ARLINGTON -- Snow and ice hit Dallas last December, making it truly the Winter Meetings for Major League Baseball. General manager Jon Daniels also made it a particularly memorable meeting for the Rangers by trading second baseman Alfonso Soriano to the Washington Nationals for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and pitcher Armando Galarraga. Rain is more likely than snow in Orlando next week, but the Rangers are still hoping to make a big splash at the Winter Meetings.
The possibility increased this week when free-agent pitcher Barry Zito and his representative Scott Boras visited Dallas on Thursday to meet with Daniels and Rangers owner Tom Hicks. Zito is the Rangers' No. 1 target as they try to satisfy their offseason goal of adding two veteran starting pitchers. The Rangers are also looking for a center fielder, and sources said Texas has made inquiries about Toronto's Vernon Wells, who is from Arlington and can be a free agent after next season. The question is, can they make such a trade without giving up shortstop Michael Young? Toronto wants a shortstop, but Daniels seems opposed to giving up any major pieces of his team in a blockbuster trade. "I don't anticipate that," Daniels said this week. The general manager is still trying to do much toward his goal of putting together a contending team during a winter in which free-agent prices have soared higher than the Rangers expected. A team that will likely have a payroll of around $70 million must be creative when considering how to fill holes left by the departure of as many as eight free agents. So far, the Rangers have accumulated four extra draft picks this winter but added just one front-line player in outfielder Frank Catalanotto. "We're taking parallel paths," Daniels said. "We're exploring short-term free agent deals, long-term free agent deals and the trade market has a chance to pick up. But the way the free-agent market has gone, all teams have been forced to re-examine their own young players." That's why Freddy Guzman or Nelson Cruz could be the Rangers' best option in center field next year rather than Kenny Lofton or Steve Finley, although they have had trade discussions concerning both Brian Anderson of the White Sox and Aaron Rowand of the Phillies. "We've got several internal candidates and had some discussions on trade possibilities," Daniels said. "We don't need to solve that position for the next four or five years right now. It could be there are better options next year or the year after that. "The answer might not be out there right now, but if we spend our resources in other areas and can fill that spot inexpensively, then that might be a consideration." In other words, the combination of Zito and Guzman might be more preferable than Gary Matthews Jr. (who recently signed with the Angels) and Vicente Padilla. Another option is to add two lesser starting pitchers to go with Guzman or Cruz, who is being discussed as a center field candidate. The Rangers still would be interested in Wells, if they felt they could sign him to a long-term deal that would keep him in Texas beyond next season. What the free-agent market has shown is the Rangers are not going to be able to fill all their needs simply by forking over a lot of money, not when the average annual value of the contracts for Matthews, Adam Eaton, Carlos Lee and Mark DeRosa add up to approximately $40 million in 2007. That's roughly what the Rangers are going to be paying for Kevin Millwood, Akinori Otsuka, Hank Blalock, Wilkerson, Young, Teixeira and Catalanotto next season. It all adds up to around $80 million, and the Rangers are still one $9-12 million pitcher short of where they want to be as a team. What helps them immensely is that Young makes $3.5 million this season and $5 million next season, easily $12-15 million less over two years than his open-market value. But having made the commitment to the nucleus of Young, Blalock, Teixeira and Millwood, the Rangers are still determined to put together a contending team rather than start building for the future. That makes for hard choices. They love their young starting pitching and the impressive depth they have accumulated in the bullpen, but they also know that the starting pitching battalion that includes John Danks, Thomas Diamond, Eric Hurley and Edinson Volquez is still at least a year or two away from being at the point where they can be counted on to contribute to a championship team. So they are looking for two veteran starting pitchers and considering guys like Zito, Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista and others, knowing they could help them be a contender immediately, but could also very well be a financial burden down the road. As far as going with the young starters, Daniels said, "It's an option, but it's not our first choice. We set out to add a couple of guys to our rotation and put us in the competitive situation we want to be in and allow our young guys to develop at their own pace. I still think that's a possibility." Trades continue to be a possibility as teams look at the Rangers' young pitching and extra arms in the bullpen. The Rangers have talked to the Chicago White Sox about Jon Garland, but others have cringed at the asking price of at least two of their top young Minor League pitching prospects. The Atlanta Braves could be in a position to trade pitching, and they are shopping right-hander Tim Hudson. But there are a number of red flags that have popped up over a pitcher who has a big contract and was 13-12 with a 4.86 ERA last year. "I don't look at the Winter Meetings as the end," Daniels said. "It's part of the process, a chance to meet face-to-face with people, and, hopefully, a lot of the foundation that we've already laid comes to fruition, whether it's trades or free agents."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.