THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 11, 2006

In 2003, 28-year-old Gary Matthews Jr. hit a combined .248/.314/.361 for Baltimore and San Diego, the third straight season he appeared for two different big league clubs and the fifth and sixth teams he’d been with as a pro (seven, actually, if you count his two Padres stints separately). The pedestrian season brought Matthews’s five-year career line to .242/.324/.371.

Meanwhile, 25-year-old Marlon Byrd hit .303/.366/.418 for Philadelphia in 2003, finishing fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year vote.

A year later, Matthews found himself released by yet another organization (Atlanta) as the season began, sitting unemployed for a week before getting a job with the Rangers’ AAA affiliate in Oklahoma City. And Byrd was back in AAA himself, before the All-Star Break.

Now this isn’t to say that Byrd — who signed with Texas on Friday at the same age (29) that Matthews was when he signed here — is three years away from hitting a $50 million jackpot on the open market, but the parallels are too easy to overlook. Byrd is more likely to be Adrian Brown or Ryan Christenson or Jason Conti here than he is to follow in Matthews’s footsteps, but when Byrd was coming up, it’s also true that he was considered far closer to a sure thing than anyone else in this sentence.

Byrd’s career has been a disappointment since that rookie season, as he’s hit an anemic .238/.306/.345 in the three ensuing years, the middle of which included a trade from the Phillies to Washington for journeyman outfielder Endy Chavez (can you imagine Baltimore trading Jeff Francoeur a year and a half from now, for Nook Logan?). Byrd did very little for the Nationals in the second half in 2005 (.264/.318/.380) or the first half of 2006 (.223/.317/.350), and since he was out of options the club designated him for assignment in July and got him through waivers, outrighting him to AAA New Orleans. He hit .271/.363/.465 for the Zephyrs in 155 at-bats.

Byrd is young enough and obviously generated enough interest around the league that he was able to land a big league contract, but that doesn’t mean he’s a lock for an Opening Day roster spot. It just means that if he doesn’t make the team out of camp, he’ll have to clear waivers for the Rangers to have a chance to keep him — and having been outrighted before, even if he does clear he’ll have the right to decline an outright assignment to the farm and take immediate free agency.

Built like Kirby Puckett was but, like Puckett, capable of playing center field, Byrd will get a good look but should absolutely not be considered the answer to the Rangers’ hunt for Matthews’s replacement. The hunt continues, and veteran Kenny Lofton (.301/.360/.403 in 2006 for the Dodgers — including a stout .322/.388/.445 away from Chavez Ravine — with more walks [45] than strikeouts [42], 32 steals in 37 tries, and a 10th playoff appearance in his last 12 seasons) remains the primary target (and could get done today, according to multiple reports). Jason Repko, a plus defender who split time with Lofton in center field for Los Angeles early in the 2006 season, has been reported as a possible trade target. He’s been murder on left-handed pitching.

Incidentally, Lofton was the highest-ranked Type B among National League outfielders and first basemen according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and as a result the Rangers wouldn’t have forfeited a draft pick by signing him — even if Los Angeles had offered him arbitration, which the club didn’t do.

As it stands, the Rangers tentatively own the following picks before the second round in June: number 17, 24, 38, 50, 55.

Lofton, at age 39, is probably at the stage of his career where he can only command a one-year deal, which would allow Texas to plug in the proven center fielder without hindering an effort a year from now to sign Vernon Wells or Torii Hunter.

The asking price in trade for Rocco Baldelli or Jeremy Reed has been prohibitively ridiculous, apparently.

The Boston Globe suggests that Boston and Texas aren’t close to a deal but have at least discussed righthander Kameron Loe and Sox center field prospect David Murphy, a Baylor product whose offensive production hasn’t yet matched his standout defense.

Texas lost one player in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft, as Baltimore chose righthander Alfredo Simon off the Rangers’ AAA roster and promptly traded the big reliever to Philadelphia, the organization that signed him out of the Dominican Republic and developed him for five years before sending him to San Francisco in a trade deadline deal for Felix Rodriguez in July 2004.

The Rangers pulled Simon from the Dominican Winter League (where he’d reportedly hit 98 mph on the radar gun) with apparent arm trouble a couple weeks ago, but there are stories suggesting the maneuver was motivated not by an actual injury but by an organizational effort to scare teams off from targeting him in last week’s draft (particularly since he’d missed more than a month during the 2006 season with elbow problems).

But the Phillies — who, again, were obviously familiar with the 25-year-old — were neither fooled nor dissuaded, and GM Pat Gillick (who hired Charley Kerfeld away from Texas last month to serve as a special assistant) engineered the trade with the Orioles (sending their own Rule 5 pick, Kansas City catcher Adam Donachie, and cash to Baltimore) to make sure they got Simon, who will have to make Philadelphia’s Opening Day pitching staff and spend all year in the bigs or else be run through waivers and, if he clears, be offered back to Texas for half of the $50,000 purchase price that the Orioles had to pay the Rangers.

Texas added no players in the big league phase of the draft, though the club did fill some minor league roster holes in the AAA phase, choosing shortstop Johany Abreu (San Francisco), righthander Kendy Batista (Baltimore), and catcher Brian Munhall (San Francisco), and sending cash to Colorado for catcher Salomon Manriquez, whom the Rockies had selected from the Washington system.

The rules of the minor league phase differ from the big league phase, as there are no roster requirements for the ensuing season. Abreu, Batista, Munhall, and Manriquez are thus now Rangers property, with no rules dictating what rosters they need to occupy in 2007. Texas lost no players in the minor league phase of the draft.

Batista has the most intriguing background. Signed at age 17 out of Venezuela by Oakland, the slender righty pitched in the Dominican Summer League in 2000 and 2001 before being released five winters ago. He didn’t resurface in pro ball until last summer, when he pitched for a month in the Venezuelan Summer League for Baltimore’s co-op squad with the White Sox. In 15 appearances spanning 15.1 innings, he went 2-1, 2.35 with five saves and scattered 10 hits (.189 opponents’ average; no home runs) and four walks while punching out 27 hitters. He’s been sharp in the Venezuelan Winter League, posting a 2.63 ERA in 13 relief appearances, permitting 24 hits (.267 opponents’ average) and nine walks in 24 frames while fanning 25.

Abreu, a 22-year-old Dominican, is a slick fielder who has primarily played shortstop in his five pro seasons (all at Class A or below) but has also seen time at second base, third base, and the outfield, hitting .258/.303/.346.

The 26-year-old Munhall, a San Antonio native who played with Nate Gold and Kevin Richardson at Gonzaga University, hit .250/.291/.343 for AA Connecticut in the Giants system last year, missing the season’s final two months (and the Eastern League All-Star Game) with a left foot contusion.

Manriquez, 24, hadn’t gotten so many as 300 at-bats in any of his first five pro seasons, but in 443 High A at-bats in 2005 he hit .287/.336/.479 with 36 doubles, 15 home runs, and 68 RBI, and in 339 AA at-bats last year he hit .257/.320/.398 with 18 doubles, 10 homers, and 45 RBI. The catcher played for the World Team in the Futures Game in 2006.

The deadline for Texas to tender 2007 contracts to its four remaining pre-free agency arbitration-eligibles — Rick Bauer, Joaquin Benoit, Akinori Otsuka, and Brad Wilkerson — is tomorrow. If the club non-tenders any of them, they become free agents.

Man, did Texas time the Vicente Padilla signing right. How much would Padilla have rightfully asked for if Gil Meche had landed his $55 million deal over four years from the Royals first? Give me Padilla over Meche even if the dollars were equal.

Mark Mulder visits Texas tomorrow. The big lefthander, who had rotator cuff surgery in September, profiles exquisitely as far as Ameriquest Field is concerned — even though he is 4-6, 6.08 in 11 lifetime starts in this park — but is being pursued by several teams, each of which would certainly offer the 29-year-old a two- or three-year deal with hopes of getting through an abbreviated 2007 and striking Chris Carpenter lightning after that. Mulder is expected to begin throwing in January but won’t work off a mound until March, and he’s expected to miss as many as 10 to 15 starts at the outset of the season.

Scott Boras surely wants to get Daisuke Matsuzaka done with Boston before he’ll allow Barry Zito to sign with anyone. But the deadline for the Red Sox to sign Matsuzaka is Wednesday, and there are now stories that a deal may not get done and the 26-year-old will have to return to Seibu.

Whether that would mean the Red Sox would get back in on Eric Gagne — or whether that would cement early indications that they were backing off of the Boras client — is uncertain, but what appears clear is that Texas, perhaps along with Cleveland and possibly San Francisco (or Cincinnati or Toronto), is a finalist for Gagne’s services.

The 30-year-old Gagne, who is coming back from elbow and back surgeries, reportedly rejected an offer to stay with the Dodgers for $4 million with an additional $6 million in performance incentives.

Would Gagne agree to come here if he weren’t going to be the closer? Maybe the more pertinent question is whether Texas would pay Gagne’s price to work in the eighth inning — and if the answer to that question is no, does that mean Otsuka moves back into the set-up role that he was asked to fill a year ago, or does Texas get creative and possibly deal the eminently affordable Otsuka — who will be 35 years old in a month — at the height of his trade value in this reliever market?

Texas is apparently thinking about offering righthander Ryan Drese an opportunity to return.

The Rangers have reportedly reached out to the agent for Michael Young to express interest in opening talks about a long-term contract extension. Young is under contract for the 2007 season ($3.5 million), with Texas owning an option for 2008 ($4-5 million).

Texas has naturally given thought to increasing Joaquin Arias’s defensive versatility but recognizes that his primary value is in his ability to play premium defense at shortstop.

Righthander Nick Masset has predictably generated lots of trade interest, after a solid 2006 season and a spectacular winter. His stint with Mazatlan in the Mexican Pacific League has concluded, with the 24-year-old recording a league-leading 15 saves in 20 appearances as he gave up six runs (2.61 ERA) on 18 hits (.228 opponents’ average, no home runs) and just two walks in 20.1 innings, punching out 22.

Oakland has released righthander Juan Dominguez. I sure hope this is not where the spiral begins.

Designated hitter Matt Stairs signed with Toronto.

Lefthander Mike Venafro signed a minor league contract with Minnesota, getting an invite to big league camp.

Righthander Ryan Dittfurth has surfaced with the Sussex SkyHawks of the independent Can-Am League.

Former Rangers farmhand Jeff Pickler is now working as a Diamondbacks scout and video coordinator.

The Mets named Sandy Johnson their vice president of scouting.

Baseball America will unveil its ranking of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects on its website today.

Here’s my own top 10, from the Top 72 Prospects List in the 2007 Bound Edition:

1. John Danks, LHP
2. Eric Hurley, RHP
3. Josh Rupe, RHP
4. Edinson Volquez, RHP
5. Nick Masset, RHP
6. John Mayberry Jr., OF
7. Joaquin Arias, SS
8. Thomas Diamond, RHP
9. Ben Harrison, OF
10. Kasey Kiker, LHP

Fabio Castillo was number 11 — a strong number 11. Wes Littleton, Jason Botts, Nelson Cruz, and Freddy Guzman weren’t considered because they’ve exhausted their rookie eligibility.

The transcript of our chat session with Victor Rojas has been posted on the “Minor Details” page by birthday girl Eleanor Czajka.

The 2007 Bound Edition has now shipped to those of you who have already placed your orders, unless you told me to hold yours until Wednesday evening’s Book Release Party at Tin Star. (The party begins at 6:00, but again, you might want to get there by 5:00 and eat.)

As a reminder, by bringing your 2007 Bound Edition to Wednesday’s party (or by buying the book at the event), you will be able to get autographs from our guests: Ian Kinsler, C.J. Wilson, Kameron Loe, John Danks, and Taylor Teagarden.

Whether you buy the book at the event or order it online or through the mail, you’ll also get a voucher good for one complimentary Rangers ticket for each ticket you purchase at regular price for a regular season Rangers game in 2007 (with a few date restrictions).

If you buy at least two copies of the 2007 book, you’ll get a free Bound Edition from any previous year (except 2003, which is currently out of stock), your choice, as long as supplies last.

A gift set of all seven available Bound Editions (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007) is available for $100, which is a $15 discount.

For those of you who won’t be able to attend the party on Wednesday, the Bound Edition is now available for immediate shipping.

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

1 Comment

Just wondering how you resolve your excitement over the signing of Padilla with the fact that he was arrested for D.W.I. last year and appears to have a drinking problem. As a person who deals with individuals with substance abuse issues it is clear that most of these people can’t be counted or depended on. So why would you give them a 3 year guaranteed contract? Also would like to know why this arrest was not more publicized and was only reported on a month later?

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