As suitors for Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish assess the latest scouting reports and prepare their trade offers, an intriguing question lingers in the thick summer air at Globe Life Park in Arlington: Does Texas general manager Jon Daniels have room in his negotiating tent for the Lone Star State’s other baseball franchise?
The Houston Astros look like a natural fit for Darvish. They’re 67-33 and running away with the American League West, in large part because of an offense with an impressive combination of power and contact-hitting acumen. As GM Jeff Luhnow explores ways to upgrade the pitching staff, it’s tempting to wonder how formidable the Astros could be if they added Darvish — the undisputed prize of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline — to a rotation that already includes All-Stars Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr.
With the Dodgers, Cubs, Yankees and several other contenders also in the mix for Darvish to one degree or another, it’s natural to wonder about the current mindset of Daniels: the one man in baseball with the power to deliver a true difference-maker to a World Series aspirant this month.
Any sports executive with a competitive bent is likely to struggle with the idea of providing a piece that puts a contending team over the top. How hard would Daniels have to swallow to help the Astros, an intrastate, divisional opponent, win their first World Series in the franchise’s 56-year history?
Although Daniels declined to shed any light on his approach to Darvish in a brief interview with ESPN.com, he said he never rules out a trading partner based on geography.
“If the right baseball decision for the Rangers is trading [a player] in the division or in-state, I don’t have a problem with that,” Daniels said.
As a rule, teams prefer not to trade All-Stars within the division because they know they’ll be facing those players 19 times a year while competing for the same prize. That’s a nonfactor with Darvish, who would be suiting up for his next employer for only August, September and the postseason before hitting the open market as a free agent.
But other pressures exist beyond the world of player evaluation. Season-ticket holders are emotionally invested in rivalries, and owners are typically more conscious of marketing concerns, fan reaction and other ancillary factors than the executives entrusted with roster-building.
When the Washington Nationals acquired relievers Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle in a trade with Oakland last week, it was telling that they never even inquired on the availability of Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton. As one source familiar with the teams’ strained relationship observed, the Nationals knew that a Britton pursuit would be a futile endeavor because of the MASN television dispute and the “terrible partnership” between the teams.
A source who has worked in the front office for one of the two Texas-based teams said the atmosphere between them doesn’t have a fraction of that toxicity level.
“There’s no Red Sox-Yankees, venomous thing going on between them,” the source said. “I think the state/civic-pride thing stems more from the fans, ownership and the media that covers them than the front office.”
The Rangers and Astros compete for the old Silver Boot in the Lone Star Series, and when both teams are playing well, the rivalry has some juice. The Rangers have drawn an average of 41,033 for their three home games against Houston this year, compared to an average of 31,904 for their non-Astros games.
But the Astros moved to the AL West in only 2012, and they weren’t much of a threat to the Rangers while posting a 51-111 record in 2013, so the rivalry is essentially still in its infancy. According to Baseball-Reference.com, a total of 73 players have played for both teams through the years. One of them, outfielder Lance Berkman, spent his first 12 seasons with the Astros when they were playing in the National League Central. He wrapped up his career with Texas in 2013.
“When I was with the Astros, our rival was the Cardinals, because they were in our division and they were the team we had to beat if we wanted to do anything in the postseason,” Berkman said. “That made a huge difference. With the Rangers, it really didn’t matter. But now, between the Astros and the Rangers, it does matter.”
Trade interactions between the two franchises have been scarce and tend to be minor in nature. The most recent Rangers-Astros trades came in 2015, when catcher Carlos Corporan went to Houston for minor league pitcher Akeem Bostick, and 2013, when Daniels acquired pitcher Travis Blackley from Houston for a player to be named and cash.
The closest thing to a headline-making deal between the teams during Daniels’ tenure came in 2009, when he sent two minor leaguers to Houston for future Hall of Famer Pudge Rodriguez. Ed Wade was Houston’s general manager.
Daniels’ willingness to keep an open mind stems from the realization that it’s always best to have as many teams as possible on the other end of the phone. After the Chicago Cubs recently acquired pitcher Jose Quintana for the stretch drive for four prospects, several media observers praised Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn for putting provincialism aside and making the best possible baseball trade for his team.
Still, pragmatism has its limits. Provided the Astros are interested in Darvish, Luhnow might have to pay a surcharge in the form of a slightly better prospect package. That’s primarily an offshoot of the AL West dynamic — with the Texas factor serving as the cherry on top.
Houston appears to have the pieces to put together a representative package. ESPN’s Keith Law ranks the Astros’ system as the fourth best in baseball and has four Houston prospects — pitchers Franklin Perez and Forrest Whitley and outfielders Kyle Tucker and Yordan Alvarez — among his top 50. But Luhnow would have to determine if two-plus months of Darvish is worth the residual discomfort of seeing one or two of those players in a Texas uniform for the next six years.
“If you have four teams going after Darvish with strong farm systems, my guess is the tie would go to somebody outside the division,” said an AL general manager. “Houston would probably have to beat the other teams, but by what margin is probably a better question for Jon Daniels.”
If Daniels decides to trade Darvish, it would be a rare concession based on his history. The GM has been with Texas since 2005, and he has been a seller only at the 2007 and 2014 July deadlines. Two years ago, the Rangers were eight games back at the deadline when Daniels sent five prospects to the Philadelphia Phillies for Cole Hamels. The Rangers went on a 40-22 tear in August and September to win the division by two games.
But don’t expect a repeat.
The Rangers are stuck near the bottom of the AL wild-card pack, 18 games behind the first-place Astros, and FanGraphs gives them a 16.5 percent chance to make the postseason. As Daniels charts his course, he has Darvish and fellow short-termers Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Mike Napoli and Carlos Gomez burning a hole in his pocket.
When Darvish arrived in Texas from his native Japan in 2012, his outings were both a baseball and cultural happening. Wednesday night at Globe Life Park in Arlington, he’ll be pitching before an equally attentive array of observers against the Miami Marlins. Some of them will be seated behind home plate, aiming radar guns Darvish’s way and taking lots of notes.
The Astros will presumably have a talent evaluator in the crowd. But if they have any desire to land the crown jewel of this year’s trade deadline, they’d better be ready to pay.