become an everyday shortstop), Neftali Feliz (at least a few good years as a reliever), Matt Harrison (hurt at the moment, but two good years as a cheap and very good starting pitcher), and Jarrod Saltalamacchia (never played well for Texas, but has become a somewhat decent catcher for the Red Sox due to his power), and Beau Jones. Teixeira became a tremendous player, and may still come back to be a decent one of the Yankees, but at the time the Rangers could not afford to keep him. The Rangers can easily live with trading one and a half years of him for four major leaguers, including an everyday shortstop and an above-average starting pitcher.
You might think that was a happy ending to the first base train out of Texas, but it was not. In 2011, the Rangers were making a push for their second division title in a row, and seemingly had few holes. Perhaps their bullpen needed a bit more, especially with Feliz struggling with his control. So they made a trade with the Orioles for excellent right-handed reliever Koji Uehara, who cost them sixth starter Tommy Hunter (himself an interesting story this season) and a former decent prospect apparently turned Quad-A slugger: Chris Davis.
I assume baseball fans are reading this, and have some idea of what Chris Davis is doing this year, at least. Back in 2011, it really did seem he had been pretty much written off by most (if not all) as a decent major league contributor. Yes, his minor league numbers were good, and over about half of a season in the majors in 2008, he had hit well for the Rangers. However, his AA and AAA numbers were from hitters leagues. Although his power numbers were good in the minors, he also struck out a lot without many walks, and his BABIP seemed likely to translate from those hitters leagues to the majors. These worries seemed to be confirmed by his unimpressive stints with Texas in 2009 (80 wRC+), 2010 (44 wRC+), and 2011 (86 wRC+). He did not exactly light things up for the Orioles in 2011, either (89 wRC+). Davis’ BABIP remained high, but the absence of walks, abundance of strikeouts, and departure of the power he had shown in the minors seemed to confirm the suspicious of Davis’ doubters.
The Orioles kept the faith, though, and let Davis earn a full-time job in 2012 on their way. The plate discipline issue remained (6.6 percent walk rate, 30.1 percent strikeout rate), but was more than canceled out by the return of Davis’ power (33 home runs) and his still-high BABIP (.335). Davis finished 2012 with a .270/.326/.501 (120 wRC+) line. If Davis had just kept up that performance, the trade would have ended up a steal for the Orioles and frustrating for the Rangers. But he did not keep it up, 2013 has been a different story altogether. Davis’ current line says it all: .306/.387/.689, 185 wRC+, 46 home runs with more than a month left in the season.
Davis might hurt worst of all. Hafner had his monster period then faded with injury and age, and the Rangers may not have been able to afford Gonzalez or Teixeira back when they would have become free agents. Gonzalez and Teixeira together probably would not have pushed Texas to the playoffs. While the return on the Gonzalez trade gave the Rangers basically nothing back, the return Teixeira trade played a big part in the Rangers’ success since. It is hard to blame the Rangers, who have been right about so many players over the last few years, about letting Davis go for so little. That might make it worse: not only because of the player he became, but because very few (outside of perhaps the Orioles and Davis’ representatives from the Boras Corporation) saw him becoming the decent player he was in 2012, let alone the (likely) 50-plus home run monster he has been this season.
It has been a long exodus for first basemen out of Texas, but who would have guessed that out of these four, Chris Davis would have easily the best single season on his resume?
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