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June 25, 2003

Prospectus Today

Hardball

by Joe Sheehan

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As I write this early Wednesday morning, it looks like the Rangers' Juan Gonzalez is going to invoke his no-trade clause to nix a deal that would send him to the Expos in exchange for prospects Seung Song and Josh McKinley. The situation is fluid, and could change as Gonzalez and his agent, Jeff Moorad, negotiate compensation for Gonzalez waiving the clause and allowing the trade.

The deal isn't the blockbuster it's being presented as. While it's fun to again see the Expos making a deal to improve their chances of making the playoffs, Gonzalez's reputation far outstrips his performance these days. He's fragile, poor defensively, and has posted OBPs below the league average in three of the last four seasons. He'd be an improvement on the Wil Cordero/Ron Calloway situation for the Expos, however.

The deal looks good for Omar Minaya, who drained his farm system in last summer's push for a playoff spot and was thought to have little left to trade. Song is a decent prospect who tossed a no-hitter earlier this year, but his strikeout rate has fallen off the proverbial cliff in 2003:


2000: 11.5 K/9
2001:  9.9 K/9
2002:  9.6 K/9
2003:  5.5 K/9

Song has to be considered a suspect until proven otherwise, and moving to an organization that hasn't proven able to convert its B pitching prospects into major-league pitchers--Colby Lewis, Joaquin Benoit, Rob Bell, Doug Davis--isn't likely to help him.

McKinley is a 23-year-old second baseman who was the Expos' first-round pick in 1998, and was widely considered a signability pick. This year, he's at .308/.392/.523 for Double-A Harrisburg, which is by far his best performance as a pro; previously, he'd shown walks and speed while hitting for averages in the .250s without much power. Picking him up isn't a bad gamble for the Rangers, whose Triple-A middle infield has OPSs of 635 and 642, but he's not a top prospect.

For better or worse, the Rangers and Expos have agreed on the players, which means that Gonzalez's willingness to accept the trade is the only barrier at this point. He originally had indicated that he wanted a contract extension from any team trading for him in exchange for his waiving the clause. With both his performance and durability headed in the wrong direction, even he had to realize how unlikely that was, and is now trying to make a cash grab before leaving Texas. He's within his rights to do this--the Rangers agreed to the clause in the first place--but his actions are more fodder for the argument that no-trade clauses are less about players wanting to stay in one place and more about extorting money in the event a deal is reached. (I do believe there's an argument for compensating Gonzalez for what he might lose to taxes in the deal, given that Texas has no state income levy and Quebec has a 110% personal income tax or something.)

Too often, teams capitulate in these situations. It's always seemed strange to me that baseball management, which lies and defames its way through every labor battle in which it's fighting the players as a group, so rarely plays hardball when negotiating with individuals. I thought of it as a vestigial concept from a time when baseball front offices and players had a paternalistic relationship, but then again, that time also featured the worst treatment of players in things like negotiations, so that makes little sense. Regardless, the notion that management should needlessly acquiesce to its players is clearly out of place in the early 21st century.

I don't think John Hart and the Rangers should cough up a dime. Gonzalez is free to reject the trade and remain with the team, and the Rangers are free to make the best decision they can for their future. They can call up Ryan Ludwick and announce that he's going to be the starting right fielder for the remainder of the season, with Kevin Mench in left field and Mark Teixeira getting the DH at-bats. Gonzalez will be one heck of a pinch-hitter, getting some time in the outfield when Mench or Ludwick need a day off or as a DH against tough lefties in lieu of Rafael Palmeiro.

Hardball? Damn straight, but there's no reason for the Rangers to give in to extortion. It's a no-trade clause, not a must-play one, and if the Rangers believe that they're better off with Ludwick in right field--which is implied by their desire to trade Gonzalez--there's no reason to abandon that thought just because Gonzalez won't leave. All things considered, Ludwick might be as good a player right now as Gonzalez, and there's no question that he's a bigger part of the Rangers' future. The team can honestly claim that it tried to deal Gonzalez so he could play on a team with a chance to win in 2003, and he rejected the opportunity. If Gonzalez just wants to stay in Texas because that's where he's most comfortable, he can do that; he just can't expect to play much. This trade is his opportunity to play for his next contract, and if he doesn't take it, he's responsible.

I don't expect this to happen. Tom Hicks has money, and the deathly fear baseball people have of an agitated player in their clubhouse is going to be what transfers some more of that cash from Hicks to Gonzalez, and transfers Gonzalez from Texas to Montreal.

It would be nice, for once, to see a team not give in; perhaps players today are more pampered and privileged and what have you, but it's certainly true that front-office people show a lot less backbone when dealing with them.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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