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April 14, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL West

Extensions and Clean Breaks

by Joey Matschulat

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To loosely paraphrase a comment lodged on last week's AL West-flavored installment of Divide and Conquer: yes, a single week of baseball doesn't matter all that much ...unless it actually does. There is only so much insight that can be gleaned from any individual one-week chunk of the regular season; after all, one week of games in the major league universe is equivalent to only 3-4 percent of the regular season, and it is rare that the needle is significantly nudged in one direction or the other in so little time.

On the other hand, the last couple of days stand as a reminder of how so much of big-picture and/or historical significance can transpire in such a small window, and how only a week really can matter. Case in point: the defending American League MVP loses potentially one-third of his season on a single disastrous head-first slide into home plate (and proceeds to pin the blame on his third-base coach). Trevor Cahill pulls down a five-year extension with guaranteed compensation in excess of $30 million, while Rich Harden ends up being shut down again (okay, only one of those two actually matters). And on a night where the Mariners not only got uncharacteristically little out of King Felix, but also played before the smallest crowd in Safeco Field history (13,056), they pulled off the first successful rally from a seven-run deficit in the sixth inning or later in franchise history. Rangers skipper Ron Washington once said of the unpredictability of baseball, "that's what baseball do," and I can hardly fathom a more appropriate summation of the last few days in the AL West: That’s what baseball do.

The early reviews of Cahill's extension—including  R.J. Anderson's analysis of his deal—have been largely favorable across the board, and I can't see much, if any, reason to deviate from popular opinion on this. It's commonly acknowledged that Cahill’s raw ERA overstates his actual quality due to park- and defense-furnished assistance, but the real key word here is sustainability, and in the time I have spent watching Cahill pitch and poring over the quantitative and scouting data, I've found little to contradict the notion that he can at least be a sturdy mid-rotation innings-eater that you can plug into Oakland's starting five each spring and spend very little time worrying about. 

Since this deal was announced, I've tried to recall pre-arbitration deals of this sort that have gone terribly wrong, and as I suspected would be the case before undertaking that activity, my powers of recall haven't yielded much of note here. Major League teams are quite selective in choosing ideal candidates for these deals, such that you rarely look at the beneficiary of a Cahill-like extension and think, "Huh, well, I don't think he's going to still be good/healthy enough in a few years' time to hold down an everyday job."

And in fact, not even the deals signed between a player's third and sixth years of major league service time seem to go awry very often; the only example I can immediately conjure up is Scott Feldman's two-year, $11.5 million extension, which he signed days before the Rangers' 2010 season opener. Between his baffling loss of command of his bread-and-butter cut fastball, injuries, and the ascension of young pitching talent within the organization, it's fairly easy to envision a scenario where Feldman actually isn't one of the Rangers' best five starting pitchers once he makes his probable mid-season return from the disabled list, and ends up being stashed away in the bullpen due to a dearth of remaining minor league options. You can't say the same about Cahill. Granted, there are certainly much worse things than being stuck with a $5-6 million swing man in Feldman; that’s the downside, such as it is.

The Josh Hamilton injury is undoubtedly of greater interest to the baseball world at large than Cahill's extension, a fact which is probably attributable as much to the injury itself as the controversial response it elicited from Hamilton. If you haven't seen the play in question, all you really need to know is Hamilton was standing on third base with one out in the first inning, Adrian Beltre popped up in front of the Tigers' third-base dugout, Victor Martinez vacated the home plate area to search for the ball, and Hamilton acted on third base coach Dave Anderson's recommendation to take off for home once the ball was caught. Unfortunately, he was not only tagged out during the ensuing scramble, but also suffered a humeral fracture that will knock him out of action until at least early June, if not mid-to-late June.

During the ensuing 48 hours, a few different things happened: (a) Hamilton apportioned some amount of blame to Anderson for making the call to send him, stating that he felt he was being too "aggressive" in his recommendation (never mind that Hamilton's entire game has revolved around his aggressive style of play as far back as anyone can remember, and never mind that he's never made any excuses for it before), and calling the entire sequence of events "stupid"; (b) Hamilton eliminated any doubt about where he actually stood by stating on Wednesday morning that he "threw [Anderson] under the bus by telling the truth about what happened"; and (c) Hamilton ultimately apologized to Anderson during a pre-game meeting an hour or two later. It's good that the issue is ostensibly dead and buried (for now), but I doubt the Rangers could have been pleased that he decided to publicly air his grievances in the first place.

The upside of it all—if you can call it that—is that the Rangers boast perhaps the best fourth outfielder in baseball in David Murphy, and have the ability to plug him into left field with far less disruption than what most teams could expect if they lost their best player for a third of the season. As a result, a straight WARP-based analysis would suggest a loss of around one win (at the low end) to two wins (at the high end) off the Rangers' projected record, though that is heavily dependent upon Murphy, Julio Borbon and Nelson Cruz not succumbing to injury themselves, and upon Hamilton's convalescence not extending too far beyond what the Rangers are bracing themselves for. The division that was theirs to lose just became a little easier to lose.

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