Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Jose Reyes, and C.J. Wilson were the top four free agents of the offseason. Usually the current team has the advantage in re-signing a free agent, but all four players switched teams. It was a particularly bad offseason for a third of the NL Central.
Now with spring training, there will be a lot of focus on the replacements of said free agents. Two of them will come from within the organization that lost the players, and two of the replacements will come from outside of the organization. They'll fall somewhere on the Gary Cherone/Brian Johnson spectrum, a scientific term used to describe how likely a replacement is to succeed. In music, they call it the Rick Schu/Carl Yastrzemski spectrum. Not sure why they don't just switch them to the appropriate industries.
Gamel is a perpetual prospect, a player who probably should have received a chance by now, but who had the misfortune of coming up behind Prince Fielder on a National League team. He's also about a year older than Pablo Sandoval, and two years older than Jay Bruce. Whereas those players have already had several seasons of peaks and valleys in the majors, Gamel is still very much an unknown.
After Gamel's breakout year in AA as a 22-year-old, he hung around AAA for the next three seasons. On a rebuilding team, he'd probably have 1,500 at-bats in the majors by now. As is, he's going to see how his career .301/.374/.512 line in AAA translates to the majors. He reportedly showed up to camp in the best shape of his life, unless he was misquoted and said that he showed up to camp in the best shape of Prince Fielder's life.
Tejada has been kicking around the Mets' roster for the last two years, capably handling a reserve/utility role whenever injuries dictated. He seems like he should be 29 -- a guy with callouses on his backside from riding 100s of busses, who finally broke camp with a team one spring and never looked back.
He should be 29. He's 22. The Mets brought him up to get sporadic playing time when he was 20 for some reason, and that continued last year, when he finished with a .360 OBP. A brief list of middle infielders who cracked a .350 OBP before they turned 22:
- Alex Rodriguez
- Edgar Renteria
- Delino DeShields
- Jerry Browne
- Lou Whitaker
- Willie Randolph
- Joe Morgan
- Cass Michaels
- Pee Wee Reese
- Bobby Doerr
- Arky Vaughn
- Rogers Hornsby
- Donie Bush
- Larry Doyle
That's it. That's the list. Ruben Tejada: Either Jerry Browne or Alex Rodriguez. Bank it.
It's an impressive list, alright, and it makes you wonder what Tejada would look like as a prospect if the Mets had brought him up on a normal schedule, letting him hit in AAA last year with a brief call-up, if anything. He might not be the most exciting replacement for a fan favorite like Jose Reyes, but it's worth noting that when Reyes was 21, he put up a .271 OBP. Tejada almost had 100 points on him at the same age.
Beltran technically isn't the replacement for Albert Pujols -- that'd be Lance Berkman, taking off his clomping shoes to move to first base -- but he's the middle-of-the-order hitter that the Cards brought in to replace him. Beltran had one of his better seasons last year if you go by OPS+, so there's a chance he can be a seamless replacement for the Cards.
What's more likely, though, is that he'll be a worthy-if-inferior replacement for a bit. Then he'll be obviously inferior. Then he'll be out of baseball while Pujols is making $25 million to be 38. The Cardinals are concerned with the first part. They'll be a little crestfallen when the second part is going on. They'll be thrilled while the third part is going on and they aren't paying anyone $25 million. For next season, though, they should be just fine as long as Beltran is healthy.
Maybe C.J. Wilson doesn't belong on this list. He's only been a top-shelf starter for the last two years, after all. But he was certainly a guy who belonged at the top of a rotation -- he led the Rangers back to the World Series without Cliff Lee, even. The Rangers knew they'd miss him, so they sprung for Darvish. They committed over $30 million more, even.
This is the most interesting swap in memory. There are risks all over. Darvish is more expensive. Wilson has only been a starter for two years. Darvish hasn't faced major-league competition for a full season before. Wilson is 31. Arguments can be made for either pitcher having a more successful 2012.
The one risk that would weird me out if I were a Rangers fan, though, is that Wilson proved that he could succeed in Arlington. After years and years of buying pitchers on the open market (Chan Ho Park, Kevin Millwood) who didn't succeed, and after years of trying to develop pitchers on their own (I don't know, Kameron Loe?), they finally found a pitcher who could give them a lot of good innings in an offense-friendly park.
That isn't to say that Darvish won't be better. He certainly could be. After I finish writing this, I'm going to go watch YouTube videos of him making hitters look like idiots. But Wilson was a known quantity in a place where known quantities are usually known for being awful. All of the above players are expected to be downgrades, with the notable exception of Darvish. Considering where the Rangers are, and what they've come so close to over the past two seasons, though, it might be the riskiest swap of all.