THE NEWBERG REPORT — SEPTEMBER 13, 2006

Eric Hurley was a blue-chip prospect coming out of high school, thought to be a possible top 10 pick in the 2004 draft. Texas, who used the 10th pick in that draft on Thomas Diamond, was thrilled when Hurley fell to the final spot of the first round, where the club grabbed him with a choice it had received as compensation for Atlanta’s winter signing of free agent righthander John Thomson.

Nate Gold was eligible to be drafted out of high school in 1998, out of Treasure Valley Community College in 1999 and in 2000, and out of Gonzaga University as a junior in 2001. He wasn’t drafted in any of those four years. He then led the NCAA in home runs as a senior in 2002, was chosen to compete in the Home Run Challenge at the College World Series, and yet wasn’t drafted until the Rangers used the 292nd pick on him (10th round) that June.

Hurley and Gold come from completely different backgrounds, but they’ll share the stage this off-season as they accept the Rangers’ 2006 Nolan Ryan Pitcher of the Year and 2006 Tom Grieve Player of the Year awards from the organization.

When the 2006 season began, Hurley was not considered to be on the level of the “DVD” triumvirate of Texas pitching prospects, but he wasn’t far from it. Baseball America ranked Edinson Volquez, John Danks, and Thomas Diamond as the Rangers’ top three prospects, with Hurley number five (behind Joaquin Arias and ahead of Ian Kinsler). I ranked Hurley behind the trio, but I had him sixth overall, putting Kinsler at number five.

John Sickels (“The Baseball Prospect Book”) was the one writer who had Hurley as the Rangers’ top pitching prospect coming into the 2006 season, ranking him as the 27th best pitching prospect in baseball (ahead of not only Volquez, Danks, and Diamond, but also pitchers like Homer Bailey, Matt Garza, Bobby Jenks, Chris Ray, and Cole Hamels).

Was Sickels onto something? Maybe. Chances are Hurley will be the fourth of the four pitchers to reach the big leagues, but his 2006 undoubtedly served to put him on the same plane as the other three as far as his ceiling is concerned.

Pitching at age 20 in the California League, Hurley’s season got off to a fantastic start. After a mediocre Bakersfield debut, the righty reeled off six straight starts in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer, culminating in a May 15 start in which he struck out 15 High Desert hitters without a walk, permitting one run on four hits in eight frames.

A sprained wrist late in the month stamped out any talk of a quick promotion to AA, and after Hurley made four solid starts on his return to action (2-1, 1.90), including a June 15 effort in which he took a no-hitter into the eighth, he struggled in his next five starts (0-3, 9.53), with an appearance in the Futures Game mixed in.

But despite the slump, Texas decided Hurley was ready for AA competition and promoted him in mid-July to Frisco. He made the curiously timed move look genius.

After having failed to throw a quality start in those final five Blaze appearances, Hurley pitched six times in AA, falling three outs short of firing a quality start in every one of them. He went 3-1, 1.95 for the RoughRiders, holding the Texas League to a skimpy .168 batting average (including .133 with runners on base and .122 by righthanders) and setting 31 down on strikes while walking only 11 in 37 frames.

Hurley turned 21 on August 17, making his final start of the season two days later, resting the final two and a half weeks due to a strained oblique muscle. The injury was not considered significant, but with 137.1 innings already under his belt, Hurley had shown the Rangers more than enough in a league in which he was among the youngest players.

The 6’4″ horse commands a mid-90s fastball that’s more refined than his slider or change, and so there’s work to be done as his maturation into a candidate for big league starts continues. But considering the progress he made in 2006, there will be plenty of anticipation in the spring to see if he can take the next step, just as Danks did this year. Hurley is a year behind Danks professionally, and developmentally, too.

Hurley won’t be added to the 40-man roster this winter, because he’s still a year away from being eligible for the Rule 5 Draft. Whether Gold is added to the roster is no certainty, either.

There’s no question that Gold had a monster season, and that there is exactly one first baseman on the 40-man roster (unless you count Jason Botts, who hasn’t played there since April). But Gold is 26 years old — the same age as Mark Teixeira and Botts — and he’s essentially had about a year and a half at every level in the minor leagues, without reaching AAA yet.

That isn’t to say Gold doesn’t have a chance to hit in the big leagues, but it could mean he’s a player that the Rangers might leave off the roster (as they’ve done the last two winters) and feel relatively safe that they won’t lose him in the Rule 5 Draft — at least not for good.

Or they may look at the freaky .292/.376/.582 season Gold put up, the 34 homers (second in minor league baseball this year) and 103 RBI and 27 doubles and tolerable 85 strikeouts, and decide he’s worth protecting.

After hitting a homerless .228/.274/.266 in 79 Frisco at-bats at the end of the season last year, Gold returned to the RoughRiders to start the 2006 season. His monthly average went up through July (.250, .295, .298, .325), and in that fourth month he hit a dozen bombs and drove in 32 runs in 28 games, with an OPS of 1.094.

For the year, Gold was second in the Texas League in slugging and OPS (trailing only baseball’s best prospect, Royals 3B Alex Gordon, in both categories), and in RBI.

There’s little question that Gold will man first base in Oklahoma City when the 2007 season begins. The only other possibility would seem to be if some team thinks he has a chance to hit like Jay Gibbons or Chris Shelton (Dan Uggla isn’t a good comparison because he’s an adequate defender in the middle infield, while Gold is strictly a first baseman or DH if he makes it), in which case he’ll be a big leaguer right away.

But the far more likely scenario is that Gold, 26, will be challenged in 2007 to produce the way he did in 2006, and the same goes for Hurley, 21. If they both do that, there’s a chance that at this time next year, we’re talking about both making their big league debuts as the 2007 regular season draws to a close.

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

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