THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 12, 2006

Gary Matthews Jr. had his career year in 2006, and parlayed it into a five-year, $50 million deal. Kenny Lofton had another solid season in 2006, and will play in 2007 on his fourth one-year contract in six seasons.

Give me a choice between the two, money and years aside? I’ll take Matthews, who was one of the best center fielders in baseball last year. But guaranteeing the 32-year-old, coming off his first strong season in eight big league campaigns, a sum of $50 million over five years doesn’t seem like a wise allocation of payroll. Paying Lofton a reported $6 million for one season (pending a physical) is better business, particularly with the crop of potential free agent center fielders a year from now (Vernon Wells, Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter) being what it is.

Away from hitter-friendly Ameriquest Field in 2006, Matthews hit .303/.347/.480, striking out 51 times in 293 at-bats and walking 24 times. Away from pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium in 2006, Lofton hit .322/.388/.445, fanning 16 times in 236 at-bats while drawing 26 walks. Yes, Lofton is 39, but he stole 32 bases in 37 trips (Matthews was 10 of 17) and tripled a dozen times. The speed is still there for Lofton, who is more of a prototype lineup catalyst than Matthews (a power threat) was.

Let me repeat: this is not meant to disparage Matthews or diminish the incredible season he gave Texas in 2006. But given the Rangers’ pitching needs (and what the 2007 center field market shapes up to be), bringing Lofton in for one year is a better fit, assuming this isn’t the year that his physical tools drop off.

Defense? Truthfully, both Matthews and Lofton probably have better reputations than results, but certainly neither is a liability as a defender. Lofton, a four-time Gold Glove winner, doesn’t throw nearly as well as Matthews, though.

Lofton had severe splits in 2006, hitting .319/.379/.431 against righthanders but only .214/.275/.274 against southpaws — but as we’ve discussed before, the A’s and Angels (unlike recent years) now feature righthanders in spots one through four of their rotations. And I thought this was interesting: before 2006, Lofton’s career splits weren’t nearly as acute. From 1991 through 20005, the left-handed hitter put up a .290/.368/.383 line against southpaws, .302/.374/.440 against righties. Nothing wrong with that first set of numbers.

Still, Lofton is probably going to need a platoon partner in center, and it might be that Marlon Byrd — Lofton’s Phillies teammate very briefly in 2005 — fills that role. Freddy Guzman has a chance as well.

There have been suggestions that Brad Wilkerson and Nelson Cruz could move in from a corner from time to time, but Byrd and Guzman probably go into camp competing for a roster spot as the lead Lofton understudy. Jon Daniels told reporters over the weekend that he was intrigued by the possibility of pairing a veteran up with a young center fielder who could learn from him.

One thing about Lofton’s resume that I love — aside from a lifetime .299 batting average and .372 on-base clip — is that he’s played for playoff teams 10 of the last 12 years. You want guys like that (and like Ron Washington) around in August. And that’s even if August wasn’t historically Lofton’s most productive month.

No active player has more than Lofton’s 599 stolen bases, and only one (Steve Finley) has more than his 110 triples. He’s a lifetime .311/.362/.472 hitter at Ameriquest Field. He rakes in Anaheim (.347/.419/.503), not so much in Oakland (.279/.350/.433) or Seattle (.271/.366/.343).

The $6 million that Texas reportedly agreed to pay Lofton will be his highest salary since 2001, his final season in Cleveland, when he earned $8 million.

Lofton has spent only half a season in the American League since July 2002, but that’s not as significant as it once would have been, given interleague play and how prevalent free agency is these days.

Lofton is another example of why it’s a great idea to stockpile catchers in the minor leagues, as Texas is now doing. Just as Minnesota was able to turn A.J. Pierzynski into Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser, and Philadelphia was able to get Kevin Millwood for Johnny Estrada, and Einar Diaz keyed deals for Travis Hafner and Chris Young, the Indians made one of the best trades of the early 1990s when they were able to flip Eddie Taubensee (and journeyman pitcher Willie Blair) to Houston for Lofton (and utility infielder Dave Rohde). It was one of John Hart’s first trades as Cleveland GM, and maybe his best.

As I wrote yesterday, the Dodgers didn’t offer Lofton arbitration, but even if they did, Lofton is a Type B free agent (by the slimmest of margins — he was the highest-ranked Type B among National League outfielders and first basemen), meaning the Rangers forfeit no draft pick. At the same time, Texas nets the 24th pick (which was the Angels’ first-rounder) and a supplemental first that, for the moment, sits at number 50, by virtue of losing Matthews, a Type A.

Lofton was the sixth man on the University of Arizona’s 1988 Final Four basketball team, backing up Steve Kerr on a squad that also featured Sean Elliott and Tom Tolbert. So maybe Lofton’s next job will be doing TV analysis for the NBA.

Texas has reportedly made a formal offer to lefthander Barry Zito, hosts Mark Mulder in town today, and is in serious negotiations to try and land closer Eric Gagne. Zito and Gagne are both Scott Boras clients, so don’t expect any breaking news right away, but Mulder is getting married this weekend and thus might prefer to get something done soon.

The Rangers are expected to tender contracts to all four of their arbitration-eligible players under control: Wilkerson, Akinori Otsuka, Rick Bauer, and Joaquin Benoit. Should Texas decide not to offer a contract to any of them by today’s deadline to do so, they would become free agents.

Milwaukee is expected to tender Kevin Mench after all, despite reports earlier in the winter that the club was considering cutting him loose. The thought is that the Brewers will retain Mench primarily so that they can continue an effort to trade him.

There’s some talk that if Boston and Daisuke Matsuzaka don’t come to terms by tomorrow’s deadline, Bud Selig could invoke his “best interests” powers and put the team that made the second-highest posting bid on the negotiating clock. I believe that’s the Mets, and if that’s the case and Selig does make that bold move, you’d think it would take New York out of the Zito hunt.

Next time we’ll talk about Baseball America’s ranking of the top 10 Rangers prospects and the publication’s analysis of the Rangers system.

Hope to see you at tomorrow night’s Newberg Report book release party for the 2007 Bound Edition, at Tin Star’s Uptown location.

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

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