THE NEWBERG REPORT — NOVEMBER 21, 2006

Last off-season, Texas signed two major league free agents and made seven trades. The most significant move the club made in November? Signing righthander Rick Bauer to a minor league deal.

Jon Daniels spent his first November as Rangers general manager laying the groundwork for what would be a frenzied December. He’s off to a quicker start this year.

With more roster holes to fill this winter, and positioned to add a potentially large number of compensatory draft picks, Daniels didn’t wait for the market to sort out or for clubs to make their arbitration decisions before signing his first big league free agent, former Rangers hitter Frank Catalanotto.

Texas agreed to terms with the 32-year-old Catalanotto, who hit .305/.380/.470 during his 2000-02 stint with the Rangers and is a lifetime .315/.382/.486 hitter at Ameriquest Field, to a three-year deal with a club option for a fourth, worth approximately $13.5 million in guaranteed money.

A few answers:

Why sign Catalanotto rather than Mark DeRosa, who got a similar deal from the Cubs? Regardless of which hitter you believe will perform better over the next three years, it’s because DeRosa wouldn’t have taken the same deal here — Chicago offered him an everyday role, something Texas couldn’t promise.

Why sign Catalanotto now, rather than wait for Toronto to decide whether to offer him arbitration? It’s a valid question — with the Jays signing Frank Thomas, there’s a chance they might not have risked an arbitration offer, fearing that Catalanotto might have accepted it. If Toronto didn’t offer him arbitration, the Rangers would have been able to sign him without forfeiting what, at this point, is its first-round pick in June, 16th overall.

But a couple things. First, the Blue Jays probably would have offered him arbitration anyway, knowing he’d decline it in order to take a multi-year deal and a more defined role somewhere else (not unlike what Texas faces with Rod Barajas). Second, the Rangers obviously made the determination that Catalanotto was a fit that they didn’t want to see slip away by waiting too long. Third, chances are that Texas is going to lose Gary Matthews Jr. and Carlos Lee, which will net the club four extra picks in the first two rounds, on top of the supplemental first already received due to the loss of DeRosa and potentially two more supplemental firsts if Barajas and Vicente Padilla leave. If Houston, for instance, signs Lee, Texas will receive the 17th pick in round one, which makes the loss of the 16th pick to Toronto more palatable.

Fourth, it’s a good bet that Catalanotto won’t be the highest-ranked free agent the Rangers sign this winter — in fact, if they sign another Type A that’s offered arbitration (or before the deadline to offer arbitration), Catalanotto will almost have to be ranked lower. His ranking of 63.611, based on Elias’s formula, was the lowest of any Type A in baseball (the next score among outfielders, first basemen, and DH’s — the 63.333 that belonged to Milton Bradley, Coco Crisp, and Frank Thomas — qualified as the top Type B ranking). If I’m reading the rankings correctly, the only Type A’s ranked lower than Catalanotto are relievers Rudy Seanez, Russ Springer, and Chad Bradford.

So when and if Texas signs another Type A, Toronto will end up not with the Rangers’ first-round pick, but instead their own second-rounder, which stands to be around 65 or 70, or even lower — and which, maybe more significantly, could be as far down as the eighth pick in the Rangers’ draft quiver in June.

The point is that if Daniels decided Catalanotto was his man, the downside of waiting to see if the Blue Jays were going to offer arbitration was much too great for it to have factored into the decision at all. It might have been the difference between losing Catalanotto to another team and forfeiting a pick no higher than 70th in the draft, with seven higher picks already in the bag.

Stated another way: the Rangers were going to lose that first-round pick at some point this winter. If they went through the off-season without signing a Type A free agent, under any circumstances other than re-signing all of their own key free agents, there would be some far more serious questions worth asking.

So is Catalanotto the right fit? Hard to say until we see what Daniels has planned for the rest of the winter, but he’s a solid left-handed hitter who punishes right-handed pitching, can still turn around anyone’s fastball, isn’t much of a basestealer but runs well, isn’t a plus defender but is versatile, and maybe most importantly, is capable of leading off. If Matthews signs elsewhere, which seems inevitable given the way the market is developing (are the Angels really going to give Matthews five years and $55 million?), Catalanotto is a good bet to step in atop the lineup.

At least against righties. Catalanotto is a lifetime .248/.331/.348 hitter against southpaws (.303/.365/.465 against righthanders), and even worse since leaving Texas for Toronto (.221/.287/.331). Does this mean Jason Botts — who punished Pacific Coast League lefthanders this year to the tune of .375/.408/.688 — now stands as good a chance of making the Rangers’ active roster as he ever has? The outfield picture is completely unsettled right now, but if Nelson Cruz and Brad Wilkerson go into the season as key figures, Catalanotto could end up seeing time on both outfield corners and at DH, spelling Cruz, Wilkerson, and Botts.

Brian Hayes made a fantastic point on the Newberg Report message board yesterday: With Jamie Moyer gone and Barry Zito poised to follow, the only reliable left-handed starter remaining in the American League West, at the moment, is Jarrod Washburn. That makes the underside of Catalanotto’s game less of a problem.

In his .300/.376/.439 season for Toronto in 2006, Catalanotto drew a career-high 52 walks, striking out only 37 times in 437 at-bats. It was the first time he’d amassed more walks than strikeouts, a rare feat for anyone in the big leagues.

Like DeRosa, and David Dellucci before that, Catalanotto has the type of makeup that won’t disrupt a good thing here, and he’s the type who could emerge in more of a leadership role than he had early in the decade.

The comparison between DeRosa and Catalanotto (who would have been Team Italy teammates in the World Baseball Classic last March had DeRosa not declined the invitation) is sort of inevitable, given the contracts they signed and the similar stage their careers are at, plus their versatility. DeRosa is a better defender but Catalanotto’s track record as a hitter is stronger. DeRosa’s career year in 2006 (.296/.357/.456), while dramatically better than his lifetime numbers coming into the season (.263/.319/.380), was almost identical to Catalanotto’s career line (.297/.362/.454). While I hope DeRosa sustains what he did in 2006, chances are probably better that Catalanotto will perform at that level.

A month ago, I wrote the following, on the heels of the announced modifications to the Collective Bargaining Agreement: “And to drive home the obvious point — the fact that [John] Danks and [Thomas] Diamond and [Ben] Harrison and a couple others don’t have to be protected this year gives players like [A.J.] Murray, [Nate] Gold, [Anthony] Webster, [Alexi] Ogando, and (I think) [Emerson] Frostad a much greater chance of landing a roster spot this winter.”

Given a one-year reprieve from having to add Danks and Diamond and to make tough decisions on a few others, the Rangers added Murray and Ogando to the 40-man roster yesterday, and as a result they are protected from next month’s Rule 5 Draft.

Murray, a left-handed control freak, missed the 2006 season due to a shoulder injury (he missed 2004 after shoulder surgery as well) but pitched well in the Arizona Fall League this off-season. His 3-2, 5.30 mark in nine AFL appearances was marred by a miserable outing on November 7, when he permitted eight runs in an inning and a third. Aside from that game, he posted a 1.56 ERA, scattering 17 hits and five walks in 17.1 frames, fanning 17, which doesn’t include his start in the league’s championship game over the weekend, when he gave up three runs — all unearned — on one hit and no walks in three innings, setting three hitters down on strikes. Murray features a plus change and had a strong 1.53 groundout-to-flyout ratio in the AFL, including a sick 13-to-1 against left-handed hitters.

Murray, who was a draft-and-follow sign in 2001, advanced to Frisco by the age of 21, spending the whole 2003 season with the RoughRiders and posting an impressive 10-4, 3.63 record, followed by an 0.77 ERA in two playoff starts and a berth on the Texas League Post-Season All-Star Team. “Pirate” split the 2005 season between Bakersfield, Frisco, and Oklahoma (7-9, 4.43 combined, with 30 walks and 124 strikeouts in 128 innings), combining with Steve Karsay and Scott Feldman on a RoughRiders perfect game on July 28, fanning eight in six spotless frames. He stands to pitch in rotation for the RedHawks in April.

Texas drafted Ogando in the AAA league phase of the Rule 5 Draft a year ago, paying Oakland $12,000 to acquire the 22-year-old outfielder who had drawn comparisons to Vladimir Guerrero with his raw power at the plate and his howitzer in right field. Visa issues kept Ogando out of the States in 2005 and remained going into 2006, but you would think that the A’s might have devoted one of the 78 spots on their 40-man roster and wintertime AAA roster to the five-tool talent to ensure he wouldn’t be lost.

But Texas drafted him, kept him in his Dominican homeland because of the visa situation, and decided to try him on the mound. He hit triple digits on the radar gun, but more impressive was the fact that he had command of his fastball despite never pitching before. The righthander went 5-0, 0.52 with two saves in 16 Dominican Summer League relief appearances, scattering 24 hits (.198 opponents’ average, no home runs) and issuing only four walks in 34.2 innings while punching out 48. He also induced an outstanding ratio of 2.25 groundouts for every flyout.

I have no idea whether Ogando’s visa issues will be cleared up in 2007, but here’s the thing: Texas added righthander Omar Beltre to the roster a year ago, and was able to keep him on the restricted list all season (which took him off of the 40-man roster) due to his own visa problems. The organization can presumably do the same with Ogando if necessary this year, and by adding him to the roster Texas made sure that another club couldn’t draft him via Rule 5 and take advantage of the same opportunity.

Incidentally, I learned yesterday that Beltre didn’t need to be reinstated from the restricted list in order to be shielded from the Rule 5 Draft, so the fact that he wasn’t identified along with Murray and Ogando doesn’t mean he’s now exposed to the draft. After the DSL season he had — 2-3, 1.23 with one save, scattering 42 hits (.174 opponents’ average, one homer) and seven walks in 66 innings while punching out 80 with reports that his fastball was touching 98 — leaving the 25-year-old Beltre unprotected probably wouldn’t have been a very good idea.

The additions of Murray and Ogando bring the Rangers’ 40-man roster to 35 members. With several holes remaining to be filled, and with Wilkerson needing to be reinstated from the 60-day disabled list (assuming Texas plans to keep him), it’s pretty clear that the Rangers had no more room than those two spots for minor league additions. Had the CBA changes not moved the timetable for protecting prospects back a year, Danks and Diamond certainly would have earned spots, and Murray and Ogando would have been draft-eligible.

(Then again, maybe Daniels knew what the modified CBA was going to look like when he claimed Francisco Cruceta and Mike Wood off waivers, and if the rules were not poised to change, maybe he wouldn’t have claimed both righthanders.)

As it stands, the Rangers’ top candidates to be considered by other clubs at the December draft might include catcher Emerson Frostad, first baseman Nate Gold, outfielder Anthony Webster, and righthander Jose Marte.

Speaking of the modified CBA, while Texas now gets a supplemental first-rounder for the loss of DeRosa to the Cubs, under the old rules the Rangers would have initially been awarded Chicago’s second-rounder, but it would have then been downgraded to the Cubs’ third on the heels of their signing of Alfonso Soriano. And maybe downgraded further later on, as Chicago apparently isn’t finished.

And speaking of Soriano, who landed an eight-year, $136 million from Chicago, a question: If Alex Rodriguez hit the open market today, how much more would he get than the eight years and $17 million annually that Soriano (who is six months younger) is getting? Is it a sure thing that he’d get significantly more?

Houston and Baltimore are reportedly engaged in a bidding war over Lee. Go Astros.

Other 40-man roster additions: former Rangers righthander Jonathan Johnson (Atlanta), former Rangers draft pick righthander Virgil Vasquez (Detroit), and righthander Blake Hawksworth (St. Louis), whose sister Erin is a reporter for Channel 8 in Dallas.

Texas hired former Rangers outfielder Gary Pettis as first base coach and outfield and baserunning instructor on manager Ron Washington’s coaching staff. Pettis, who was the hitting instructor for AAA Nashville in the Brewers system the last two years, joins bench coach Art Howe as additions since Washington was hired. The remainder of the staff returns from last season, including Rudy Jaramillo (hitting), Mark Connor (pitching), Dom Chiti (bullpen), and Don Wakamatsu, who moves from bench coach to third base coach, catching instructor, and spring training coordinator.

Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports that if Texas and the White Sox continue to discuss a trade involving one of Chicago’s starting pitchers, Nick Masset could end up being a key component should the Rangers refuse to part with Danks.

We might be moving the Book Release Party for the 2007 Bound Edition one evening earlier, to Wednesday, December 13. I’ll update you as soon as we finalize plans.

There will be a lot more Jon Daniels work to talk about by then.

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

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