THE NEWBERG REPORT — NOVEMBER 23, 2006

Frank Catalanotto said during his Tuesday press conference, regarding the opportunity to sign with Texas: “It was more attractive because I’ve been here before. I knew the situation . . . . Money being equal, I’d rather be here.”

That last remark, to me, is key. And I don’t think Catalanotto said it only because he’d been here earlier in his career.

One reason the Kevin Millwood signing last December was so extraordinary was that a top-tier starting pitcher, in a position to land the largest contract of his career, chose Texas. That’s been a rarity, probably because of the reputation, if not the tendencies, of Ameriquest Field to favor hitters.

The flip side is that Arlington has been proven to be a place where good hitters can become great hitters, and non-roster invites can become wealthy. Mark DeRosa came to Texas on a minor league contract. Two years later, he landed a $13 million deal. Gary Matthews signed a minor league deal with the Rangers as well. Two and a half years later, he had multiple $50 million offers to choose from. Whether it’s Ameriquest Field or Rudy Jaramillo or the super-turbo-high-tech center field light signal system that Mark Buehrle is sure that the Rangers have devised, hitters come here and often get better, sometimes dramatically so.

Hope there’s a couple free agent hitters out there that are thinking along those lines. Sounds like Catalanotto was.

Should Texas have paid Matthews $50 million over five years to stay? Absolutely not. I love the player and couldn’t be happier that he’s earned the opportunities he got this winter, but let’s face it: he’s 32 years old and was a lifetime .249/.327/.397 hitter before his .313/.371/.495 line in 2006. Is that a player who is worth $10 million in 2007? He’s certainly a good risk to be. But at age 35? Age 36?

Any five-year, $50 million deals that Texas has to give this winter need to go to starting pitchers. Millwood got five years and $60 million last winter. Do you want another Millwood type? Or do you want Matthews?

Give me another Millwood (Jason Schmidt?) plus someone like Kenny Lofton for a year, rather than Matthews and a Jose Lima type.

Especially when center field could be readdressed in a big way 12 months from now. Vernon Wells is an Arlington native and is Michael Young’s best friend. Torii Hunter is a Metroplex resident and is president of the Ron Washington Fan Club. Both will be free agents after the 2007 season. And despite the fact that both were stars in center field years before Matthews was considered anything more than a candidate for a roster spot, both are younger than Matthews, Hunter by a year and Wells by more than four.

I’m really happy for Matthews (whose seven-year-old son lives in Santa Monica). But I’m happy Texas didn’t commit at that level.

And I’m happy that the Angels signed him. Will he torment the Rangers for a couple years? Maybe. But this should take Los Angeles out of the mix for Wells, which is a very good thing. (November 16 Newberg Report: “I don’t want Toronto to trade Wells. To anyone. I want them to win 88 games this year, staying in the hunt all summer so that Wells stays in a Blue Jays uniform. Until this time next year.”) The Angels wanted to make a splash this winter, and they still may not be through, but they won’t go after Wells at this point, not with the five-year commitment to Matthews.

Of the teams rumored to be interested in Wells, Los Angeles was probably in the best position to give the Blue Jays what they wanted (Ervin Santana, Brandon Wood, and either Jeff Mathis or a reliever?). The Angels have some serious trading firepower, more so than most teams have.

Texas also strips the Angels of their first-round pick, at number 24. Should Los Angeles end up signing a Type A free agent this off-season with a higher Elias ranking than Matthews (Barry Zito?), then the Rangers would get the Angels’ second-rounder rather than their first, but regardless, Los Angeles has surrendered its first-round pick — to someone.

As it stands, the Rangers get pick number 24 and a supplemental pick between rounds one and two for the loss of Matthews (plus a supplemental pick for the loss of DeRosa, and more to come if Carlos Lee, Vicente Padilla, and Rod Barajas sign elsewhere). The Blue Jays will get the Angels’ second-rounder for the loss of Justin Speier, whom the Angels signed on Sunday, because Speier’s Elias ranking — 74.027 — is lower than the Matthews ranking — 75.556.

As far as starting pitching is concerned, the dominoes haven’t begun to fall yet, and keep this in mind: a year ago at this time, the Rangers rotation was less settled than it is now. Texas needs to fill three spots to complement Millwood and Robinson Tejeda; a year ago the club also had just two rotation certainties — Chris Young and Kameron Loe (who had nine big league starts). Patience.

Some additional details on the Catalanotto contract: He gets $3.5 million in 2007 and $4 million in 2008 and in 2009. The Rangers have a $5 million option for 2010 with a $2 million buyout, but if he amasses 500 plate appearances in 2009, or 1000 combined in 2008 and 2009, the option jumps to $5.5 million and the buyout to $2.25 million.

According to Catalanotto, incidentally, he was close to signing with Cleveland before Texas jumped in with the prevailing offer.

Peter Gammons writes that the Rangers were set to trade Matthews in spring training last year for Boston utility infielder Tony Graffanino but backed off because of concerns about Brad Wilkerson’s shoulder. Wow.

(I should add that I have my doubts about that supposed deal, since Matthews had a strained ribcage muscle prevented him from playing at all in spring training and forced him to begin the year on the disabled list.)

Matthews and Michael Young each got a 10th-place vote in the American League MVP voting.

Lee is apparently poised to sign with Houston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia.

Again: Go Astros.

The Rangers signed lefthander Scott Rice to a minor league contract with an invite to big league camp. The 25-year-old went 3-4, 3.86 with one save for AAA Ottawa in the Orioles system last season (his first work at the AAA level), all in relief. The 6’6″ southpaw posted a phenomenal groundout-to-flyout ratio of 4.06 and held left-handed hitters to a .193 average.

In 65.1 innings, Rice walked 28 hitters and fanned 38, permitting four homers. He was a Baltimore supplemental first-rounder in 1999, chosen 44th with a pick the Orioles were awarded when Texas signed Rafael Palmeiro. Baltimore took Rice six spots after the Rangers chose Colby Lewis and six spots before the Orioles came back with another pick that they would use on Brian Roberts.

Final Arizona Fall League statistics: third baseman Travis Metcalf hit .258/.283/.419 with 23 RBI (sixth in the league) in 26 games — including .324/.350/.486 in November, with just one strikeout in 37 at-bats; catcher Kevin Richardson went 4 for 11; outfielder Anthony Webster hit .286/.355/.339; lefthander A.J. Murray went 3-2, 5.30 in nine appearances (but posted a 1.56 ERA when you toss out one miserable outing), and started the league’s championship game, giving up three unearned runs on one hit and no walks in three innings, fanning three; righthander Jesse Ingram went 0-0, 12.41 in 13 relief appearances, getting hit at a .358 clip; and righthander Danny Touchet went 2-0, 6.06 in 12 relief outings.

Final Hawaii Winter Baseball League numbers: outfielder John Mayberry Jr. hit .318/.388/.545, leading the league in slugging and finishing near the top in just about every other production category; catcher Emerson Frostad hit .215/.300/.342 with 24 strikeouts in 79 at-bats, throwing out just three of 24 would-be basestealers; third baseman Johnny Whittleman hit .189/.257/.358 but was one home run short of the league lead with four bombs and won the league’s Player of the Week honors for the season’s final week (three homers and 10 RBI); and second baseman-shortstop Jose Vallejo hit .197/.264/.318 with 21 strikeouts in 66 at-bats.

Dodgers prospect Zach Hammes won the HWBL ERA title and was elevated to Los Angeles’s 40-man roster. The Dodgers drafted Hammes in the second round in 2002, with a pick they received from the Rangers as compensation for the signing of Chan Ho Park . . . which doesn’t hurt as much as the Cubs having drafted lefthander Rich Hill in the fourth round that same year with a pick that Texas forfeited by signing Todd Van Poppel. (For the sake of completion: Cleveland took outfielder Jason Cooper in the third round with the Juan Gonzalez pick, and Colorado took righthander Doug Johnson in the fifth round with the Jay Powell pick.)

Boston signed righthander Chris Jaile and Philadelphia signed outfielder Ryan Fleming to minor league deals.

The Fort Worth Cats have signed catcher Kelley Gulledge, son of Rangers vice president Chuck Morgan.

Happy Thanksgiving. Here’s to being where you want to be.

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

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