Here’s one reason you wouldn’t think the Rangers would consider trading closer Joe Nathan: they’re only a game and a half out of the second American League wild-card slot, despite a current team-wide slump. Plus, their division isn’t entirely out of reach. Here’s a second reason you wouldn’t think the Rangers would consider trading Nathan: just a short while ago, they put a package together to land pending free agent Matt Garza. And here’s a third reason, in case you wanted a third: earlier this month, Nathan got the save for the AL in the All-Star Game. That isn’t about the significance of the game; the game doesn’t matter, for our purposes. It’s that Nathan was an All-Star, because to this point he’s been super good. For the Rangers, he’s been a major contributor.
The Rangers, though, have talked about a Nathan deal. According to Buster Olney, they’ve actually been aggressive about it. The idea would be trading from a perceived strength to address a perceived weakness. It would represent neither buying nor selling, or it would represent both. What the Rangers want, right now, are some hitters. What the Rangers feel like they have, right now, are quality late-inning relievers, especially with Joakim Soria back and Neftali Feliz on the road. Most teams talk about most things, and the Rangers seem to have been intrigued by the idea of cashing in their closer for immediate help.
Let’s go ahead and get one thing straight: the Rangers probably aren’t going to deal Nathan. Even if they call everybody, even if they make Nathan completely available, they’re not looking to just give him away, and the fits probably aren’t out there. The Tigers might’ve been a compelling fit, but they just dealt for Jose Veras, so they might no longer be looking for late-inning relief. Teams out of the race have no use for a closer who’s likely to be a free agent this winter, and teams in the race mostly either have good relief or don’t have a willingness to surrender big-league offense. There are ways the Rangers could make something happen, maybe by putting together a package or maybe by involving a third or fourth team, but the probability is that Nathan stays put. It’s the easier decision, and teams in the hunt are supposed to trade for bullpen help. That’s why the Tigers got Veras. That’s why the Braves got Scott Downs and why the Orioles got Francisco Rodriguez. For the Rangers, Soria’s barely pitched, and Feliz is still rehabbing.
But let’s step back from the specifics and appreciate the general idea. Specifically, the Rangers have talked about trading established veteran closer Joe Nathan, despite being a team in the hunt. More generally, a good team has talked about trading from the big-league roster to add to the big-league roster. This isn’t the way we ordinarily think about buyers and sellers around the deadline, where a trade swaps a major leaguer for a prospect or three. This is something more unconventional, more creative and daring.
If nothing else, this makes for a fun thought exercise. Successful teams tend to be pretty conservative. Sports teams tend to be pretty conservative, in the big picture and in the little picture, and successful teams usually don’t want to risk disrupting their success. Successful teams, historically, have been reluctant to give up contributing players midseason, with only a handful of exceptions. After all, why deal a guy who’s helped your team be successful? Why take a step backward to take a step forward? How is that going to go over with the teammates?
But, importantly, successful teams have never shied away from making moves. They’re always in the market for external upgrades, and any upgrade brought in will cost some player a job. An upgrade displaces one major leaguer with a better major leaguer. Teams usually aren’t afraid of these moves, and all the Rangers would be trying to do is upgrade from Nathan to a better player somewhere else. It might be a difficult thing to explain to a clubhouse, but it would be a relatively easy thing to explain on paper. Upgrades are upgrades, the Rangers have demonstrated that they’d like to try to go for it, and they think of themselves as being deep in the bullpen. It appears like this could be a seller’s market.
Conditions exist such that it looks like sellers have an advantage. Whether or not that’s actually true, I don’t know, but the Rangers probably know. In which circumstances, it would make sense for them to explore what they might be able to do by selling a piece. The likelihood of finding a fit isn’t high, since a team that would want a closer probably wouldn’t be big on dumping a bat, but maybe the Rangers could deal Nathan for prospects and then deal those prospects for a bat. Or maybe we forget again about the specifics of this particular rumor. Around the deadline, we think of bad teams as sellers of big leaguers and good teams as sellers of prospects. If a good team were to be bold enough to sell a big leaguer, that could change the market and bring a big return. It’s just something that teams might as well consider, even though they usually don’t.
It would be tricky, because of chemistry concerns. Players on good teams don’t expect to lose quality teammates in July, and some front offices might be worried about such morale disruption. But a more progressive front office would just prioritize the accumulation of talent and figure that winning ends would justify disruptive means. When everybody else tends to be conservative, there might be an advantage to be gained by acting aggressively.
Odds are, the Rangers won’t trade Joe Nathan. Jon Daniels has already gone on record as saying he doesn’t anticipate another splash. But this is interesting not so much because of Nathan, but because of the idea behind the conversation. We assume that buyers are buyers and sellers are sellers. It’s entirely possible that this assumption could be exploited by a team with a whole lot of confidence. At the end of the day, any kind of upgrade is an upgrade, and everything comes down to runs.