As I mentioned last week, with no baseball going on, I thought it might be entertaining to go back and look at some of the Rangers opinions I’ve had over the years that I whiffed badly on. Last week, we talked about the Frank Catalanotto v. Michael Young debate.
Today, I look back at a deal that I loved for a player I coveted that didn’t work out...the Alfonso Soriano/Brad Wilkerson trade.
Let’s jump into the Wayback Machine to go back almost fifteen years...to December, 2005. Jon Daniels had been named the general manager just a couple of months earlier, taking over for John Hart. The Rangers, after a miracle 2004 season that saw a team thought to be a candidate for a 100 loss season turn into a playoff contender, regressed the following year, going 79-83.
The Rangers’ offense in 2005 didn’t lack for power — they had 7 players with 20 or more home runs that season, as well a 17 home runs season from Gary Matthews, Jr., and 16 home runs from Richard Hidalgo.*
* You forgot Richard Hidalgo was a Ranger, didn’t you? So did I.
But the offense was somewhat lacking in terms of on base ability — while the team led the American League in home runs and slugging percentage, they were sixth in OBP. In addition, the contributions from the outfielders were lacking...Hidalgo had a bad year (and was a free agent), Kevin Mench was just okay, and Laynce Nix had a disastrous campaign. The offense was carried by the infield, manned by Mark Teixeira, Alfonso Soriano, Michael Young and Hank Blalock.
A big decision looming for Jon Daniels that offseason was about what to do with Soriano. Acquired from the New York Yankees in the Alex Rodriguez trade on the eve of the 2004 season, Soriano had regressed offensively in his two seasons for the Rangers — after slashing .295/.335/.536 with a 127 OPS+ in his previous two seasons with the Yankees, Soriano slashed .274/.316/.498 with a 105 OPS+ for Texas in 2004-05, with bad defense. He put up a combined 3.7 bWAR for the Rangers in those years — not the sort of performance you were hoping to get from him.
The Soriano situation that offseason was also complicated by a pair of other factors. First, Soriano was entering his final year prior to being eligible for free agency. The Rangers were in a position where they’d lose him for just draft pick compensation if they didn’t extend him.
Second, the Rangers had Ian Kinsler, a second baseman, knocking at the door. Having burst on the scene with a huge 2004, split between low-A Clinton and AA Frisco, Kinsler had a solid 2005 campaign, slashing .274/.348/.464 for AAA Oklahoma. Despite being Rule 5 eligible that offseason, he wasn’t promoted in September by then-g.m. John Hart, who was reportedly a big Soriano guy. Nevertheless, Kinsler appeared to be major league ready.
The Rangers could have addressed both the Kinsler situation and the outfield situation by moving Soriano to the outfield. That would have opened up second base for Kinsler, who was a better defender than Soriano, and kept Soriano and his bat in the lineup. The downside there was that Soriano was reluctant to move off of second base — which is why Michael Young ended up moving to shortstop in the spring of 2004 — and his bat really wasn’t that special in the outfield, based on what he had done the previous two seasons.
Jon Daniels did end up addressing both the Kinsler situation and the outfield situation with one move involving Soriano...but it wasn’t a position change. Rather, it was via a trade — on December 8, 2005, Soriano was dealt to the Washington Nationals, helmed by g.m. Jim Bowden, in exchange for outfielder Brad Wilkerson, minor league pitcher Armando Galarraga, and minor league outfielder Terrmel Sledge.
There was immediately blowback from certain portions of the media for this move. Soriano, who had made the All Star Game four straight years, who had won the Silver Slugger the past two seasons for Texas, who had homered 54 times and stolen 48 bases the prior two years for the Rangers and was the prize of the Alex Rodriguez trade...traded away for a light-hitting outfielder and a couple of prospects?
What hogwash. What nonsense. This was Tom Hicks being too cheap to pay to keep the superstar he got from the Yankees in the Alex Rodriguez trade, and Jon Daniels having his nose so deep into his computer and not watching the game that he didn’t appreciate how good Soriano was.
Personally, I loved the deal. There was a celebration on LSB when the trade came down. I had coveted Brad Wilkerson for some time, and thought he, alone, was worth more than Soriano. The fact they got a decent pitching prospect and a fringe guy as well for Soriano? Why, that was a home run.
Wilkerson was a “Moneyball” type of player, a guy who didn’t have huge traditional stats and so, back in the early days of the 21st century, was still being overlooked by fans and media. A lefty who was a first round pick of the then-Montreal Expos in 1998 out of the University of Florida, Wilkerson could play first base and all three outfield positions, had decent power, and drew a ton of walks. Wilkerson finished second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2002, albeit with just a 1.3 bWAR, and then put up a combined 8.4 bWAR for the Expos in 2003-04, slashing .261/.377/.482. Wilkerson had had a down 2005 campaign, slashing .248/.351/.405, but he was dealing with a shoulder issue, which, presumably, would be fine in 2006.
So not only did the Rangers trade Soriano, in his expensive final year prior to being a free agent, for a better player, that better player would cost less in arbitration, had two years of control remaining, and the Rangers got a couple of extra pieces as well.
How could the Rangers lose here?
Well...that shoulder injury I mentioned, above? It basically never got better. Wilkerson came to camp in 2006 and the shoulder still wasn’t right. Rest and rehab and cortisone shots didn’t work, and Wilkerson’s inaugural season with the Rangers was cut short in early August, after which he underwent surgery. Wilkerson came back in 2007 and was better but still wasn’t quite right, and had another down year.
Wilkerson, who we were all so excited about, became a punchline. A guy who was acquired in exchange for a multi-year All Star never looked right, never performed, and became a punching bag for fans and media. You’d see occasional flashes — who can forget his 3 home run game against the Angels on July 3, 2007? — but he was never physically the guy the Rangers hoped they were getting. He ended up slashing .228/.312/.445 and putting up a 0.8 bWAR in two years for Texas. He was signed by the Mariners for 2008, was released, then signed with the Blue Jays and spent the rest of 2008 when them, but didn’t hit. He tried to come back with Boston in 2009 and the Phillies in 2010, but never made it back to the majors after the 2008, and was out of baseball by spring, 2010.
Soriano, meanwhile, blew up in Washington. After winning what was then the highest salary ever in arbitration — $10 million, despite having asked for $12 million in arbitration — he responded by slashing .277/.351/.560 with 46 home runs and 41 stolen bases, making the All Star team for the fifth straight year, winning a Silver Slugger, and finishing 6th in the National League MVP voting. And he did it playing left field, the position he insisted he didn’t want to play.
And make no mistake, Soriano didn’t want to play left field for the Nationals any more than he wanted to play it for the Rangers. When Nationals manager Frank Robinson put Soriano in the lineup in left field in a spring training game on March 20, Soriano refused to take the field. He was threatened with suspension and being put on the restricted list, and after a two day standoff, Soriano backed down and played left field. He ended up signing an 8 year, $136 million deal with the Chicago Cubs that offseason...playing left field.
The trade was a flop for the Rangers, who got little from Wilkerson, dealt Sledge soon after acquiring him to San Diego in the infamous Adrian Gonzalez/Adam Eaton trade, and lost Galaragga to the Detroit Tigers on a waiver claim the next winter.
That said, keeping Soriano likely wouldn’t have done the Rangers much good, either. Soriano didn’t want to change positions, and Buck Showalter didn’t want to have a battle of wills with him. It took a Hall of Famer, one of the greatest players in the history of the game who was one of the most respected managers in the game, to get Soriano to move to the outfield. And even then, Soriano refused initially. With a new g.m. and a manager who didn’t want to force that sort of issue with Soriano, it would have been very rough sledding trying to make that happen in Texas. And if Soriano didn’t change positions, Ian Kinsler is either dealt, gets sent back for another season at AAA, or is in the majors in a utility role, none of which are great options.
And the market for Soriano, at that stage, was never going to be great. As noted above, he was going to get a huge (for 2006) salary, and then be a free agent. He was coming off a couple of down years in Texas. His defense was sub-par at second base, and everyone knew he didn’t want to change positions.
The argument has been made that the Rangers, in retrospect, should have held onto him and dealt him at the deadline. The Nationals, however — who were 17 games back on July 31, 2006, and finished the year at 71-91, and were sellers — didn’t move him. There was talk that Bowden’s asking price was unreasonable, but whether it was or not, the Nationals didn’t find a trade they liked, and ended up keeping him, trying to re-sign him, and then got a draft pick for him when he left for Chicago — a pick they used on lefthanded pitcher Josh Smoker.
So the Rangers got what looked like a good deal for Soriano. It ended up being a bad deal, but Soriano’s trade value was never as high as many thought, and Washington ended up not being able to move him for value either.
And as for Wilkerson...he seemed like a perfect fit for the Rangers. He was the type of player I have always gravitated to, a guy with great on base skills who is versatile and does everything well, or at least okay, and doesn’t have any real weaknesses. I wanted him in Texas.
And I got him in Texas, and he was a bust. The explanation here is pretty simple — after 2004, he was never healthy. Wilkerson’s shoulder never got right again, his body simply broke down prematurely, and that was that. I saw a guy coming off a down year that could be blamed on injury, who was still in his prime years, and didn’t take into account the possibility that the injury was chronic, rather than acute in nature — that Wilkerson would never be the same.