Texas Rangers Photo Day

The Detroit Tigers made two moves in the last two days with very different goals. First, they traded a very good pitcher for what looks like a very minimal return – a utility player and a nice prospect in exchange for one of the, what, 20 starters in baseball over the last three years?

Doug Fister is really good but was about to get more expensive and they have more than their share of fine starters so fine: you deal from a position of strength, Dombrowski. You do it with the internet’s blessing. Everybody has bills to pay, we get it.

But then the Tigers turned around and gave dollars and years to Joe Nathan, a closer. A capital-C Proven Closer who also happens to be 39-years old. All the Tigers goodwill quickly evaporates because CLOSERS NOT CLOSERS. Overpaying for saves is the Cardinal Sin, one from which even the wiliest GMs cannot recover.

But, as always, there is a middle ground between screaming about saves and improving a professional baseball team. The pendulum of overrated/properly rated swings violently. The Tigers added a great pitcher to the bullpen – a definite area of need. This is a good thing for their chances in the immediate future.

Seriously. The list of pitchers as good as Joe Nathan is very short. The list of pitchers do be as good as Joe Nathan for as long as Joe Nathan is even shorter. Below is a list of relief pitchers, with 800 innings in the big leagues, ranked by ERA+.

Rk Player ERA+ IP SV BB/9 SO/9 WHIP
1 Mariano Rivera 205 1283.2 652 2.01 8.22 1.000
2 Billy Wagner 187 903.0 422 2.99 11.92 0.998
3 Joe Nathan 158 858.2 341 3.26 9.56 1.090
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 12/3/2013.

That’s it. Mariano Rivera. Billy Wagner. Joe Nathan. Nobody else was this good for this long. By Wins Above Replacement, he ranks 10th. Joe Nathan has been really good for a really long time. He gets saves, yes. He doesn’t work more than an inning at a time any more but Joe Nathan is still really good. His track record doesn’t interest the Tigers quite as much as what he can bring them over the next two seasons.

He’s an upgrade over their recent closers, both Joaquin Benoit and the Jose Valverde Experience. Can he continue his excellence past the age of 40? It is by this reasoning we must judge this deal. The dollars are significant but, again, the Tigers had a need and chose to fill it with one of the best available options. The extra win or two he might deliver mean more to the Tigers than they do for the White Sox – this deal wouldn’t make sense for other teams.

I have a hard time finding too many better options for the Tigers ninth inning than Nathan, based on his two years in Texas. What does that say about his next two seasons? He’s been healthy and while some signs (strand rate, in play rate, swinging strikes) might not be quite as good in 2014 compared to 2013, he’s still an upgrade.

The Tigers have made three big moves already this winter. Two to address very specific weaknesses in their team and one to shed salary? They don’t always add up but this is a team bound and determined to reach the World Series once again in 2014. Joe Nathan might only be a small piece of that puzzle but he brings stability to a bullpen in desperate need.

The A’s throw down more deals

The Oakland Athletics are, in a word, active right now. After acquiring Jim Johnson yesterday and signing Scott Kazmir, the A’s made an interesting swap with the Texas Rangers this afternoon, grabbing flycatcher Craig Gentry in exchange for outfield prospect Michael Choice.

Any interesting exchange running counter to recent history: the A’s get an older, more expensive player built to help them right away why the Rangers take a player who is more projection than reality at this point.

Craig Gentry is a really handy player to have around. As pointed out recently, he’s everything Peter Bourjos is supposed to be except durable to boot. He isn’t really an every day player but he can play the heck out of the outfield (always valuable at expansive O.co) but he can help out at all three spots in the outfield in addition to swiping some bags when called upon.

Choice has big time power that many believe will translate at the big league level. Will the Rangers plug him straight into their 2014 lineup? They are unafraid to roll with kids in the infield, why not let a big bat swing away in their offense-friendly ballpark?

As we should expect at this point, pining down the A’s is impossible. They look like a team gearing up for a run in 2014, adding payroll after years of pinching every penny. The Rangers love tools and toolsy players – the lure of taming a raw power bat like Choice proves irresistible time and time again.

Craig Gentry serves as a Coco Crisp replacement as incumbent starter ages and hits free agency, which Gentry cannot do until 2017. Not a real difference maker but a very useful player when used correctly. While the method they go about acquiring them, the A’s appear adept at plugging players into certain roles as the need arises. They might spend a little more, Oakland will extract maximum value all the same.