The Rangers traded three prospects on Monday for a pitcher who will be a free agent after the season. This is a win-now move. The Rangers lost 95 games last season. There is some cognitive dissonance afoot.
The Brewers traded Yovani Gallardo, erstwhile future ace and consistently pretty okay pitcher, for three prospects. The Brewers are one of the teams in baseball that should have the greatest sense of urgency. There is some cognitive dissonance afoot.
When two teams line up to make a seemingly confusing deal, there's no sense picking just one of them to analyze. The reasoning of both teams:
From the Rangers' perspective
Ah-ha, so you've spotted the part where the Rangers were awful last year. They spent the preseason breaking mirrors under ladders, and they paid for it. Calling the 2014 Rangers snakebitten makes it sound like people suffering from painful snake bites actually have it as bad. No, the 2014 Rangers had it worse. They wish their players were just bitten by snakes. So you can adjust upward from 95 losses. That season was probably an anomaly.
Give them an additional 20 wins, then, just to pick a random number out of the hat. That's a huge, wildly optimistic swing to expect. That's everyone who was hurt last year coming back effective and then some. Even if you copy and paste those 20 wins onto the 2015 total, though, you're still looking at a Rangers team that's 87-75, probably not enough to win a second wild card, much less the AL West. Again, that's with 20 extra wins.
There are best-case scenarios that get them contending, though. They'll need complete zeros like Shin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder to remind the Rangers why they were acquired in the first place. They'll need young players like Rougned Odor to break out. They'll need Jurickson Profar to stay healthy and then break out. They'll need health in the starting rotation, considering some shaky depth even with Gallardo. They'll need all sorts of things. It's generally not wise to run a team as if it's likely to hit on a 15-bet parlay.
Except, what's the alternative? Rebuild?
"Hey, Brian. Just wondering if you were interested in Shin-Soo Choo or Pr ..."
"Yo-ho, A.J. Was curious if you saw a fit for Prince Fielder on your team for some prospe ... yello?"
"Jed. Buddy. Pal. What are the chances of you dealing for an All-Star like Choo? No, we're not picking up a lot of salary. We'll need prospects and ... what do you mean, technically he's not an All-Star? Would we give him seven years and $130 million if he were never ... mm-hmm ... right ... no, I'm on Wikipedia right now ... well, I'll be damned."
A rebuild for the Rangers would look like this: Yu Darvish for a bounty of prospects. Adrian Beltre for a bounty of prospects. Everyone else is too expensive to deal, or they're a part of the team's long-term future. When the Rangers were done with this rebuilding effort, they would look around and see a bunch of young players ready to contribute. Those young players would be surrounded by veterans who aren't going anywhere and who aren't going to contribute more in the future than they might contribute right now. And the Rangers would think, gee, sure would be nice if we had an ace-type pitcher and one more middle-of-the-order bat, just in case.
Darvish and Beltre, in other words. A rebuild would get the Rangers four or five shiny prospects, some of whom might actually work out, but it would leave them with a team that's filled with enough contributors to make them want players like Darvish and Beltre. They can't rebuild. There's no point, not unless Choo or Fielder suddenly move toward the middle of the Chris Sale/Ryan Howard spectrum of tradeability.
And if they're not rebuilding, they need at least one more starting pitcher.
And if they need one more starting pitcher, there's no sense saddling themselves with yet another slow-ticking time bomb of a contract, like James Shields, to keep the other time bombs company.
Which means a pitcher on a one- or two-year deal.
Except he can't be so cheap and desirable that they have to give up a gigantic prospect package for him. He has to be "pretty okay."
That's the story of how the 95-loss Rangers traded young players for a pitcher who might leave as a free agent after this season. Since missing much of 2008 due to injury, Gallardo has made between 30 and 33 starts, with an ERA+ between 92 and 112, in every season. That's not the work of an ace, but it's still valuable. He'll make the Rangers better, even if they had to deal one of their more appealing/obvious chips (Luis Sardinas) to get him.
Now about reanimating Choo and Fielder ...
From the Brewers' perspective
The Brewers need youth. And how. They got an 18-year-old who was considered one of the top Dominican pitching prospects during the 2013 signing season, a 23-year-old closer prospect, and a middle infielder who is either a utility player or a solid regular, depending on who you talk to. For a pitcher on a one-year deal, that's not a bad haul.
Is it enough to turn a long shot of a contending season into a longer shot? Maybe. Remember, the projection systems don't like Gallardo one bit, projecting his replacement, Jimmy Nelson, as being even more valuable. I don't understand the secret projection sauce, and that seems overly pessimistic for Gallardo, but it's at least reasonable to think that Nelson is a comparable pitcher right now.
The first three players in the Brewers batting order: Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy, Ryan Braun. That's two All-Stars and a former MVP. It's tempting to write Braun off after his down season, but he's the same age as Hanley Ramirez, who just signed a huge deal. It should take more than two down seasons to forget about Braun, which means the Brewers have really, really good players for three out of their eight lineup spots. It's a heckuva head start.
The rest of the lineup isn't bad. The rotation is filled with names you know and names you probably should. They have one of the best fourth outfielders in baseball (albeit one of the most expensive) and now they have depth in the middle infield. They're still limping into the season with Jonathan Broxton as their projected closer, so there's bullpen work to do and it's getting late, but even after the trade, they're still poised to creep around the fringes of the postseason race.
Pitchers on the Move?
Just like the Rangers, then. That's what makes this an odd, fascinating trade. Both teams need a lot of things to go right for them to contend, and yet they still matched up well on a veteran-for-prospects deal. The difference is the Brewers looked around and saw someone in the system they thought was as good as Gallardo. The Rangers didn't. This deal allows the teams to have it both ways, with the Brewers adding youth and keeping the same divisional hopes, and the Rangers adding a solid pitcher who can be traded at the deadline if the entire roster is eaten by alligators this time.
Win-win? Maybe. Both of these teams are still at risk to lose-lose this season, just like last season. If that happens, the Brewers will be happier with Sardinas for five more years (and two pitching prospects) than whatever the Rangers can get for Gallardo. But if one of them can hit that parlay, if one of them can turn their current talent into a contender, this trade will look brilliant, not confusing. Especially the Brewers, because if they're right and Jimmy Nelson really is ready, they just added youth without harming the active roster much at all.
The Cardinals and Angels aren't exactly shaking their fists at the sky, but the Brewers and Rangers combined for a low-risk, medium-reward deal that will probably seem like a bigger deal in July for at least one of the teams. Good work, everyone involved.
Now go get a bullpen, Brewers. Stop being weird.