THE NEWBERG REPORT — JUNE 3, 2006

What was the shrewdest free agent signing the Rangers made during John Hart’s four years as general manager?

Are you sure it isn’t Gary Matthews Jr.?

He’s definitely in the conversation.

As much of a breakthrough as David Dellucci was atop the Rangers order last year, consider this: Dellucci hit .251/.367/.513 in 2005.

Matthews is hitting .313/.380 /.551 right now.

Dellucci hit 29 homers, 17 doubles, and five triples, striking out 121 times.

With Texas exactly a third through the 2006 season, Matthews is on pace to hit 15 homers, 57 doubles, and 12 triples, fanning 93 times.

Fifty-seven doubles. Only Mike Lowell, Miguel Cabrera, and Craig Biggio are on pace for more, and each of them have played between six and 10 games more than Matthews has. (Remember, Matthews missed the season’s first nine days.)

And obviously the comparison defensively isn’t even a comparison. Dellucci is, at this point in his career, not an everyday defender.

The Rangers lead the AL West by 4.5 games. The last time they had a greater division lead than that? In 1999, the club’s last playoff season.

Only the Mets, who lead Atlanta and Philadelphia by five games in the NL East, have a greater division lead right now.

Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo returned to full-time duties last night.

Righthander Kevin Millwood has some back stiffness, and as a result he’ll be pushed back to start Tuesday, exchanging assignments with while lefthander John Rheinecker, who will pitch tomorrow afternoon’s series finale with the White Sox.

Lefthander C.J. Wilson was optioned to Oklahoma, with righthander John Wasdin coming up. Quotes from both Jon Daniels and Buck Showalter made it clear that organization made the move in order to give Wilson more regular work and an opportunity to refine his command. He’ll be back.

Wasdin will work in middle relief until getting a start when Texas meets Boston for two on June 10.

Righthander Antonio Alfonseca nears activation. His fastball sat at 90-93 in his Wednesday and Friday rehab innings for Oklahoma, both of which were scoreless.

I went to see Frisco play last night, and four players stood out:

1. Lefthander John Danks had extraordinary command even if he lacked his best stuff (other than his change, which was filthy), and Springfield didn’t have a chance. Danks fanned three and walked none in seven strong innings, giving up a run on three hits (all in the second and third frames).

2. Righthander Frankie Francisco, making his first game appearance in more than 13 months, was excellent. Swinging strike three, opposite-field ground ball single, fielder’s choice bouncer to shortstop, and a caught stealing. He threw something like 10 pitches (several at 94 miles per hour), only one of which was out of the strike zone.

3. Anthony Webster showed more power in both his bat and his arm than I remembered seeing before.

4. Cardinals center fielder Reid Gorecki (related to former Ranger farmhand Ryan?) is a heck of a defender.

Texas agreed to send Minnesota a player to be named later in exchange for first baseman Jason Hart, who hit .225/.267/.425 with four homers and eight RBI in 80 at-bats for AAA Rochester. The Topps Minor League Player of the Year in all of baseball in 2000, he joined the Rangers before the 2002 season as part of the package that brought Gerald Laird to Texas for Carlos Pena. Hart, who appeared briefly with Texas in 2002, missed the 2004 season after surgery to remove a brain tumor, and returned in 2005 before leaving the Rangers this winter to sign with the Twins as a free agent.

Hart singled and doubled for the RedHawks last night, starting at first base.

Outfielder Rashad Eldridge (.221/.292/.295) was released to make room on the AAA roster for Hart. This was Eldridge’s fifth season in the Rangers system, having come over from Cleveland in April 2002 for journeyman outfielder Chris Magruder.

Righthander Kea Kometani (4-2, 3.30 in 10 Bakersfield starts, with 56 strikeouts and 13 walks in 60 innings) was promoted to Frisco. The 2005 15th-rounder will start tonight — just 51 weeks after signing with the Rangers.

Lefthander Fabio Castro will reportedly start working in relief for the RoughRiders. He’s worked as a starter in each of his three rehab appearances so far.

Blaze reliever Nate Fogle, who had struggled since his promotion from Clinton, was placed on the disabled list with a strained right index finger. To replace Kometani and Fogle, righthander Johnny Lujan was activated from the DL and righthander Lou Pote was summoned from extended.

After his outstanding month of May, Bakersfield reliever Jesse Ingram kicked June off with a brilliant effort against Modesto, firing 4.1 hitless innings in which he set seven hitters down on strikes.

The Rangers signed third baseman Steve Marquardt on Thursday, coming to terms with the 2005 23rd-rounder before they would have lost his rights this coming Monday. The Columbian Basin Community College product, ranked by Baseball America as the number 135 prospect among those eligible for next week’s draft (which assumed Texas wouldn’t sign him), hit .390 with seven doubles, 12 home runs, and 53 RBI for the Hawks this year, helping lead them to the Northwest Athletic Association of Community Colleges title.

Marquardt, who turns 20 next week, was named the MVP of the NWAACC Eastern Region in 2006, and he was on the NWAACC All-Conference Team, having led the conference in homers and RBI. One important note is that the NWAACC plays with wood bats. Marquardt also played in a wood bat league in the summer of 2005, earning MVP honors in the West Coast Collegiate Summer League.

Had the Rangers not signed Marquardt — and if whichever organization would have drafted him next week also failed to sign him — he would have transferred to Oregon State. He’d previously been drafted out of high school in 2004, when the Phillies took him in the 37th round after he’d been honored as an Aflac All-American and a two-time player of the year in Washington State.

Cincinnati traded lefthander Ben Kozlowski to the Dodgers as the player to be named later in its April deal for outfielder Cody Ross (whom the Reds have since dealt to Florida). Kozlowski had gone 0-2, 12.54 in seven games out of the bullpen for AAA Louisville before a demotion to AA Chattanooga, where he went 2-1, 1.17 in 10 relief appearances.

Righthander Spike Lundberg is 6-1, 2.06 in 11 starts for AA Jacksonville, which could be where the Dodgers assign Kozlowski.

The Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League signed Juan Gonzalez.

The Chico Outlaws of the independent Golden Baseball League released righthander Warren Rosebrock.

The more I look at Tuesday’s draft, the more I think the Rangers and a bunch of teams just ahead and behind them in the first round are going to have to pay more based on slot than the players available there should get. Pretty weak class.

Doesn’t look like righthander Luke Hochevar (pitching now for the Fort Worth Cats) or Highland Park lefthander Clayton Kershaw or University of Texas outfielder Drew Stubbs will fall to the Rangers at the number 12 slot. Could Washington righty Tim Lincecum, thought recently to factor into the top three? Lots of people are projecting Missouri righthander Max Scherzer and Wake Forest third baseman Matt Antonelli to fall in Texas’s range. Lots think Woodlands righty Kyle Drabek would be a top 10 pick if not for makeup questions.

Stay tuned for the most complete Rangers draft coverage you’ll find anywhere. Mike Hindman and I will be draft-intensive on Tuesday, with email news flashes and heavy message board discussion all day, and on Wednesday morning you’ll get what is annually the longest Newberg Report of the year.

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

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