THE NEWBERG REPORT — JUNE 7, 2006 DRAFT SPECIAL

If you were to assess the Rangers’ farm system in a big-picture context, and if you’ve paid close attention to Jon Daniels the last few months, you would probably conclude that what the organization needs more than anything is a batch of impact bats, and that the system’s greatest depth, starting with the big league club and moving down, is at catcher and in the middle infield.

So what does Texas do with its first three picks in yesterday’s draft?

Leads off by taking a pitcher rather than a bat.

And then pops a catcher and a shortstop.

Forgetting the names for now — because you and I and, to an extent, the people paid to evaluate them don’t really know how they will turn out — you have to love how Day One of the draft went for Texas, philosophically.

Some teams won’t deal with certain agents.

Some teams won’t entertain the thought of paying above slot, and will pass over more talented players to avoid it. Some teams even champion the idea of paying less than slot, and get books written about them.

Some adhere to a scouting-based drafting philosophy, to the exclusion of measuring a player’s actual production. Some, on the other hand, are far more stats-based in their approach.

Some refuse to draft players who aren’t the right size.

And some succumb to the temptation to draft for need.

Fans of the Rangers are fortunate that Texas doesn’t pigeon-hole itself in any of those ways. The club has in the past. But not now.

The Rangers believe in drafting the best baseball player available every single time that their turn comes up. And while there’s a whole lot about the baseball draft that is wildly unpredictable, one thing is verifiable, no matter the sport: Draft for need and you’re going to screw the thing up. Take the best player available, and you give yourself a much better chance of making the draft pay off.

Do I know whether the Rangers’ board was well assembled? Nope, and neither do you. But I believe that Ron Hopkins and his team of scouts, who have proven themselves in years past, were faithful to the board, rather than some need-based plan, and that gives me confidence that this has a chance to be a very solid draft class.

The first 18 of the draft’s 50 rounds were conducted yesterday, the remainder to follow today. Having no second-round pick and no supplemental picks, the Rangers had 17 choices to make on Tuesday. Here’s what they did with them:

1. Kasey Kiker, LHP, Russell County High School (Ala.) (Ranger first-round picks since 1990 include Mark Teixeira, John Danks, Thomas Diamond, Drew Meyer, John Mayberry Jr., Rick Helling, Carlos Pena, Benji Gil, Scott Heard)

Despite his size, Kasey Kiker has a power arsenal that, at times, might remind you of Billy Wagner.

Despite his youth, he already has an athletic, sturdy build that might remind you of Mike Hampton.

He has a vigorous, rock-n-roll delivery — aggressive but contained and repeatable — that might remind you of Dontrelle Willis, half a foot shorter.

But ask him what he thinks about the comparisons to Scott Kazmir, and you can hear the smile in Kiker’s voice. “That guy dominates. He’s nasty. That’s what I want to be.”

In John Hart and Grady Fuson’s first draft with the Rangers, the club had the chance to draft Kazmir out of Houston’s Cypress Falls High School but opted instead for Drew Meyer. Four years later, the 22-year-old Kazmir is poised to pitch in the All-Star Game.

In Jon Daniels’s first draft as Rangers GM, he made the ultimate determination that the pitcher who patterns himself after Kazmir wasn’t going to get by the Rangers.

Rumors began to gather steam Tuesday morning that the top player on the Rangers’ board was University of Washington righthander Tim Lincecum, thought not long ago to be in the mix to go first overall to Kansas City. But if that was the plan for Texas, San Francisco foiled it by choosing Lincecum at number 10, and as a result it seemed most likely that the Rangers would draft The Woodlands High School righthander Kyle Drabek, Wake Forest infielder Matt Antonelli, or Kiker.

Among the pre-draft knocks on Drabek and Kiker in the sports pages and baseball publications — in fact, basically the only knocks — were unspecified concerns about their makeup. On Tuesday morning we learned that (according to Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, for one) Kiker “moved way up on boards in the last 48 hours [leading up to the draft] when some concerns about his makeup proved to be unfounded.” Maybe the Drabek questions weren’t similarly put to rest; maybe they were. Regardless, both pitchers were available when the Rangers’ turn came up, and Texas chose Kiker.

The Rangers had apparently worked Kiker out twice at Ameriquest Field in the past couple weeks, and as Daniels explained, they saw mid-90s velocity and a hammer curve and an advanced change but had seen those before; saw the competitiveness but had seen that before; saw the solid build and strong legs and quick arm action but had seen those things before, too. What impressed the club most in those Arlington workouts (which involved more than a dozen draft-eligibles) was that Kiker, who turned 18 in November, “did not blink.” There wasn’t a hint of intimidation as he pitched in a big league ballpark, not an ounce of anxiety as he auditioned for what conceivably could have been an extra million dollars.

Daniels, based on firsthand observations and the trust he places in Hopkins and area scout Jeff Wood, not to mention other scouts and coaches who watched Kiker pitch, had convinced himself that the southpaw was the best player available at number 12. He has made a commitment to pitch collegiately for South Alabama, but he’s as likely to be a Jaguar next year as you or me. Kiker is going to sign, probably quickly, and get his pro career underway.

For his Warriors career, the allegedly 5’11”, unquestionably 185-pound southpaw went 31-6, 0.91, striking out 474 batters in 256.2 innings. He threw two no-hitters as a freshman. The summer after his freshman year, he won a game and saved another in the World Youth Championship in Taiwan, at age 15, helping Team USA win a gold medal. Kiker went 3-0 as a sophomore, missing most of the season with a broken collarbone.

Coming into his senior season, Kiker was ranked by Baseball America as the 12th-best high school prospect in the country on the strength of the 12-1, 0.52 record he posted as a junior on the Russell County High squad that was named the 2005 High School Team of the Year by BA. In 94 innings, he scattered 41 hits and 24 walks while punching out 173 hitters. He fired three more no-hitters that season, including a perfect game in which he struck out 20 of 21 hitters. Among his teammates was outfielder Colby Rasmus, who would be the Cardinals’ first pick in last summer’s draft, 28th overall. Rasmus was the first high school player out of Alabama to go in the first round since 1994.

It wouldn’t be 11 more years before another Alabama high schooler went in the first round; in fact, it wouldn’t be long before Russell County High repeated. Colby’s father Tony Rasmus helped produce two first-rounders yesterday, Kiker and Atlanta supplemental first-rounder Cory Rasmus.

Speaking of Atlanta, as late as yesterday morning, MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo noted that Kiker had “wowed the Braves,” perhaps the organization most renowned for its tendency to draft (and ability to develop) high school arms. If Kiker was there at number 24, it looks like Atlanta might have popped him — if Milwaukee didn’t do so first at 16.

Kiker went 7-4, 0.92 as a senior, allowing 29 hits and 25 walks in 68.1 innings, fanning 140. He was a Louisville Slugger All-American, Aflac All-American, and Baseball America Second-Team All-American.

The last two high school pitchers that Texas took in the first round, John Danks and Eric Hurley, kicked things off in the Arizona League, where the Rangers stage extended spring training. Reportedly, however, the organization plans to assign Kiker to Spokane, which is typically reserved for college draftees and second-year pros who debuted in Surprise a year earlier. Kiker’s experience in international competition, not to mention as the ace for the top high school program in the country, gives the Rangers confidence that he can handle the Northwest League right away.

When the Mets drafted Kazmir with the 15th pick in the 2002 draft, negotiations dragged into August, and after signing him the club allowed him to pitch only 18 innings before turning him loose the following year. Chances are that the Rangers are going to have a deal with Kiker well before August; how much they pitch him this summer is hard to predict.

2. No selection (Johnny Whittleman, Vincent Sinisi, Nick Regilio, K.C. Herren, Jason Bourgeois, Jason Grabowski)

Cleveland drafted University of Hawaii righthander Steve Wright with the pick that Texas forfeited when it signed Kevin Millwood this winter.

Later in the second round, Atlanta chose Daytona Beach Community College shortstop Chase Fontaine, whom Texas tried to sign last week as a draft-and-follow. Fontaine was the Rangers’ 18th-round pick last summer.

3. Chad Tracy, C, Pepperdine University (Hank Blalock, John Hudgins, Michael Schlact, Taylor Teagarden, Barry Zito, Ryan Dempster)

The catcher position has undergone the greatest overhaul in the Rangers system the last couple years. Texas had used premium draft picks on Mike Nickeas and Taylor Teagarden, signed Latin American prospects Cristian Santana, Manuel Pina, and Alberto Martinez, and traded for Billy Killian.

And so when Daniels and Hopkins referred yesterday afternoon to third-rounder Chad Tracy first as a “hitter,” the predraft suggestions in some places that Tracy might end up at a position other than catcher seemed like it might have some legs.

Not the case, said Daniels. At least not yet. While Texas believes Tracy’s bat will play at third base or in the outfield, the club is going to give the Pepperdine product every chance to develop behind the plate.

But while Teagarden, whom the Rangers drafted in the same round a year earlier, was considered a major league-ready defender whose bat would need work, Tracy is just the opposite. The Rangers love his potential at the plate.

A pre-season All-American according to Collegiate Baseball Magazine (first team), the National Collegiate Baseball Writers’ Association (second team), and Baseball America (third team), Tracy hit .315 and slugged .496 in 2006, after posting West Coast Conference-leading .367 and .609 percentages in 2005. He has a smooth swing (finishing on an upward plane that reminds scouts of Mike Piazza) and generates plus bat speed, hits to all fields, and is a tough strikeout.

The son of Pittsburgh manager Jim Tracy, the 20-year-old predictably gets rave reviews for his baseball IQ, his work ethic, and his character.

On defense, Tracy is said to be a good receiver with solid quickness behind the plate, but his arm strength is a question. Elbow soreness at one stretch this summer caused Tracy to spend some time at DH.

Tracy caught Frisco righthander Kea Kometani while the two were at Pepperdine together. Whether Tracy will remain at catcher long enough to team up with Kometani again is tough to predict, but clearly he’s going to be in shin guards once his pro career kicks off.

Oakland took Dallas high school product Matt Sulentic later in the third round. If this baseball thing doesn’t work out for Sulentic, he can always join the lineage of left-handed-hitting shortstop-outfielder-right-handed-pitchers from Hillcrest High School and start up a Rangers newsletter in 11 years.

4. Marcus Lemon, SS, Eustis High School (Fla.) (Kevin Mench, Laynce Nix, Wes Littleton, Brandon Boggs, Shane Funk, Ryan Glynn)

Jim Tracy has already managed in the big leagues for more years than he played in the majors. He was an outfielder who played sparingly for the Cubs in 1980 and 1981.

In those two seasons, Chet Lemon was across town, playing center field for the White Sox in the prime years of a big league career that would span from 1975 until 1990.

Their sons were drafted back-to-back by the Rangers on Tuesday.

There are some differences between the two prospects. Marcus Lemon, a shortstop, is considered a tremendous defensive player (Baseball America ranked him as the second-best defensive player at any position among high school draft-eligibles), but while he’s a solid contact hitter, there are questions about his potential to develop power.

But there are similarities as well. Like Chad Tracy, Lemon is said to have off-the-charts makeup and exemplary work ethic. What he lacks in tools he makes up for with an all-out, hard-nosed style of play that the best offensive catalysts in the game boast. His aptitude on the field is matched by his aptitude in the classroom: Lemon graduated high school with a 4.2 grade-point average last month.

Lemon is very young –- he just turned 18 last week — and has an awaiting scholarship at the University of Texas, so he could be a tough sign. Stories out of Florida indicate that Chet was very clear with every team that contacted the Lemon family about what Marcus’s number was. That suggests the Rangers knew going in how much money it would take to sign Lemon, and maybe the absence of a second-round pick was enough for Tom Hicks to authorize Daniels to allocate above-slot money to get Lemon signed.

As a senior at Eustis High, where Chet is the baseball coach, Lemon hit .451 with six home runs and 24 RBI in 31 games, drawing 33 walks while fanning just five times, and stealing 23 bases in 24 tries. While not a burner on the basepaths, Lemon is considered an extremely good baserunner.

The left-handed hitter was the starting shortstop last summer for the USA Junior National squad that competed in the Junior Pan-Am Games in Mexico, hitting .560 and getting on base at a .611 clip in 25 at-bats.

Chet Lemon, Oakland’s first-round choice in 1972, chose to sign a pro deal right out of high school. Texas hopes that his son is similarly inclined.

5. Chris Davis, 1B, Navarro College (Tex.) (C.J. Wilson, Mike Nickeas, Michael Kirkman, Matt Lorenzo, Warren Morris, Ryan Dittfurth)

Davis was the third-to-last pick in the 2004 draft, chosen out of Longview High School by the Yankees in the 50th round. He didn’t sign, enrolling instead at the University of Texas. He then transferred to Navarro College in Corsicana and was drafted in the 35th round by the Angels last summer. Declining to sign, he returned to Navarro but committed to the University of Arkansas (instead of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, or Ole Miss) for the 2007 season.

The Rangers would prefer that the next few stops on Davis’s baseball path be Spokane, Clinton, and Bakersfield.

Davis was a two-way star in high school and at Navarro. He was among the nation’s junior college leaders with 17 home runs this year and was also the Bulldogs’ closer.

Davis throws in the low 90s, but the Rangers prefer his potential as a left-handed power hitter. Having played on both infield corners for Navarro, the 6’3”, 210-pounder is apparently going to break in as a first baseman should he sign with the Rangers.

6. Jacob Brigham, RHP, Central Florida Christian Academy (German Duran, Billy Susdorf, John Connally Barnett, Adam Bourassa, Aaron Harang, Danny Kolb)

Interesting pick. Before his senior season, the big high school righthander was on Baseball America’s Third-Team Pre-Season All-America squad, coming off a junior year in which he’d gone 9-2, 0.51 with 141 strikeouts in 68 innings, allowing just 20 hits and 21 walks. But Brigham struggled at the beginning of the 2006 season — BA suggested that “[f]ew players in the high school class took a bigger step back from last fall to this spring” — and he fell from top-three-round consideration.

Brigham’s numbers wouldn’t suggest that he struggled at any point during the season — he went 10-3, 0.75, punching out 146 hitters in 75 frames, scattering 19 hits and walking 32, firing three no-hitters. But he lost a few ticks off what had been a mid-90s fastball, and his control and mechanics were a bit out of whack. When he’s right, he has some bite on his breaking ball and a developing change.

Brigham, whom BA ranked before the 2006 season as the number 20 high school prospect in the country (Kiker was 12th and Lemon was 21st), has committed to the University of Central Florida.

7. Grant Gerrard, OF, Southern Illinois University (Jake Rasner, Ben Harrison, Matt Farnum, Mike Lamb, Patrick Boyd)

One thing you might notice about the list of players that Texas has chosen recently in the seventh round is that, with the exception of Rasner, all were college seniors. The Rangers once again went after a senior with their seventh-round pick yesterday, calling Gerrard’s name.

The left-handed-hitting corner fielder was drafted by Seattle in the 16th round last summer, despite playing in only 27 games as a junior due to a broken wrist. He didn’t sign, returning to the Salukis in 2006 and earning first-team recognition on the All-Missouri Valley Conference Team after hitting .344/.434/.496 with five home runs and 55 RBI in 58 games. He drew 38 walks while fanning 37 times in 224 at-bats, and stole 15 bases in 16 attempts. Scouts think his 6’4” frame and short, quick swing promise additional power.

Gerrard, a Colorado native, played for the University of Washington in 2003 before transferring to SIU.

8. Josh Bradbury, 3B-OF, Orange Coast College (Calif.) (Nick Masset, Jeremy Cleveland, Chris O’Riordan, Mark Roberts, Craig Monroe, Mark Little)

Bradbury was a first-team selection to the All-Orange Empire Conference Team this year, hitting an impressive .364/.443/.662 with a conference-best 12 homers and 35 RBI in 42 games. He’s had labrum surgery in the past, and some scouts have questioned his ability to handle plus velocity.

9. Brennan Garr, RHP, University of Northern Colorado (Jim Fasano, R.J. Anderson, Edwin Encarnacion, Scott Eyre, Andy Pratt)

Garr has starred for Northern Colorado on the mound and at the plate, leading the team in batting average as well as saves in both his sophomore and junior seasons. In his three years with the Bears, he has hit .345/.400/.527 with 30 doubles, 19 homers, and 95 RBI in 490 at-bats, striking out only 43 times. As a pitcher, he has gone 4-4, 5.45 with 12 saves, holding opponents to a .246 batting average and fanning 43 while issuing 27 walks in 34.2 innings.

Though his numbers as a hitter have been more dominant than as a pitcher (and despite the fact that it was his bat that earned him recognition as a first-teamer on the Division I All-Independent Baseball Team), it’s Garr’s 93-mph fastball (which has reportedly touched 100 at least once) that prompted Texas to used its ninth-round pick on him.

After high school, Garr enrolled at Central Arizona Junior College (where Ian Kinsler began his collegiate career) but transferred to Northern Colorado before ever playing in a game.

10. Craig Gentry, OF, University of Arkansas (Nate Gold, Adam Fox, Matt Nevarez, Rusty Greer, Doug Davis, Justin Maxwell)

One of the fastest baseball players in the college ranks, Gentry went undrafted as a junior in 2005 because he needed Tommy John surgery. He returned to Arkansas for his senior season, hitting .326/.429/.494 with 20 walks and 16 strikeouts in 178 at-bats.

Gentry missed some time in the spring with an infected right knee, and stole 16 bases in 22 tries. He’s considered a sensational defender in center field.

11. Craig Crow, RHP, Rice University (Travis Metcalf, Nate Fogle, Justin Echols, Kiki Bengochea, John Dettmer, Tom Sergio)

Crow rebounded from a 2005 season lost to injury by going 8-1, 3.08 for Rice in 2006, permitting 80 hits and 31 walks in 79 innings while fanning 85. He’d gone 16-3 in two seasons at Grayson County College before transferring to Rice.

Crow, who features a decent fastball to go along with a big curve, earned Second-Team All-Conference honors this year.

12. Matthew Jaimes, 3B, Chino High School (Calif.) (Erik Thompson, Andrew Wishy, Kevin Ardoin)

I watched some scouting video on Jaimes and saw him take an inordinate amount of pitches, crushing two others over the fence, one to straightaway left and the other to straightaway right. There’s unquestionably a good amount of raw power there.

A University of Hawaii commit, Jamies hit .500 with 15 home runs this season, and was also 10-1 on the mound.

13. Kevin Angelle, LHP, Bridge City High School (Tex.) (Emerson Frostad, Kyle Rogers, Doug Mathis, Jason Jones, Marc Sagmoen, Cliff Brumbaugh, David Hulse)

Angelle was throwing in the mid-80s as a junior in 2005, but his velocity hopped up to 92 this year and, based on his frame, scouts think there’s more there. He and Highland Park lefthander Clayton Kershaw both committed to Texas A&M originally but neither will go to College Station. Kershaw was drafted seventh overall by the Dodgers and is sure to go pro, while Angelle changed his mind and will attend San Jacinto Junior College if he doesn’t sign with the Rangers.

The 6’3” southpaw, who mixes in a late-breaking curve and a developing change, went 12-1, 1.74 for Bridge City this year, punching out 162 batters in 76.1 innings while walking 36. He also hit .440. He will pitch today in the state Class 3A semifinals.

As a sophomore, Angelle fanned 117 hitters in 59 frames. After pitching for the USA Junior National Team that won the gold medal at the 2004 Junior Olympics, he then struck out 177 hitters in 89 innings as a Bridge City junior.

Connie Angelle, who says Texas was the first of 28 teams to contact her son, admitted to reporters that some teams suggested that his asking price was too high, even if he were to be picked around the fifth round. This one sounds a lot like a probable draft-and-follow situation.

14. Michael Ballard, LHP, University of Virginia (Steve Murphy, Tug Hulett, Brandon Knight)

Ballard went 9-3, 4.09 for Virginia this year, with 69 strikeouts and 25 walks in 92.1 innings. He’d gone 8-3, 3.54 for the Cavaliers in 2005, fanning 53 and walking 19 in 89 frames, and was drafted by Minnesota in the 47th round as a draft-eligible sophomore but didn’t sign.

Ballard missed the 2004 season due to Tommy John surgery, after posting a 2-2, 1.93 record as a freshman in 2003.

Despite having a year of eligibility remaining, Ballard has completed his undergraduate degree and thus is likely to sign.

15. Cody Himes, SS, College of San Mateo (Calif.) (Kea Kometani, Johnny Lujan, Kerry Lacy, Sam Narron)

Himes hit .368/.441/.593 in 182 at-bats for San Mateo, the alma mater of Rangers righthander Scott Feldman, adding 36 stolen bases in 43 games. He was named the Coast Conference Player of the Year and a Community College All-American.

16. Cody Podraza, CF, Tomball High School (Tex.) (Kevin Altman, Jesse Hall, Domingo Valdez)

Standing just 5’8”, Podraza’s primary tool is game-changing speed. The switch-hitter worked out for the Rangers at Ameriquest Field last week.

17. John Maschino, RHP, Seminole State College (Okla.) (Ian Kinsler, Dave Meliah, Reid Ryan, Nic Crosta)

Tampa Bay drafted Maschino in the 36th round last summer but failed to sign him then and then couldn’t come to terms with him last week. His velocity jumped this spring from the upper 80s to the low 90s, with good sink.

At one point, the 6’5” righthander was set to transfer to Oklahoma, but it’s more likely that he’ll remain at Seminole State as a draft-and-follow, giving the Rangers the opportunity to watch his progress in 2007 before deciding whether to try to sign him.

18. Michael Wagner, RHP, Washington State University (Freddie Thon, Cain Byrd, Keith Stamler, Chase Fontaine, Cameron Coughlan)

Wagner went 5-6, 5.67 with one save this season. He allowed 111 hits (.323 opponents’ average) and 23 walks in 85.2 innings while fanning 59. He pitched two seasons for Vanderbilt before transferring to Washington State.

Rounds 19 through 50 will take place today. Expect Texas to add a lot of high school and junior college picks that they’ll be able to monitor for a year as draft-and-follows.

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

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