THE NEWBERG REPORT — JUNE 1, 2006

Well, the highest paid player on the Rangers is not Roger Clemens.

And it’s no longer Phil Nevin, either.

Hours after Clemens made it official that he’d decided to end his sabbatical and return to the Astros, Texas announced that it had managed to trade Nevin to the Cubs, agreeing to send about $4.5 million to Chicago to help cover the nearly $7 million remaining on Nevin’s 2006 contract and getting infielder-outfielder Jerry Hairston Jr. in return. The cash nearly covers the difference between what Nevin is owed and what Hairston is owed the rest of the year, giving Texas a little payroll relief. But this trade wasn’t about money.

We can guess that the organization believed the clubhouse would be more functional without Nevin in it now that his playing time had been reduced.

We can guess that Hairston’s arrival might dramatically alter the nature of the Rangers bench, if it signals another move like I think might.

But this much we know: It’s Jason Botts time.

Make no mistake: The Nevin deal is more about creating a role for Botts than it is about creating one for Hairston. With Ian Kinsler’s return to the lineup, Mark DeRosa was freed up to play all over the field as well as at DH on occasion, and lately there’d been no reason to think that the right-handed-hitting DeRosa (.319/.392/.560 in May) wasn’t capable of giving Texas what Nevin (.139/.227/.241 in May) had been counted on to provide.

On May 11, I wrote this: “[W]hen Ian Kinsler comes back, it might not be the worst thing in the world to have DeRosa give Phil Nevin a little breather.” Add Botts (.417/.563/.833 thus far) to the mix, which Texas did on May 23, and just giving Nevin a breather was no longer the best alternative. There were reports — not to mention confessions from Nevin himself — that he wasn’t the best influence in the room last summer once he lost his everyday job. Was he going to be the same with this reduction in duties? Was he already showing signs?

And there’s a big difference in circumstances this time around. Last year when Nevin was benched, Texas was 13.5 games out of first with under six weeks to play, and he was due another $12 million. Now, the Rangers are four games up in the division, with under $7 million left on his deal. Much easier to cut ties now, and if there was a sense that he was going to be a problem, it would have been a mistake for the Rangers to cover their eyes and hope he didn’t create too much of a distraction. There’s too much at stake.

But Texas didn’t have to simply eat the contract and fire Nevin. The Cubs, despite being 13.5 games out themselves (and 9.5 back in the Wild Card Race, with 10 teams to catch), thought for some reason that they needed a temporary reinforcement for Derrek Lee, who could be back from his wrist fracture in another couple weeks. Todd Walker, the Cubs’ primary first baseman since the Lee injury, has hit .279/.371/.357 since Lee got hurt. But Walker probably moves back now to second base, where Hairston had played most of his games this year, unless the Cubs choose to platoon Nevin and Walker until Lee returns.

Chicago agreed to send Hairston to Texas for Nevin, an exchange of players who will be free agents following the season. Hairston will collect about $1.6 million of his $2.3 million deal the rest of the season, or around $5 million less than Nevin will be paid. The approximately $4.5 million that Texas sends to Chicago, then, essentially means there is no significant payroll impact in Texas or Chicago. The Rangers are reportedly saving a bit under $1 million in the deal.

Back to DeRosa, and Botts. DeRosa’s defensive versatility means that he’ll probably be used all over the field, something that Texas couldn’t do with Nevin (who once upon a time was an adequate catcher/corner infielder/corner outfielder), and as a result Botts is going to get a terrific opportunity to continue to show what he has shown the last week. If he does, meet your 2007 DH. It wasn’t going to be Nevin, regardless of the year he had here. But the chances are now far greater that it could be Botts, because he’s going to get as many as 300 big league at-bats in 2006 to prove himself.

In 75 games with Texas, Nevin (who was acquired in July for Chan Ho Park) hit .204/.287/.382, with 12 home runs and 39 RBI, and of course that includes a very good April 2006 (.287/.369/.557).

What’s the other move that the Nevin-Hairston trade could trigger? With Hairston and DeRosa in flexible roles, and both obviously capable of playing second base, D’Angelo Jimenez suddenly becomes a lot less important. He doesn’t offer enough power or base-stealing capability to stand out as a late-inning weapon, and since he’s far less versatile a defender than Hairston or DeRosa, it stands to reason that his days with the Rangers could be numbered.

So who could be summoned to take Jimenez’s place? Freddy Guzman is on a tear at Oklahoma — after a slow first week, he has hit .357/.460/.500 in 42 at-bats, with eight walks and just five strikeouts — and seems to be ready for a return to the big leagues, but there are two things working against him: Gary Matthews Jr. isn’t showing any signs of slowing down as a leadoff center fielder (the Rangers would probably want Guzman to play more than someone like Adrian Brown was if he’s going to come up), and Hairston is capable of playing a pretty good center field himself (though he hasn’t yet this season). Still, if Jimenez is let go in favor of a position player, Guzman would seem to be the top candidate.

But might it be Oklahoma righthander John Wasdin (who just had a 24-inning scoreless streak snapped and sits at 3-3, 2.17 for the season, with 61 strikeouts and 17 walks in 58 innings), who could free Rick Bauer up to work in more late-inning situations? Or righthander Wes Littleton, who didn’t pitch while up last weekend but who has fired 3.2 shutout innings since being reassigned to the RedHawks? He’s certainly more likely than a longshot like righthander Bryan Corey, who has punched out 30 hitters between Frisco and Oklahoma and given up five earned runs (1.59 ERA) on 22 hits and seven walks in 28.1 innings, or Frisco lefthander Jesse Carlson, who posted an ERA of 0.54 in May, scattering seven hits and six walks in 16.2 innings while fanning 14.

A bench of DeRosa, Hairston, Guzman, and Gerald Laird would enable Buck Showalter to do all kinds of things late in the game, not to mention with the lineup as we head into the hottest part of the season.

Hairston, who turned 30 last week, has an option remaining but has more than five years of big league service, meaning he can refuse an optional assignment. He was having his worst major league season by far (.207/.253/.244), and was reportedly unhappy with his role in Chicago, who had acquired him from Baltimore before the 2005 season (with minor leaguers Mike Fontenot and David Crouthers) for Sammy Sosa. Hairston is a lifetime .259/.331/.366 hitter, with 105 career steals (at about a 70 percent success rate) in 682 games.

Hairston sees a healthy 3.85 pitches per plate appearance (3.97 in 2006, despite his struggles at the plate), which is starting to show up as a trait that Jon Daniels likes in his position players. A right-handed hitter, he’s faring a bit better against righthanders this year but historically hits lefthanders better. He’s an energy guy.

Hairston’s father, Jerry Sr., played for 14 years in the major leagues, 13.5 of those with the White Sox. Hairston’s brother, Scott, is a prospect with the Diamondbacks and a former teammate of Ian Kinsler’s at Central Arizona Junior College. Hairston had at least two other relatives who played professionally, and he was the first African-American to be a third-generation major leaguer.

Hairston gives the Rangers some interesting possibilities, but again, acquiring him was not the point of the Nevin trade.

For all the talk coming out of the Clemens camp about pitching for the team that would give him the best shot at another ring, it seems pretty clear now that he was going to remain in Houston if he returned to the mound at all. He did a good job getting three teams involved that would most scare the Astros into paying him more than he’s ever made. I’ll be pulling for him.

Evidently, Clemens will start for Low A Lexington (whose third baseman is Koby Clemens) on June 6, AA Corpus Christi on June 11, AAA Round Rock on June 16, and, assuming no setbacks, he’ll start for Houston on June 22. If the Astros skip their fifth starter due to a June 29 off-day, that would put Clemens on the mound in Arlington on Sunday, July 2 — which is tentatively set for Newberg Report Night.

I’m going to firm that up one way or the other very soon.

Lefthander John Rheinecker’s Monday masterpiece caused Texas to change its rotation plans. Rather than option him out due to a number of upcoming off-days enabling the club to go with four starters for a while, Rheinecker stays up and will start Tuesday against Kansas City.

Rheinecker went 8.1 innings on Monday, getting 20 of his 25 outs on the ground or on strikes. He had command of everything, getting ahead with his fastball and baffling Seattle with his breaking ball. He worked quickly and pounded the lower part of the zone. It was impressive.

Righthander Antonio Alfonseca made a rehab appearance for Oklahoma last night, striking out one and giving up a hit in a scoreless inning.

Righthander Frankie Francisco is slated to kick off a rehab assignment with Frisco tomorrow. He was reportedly hitting 94 miles per hour on Monday in extended.

Righthander Adam Eaton threw yesterday for the first time since April 5 surgery on his right middle finger. He tossed 30 balls from 30-40 feet on flat ground, without incident.

Oklahoma catcher-infielder Jamie Burke was placed on the disabled list with a left ankle sprain. With the assignment of Littleton to the RedHawks, righthander Jeremy Ward was transferred to Frisco.

Bakersfield righthander Eric Hurley was activated after a brief DL stint due to wrist soreness.

Oklahoma outfielder Laynce Nix drove in 27 runs in 25 games in May, but he hasn’t played since May 26 due to a case of bilateral pink eye. He’d homered three times in his last two games.

It’s like clockwork. Shortstop Joaquin Arias struggles at the plate in April, and becomes a different hitter in May. After a .222/.253/.311 opening month with Oklahoma, the 21-year-old hit .299/.303/.392 in May.

Arias’s month included only two walks in 108 at-bats. Meanwhile, at Clinton, third baseman Johnny Whittleman struggled with the bat (.187/.327/.220) in May, but he did draw an impressive 19 walks. And Bakersfield outfielder Ben Harrison drew 16 free passes while hitting six homers and driving in 17 runs in a .242/.370/.495 month, though he did fan 25 times in 27 games.

Frisco lefthander John Danks fared well in his return from a two-start layoff, fanning six in 3.2 innings of work and giving up two runs on two hits (including a home run to the final batter he faced) and two walks. He left the game due to a pitch count and experienced no problems with his elbow or forearm.

RoughRider outfielder Anthony Webster hit .400/.423/.590 in May, fanning just five times in 100 at-bats. Teammate Jake Blalock hit .340/.411/.412 for the month.

Blaze reliever Jesse Ingram gave up one run (0.62 ERA) on just five hits and eight walks in 14.2 May frames, punching out a gaudy 24 California Leaguers.

Catcher Taylor Teagarden is catching bullpen sessions in Surprise, but probably won’t play this season as he recovers from winter Tommy John surgery.

Earlier this week, the Rangers signed University of Tennessee infielder Chris Kemp and University of the Pacific righthander Luke Massetti, both of whom were small-window free agents since they were fifth-year seniors in 2006, and Mount Hood Community College draft-and-follow outfielder Tim Rodriguez, whom Texas drafted in last summer’s 37th round. The club didn’t sign Daytona Beach Community College shortstop Chase Fontaine, last year’s 18th-round pick, or injured righthanders Brad Barragar and Dexter Carter.

Texas has begun negotiations with third baseman Steven Marquardt, permitted since his Columbia Basin Community College club was still alive as of the Monday night deadline to sign draft-and-follows. The Rangers have until 11:00 p.m. on Monday — the day before this year’s draft — to come to terms with Marquardt. Otherwise, he becomes eligible to be redrafted by any club.

Baseball America ranks Marquardt as the number 135 prospect in this draft. If he doesn’t sign with Texas or with whomever drafts him next week, he has committed to transfer to Oregon State.

Kemp hit .314/.374/.520 for the Vols in 2006, with 11 home runs and 41 RBI in 55 games. He sat out the 2005 season for academic reasons and redshirted.

Massetti went 5-5, 4.65 for the Tigers, fanning 62 and walking 22 in 89 innings this season.

San Diego purchased the contract of righthander Brian Sikorski from AAA Portland. He’s fanned 44 hitters in 28.2 innings, walking seven and posting a 3.14 ERA.

A level down in the Padres system, righthander John Hudgins improved to 3-0, 1.14 last night, firing seven scoreless innings and holding Birmingham to two singles and a walk while fanning six. He’s permitted only nine hits in 23.2 Mobile innings, covering four starts since San Diego acquired him from Texas in the Guzman deal. The other player the Padres got in the trade, outfielder-first baseman Vincent Sinisi, doubled in three trips but is hitting just .200/.325/.262 in 65 BayBear at-bats.

Fantastic news: The Rangers announced contract extensions for radio broadcasters Eric Nadel and Victor Rojas, and television booth tandem Josh Lewin and Tom Grieve. Specifics weren’t disclosed but the Rangers confirmed that Nadel’s deal should make him “a Ranger for life,” and it’s been reported that Rojas, Lewin, and Grieve each got three-to-four-year extensions.

Kansas City fired general manager Allard Baird, replacing him with 39-year-old Dayton Moore, Atlanta’s assistant GM. Funny how old that seems for a new GM hire these days.

Make sure you’re reading T.R. Sullivan’s MLB blog. He’s off to a really cool start.

Our own Devin Pike is involved with the North Texas screening of the feature science fiction film “Serenity,” which will be held at midnight on Friday, June 23, at the Studio Movie Grill in Addison. Proceeds from the screening go to Equality Now, an international charity focusing on women’s rights. Get more information on this event and the organization at http://www.theamigos.net/serenity/.

Whether there’s going to be a Jason Botts era in Texas is something we won’t know for a while. But if it turns out that there will be, we know this much:

It begins today.

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

1 Comment

In the name of all that’s good and Holy, what else can go wrong….. Let me ponder…. Hmmmmm,
http://psycho.mlblogs.com/

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