Rangers Win Lee Sweepstakes

With the Brewers’ playoff hopes flagging, Carlos Lee’s decision to turn down a four-year, $48 million contract extension on Thursday sealed his fate in Milwaukee. Rather than lose him as a free agent after the season, the Brewers traded the much-coveted slugger to the Rangers on Friday morning. Instead of dealing him for a package of youngsters, Milwaukee targeted players who can help now and in the near future, getting Kevin Mench, Francisco Cordero and Laynce Nix. The lone prospect the Brewers landed was low Class A lefthander Julian Cordero, and they also sent Triple-A outfielder Nelson Cruz to Texas.

Upgrading from Mench to Lee at no real cost to their big league club made perfect sense for the Rangers, who are just two games out of first place in the American League West despite a 51-51 record. An all-star in each of his two seasons in Milwaukee, the 30-year-old Lee is batting .286/.347/.549 with 28 homers, 81 RBIs and 12 steals in 102 games. One of the best righthanded power hitters in the game, he has shown improved control of the strike zone (38 walks vs. 39 strikeouts in 388 at-bats). He’s a decent runner who can pick his spots to steal bases, and he has become an efficient left fielder. Lee reportedly is seeking a five-year, $65 million contract and should be one of the top free agents on the market this offseason. He currently makes $8.5 million in the last year of a three-year, $23 million deal he originally signed with the White Sox. Lee is a career .284/.338/.494 hitter with 212 homers, 747 RBIs and 89 steals in 1,144 contests.

Mench, 28, homered in seven straight games earlier this season, one shy of the major league record. While he’s not as good as Lee, he’s a solid hitter in his own right and won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2008 season. Mench is batting .284/.338/.459 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs in 87 games. Lee is a little more athletic, but Mench makes up for some of the difference on the bases and in the outfield with his hustle. He also has enough arm to play right field. He avoided arbitration by signing a one-year, $2.8 million contact in January. Mench has career totals of .274/.335/.480 with 80 homers and 265 RBIs in 510 games.

Francisco Cordero, a 31-year-old righthander, was an all-star in 2004 but has slumped this year, losing his closer’s job to Akinori Otsuka. Cordero has blown nine of 15 save chances while going 7-4, 4.81 with 15 holds in 49 games. In 49 innings, he has a 54-16 K-BB ratio, while opponents have batted .259 with five homers against him. Cordero goes after hitters with two power pitches, a fastball that reaches the upper 90s and a slider that hits the upper 80s when he’s on. Until he gave up four runs to the Yankees on Wednesday, Cordero had been pitching better of late, and he should get a chance to close for a Brewers club that ranks fourth in the majors with 18 blown saves. In the midst of a two-year, $8.5 million contract, Cordero makes $4 million in 2006 and can become a free agent if a $5 million club option isn’t picked up for 2007. He has a lifetime record of 23-22, 3.44 with 117 saves in 376 appearances.

Nix, 25, failed repeated chances to win a regular outfield jobs with Texas. He opened 2006 as the Rangers’ center fielder but went 3-for-36 and was sent to Triple-A Oklahoma. In 76 games for the RedHawks, he batted .263/.316/.427 with 10 homers and 53 RBIs. Nix has the physical tools to start in the majors, but he’s still figuring out how to apply them. He’s too aggressive at the plate, a weakness big league pitchers have exploited. In 240 games with Texas over the last four seasons, he hit .241/.278/.414 with 28 homers, 112 RBIs and 228 strikeouts. Despite good speed he’s not a basestealing threat, and he takes some less-than-direct routes in center field. He has average arm strength but lacks accuracy.

No relation to Francisco, Julian Cordero signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2004. A 21-year-old lefty, his best attributes are an 88-92 mph fastball and a deceptive low three-quarters delivery. He’s still refining a slider and changeup, as well as his control and command. If it all comes together, he could emerge as a lefty specialist in the majors. Stationed at low Class A Clinton, he has gone 2-5, 2.91 in 27 games (five starts) this year. He has a 49-26 K-BB ratio, .248 opponent average and three homers allowed in 68 innings.

The Rangers did well to get Cruz added to the deal. The 26-year-old Cruz could be an effective big league platoon player (he hits righthanded) and he was Milwaukee’s best advanced outfield prospect. Originally signed by the Mets out of the Dominican in 1998, he previously was traded to the Athletics for Jorge Velandia and the Brewers for Keith Ginter. At this point, he has more upside than Nix. Cruz’ best tool is his plus power, though as with Nix, pitchers take advantage of his aggressiveness at the plate. Cruz also has solid speed and an above-average arm easily suited for right field. In 103 games at Triple-A Nashville this year, he has hit .302/.378/.528 with 20 homers, 73 RBIs and 17 steals. He went 1-for-5 with a double in a brief big league stint with Milwaukee last year.

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