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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.