THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 1, 2006

Not long ago, this one would have made some real noise.

Three winters ago, John Rheinecker was judged by Baseball America to be Oakland’s number two prospect, behind Rich Harden and ahead of Bobby Crosby.

Three winters ago, John Koronka was a 22-year-old auditioning for a big league job, having been Rule 5′d by the Texas Rangers.

Three winters ago, Juan Dominguez was Jose Dominguez, poised to embark on one of the most mercurial three-year periods of any player who has ever suited up for the Rangers.

When Texas announced last night that it had traded Dominguez and acquired Rheinecker and Koronka, it hit me with an empty feeling, emptier than I thought it would. I can’t remember a pitcher developed by the Rangers whose natural talent offered so many breathtaking moments, or a Rangers player whose act was so maddening.

I kept hoping that age and maturity would erase the frustrations, in time for Dominguez and his teammates to reap the benefits of that supernatural ability. Kept waiting for the wakeup call that would trigger a commitment from Dominguez to be as great as he’s capable of being.

And now I sit here wondering if that wakeup call has just taken place, with the best team in the Rangers’ division poised to profit.

I’m not going to sit here and throw Dominguez under the bus by itemizing every stupid thing he did and didn’t do since signing with Texas the day after Christmas 1999. There’s no point in listing all the incidents, other than to sum them up by saying that without them, and maybe without half of them, there’s virtually no doubt that he would be an untradeable core member of the Rangers rotation. And I wouldn’t be writing this report, which feels like a requiem, and sort of is.

Is it Jose or Juan? Born in 1982 or 1980? What are we gonna get today: two runs in eight innings against the eventual World Champion White Sox, or a missed flight? Is that 94 or 78 coming at me?

Everything about Dominguez feeds into the enigma.

Dominguez angered me, and energized me. I’ve said this to friends, and I’ll say it here now: For the last two years, I’ve thought that there was an equal chance that, at age 35, Dominguez could be a 150-game winner, or walking the streets of an impoverished village in a sparsely populated region of the Dominican Republic. Or worse.

There were efforts in Frisco and in Yankee Stadium that I’ll never forget, and stories about Dominguez that we’ve all read plus a couple I’ve heard that I’ll never forget.

There was a game in Oakland in September that the A’s didn’t forget. With one week to go in the regular season, Dominguez went into Oakland and held the A’s to two runs on eight hits and no walks in 7.1 innings, fanning three. They’ll probably send Dominguez to AAA this weekend, but they certainly have bigger plans for him before long.

For the most loyal of fans, baseball trades are often emotional, hard to take. I bet Jon Daniels had a tough time as a 10-year-old when his Mets traded Jesse Orosco and got Kevin Tapani, Wally Whitehurst, and Jack Savage back.

But Daniels had to make a baseball decision here, and it couldn’t have been easy. Unquestionably, Dominguez is the most talented player involved in the deal that sees him go to Oakland, and the Rangers, because of his well-chronicled baggage, had to sell low. The A’s sent Rheinecker, a 26-year-old lefthander, and utility player Freddie Bynum to Texas, who flipped Bynum to the Cubs for Koronka, a 25-year-old southpaw, and either a player to be named later or cash.

Koronka (who I’m pretty sure has one option) is expected to step in as the Rangers’ fifth starter, at least while others get healthy or try to decide whether they want to pitch in 2006. Rheinecker (who definitely has at least one option) will go to Oklahoma, where he’ll be part of the RedHawks rotation.

Texas chose Koronka from Cincinnati in the December 2002 Rule 5 Draft, after a season that he split between High A, AA, and the Arizona Fall League. A fastball-changeup-slider pitcher now, he was just a fastball-changeup guy then. In March 2003, he gave up four runs on eight hits and two walks in 5.1 spring innings for the Rangers, fanning three, and Texas returned him to the Reds with a week and a half to go in camp.

After making 25 AA starts in 2003, Cincinnati traded Koronka to the Cubs for lefthander Phil Norton. He finished that season in AA for Chicago and spent all of 2004 pitching for AAA Iowa. He returned to Iowa for the 2005 season, making his big league debut in June when Chicago needed someone to step in for the injured Mark Prior. Koronka won that start, yielding three Dodger runs over five frames. He’d lose his next two starts and make one relief appearance for the Cubs, finishing at 1-2, 7.47. He allowed 19 hits and eight walks in 15.2 innings while fanning 10.

While with Iowa last year, Koronka was predictably better against left-handed hitters (.231 opponents’ average, 1.88 groundball-to-flyball ratio, 5.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio) than righthanders (.274, 1.03, 1.4). And his best month was his final full month, as he went 2-0, 1.32 in four August starts.

Incidentally, Koronka faced Oklahoma twice in 2005, in the space of one week. On June 23, he allowed two RedHawk runs on two hits and three walks in seven innings, fanning one. On June 30, he shut Oklahoma out over a season-high eight frames, scattering five hits, walking nobody, and punching out seven.

Koronka followed the season with a strong showing in the AFL, pitching 13 scoreless innings, all in relief. He allowed just eight hits (.178 opponents’ average) and five walks, setting 11 prospects down on strikes. And interestingly, right-handed hitters were completely impotent against him, managing just three hits (.107) in 28 at-bats, while lefties hit .294.

In camp this spring, Koronka held the Cactus League to a .227 average in 10 relief appearances, permitting five runs (3.75 ERA) on 10 hits and three walks in 12 innings, striking out seven. The Rangers, who already believed in his makeup from his 2003 stint in Surprise, saw a far better breaking ball this spring. They now believe he has an effective enough third pitch to get righties out, and thus to succeed in a starting role.

But look again at that spring line: 10 appearances, 12 innings, all in relief. How deep into Friday’s game against Detroit can the Rangers really expect Koronka to go? He’ll throw a simulated game tomorrow.

With the little I’ve seen of Koronka, I can’t imagine him having the upside that Josh Rupe or C.J. Wilson or Edinson Volquez have, and so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Koronka optioned at some point in April (the fifth spot will probably only be called on three times in the month) or shortly thereafter. And I’m sure he doesn’t have the upside that Dominguez has. Few do. But there’s a difference between upside and prognosis. Josh Hamilton and Brien Taylor and Toe Nash had upside.

And it should be pointed out that, just as looking at the Padres trade as Chris Young for Adam Eaton inappropriately ignores the importance of Akinori Otsuka in that deal, this wasn’t simply Dominguez for Koronka, even though it will be judged by the soundbite segment of the local media that way for the next month, when Koronka pitches in the fifth spot that was to have been Dominguez’s. From the Rangers’ standpoint, they also get Rheinecker and a Cubs player to be named later (or cash). From Oakland’s, they had to give up not only Rheinecker, but Bynum as well.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: Rheinecker was off to the best start of his career in 2005 when his season was derailed by a tendon injury in the middle finger of his throwing hand. It’s exactly what happened to Eaton last summer in San Diego, and to be sure, without the Eaton recurrence this week, Dominguez-for-Koronka-and-Rheinecker probably never happens.

Rheinecker, spending his third season with AAA Sacramento, was off to a spectacular 4-0, 1.77 record in seven starts — six of which were quality starts — when a torn tendon ended his season on May 13. He was primed to make his big league debut if not for the injury. Instead, Seth Etherton was called on to step in for the injured Rich Harden, days after Rheinecker for hurt. He tried to rehab the finger but never did get back on the mound, reportedly unable to grip a baseball even at season’s end.

The 37th overall pick in the 2001 draft (chosen right before the Mets took a high school third baseman named David Wright), Rheinecker followed an impressive debut summer with a sensational first full season, going 3-0, 2.31 in nine starts for High A Visalia and 7-7, 3.38 in 20 starts for AA Midland, fanning a combined 162 and issuing a scant 34 walks in 178.2 innings.

But in 2003, rather than take the next step forward, Rheinecker leveled out. Nobody in the minor leagues allowed more than the 233 hits he surrendered in 180.1 innings between Midland and Sacramento. His walk rate increased from 1.71 per nine innings in 2002 to 2.20 (still very good) in 2003, and his strikeout rate fell from 8.16 to 5.74.

Rheinecker spent all of the 2004 season in Sacramento, going 11-9, 4.44 in 27 starts and one relief appearance. In his breakthrough return to the RiverCats in 2005, he was able to use his fastball-cutter-slider-change repertoire to keep righthanders off balance (.158 in 120 at-bats) while lefties hit .250 in 40 at-bats before the finger injury ended his season after six weeks. His groundball-to-flyball ratio was a solid 1.56.

Quick aside, while on the subject of injured finger tendons: Eaton had barely descended from the mound on Wednesday when he told reporters that he was pretty sure he was going to miss a lot of time. Reporters wrote that Eaton, on Thursday, seemed inclined to opt for surgery on the injured tendon (which was on the same finger but in a different area from last summer). I’ll admit I was in a crummy baseball mood when I heard that, but it sure sounded like someone thinking more about protecting his long-term contract prospects than about his opportunity to help Texas win in 2006.

Back to Rheinecker. He’s evidently healthy, having appeared five times in camp with the A’s this spring, though he wasn’t very effective. In 8.1 innings, he gave up six runs (6.48 ERA) on 10 hits (.303 opponents’ average) and five walks, striking out three.

This was a trade that basically involved two pitchers who, in the space of a few days, were getting fifth starter consideration only because of an injury to someone else; another pitcher who will be in AAA for the fourth straight year and has yet to make a big league appearance; a 25th man; and a player to be named later. Outside of Texas, Oakland, and Chicago, it’s not going to get much attention.

But because of the promise that Dominguez always teased us with, the trade is a tough one to take. He threw six quality starts out of his final eight last year. When his fastball-changeup combination is right, when his head is right, he can be a heck of a major league pitcher. If he puts it together with Oakland, this one is going to hurt for a long, long time.

But if he continues to wander, to drift, to frustrate, he will end up being a very sad story.

Either way, this one doesn’t set up to have a happy ending here. It’s probably true that Dominguez needed the change of scenery, as did Texas. But as much as I knew that this day was always a possibility, I’m more disappointed than I anticipated I’d be.

Back on January 27, I wrote the following:

—————-

You might argue that it’s unfair that the local press made a story out of the fact that Juan Dominguez missed a flight to Rangers mini-camp this week, especially since he still managed to make it to Arlington on schedule, and that he was carrying 15 pounds more than the organization wants him to, given that the games won’t count for another 10 weeks.

You might instead argue that Dominguez, based on his track record, has waived the right to have stories like that overlooked by the media.

I have moments where I fall into each camp. But it doesn’t change the fact that developments like this make me mad.

It makes me mad because I want Dominguez to get it right. He’s as skillful as any pitcher on the staff, among the most talented pitchers this organization has ever developed. I want him to recognize how gifted he is and realize how tragic it would be if he didn’t do everything he could to make the most of his gifts.

It makes me mad because I’m afraid the club might run out of patience with Dominguez — and I’m not suggesting they should — and give up on him.

It makes me mad because it feels almost inescapable at this point that Dominguez is going to disappoint us, one way or another. Either because he won’t fulfill his potential, or he’ll fulfill it in another uniform.

It upsets me a lot, because I want Dominguez to be dependable, to be focused, to want to be as good as I want him to be. I don’t know if it’s an issue of emotional maturity or genetic wiring, and I wonder whether, in either case, he can change. And don’t get me wrong — missing a flight this week isn’t why I feel this way, or why I’m writing this today. Neither is the weight issue. Those two matters surfacing in the paper this week simply serve as a reminder that the greatness that Dominguez is capable of — at least in my opinion — seems to be something we all want for him much worse than he wants it. I don’t know — maybe we want it more than Dominguez can want it for himself.

—————-

Bottom line: Maybe it was inevitable, if not now then sometime soon, but this morning Juan Dominguez is gone because of Adam Eaton’s middle finger. I’ll never root for Oakland, but I’m pulling for Dominguez. I really do hope he gets it right.

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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