THE NEWBERG REPORT — MAY 12, 2006

The eighth anniversary of the Newberg Report is coming up. As I think back on the decisive moments that, at least from my standpoint, have sort of shaped what this thing has become, a bunch of reports come to mind.

There have been playoff dirges. Long-winded draft recaps that took eight hours to write and probably not much less than that to read. Rants against Luis Alicea and Todd Zeile. Self-indulgent (and probably self-important) exercises in nostalgia. Campaigns to urge you to believe in Michael (not Mike) Young, a letter to Erica when Alex was traded, the 2004 birth of the Snake. Reports from spring training, and from the Winter Meetings, including the stalking of Peter Gammons.

There are only a few reports that stand out for me because of a particular game, and among them one clear frontrunner as far as those on the farm are concerned.

On July 1, 2004, I went to Frisco to see Felix Hernandez make his first AA start — and John Hudgins, his third.

What Hudgins did that night, 13 months after he’d been drafted, inspired me to write a report that, on page 206 of your 2005 Bound Edition, begins: “I was in Frisco last night, and I saw the future. His name is John Hudgins.”

In seven innings, the Stanford product outpitched King Felix, blanking San Antonio on three hits and no walks, punching out 11 Missions with artistic command of a lot of unoverwhelming stuff. It was mesmerizing.

It was certainly the best game Hudgins has pitched since the College World Series, and if he’s going to top it, it’s going to come as San Diego Padre property. Texas traded Hudgins and first baseman-outfielder Vincent Sinisi to the Padres yesterday for outfielder Freddy Guzman and righthander Cesar Rojas.

The key discussion point from this deal is not the departure of Hudgins or Sinisi, both of whom probably had limited futures here, but instead the addition of Guzman, who potentially gives Texas something it doesn’t have and hasn’t had in years. But because this space is what it is, and because the papers are going to tell you a lot more about the return today than the cost, I’m gonna say a little about Hudgins first.

You’ve never met a ballplayer as unassuming as John Michael Hudgins, the 2003 College World Series MVP (despite the fact that the Cardinal fell to Sinisi’s Rice club in the title game). The son of a minister, Hudgins earned his economics degree in just three years, building computers (as well as the seminal unofficial Pac-10 Baseball website) in all that spare time he must have had while burning through that watered-down Stanford education. He’s probably the most intelligent baseball player I’ve ever known, he’s definitely the most humble — almost apologetic — and he’s a competitor.

Hudgins is the kind of player that unquestionably understands his limitations, and the success he’s had is largely because he understands yours. If you saw what he did to that AA team the Mariners sent out there, you know what I’m talking about.

After that impressive first full season (8-5, 3.14 between Stockton, Frisco, and Oklahoma in 2004, with a system-leading 145 strikeouts and just 41 walks in a combined 146 innings, followed by a stint in the Arizona Fall League — give http://www.dickiethon.com/eczajka/hudginsafldiary.htm a few minutes of your time), it seemed that Hudgins was more likely to reach Arlington in 2005 than to go 4-9, 5.70 between Frisco and Oklahoma, but that’s what he did, missing the last month of the season with a sore right forearm and calcium deposits in his elbow that were surgically removed. Texas left the 24-year-old exposed to the 2005 Rule 5 Draft, but no team — not even the Padres, where Grady Fuson was in power — spent a pick on him in December.

Virtually forgotten as the Rangers broke camp this spring, Hudgins returned to Oklahoma in April, making five relief appearances and two starts over the first month of the season. Five very good outings were marred by two awful ones, and as a result his RedHawk ERA was 6.38, though he did strike out 16 batters in 18.1 frames and held opponents to a .250 batting average.

To see Hudgins land in San Diego is no surprise. Fuson has been with three organizations and has targeted Hudgins at each stop. While with Oakland, he drafted Hudgins out of high school (in the 20th round). He drafted and signed the Stanford ace while with Texas. And now in San Diego, Fuson was certainly the driving force behind trading for him. While his upside may be debatable, Hudgins will have a better chance to reach the big leagues in San Diego than he would anywhere else. And his flyball tendencies aren’t as daunting to imagine in Petco Park as they would be in Ameriquest Field.

His Padres career will evidently begin back in AA, and San Diego intends to work him as a starter.

Sinisi will go back to AA as well, the latest move in what has been a strange professional odyssey for the 24-year-old. The Rangers’ second-round pick in 2003 (one round before Hudgins), most thought at the time that he was a first-round talent that dropped because Scott Boras was his advisor, because he was a draft-eligible sophomore who didn’t need to sign right away, and because Rice University has a knack for keeping even its juniors around, let alone its sophomores.

But Sinisi hasn’t lived up to the well-above-slot $2.075 million bonus that Texas agreed to give him, and it was a freak accident on June 13, 2004 that might be the biggest factor why. Playing for Stockton and hitting a robust .306/.383/.472 with 40 RBI in just 64 games, seemingly on the verge of a promotion to Frisco, Sinisi collided with Ports shortstop Joaquin Arias on a short fly to left, breaking his forearm.

The fracture led not to one operation, but seven, as he surgically contracted a staph infection that introduced a potentially deadly bacteria (MRSA) into his system that was unusually resistant to antibiotics. Sinisi missed the remainder of the 2004 season and the first six weeks in 2005.

Upon his return last May, he got off to a great start in Bakersfield, hitting .363/.438/.600 over six weeks, and he earned a promotion to Frisco, where he was on fire for about a week before struggling the rest of the season. His final RoughRider line was a disappointing .258/.300/.343, which many speculated might have been the result of a loss of stamina after such a lengthy layoff. Like Hudgins, Sinisi was left off the winter roster and yet went undrafted in December.

In terrific shape this spring, Sinisi earned a spot on Team Italy in the World Baseball Classic, homering early in the tournament off Australia righthander Rich Thompson (an Angels farmhand), and upon his return to camp, the Rangers moved him in from the outfield to first base, where he’d played in college. With Adrian Gonzalez gone via trade, the organization made the same move in camp with Jason Botts, who would start the year as Oklahoma’s first baseman.

Sinisi hit right out of the gate this year, but without much power. His .309/.373/.368 line in Frisco sort of sums up the issue — there’s no questioning Sinisi’s ability to hit the baseball, but you can’t keep a big league job at first base or in left field by hitting singles. Among his 21 RoughRider hits were just two doubles and a triple, and he didn’t go deep before getting a promotion to Oklahoma three weeks into the season.

After playing his first four AAA games at four different positions (first base, left field, right field, center field), Sinisi settled in at first (with Botts returning to the outfield) but hadn’t gotten untracked yet, hitting .220/.298/.300 in 50 at-bats before yesterday’s trade. He doubled four times but had no triples or home runs among his 11 RedHawk hits.

It’s arguably acceptable to hit like Darin Erstad if you can defend like Erstad does, but Sinisi is not that player. In his Prospect Previews in February, Mike Hindman suggested that one player that Sinisi could become is Mike Lamb, and it’s a pretty good comp. There’s a place in baseball for Mike Lamb, but at the same time, there are enough of those types around that you don’t hesitate to trade one if you can fill a need in return.

And that’s what Texas believes it has done. With Hudgins no longer in the mix here as a candidate to help anytime soon, and with Sinisi not yet developing into a middle-of-the-lineup threat (and on a team where a corner man on the bench is not a foreseeable need), Texas agreed to move both to the Padres — where Sinisi, incidentally, once again finds himself behind Adrian Gonzalez on the depth chart — for Guzman and Rojas. Guzman is the key.

I generally measure trades by asking two questions:

1. Who got the best player in the deal?

2. Would I be upset if Oakland or Seattle made the trade instead of Texas?

The way I answer both questions, I like the trade. I’m happy for Hudgins and happy for Sinisi, who suddenly find themselves in better situations for their own careers, but I like what Texas has done here.

In 2004, the season in which Hudgins threw his masterpiece against King Felix and in which Sinisi suffered his devastating injury, Guzman was having a season that would make him the Padres’ number two prospect, according to Baseball America. Guzman hit .283/.359/.370 for AA Mobile, earning a promotion to AAA Portland, where he was even better at .292/.365/.379, and finished the year by making his big league debut (.211/.250/.250 in 76 at-bats).

What you can see in those numbers is that Guzman is a decent hitter for average, doesn’t pose much of a power threat, but will get on base enough to be a factor offensively. What you don’t see in those numbers are two key things: (1) it’s OK if Guzman doesn’t rack up many extra-base hits because he gets into scoring position another way — he’s not only among the fastest players in baseball, he is effective with his speed, leading the minor leagues with 90 steals in 2003 and adding 70 in 2004 (including his time in San Diego); and (2) he is a plus defender in center field, something that can really help this club.

A 25-year-old switch-hitter, Guzman (who was known as a two-and-a-half-years-younger Pedro de los Santos before AgeGate came down in 2002) was in line to compete for San Diego’s starting center field job in 2005 before he blew out his throwing elbow early in camp, necessitating season-ending Tommy John surgery. Never blessed with a weapon for an arm, the Dominican wasn’t robbed of any key aspect of his game as a result of the procedure, and of course it had no effect on his ability to use that 6.5 speed in the 60 to run down everything in center field. You see the huge return Florida got from the Cubs for Juan Pierre, you see what Tampa Bay has refused to part with Joey Gathright for, and you get a sense of what a player who can run and defend is worth, even if his offensive game is basically an exercise in slash-and-burn.

The Padres traded for Mike Cameron this winter and still had Dave Roberts on hand, and as a result Guzman was sent to AAA when camp broke (on just his second option). He was hitting .274/.348/.411 when yesterday’s trade was made, and was getting hot, hitting .333 in May after a .250 April. (While he’s never going to hit for power, it should be noted that he has two homers [and two triples] among 11 extra-base hits in 124 at-bats — which is a greater extra-base hit rate than the homerless Sinisi has in the same league.) He’s been a slightly better hitter against left-handed pitching this year, but in recent seasons has been more effective against righties.

Guzman has an impressive 14/19 walk-to-strikeout rate, and he’s been successful on 11 of 14 stolen base attempts, slightly below his career swipe rate, a sturdy 85 percent. What might even be more tantalizing than the stolen base ability Guzman brings is the idea that he can be a guy who goes from first to third, or scores from second, on every single. Texas can use more of that.

On the rare occasion that the Rangers have had guys at the upper levels who can run (Ramon Nivar, Ruddy Yan, Drew Meyer), they’ve tried to make (or at least toyed with the idea of making) center fielders out of them. Not necessary with Guzman. He’s a born center fielder. If he can continue to refine his game as a potentially disruptive catalyst offensively, then the Rangers will have accomplished a lot with Thursday’s trade.

For now, does Guzman step in for Adrian Brown as a bench outfielder and pinch-runner? Or is it more important right now to continue to get him five trips a game against Pacific Coast League pitching?

What does this do to Laynce Nix’s prospects with the organization?

What about Botts, now that Sinisi is gone? Does he move back to first base, or does Texas still view him as a potential big league outfielder?

Mike Boulanger will be in charge of overseeing those things, having replaced Tim Ireland, whom the Rangers fired yesterday as Oklahoma manager. More on that next time.

The 19-year-old Rojas signed with San Diego out of Venezuela in 2002 for a significant $135,000 price tag. His one stateside season came last year, when he pitched in the Arizona League, going 2-4, 6.75 in 11 starts and two relief appearances. In 49.1 innings, he permitted 48 hits (.261 opponents’ average) and 32 walks (second-most in the league) while fanning 33. His worst outing of the summer came at the hands of the Rangers, who spanked him for eight runs in 3.1 frames on August 16.

Rojas, who remained in extended for the Padres this spring and will report to extended in Surprise (bet he pitched against his new team at some point in the last month), amps it up into the mid-90s with a slider and a change, and he has one of those projectable 6’3″ frames that the lower half of the Rangers system is starting to feature a lot more.

Rojas is far from a sure thing — four straight springs in extended raises a question or two — but he’s an interesting project, the type of raw, toolsy arm that the Rangers like to take chances on more these days than they did when Fuson was running the scouting department.

But this trade isn’t about Rojas at all. It’s about Guzman — whom Daniels told reporters yesterday was discussed at the time of the Akinori Otsuka trade in January — but as in seemingly every trade Daniels has made in his seven months on the job, he got an extra player thrown in to add to inventory.

If you assess this trade from the standpoint of a San Diego fan, you might see it as a legitimate prospect (plus a project arm) for a AAA middle reliever with a 6.38 ERA and a first baseman without a home run in 2006, either of whom could have been chosen in the Rule 5 Draft five months ago but wasn’t. But since we know plenty more about Hudgins and Sinisi here, we don’t see them that way at all — which ought to be a lesson. Whatever flaws you think you see in Guzman by studying his numbers, or whatever excites you about him, remember that the numbers can teach you only so much about a player.

Stated another way, if the numbers lie, they can certainly obscure hidden negatives just as easily as hidden positives.

When Fuson did his interview with the Newberg Report a couple months after the 2003 draft, he said of Hudgins, “As far as instincts, as far as knowledge, as far as repeatability is concerned, I think we got one of the better college pitchers in this draft.” And he said there were “only a handful of college hitters out there that had the approach, the swing, the knowledge of the strike zone, the potential upside with some power, and the instincts for the game” that Sinisi had.

Time will tell whether Fuson was right about those two. I hope Hudgins and Sinisi both get to the big leagues, and I’m confident that they’re in the right organization to get that shot.

I’m also confident that Texas just made a very good trade.

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

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