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On Rich Harden, Kevin Millwood, Chris Ray, and the Rangers

This was certainly an interesting flurry of events.

And the 2010 Rangers certainly are a different team today than they were yesterday.  Are they better?  Not necessarily.  But they are different, and I think that the team as it stands today is more likely to make the playoffs than the team that the Rangers had yesterday.

So, Kevin Millwood.  He's an Oriole now.  His 4 year run in Texas was a mixed bag, with his final two seasons here prefaced by offseasons where his purported re-dedication to conditioning was a big story.  It was kickboxing after 2007, Nolan Ryan getting all up in his grill in 2008, and in neither case did there appear to be a big improvement in Millwood's performance. 

Bob Sturm, tweeting earlier today, referred to Millwood as a "horse."  The problem is, in the second half of 2009, the horse Millwood resembled was Barbaro.  I think everyone realized the sub-3 ERA Millwood of the first half of the season was a mirage, driven by a great defense behind him, an exceptionally low BABIP, and a ridiculous strand rate that wasn't going to be sustainable.  There was going to be regression to the mean.  But Millwood after the All Star Break went way beyond regression, with his performance completely tanking in July and August, at the same time the offense disappeared. 

And Millwood fading as the summer progressed shouldn't be an unexpected development...he's had problems staying healthy and on the mound the last three years, and he was 34 last year.  He's not a great athlete.  He's not a Nolan Ryan or a Steve Carlton, a guy who is a conditioning fanatic.  He's not a bad pitcher, but he's also not a horse, a guy you can roll out there for 34 starts (like he gave you in 2006) and count on 7 quality innings.  He's just a guy, a LAIE, not the #1 the Rangers signed him to be.

And the reality is, the Rangers probably sold high on him.  Millwood posted a 3.67 ERA last season despite having peripherals no better than in his two previous 5+ ERA seasons.  In fact, it isn't unreasonable to argue that 2009 was his worst season as a Ranger, in terms of pitching as compared to results...his 4.80 FIP was his worst as a Ranger, his 5.61 tRA was his worst as a Ranger, his K rate was his worst as a Ranger, his K/BB ratio was his worst as a Ranger, and his home run rate was his worst as a Ranger.

And anticipating the "he was pitching to contact and getting more ground balls" argument, his GB/FB ratio was also his worst as a Ranger. 

Bottom line, Millwood was solid last year, but not special.  He wasn't exceptionally reliable, he faded down the stretch, and, given that he's turning 35 in two weeks, he's a lot more likely to get worse than get better in 2010.

That said, Millwood has value.  In particular, he has more value to a team that desperately needs a veteran to eat innings and give the team starts.  The Rangers teams of the past, the ones that were looking at Aaron Myette and Ryan Glynn, or the Johns Rheinecker and Wasdin, as its alternatives in the rotation, were the type of team that would have killed for a Millwood, a guy who wasn't great, but was steady and was a solid bet to give you 30 starts a year.

But that's not the 2010 Rangers.  The Rangers, as has been talked about at length, have assembled a significant amount of pitching depth in the organization.  Looking at rotation options, you've got Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, and Brandon McCarthy as likely candidates to be in the Opening Day rotation.  And then you've got Neftali Feliz knocking on the door.  You've got Dustin Nippert, who posted a 3.88 ERA in 2009 and a 4.27 FIP, and who looked like he can fill in as a spot starter without embarrassing you.  You've got Matt Harrison and Eric Hurley coming back from injuries.  And there's guys like Guillermo Moscoso and Luis Mendoza and Kasey Kiker and possibly even Tanner Scheppers and Martin Perez hanging around. 

This is a team that, should they have a guy missed a start or six, it shouldn't kill them.  And the better your sixth and seventh and eighth starters are, the more it makes sense for you to prefer a higher-ceiling, less reliable starter over the safer pick.

Which brings us to Rich Harden, who I talked about last week, when word first came out that the Rangers were interested in him. 

And you know...all the talk about Harden makes it sound like we're talking about Glass Joe as the new Ranger starter.  But Harden started 51 games from 2008-09, an average of 25.5 per season.  Millwood started 60, an average of 30 per season.  The difference between the two the last couple of years isn't as great as one would initially believe.  As Lookout Landing pointed out earlier today, Harden has as many starts over the past two years as John Lackey, and no one is freaking out about how signing Lackey would cripple a rotation because he can't be counted on to stay healthy.

That said, Harden also missed most of the 2006 and 2007 seasons, and the only reason he's available on a relatively cheap one year deal (with a team option) is because his health has teams scared off.  And his homer rate jumped dramatically last season, causing his FIP to creep above 4 for the year.  That was driven primarily by a 15% HR/FB rate, though, which is abnormally high...Harden's xFIP was 3.70, right in line with his career mark of 3.75.

There are no guarantees with any pitcher, especially not one with Harden's injury history.  But the track record suggests that when Harden goes out to the mound, he'll be better than any starter the Rangers have had in over a decade.  20 starts of Harden and 12 from Nippert is, I think, significantly better than 32 starts from Millwood.  And Harden gives you someone you would feel good about starting in game 1 of a playoff series, something you can't really say about Millwood.

As for Chris Ray...whatever.  He's a guy who had a good arm and mixed results, then underwent Tommy John surgery and missed two years.  Tampa supposedly really likes him, so he could end up going there for Dioner Navarro, or packaged a la Terrmel Sledge in another deal for another piece in the coming days.  If not, he'll likely make $1-1.5 million in 2010 and get a chance to set up Frankie Francisco and be the much sought after power righty arm that the Rangers need in the bullpen.

So, all in all, I like these moves.  And yet...there's the fly in the ointment, the big negative elephant in the room that overlays all of this.

The Rangers are a better team with Rich Harden and Kevin Millwood than with Rich Harden and Chris Ray.  The Rangers are better with Harden and Millwood fronting the rotation than with just Harden.  The Rangers, given the paucity of significant salaries in place, should not be having to dump salary to add Rich Harden.

And yet, that was apparently a prerequisite for a deal.  At this point, the signals suggest that the Rangers still have very little money to spend, meaning that a big market team that had a $67 million payroll last year, a payroll that has had a sub-$70 million payroll for 6 years running, and has justified it by saying that the team would spend money when the team warranted it, is apparently seeing its payroll drop to below $60 million for 2010.

2010, the year that the front office has been pointing to when they were planning to have a contender.  2010, the year after an 87 win season, a second place finish, and renewed optimism and enthusiasm about the club. 

Instead of jumping payroll to $80 million, instead of adding Harden and keeping Millwood and maybe also getting a Ben Sheets or a Nick Johnson or someone else that could fill a need and contribute to a playoff contender, the team is having to get creative in order to add help while cutting payroll from 2009's levels.

And maybe this is premature.  Maybe the team will continue pursuing Ben Sheets, or will go spend the money on a Troy Glaus or a Hideki Matsui or another middle of the order bat that would require just a one year deal, but that would actually, you know, be good.

But it still is kind of depressing that the very exciting news of Harden's addition was only made possible because the team dumped one of the two big contracts it had on the books.  It is just another instance of how Tom Hicks has damaged this franchise, and another embarrassing reminder of how this franchise is crippled by having to operate on the cheap.