January 2007

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 29, 2007

I’ve known at least a handful of players for enough years now that I can recognize the phase change during the off-season. When the season ends, for a good while you can sense the decompression, and the blend of frustration over a season that didn’t end up where they wanted it to with the gratification of real time spent with family, the former gradually giving way more and more to the latter.

And then, after the holidays, a state of relaxation, and a bunch of cutting up where that frustration used to be.

As the end of January arrives, you start to see the game face coming back. Then the Fan Fest weekend, which in a palpable way gets all of us back in a baseball frame of mind, seems to pull the players in, too.

My guess is part of that is the guys coming back together, some from a few miles away, others from a few states away, a few crossing borders to get back to the Metroplex. It’s the first time for a lot of them to see each other and their coaches since October, and the first thing you notice is how happy they are to get back together. But underneath that, unless I’m mistaken, you can see that thing, that look of the troops coming together, the silent singleness of mind of a bunch of ballplayers about to give it another run.

It may not surprise you to learn that it doesn’t take a whole lot to get me fired up for baseball. The Awards Dinner and Fan Fest tandem is a slam dunk to do it for me every year, not just because of where it means the calendar is, just a handful of sleeps before the trucks are loaded up for Surprise, but also because of the 7,000 people gathered at Eddie Deen’s and Ameriquest Field, brought together by baseball, and you can see it in the players’ eyes: the swarm generates a vibe, felt both by the fans and by the guys that are weeks away from putting the uniform back on.

Two of those guys, Nate Gold and Eric Hurley, stood before a group of fans on Friday night as big as a lot of the sub-Frisco crowds they’d played in front of, accepting awards for the 2006 seasons they had. The two of them then sat behind a table on Saturday, signing autographs for kids and matching their smiles, and whether or not they were thinking it, I was: there was probably a time when Gold was that kid across the table, where Hurley was that kid too, meeting a professional baseball player and dreaming of the day that’s now just a couple weeks away for them, that first day taking part in a major league spring training workout. They might not have imagined that they’d each be supporting and be supported by a wife and a four-month-old daughter as that first big league camp awaited, but kids don’t think about those things.

Gold reminded me a little bit of Ben Kozlowski, a giant with an incredible knack for connecting with kids. There are some players who, no matter how much you thought of them before, you pull for even more after seeing how they are as people. Jeff Zimmerman, Chad Hawkins, Ben Kozlowski, Justin Hatcher. Nate Gold.

Hurley, five years younger than Gold, has just the right combination of confidence and reticence. He’s not one to draw attention to himself, but he knows his ability to pitch baseballs — and to get better at it — has him on a pretty exciting path.

Chris Davis. Great dude. He came up on the elevator with Rudy Jaramillo, which I’m guessing is the couple minutes he’ll remember most about his morning at Ameriquest Field. Big guy in the Ryan Bukvich mold, and a great attitude to go along with what scouts are calling the kind of power you can’t teach. Don’t be surprised if Davis ends up playing some third base this year, after a debut season spent entirely at first base and on the outfield corners. He got an extended instructional league look at the hot corner.

Thomas Diamond was the same as he always is: Nothing like the guy that will drill you up and in if he feels like it. He’s supremely confident, but he applies his confidence in a different way when he’s not on the hill. Diamond has one of those infectious Southern personalities that makes five-year-olds and 45-year-olds equally happy to be around him.

Eleanor Czajka has loaded a bunch of photos from the Saturday events on the Minor Details page, accessible from the Newberg Report website.

As for Friday night, the moments I’ll remember most were Eric Nadel’s on-stage interview with Eric Gagne, who spoke no English until he migrated from Montreal down to Seminole Junior College in Oklahoma. Gagne seems like the right mix of battle-tested closer and “just one of the guys.”

The man he deposed from the ninth-inning job, Akinori Otsuka, traveled from Japan just for the weekend and his acceptance speech for the Rangers Pitcher of the Year Award was outstanding. In his broken but improving English, which he’s very proud of, he pointed to Art Howe in the crowd and expressed his thanks that Howe, who as Mets skipper twice complained to umpires about the hesitation in his delivery, won’t be complaining any more.

The Rangers appropriately recognized Mark and Leigh Teixeira’s increasing and inspiring presence in the Dallas-Fort Worth community, and Mark was appropriately blunt when he said, “I’ve never been a winner as a Texas Ranger. And it’s getting old. It really is. We’re ready to win in 2007.”

Frank Lucchesi’s tribute to Mark Holtz was really cool.

Jon Daniels and Michael Young were absent from the event for the first time each, though they recorded videotaped messages that were shown near the beginning of the program. Daniels delivered a message to the fans from the hospital, ducking away while making an ice chips run for his wife Robyn, who gave birth later that evening to seven pound, one ounce Lincoln Jacob. Young thanked the fans in his video message and took a dig at Teixeira, wondering aloud (though unable to do so with a straight face) how in the world Tex came away with the Good Guy Award.

The reason for Young’s absence, which was not explained at the event or by the press, was that he went back to UCSB for its baseball alumni weekend, an event he’d missed every year since reaching the big leagues with Texas.

Young was recruited by UCSB to play center field, but a scout told him after his freshman season that he’d have a better chance of getting drafted high if he moved to shortstop. He went to his coach, Bob Brontsema, and said he’d like to move to shortstop for his sophomore year, even though the Gauchos had already devoted a full scholarship to his high school teammate, a shortstop named Steve Medrano. Brontsema promised Young a chance to compete for the job, though, and as it turns out, Medrano was drafted by Kansas City the summer before he would have joined the UCSB program, and Young got the shortstop job. He would lead the conference in errors that season, but Brontsema kept him at shortstop as a junior in 1997, and he went to Toronto in the fifth round (the same round Medrano was taken by the Royals two years earlier).

Young made a commitment to Brontsema, one of the first baseball men (and we all know there have been several) who took some heat for standing behind Young, to be in Santa Barbara for the weekend. He took with him a bunch of his old equipment (bats, batting gloves, etc.) to give to the current UCSB team to use in practice.

The events in Arlington weren’t the same without Young there, to be sure, but what Young did with his weekend is another example (as if we needed one) of the kind of stand-up guy he is.

I wish the fans could have had the chance to be in the same room as Ron Washington this weekend, but he was unable to attend because of a death in the family.

This weekend always gets my blood pumping, and this year my adrenaline is ratcheted up even more than usual because, like Ella Gold’s Dad and Aislynn Hurley’s Dad and Lincoln Jacob Daniels’s Dad and Ron Washington, I’m about to embark on a pretty big step in my life. Six of my partners and I are about to start up our own law firm.

It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and daunting, but no more so than a couple young ballplayers about to get their first experience in major league camp or a couple having their first child or a lifelong baseball man getting to manage his first big league club. I don’t want to forget what these next couple weeks are going to feel like (the soundtrack’s going to be Incubus’s “Light Grenades”), all the good and all the bad, which makes me no different from Gold or Hurley or Daniels or Washington.

This is one of those times in my life when I know that, for a good while, I won’t get nearly enough sleep because I’ll be so fired up to wake up each day and get rolling. The formidable baseball optimist in me is thankful that this career move of mine will coincide roughly with those perfect words: Pitchers and Catchers Report.

Whether it’s the expectations I have for my baseball team as the scrape of cleats and the pop of the catcher’s mitt perk up my senses, or, on a professional level, the exhilaration of creating something that’s, at the same time, brand new and well established, this is no time to let uncertainty creep in and buzzkill the whole thing.

“Kill your doubt/With the coldest of weapons: Confidence.”

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 27, 2007

BORN ON JANUARY 26

Bob Uecker, b.1935, 6’1”, 190 — Lifetime .200 hitter, perfected the art of catching the knuckleball (“wait until it stops rolling”)

Joe Pettini, b.1955, 5’9”, 165 — May have looked less like a baseball player on his 1981 Topps baseball card than anyone in the history of ever

Rick Schu, b.1962, 6’0”, 170 — Was to Mike Schmidt what Manny Alexander was to Cal Ripken

Lou Frazier, b.1965, 6’2”, 175 — Answer to the trivia question, “Who did Texas trade Hector Fajardo for?,” which begs the question why anyone would want to know who Texas traded Hector Fajardo for

Esteban German, b.1978, 5’9”, 165 — Answer to a sorta similar trivia question that I’m worried we won’t want to ask pretty soon

Andres Torres, b.1978, 5’10”, 175 — Huge camp for Texas in 2005 was followed by 19 regular season at-bats for the Rangers, in which he hit less than Uecker

Lincoln Jacob Daniels, b.2007 (at 9:35 p.m.), 7 lb., 1 oz. — Limited range; does not repeat well (yet); late bloomer (with regard to delivery); temperamental; lots of clean-up in his immediate future

Big congrats to Robyn and Jon Daniels.

See you all at Fan Fest today.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 25, 2007

Someone a lot closer to the Rangers than I am engaged me in a discussion after I suggested on Sunday that one of the three keys to a contending season, as far as I’m concerned, is 27 wins out of Brandon McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda. He asked me to show my work.

He first asked what I was counting on out of Kevin Millwood and Vicente Padilla. I said 32 wins, which I thought was a fair expectation — though admittedly, both righthanders set career highs in victories last year and posted a combined 31 in doing so.

We agreed that 10 wins was fair to expect from the fifth spot.

How many games did the Rangers bullpen win last year, he asked? Nineteen, with 24 losses. How about in 2004, the club’s surprise 89-win season? The relief crew went 34-15. On paper, the set of relievers that Texas takes to camp is stronger than it was last year, particularly in light of the addition of Eric Gagne and the extra year under the belts of C.J. Wilson and Wes Littleton. But you certainly can’t expect 34 relief wins. So probably somewhere in between.

In 2005, 2003, and 2002, Texas relievers won 24, 24, and 25 games. Over the last five seasons, then, the club has averaged 25.2 wins. So let’s assume 25 this year, even though most of us would probably agree that this pen should — should — be better than the average Rangers pen since 2002 (especially since added strength in the seventh, eighth, and ninth increases the odds of a comeback effort that stands up). And then again, relief wins are tough to predict and are predicated on a lot more than effective relief pitchers. A team’s bullpen is likely to win fewer games when its rotation has improved, not only because a reliever can only get a win if the club isn’t in the lead when he enters the game, but also because a stronger starting five should mean fewer bullpen innings in general, which means less opportunity for the lead to change with the starter out of the game.

So, acknowledging that there are factors calling for more bullpen wins, for fewer wins, and for abstaining from trying to guess how many wins, we’ll still pencil in 25.

Add it up, and there’s 94 victories. And that’s probably more than you’ll need to win the West in 2007.

The point is this: Of all those variables, to me the pivotal one is the 27 wins out of McCarthy and Tejeda. Getting 32 from the top two, and 10 from the fifth spot, and 25 from the bullpen, are probably all more projectable. McCarthy and Tejeda could win a dozen games between them and force the club to use options on them. They could also win as many combined as Millwood and Padilla do, at about one-20th of the cost.

To me, McCarthy and Tejeda might be the two most important pitchers on the staff this year, in the sense that the team’s fortunes could swing on their performance.

This idea of taking a look at Joaquin Arias in center field is intriguing. While in some cases, relegating a young player to utility duties typecasts him going forward, it’s not always the case. Chone Figgins. Mark DeRosa. Going back a bit, Mark McLemore. There are plenty of examples. If Arias takes to the outfield — and he certainly has the quickness, the speed, the instincts, and the arm to be a pretty interesting project out there — the shortstop genius could be a very interesting 25th man candidate.

Some things to think about before assuming the deal Chase Utley just got from Philadelphia — seven years and $85 million — is a benchmark for the deal Michael Young might expect.

In Young’s favor: the first three years of Utley’s deal would have been arbitration years (and he’s now set to earn $4.5 million, $7.5 million, and $11 million in those seasons, before $15 million annually over the next four), while 2007 would have been Young’s final arbitration year if he wasn’t already under contract. There’s no basis for discounting the front end of Young’s next deal like there was in Utley’s case.

Also, all other things equal, a shortstop will generally command more than a second baseman.

And for those who point to Young’s age, it should be noted that Utley is 28, meaning he’s actually older at a similar stage in his career than the 30-year-old Young, who has nearly three years more service.

In the Rangers’ favor, giving Young a similar term (if the extension were struck today) would take him to age 36, while Utley will be 34.

Then again, given the type of game Young has, I don’t think he’ll necessarily be any less effective at age 36 than he will be at age 34.

Young is under contract for $3.5 million this year and Texas has a club option to keep him here in 2008 for just $4 million. But you’d have to believe that the two sides are going to talk about an Utley-esque deal before it gets to that point.

The Rangers outrighted infielder Drew Meyer to AAA once they slid him through league-wide waivers after designating the 25-year-old for assignment. Since it’s Meyer’s first outright off the roster, he had no right to decline the assignment. Texas has also extended Meyer a non-roster invite to big league spring training.

Texas gave infielder Jose Morban a minor league contract. Originally signed by the Rangers in 1996 out of the Dominican Republic, Morban was swiped by Minnesota in the December 2002 Rule 5 Draft — fascinatingly, the Twins cleared a spot on their 40-man roster just beforehand by releasing David Ortiz — but the 23-year-old failed to stick in camp and Minnesota put him on waivers, as the rules dictate for a Rule 5 pick who isn’t kept on the big league roster. Baltimore immediately claimed Morban, who Baseball America suggested had five-tool potential, and he had the type of season in 2003 that ruins Rule 5 picks from time to time.

At a time when he should have been in Class AA for the first time, Morban instead atrophied in the big leagues, a level he wasn’t ready for physically or mentally. He lasted the whole year in Baltimore and got into 61 games for the Orioles, but they were mostly late-inning appearances. He amassed 71 at-bats, doing very little with them (.141/.187/.225, 21 strikeouts), while seeing spot action at shortstop, second base, and third base. He did manage to steal eight bases without getting caught. It was the only big league action of his career to date.

No longer constrained by Rule 5, Baltimore assigned Morban to the farm in 2004, and he split the season between High A and AA without hitting much. He joined the Cleveland system in 2005, splitting time between AA and AAA, and in 2006 he played briefly for Seattle’s AAA club, with a week-long stint in the Arizona League rehabbing a sprained left wrist that cost him half the season.

I don’t believe Morban got an invite to big league camp from the Rangers, and at this point in his career the 27-year-old will probably be battling in March for a spot on the Oklahoma roster.

The Rangers also signed lefthander Buck Cody to a minor league contract. The former University of Texas reliever was drafted by St. Louis in the seventh round in 2004, after posting ERA’s under 2.00 in each of his first three Longhorn seasons. But he returned to UT in 2005 and saw his ERA bump to 3.81 in the Horns’ national championship season, and San Francisco took him in the 16th round that June.

Cody, who won’t turn 25 until June, split his 2005 summer between the Arizona League and Northwest League, striking out 22 batters in 18.1 innings, and he was assigned to Low A Augusta last year. He held the Sally League to just 27 hits (.196 opponents’ average) in 38.2 frames, but he issued an unacceptable 35 walks while fanning 31, and the Giants simply released him.

Baseball America calls righthander Shooter Hunt the number eight transfer in college baseball this year. The Rangers’ 34th-rounder in 2005, Hunt is leaving Virginia to pitch for Tulane.

I think Sean Payton looks like Lee Harvey Oswald.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com suggests that Colorado’s signing of righthander Brian Lawrence could free the Rockies up to trade righthander Byung-Hyun Kim, whom he notes Texas showed interest in at the winter meetings.

Philadelphia signed righthander Antonio Alfonseca, and Cleveland agreed to terms with righthander Matt Miller.

Minor league deals: Tampa Bay signed first baseman Chris Richard and is about to sign first baseman Carlos Pena, the Dodgers signed righthander Rudy Seanez and third baseman Fernando Tatis, Toronto brought lefthander Jesse Carlson back into their system, the Cubs signed first baseman Jason Hart and righthander Cory Bailey, the White Sox signed second baseman Jason Bourgeois, Milwaukee signed outfielder Tydus Meadows, Minnesota signed catcher Brad King, Seattle signed lefthander Matt Perisho, and Washington signed third baseman Brandon Larson. Cleveland outrighted righthander Brian Sikorski to AAA after getting him through waivers.

The Mets have named Jack Voigt their hitting coach. The White Sox tabbed Nick Capra as their minor league hitting coordinator and named Rob Sasser the hitting coach of their Pioneer League affiliate at Great Falls.

Kansas City named Kyle Turner trainer for Idaho of the Pioneer League.

The Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent American Association signed outfielder Will Smith.

Some website things:

1. It’s much easier now to sign up for the Newberg Report mailing list. See the instructions at the end of this report.

2. We now have an RSS feed. On the front page of www.newbergreport.com, there’s an orange RSS button just beneath the title story.

3. The online store — accessible from the top menu bar at www.newbergreport.com — is up and running.

4. As a reminder, I’m now flush with a few dozen new copies of the 2003 Bound Edition, which I’m basically selling at a loss, at $15 each. The 2007 book remains $25.

5. A truly complete set of the eight Bound Editions (now that I can include the 2003 book) is $115.

6. Don’t forget that you can now post comments on the website next to my reports. This is different from the message board.

7. Eleanor Czajka has reinstated the Amazon.com link on the Minor Details page. By clicking the Amazon link near the bottom of the Minor Details page, any purchases you then make at Amazon.com produce small referral fees for the Newberg Report, which we use to help upgrade our chat software and other website features.

The Rangers Sluggers of the West Awards Dinner is tomorrow night at Eddie Deen’s Ranch in Downtown Dallas. I’m not sure if it’s too late to take advantage of the Newberg Report special ($40 per ticket rather than $50), but if you’re interested in sitting with fellow Newberg Report fans, call Jessica Cung at 817-273-5203 and see if there’s still space available.

Fan Fest is Saturday at Ameriquest Field. We’ll have a Newberg Report table in the Diamond Club with Bound Editions for sale and, more than likely, some sort of player autograph presence. Whether we have players signing at our table or not, there will be a number of current and former Rangers signing at the event, which lasts from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. Other activities include running the basepaths, catching pop-ups, warming up in the home bullpen, taking swings in the indoor batting cage, and having your photo taken in the home dugout.

Admission to Fan Fest is $5 and includes free access to the Legends of the Game Museum and the Coca-Cola Sports Park. A memorabilia sale and auction will be held in the Cuervo Club.

When and if I get confirmation on who will be signing autographs (and where), I’ll shoot you another email.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 21, 2007

The old adage is that every team in baseball wins a third of its games, and every team loses a third of its games. It’s what you do with that other third, those 54 games, that defines you.

These are the things that I think, if they happen, tilt that final third so that those final six at home against Baltimore and the Angels and the season’s final series in Seattle will be happily decisive:

1. 27 wins out of Brandon McCarthy and Robinson Tejeda.

2. Better production in left field than 2006′s .273/.341/.469. (The outfield as a whole hit a disturbing .279/.337/.450, but to me left field, given this roster’s makeup, is the swing position.) The defense out there needs to be better, too.

3. A full season out of Hank Blalock that looks a lot more like his 2006 first half (.287/.352/.443) than his second half (.237/.289/.346), and a resurgent year from him defensively. Blalock’s off-season shoulder surgery and the change in managers seem stacked to favor his chances of a bounceback season. Now he needs to execute.

There will be unforeseen pluses in 2007 (none of us could have predicted what Gary Matthews Jr., Mark DeRosa, and Wes Littleton were going to do last year) and negatives (a collapse like Francisco Cordero’s, an injury like Adam Eaton’s). There are massive question marks (Eric Gagne’s effectiveness, Sammy Sosa, Vicente Padilla with financial security, and Nelson Cruz and Jason Botts, either of whom is just as likely to have 12 home runs at the Break as he is to be in AAA) and dead locks (Michael Young, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Millwood, Akinori Otsuka).

But give me my list of three, toss in an impact July trade (which is sure to happen as long as we’re in the race), and recognize the shape that the AL West is in — and I’m betting on this team contending all the way to the finish.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 17, 2007

I’m conflicted about this Sammy Sosa thing.  Maybe he can be the 2007 version of 2006 Frank Thomas or 1996 Eric Davis, and there’s no question that the lineup has the appearance of being a dependable right-handed bat short.  But maybe I have too much faith that Nelson Cruz is capable of having an Ian Kinsler year, and that Jason Botts can be the 2006 Gerald Laird, so to speak.   

Objectively, this move makes a fair amount of sense.  Texas brought D’Angelo Jimenez in 13 months ago on a non-guaranteed deal to give Kinsler competition in camp for a job that he was expected to win.  Jimenez didn’t cost anyone a spot on the 40-man roster, and while he got 49 spring training at-bats, Kinsler got 58, second most on the team.  Nobody plays every day in March, and there will be reps to go around.  So from that standpoint, giving playing time to Sosa might cost Victor Diaz and Marlon Byrd some at-bats, but there have historically been two or three outfielders on the Rangers’ non-roster invite list each spring, and there were none on the list announced by the organization last week: no Adrian Brown’s or Adam Hyzdu’s or Chad Allen’s or Jason Conti’s or Andres Torres’s or other non-roster 4-A’s this year.

And again, like Jimenez, if Sosa agrees to whatever the Rangers have offered him, he would certainly be here on a make-good deal.  If he proves not to be ready to make an April impact, thanks for the time. 

For that matter, if he doesn’t appear to be ready to make a March run at an April impact, Texas can always cut the experiment short.  This would be a non-guaranteed deal, in every sense.  The upside isn’t nearly what Thomas or Mike Piazza would have brought this winter, but neither is the club commitment.  So where’s the downside, the risk?

That’s where my objectivity wanes.  One of the things I’m most excited about a month from now is the kickoff of Camp Ron Washington.  I think his attitude and his confidence and the fresh air he brings is possibly the biggest story of the spring.  I want to see how this team responds to his upbeat, "let the players play" approach. 

I’m not concerned that Sosa will be a negative influence.  Jon Daniels and Rudy Jaramillo (who goes back 20 years with Sosa) commented on how humble and how hungry Sosa is, after sitting out the 2006 season rather than take a $500,000 offer to play for Washington.  This isn’t T.O., it’s not Dennis Rodman.  It’s not even Rafael Palmeiro.  Sosa isn’t going to be a cancer, even in a worst-case scenario.

But he will be a distraction, regardless of his best intentions.  There were a lot more cameras and a lot more dictaphones in the 1989 clubhouse when Nolan Ryan arrived than there had been in 1988.  Did it bother Ruben Sierra and Pete Incaviglia, the young stars of the club, that Ryan was getting the attention from much of the local press and all of the national media in camp?  My recollection is that it did, but then again Sierra was 23 and Inky was 24, which is a lot different from the 30 and 26 that Michael Young and Mark Teixeira are.

The other difference, however, is that Ryan was a story for all the right reasons.  And Sosa won’t be.  Regardless of what his attitude is and no matter how well he fits into the clubhouse culture, the national press will vulture in and make the issue of whether he used steroids in his prime a focus.  How long will it take before Young and Teixeira are asked to comment on it themselves?  Probably the minute the doors are opened to reporters.  And that *****.

Again, I don’t have a problem with bringing Sosa into the clubhouse.  It’s what will follow him into the room that concerns me.  Any damper on the much-needed vibe overhaul that Washington will bring disturbs me.

As for the baseball impact, I had no issue with the Jimenez addition last winter and I have no issue giving Cruz and Botts more competition.  I don’t know Cruz, but I know Botts, and I’m not worried one bit about how this might affect his attitude or his confidence.  And frankly, it’s a good test.  There’s going to be adversity for any young player trying to establish himself in the big leagues, and Cruz and Botts aren’t immune to that.  Might as well throw challenges at each of them every chance you get.

And let’s make this point: Sosa is far less of an impediment to Botts’s future here than Thomas or Piazza would have been.  Texas would obviously have been committed to those two, probably for two years, had either signed here.  There’s no such risk, in terms of dollars or guaranteed term, with Sosa. 

Diaz and Byrd?  They’ll get their chances.  But I certainly wouldn’t refuse to sign a veteran because of their presence here.

Different story with Cruz and Botts.  Very different.

Cruz has had a strong run in the Dominican Winter League.  Botts was terrific in the Puerto Rican Winter League.  Each has one option left, so it’s not irreversible decision time on either of them, but there’s no more they can prove in AAA.  Their showing in Texas last year (130 at-bats for Cruz, 50 for Botts) was uneven, but so were Travis Hafner’s 62 at-bats with the Rangers in 2002. 

I’m not saying Cruz or Botts will be Hafner.  They won’t be.  But I want to see them given more of an opportunity here to prove what they are or aren’t than Hafner was.  What happens if one or both of them have great camps and outproduce Sosa, but the 38-year-old holds his own and shows better bat speed then he did in his miserable 2005 season, which was the fifth straight year that his OPS and home run and walk rates declined?  Does Sosa make the team, sentencing Cruz and Botts to irregular playing time, or tickets to Oklahoma City?

What matters to me, as I hope has become clear to anyone who reads this newsletter, is that the Rangers get better.  Better now and better later.  If Don Welke saw Sosa in the Dominican Republic a couple weeks ago and thought he saw a guy who could help the club, then I’m prepared to be on board.  If Jaramillo (who managed a Sarasota club in 1986 that featured Sosa and Juan Gonzalez and Dean Palmer and Rey Sanchez and Kevin Brown, all making their pro debuts) saw what he needed to see and Daniels heard what he needed to hear this week, I’m not about to pretend I know better than they do. 

And if the organization isn’t as convinced as I am that Cruz and Botts can contribute meaningfully in Texas — now — then obviously I’ll defer. 

But a lot of us were really lucky, I guess, when our own instincts told us that Hafner and Aaron Myette for Einar Diaz and Ryan Drese was a terrible idea.

I’ll be thrilled if Sosa comes in here and gives the Rangers more than Richard Hidalgo or Phil Nevin did.  I’m glad he feels like he has something to prove. 

Just as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of opportunities for Cruz and Botts to prove something of their own.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 15, 2007

The Rangers have invited four non-roster minor leaguers to big league camp: righthanders Thomas Diamond and Eric Hurley, catcher Kevin Richardson, and first baseman Nate Gold. They join the following NRI’s signed this winter: righthanders Willie Eyre, Franklyn German, and Mike Wood, lefthander Scott Rice, catcher Salomon Manriquez, and utility candidates Jerry Hairson Jr., Ramon Vazquez, and Matt Kata.

The Rangers agreed to terms Monday with righthander Joaquin Benoit on a one-year, $1.05 million contract, avoiding arbitration. Texas is expected to exchange arbitration figures with its three remaining cases on Tuesday, righthanders Akinori Otsuka and Rick Bauer and outfielder Brad Wilkerson, though the two sides in each case could reach an agreement before then — or afterwards, in advance of a February hearing.

Outfielder Sammy Sosa was in Arlington on Monday, working out for the Rangers at Ameriquest Field (presumably in the cages) before meeting with GM Jon Daniels over dinner. Would almost certainly be a non-roster invite if Texas does offer him a deal. No harm in kicking the tires, I guess. Sosa’s just one more guy that Jason Botts should be able to beat out in camp.

The organization has released four minor leaguers: catcher Alberto Martinez, infielder Joey Hooft, outfielder Joe Napoli, and lefthander Patrick Ford.

And I was wrong the other day when I said trade acquisition Chris Stewart was the only candidate for backup catcher duties who has options. While Guillermo Quiroz is in fact out of options, Miguel Ojeda has one left.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 13, 2007

When I wrote about the Danks-Masset-McCarthy trade a few weeks ago, one point was that fans of both the Rangers and White Sox reacted negatively at first because familiarity had bred faith. Most Rangers fans knew a lot more about the homegrown Danks and Masset than the major leaguer McCarthy. Chicago fans had seen their club trade Freddy Garcia weeks earlier, ostensibly to clear a rotation spot for McCarthy, and now he was being shipped away for two pitchers who reached AAA in 2006 and had a combined 8.2 innings in the bigs.

Yesterday’s trade between Texas and Chicago is on an exponentially smaller scale, but repeats the theme: familiar for unfamiliar, and accordingly unpopular at home. The Rangers sent 22-year-old righthander Johnny Lujan to Chicago for 24-year-old catcher Chris Stewart. To make room for Stewart on the 40-man roster, Texas designated infielder Drew Meyer for assignment, potentially ending the Rangers career of the most controversial draft pick of Grady Fuson’s tenure here.

Stewart is a defensively advanced catcher whose path to the big leagues was unusually swift. Chosen in the 12th round of the 2001 draft out of Riverside Community College (where he caught Sox system teammate and former Rangers farmhand Ryan Wing and just missed playing with eventual Rangers draftee Jesse Chavez), Stewart signed in mid-August that year and thus didn’t get his pro career underway until 2002. He played in the rookie-level Appalachian League in 2002, jumped all the way to High A in 2003, spent most of the 2004 season at AA with a five-game cameo in AAA, had his offensive breakout season in 2005 in a AA encore, and spent 2006 in AAA before making his big league debut when rosters expanded in September.

Catchers take longer than any other position to get to the big leagues (especially those who come through the draft as opposed to arriving from Latin America), so the fact that Stewart was in Chicago by age 24 says something about his ability. At age 21, presumably as one of the youngest catchers in the High A Carolina League, he led the circuit by cutting down 50 percent of would-be basestealers, sporting a dazzling home-to-second pop time of 1.75 seconds. His Winston-Salem club (which featured Frankie Francisco, Ruddy Yan, Wing, Jeremy Reed, and Josh Fields) won the league title, but Stewart hit a feeble .207/.294/.290. Still, he went into the 2004 season as Chicago’s top catcher prospect, according to Baseball America.

Stewart continued to play plus defense in 2004 for AA Birmingham but he still didn’t hit (.231/.299/.300, plus a 1 for 14 stint over a week in June with AAA Charlotte), and by season’s end BA judged two other catchers in the Sox system (Francisco Hernandez and Donny Lucy) ahead of him. Back with the Barons in 2005, Stewart’s bat came alive (.265/.314/.393 with 21 doubles, 11 home runs [after totaling four in his first three seasons], and 51 RBI in 311 at-bats, with just 37 strikeouts) and he gunned down 52 percent of those trying to steal on him. At season’s end Chicago added him to the club’s 40-man roster, and the thought was that he was on a path to becoming A.J. Pierzynski’s backup within a year.

Assigned to Charlotte out of camp in 2006, Stewart was that club’s primary catcher, hitting .265/.314/.393 in 272 at-bats and earning a call-up to Chicago on September 1. He fanned twice in eight hitless trips to the plate for the White Sox, but in his lone big league start he cut Grady Sizemore down stealing two times — with knuckleballer Charlie Haeger on the mound. (Sizemore was a sturdy 22 out of 26 in swipe attempts otherwise.) Stewart went into the off-season as a favorite to make the 2007 roster.

But Chicago signed veteran Toby Hall in December, making it likely that the club would have used its second option on Stewart this spring and kept him in Charlotte as insurance. But Hall got a two-year deal (and Pierzynski is signed for the next two seasons as well), meaning by time Chicago’s catching tandem would have a foreseeable opening, Stewart would be out of options.

The backup catcher situation is far less defined in Texas. Stewart will go to camp competing with fellow roster members Miguel Ojeda and Guillermo Quiroz to serve as Gerald Laird’s backup. He not only trails that pair in big league experience, but also is the only one with options. Surely the Rangers will break camp with the best of the three, based on nothing but ability, but if it’s neck and neck between Stewart and one of the other two, Texas can keep two of them (without having to running anyone through waivers) by going with Ojeda or Quiroz in Texas and optioning Stewart to Oklahoma.

But at what cost did Texas introduce what amounts to a candidate for a bench spot? I’m one of the bigger Johnny Lujan fans around. The day Texas drafted him in the 15th round out of New Mexico Junior College in 2004, I wrote this:

“I think Texas might have found a guy here. Lujan touched 95 with his fastball this season (though he works in the low 90s) and had dirty numbers, going 11-2, 1.61 in 12 starts and five relief appearances, covering 78.1 innings. He scattered 53 hits (.189 opponents’ average) and 34 walks while punching out 103, and he wasn’t taken deep all year. And before giving up six runs in 2.2 innings in his final outing of the year, his season ERA stood at 0.95.

“The scouting bureau notes that while Lujan’s body is strong and fully mature, he’s still very raw and ‘just a thrower.’ But his fastball has heavy sink and his slider shows promise.

“Watch this one.”


And as we watched, Lujan’s ceiling grew and grew. In his rookie season, he went 1-1, 1.71, scattering 23 hits (.200 opponents’ average) and 11 walks in 31.2 Arizona League innings while fanning 26, plus 1-0, 2.20 for Short-Season A Spokane in four games, giving up 17 hits (.274 opponents’ average) and nine walks in 16.1 frames, punching out 17.

In 2005, Lujan worked out of the Low A Clinton bullpen, going 4-4, 2.80 with five saves in 31 appearances, holding the Midwest League to a .238/.326/.356 line and fanning 56 batters in 64.1 innings while issuing 27 walks. He finished strong, permitting just one earned run in his final 22.2 frames. The most impressive progress he made was in the nature of his outs. After posting a 0.65 groundout-to-flyout rate in 2004, he sported a 1.20 rate in 2005. And he gave up just one home run all year (having allowed only two in 2004).

After the 2005 season, Lujan had a brilliant run in the Puerto Rican Winter League, firing 19.2 innings without allowing an earned run. He gave up one unearned score on eight hits (.131 opponents’ average) and four walks, retiring 14 on strikes. His velocity, regularly sitting in the mid-90s, was touching 97, and he was starting to get mentioned on short lists.

But when the Waco native was assigned to High A Bakersfield in 2006, he struggled. In 38 relief appearances, he went 1-4, 5.74, giving up 75 hits (.281 opponents’ average) and 43 walks in 69 frames, striking out 58, and he was more prone to the longball than ever before, yielding eight homers. He had a bout with elbow soreness in May that led to a brief stay on the disabled list, but even when back on the mound his performance never prompted a promotion to Frisco, something that seemed before the season to be a near-lock.

Chances are, based on his performance in 2006, that Lujan would not have been protected on the 40-man roster this off-season even if Rule 5 had not been modified in the new CBA, delaying until next winter the first time that he’ll be draft-eligible. He’ll probably settle in at AA in the White Sox system, giving Chicago yet another power arm in a winter when they’ve been collecting them incessantly.

This is a trade in which the Rangers got the player more likely to contribute in the big leagues, and the White Sox got the player with the higher upside.

At this point, both Stewart (the 374th player drafted in 2001) and Lujan (the 441st player chosen in 2004) had more value than Meyer, the 10th overall pick in 2002, Fuson’s first draft as Rangers assistant GM and director of scouting and player development. Meyer arrived with every defensive tool, disruptive speed, an off-the-charts instinct for the game, and a questionable bat, and four and a half years later, he’s that same player. By this time, surely Fuson imagined Meyer, a college shortstop, hitting at the top of the Texas lineup, possibly in center field since Alex Rodriguez and Michael Young were in place in the middle infield. It hasn’t worked out nearly that way.

Every team has drafts that turn out to be disappointing at the top, but in some of them it’s more of a reflection of how weak the draft class as a whole was. For instance, in 2000, the Rangers used first-round picks on Scott Heard, Tyrell Godwin (whom they wouldn’t sign), and Chad Hawkins, but that was a historically bad draft.

Not the case in 2002. It was Fuson’s first chance to make an impact in Texas by way of the draft, and, not having picks in rounds two, three, four, or five due to the off-season signings of Chan Ho Park, Juan Gonzalez, Todd Van Poppel, and Jay Powell, his ability to execute with the club’s first-rounder was obviously crucial.

Most respected publications considered Meyer a legitimate prospect but a considerable reach with the 10th pick, where Texas chose him. There were 20 players who were drafted in Round One after Meyer. Among the 20 were, in order of selection: Jeremy Hermida (the guy I wanted us to take), Khalil Greene (like Meyer, a college shortstop), Scott Kazmir (ouch), Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, Joe Blanton, and Matt Cain.

That’s one of the most painful baseball paragraphs I’ve had to write in a while.

Meyer reached AA in the summer he arrived. The problem was he played at least part of the season in AA again in 2003, in 2004, and in 2005. Last season was the first that he didn’t spend in the Texas League, and the season that he arrived in the big leagues. In a five-week stint with Texas in the 2006 season’s first half (prompted when Mark DeRosa sprained his foot), Meyer showed the defensive prowess, the plus speed, and the obvious game instincts, but he also showed the issues at the plate, going 3 for 14 with eight strikeouts and no extra-base hits. His AAA season wasn’t measurably better, as he hit a punchless .228/.278/.305 in 364 at-bats, striking out 91 times, drawing only 27 walks, and failing on more than half of his 20 stolen base attempts.

Texas left Meyer exposed to the Rule 5 Draft after the 2004 and 2005 seasons but no team used a $50,000 pick to give him a spring training look — including the Padres, who in December 2005 had Fuson as part of their braintrust. It’s a little different now, though. Rule 5′ing a player means, in order to keep him, you have to put him on your active big league roster for an entire season. Claiming him off waivers only requires that he be given a 40-man roster spot.

The Rangers designated Meyer for assignment on Friday, opening a 10-day period during which they must trade the 25-year-old, release him, or — if they can get him through waivers unclaimed — outright his contract to the minor leagues. As he’s never been outrighted before, he wouldn’t be able to decline the assignment and take free agency. But it may never come to that, as Texas may make an effort to trade him first and, failing that, could lose him on waivers.

I’ve seen Meyer do some amazing things on the field in Frisco and in his brief time with the Rangers, not to mention in fielding practice in Surprise. He does things at shortstop and second base and third base and in center field that take your breath away. There were times when Texas even considered trying him behind the plate, where it was thought his sturdy build and plus arm and quickness would play, and his left-handed bat would be put to better use. He’s absolutely a big league defender, at a number of positions.

But that’s just half of the game, and there’s no such thing as a designated fielder. Even if Meyer had fixed the hitch in his swing and become a more effective hitter, hindsight dictates that Texas would have been better off had Fuson gone after a high school arm like Kazmir or Cain or Hamels (Fuson’s reputation was that he avoided high school pitchers, but then again he’s the man who was in charge when Jeremy Bonderman — a high school junior, no less — and John Danks and Eric Hurley were drafted). Or a less risky bat, like Hermida or Francoeur. Especially in a draft when the Rangers wouldn’t choose again until the sixth round, taking such a big gamble with a $2 million pick probably wasn’t the right decision.

According to the Dallas Morning News, Hurley has received an invite to big league camp this spring, even though he’s two years away from having to be protected on the 40-man roster.

Then again, he’ll be on the roster before the rules say he has to be.

Righthander R.A. Dickey, who was a free agent this winter, signed a minor league contract with Milwaukee, which any of us could have predicted was his likely destination. Not only are a number of the men in charge of the Brewers part of the group that was here when Texas drafted and developed Dickey, one of the great people in the game — Milwaukee’s AAA club is in Nashville, Dickey’s hometown.

Houston signed outfielder Richard Hidalgo to a minor league deal with a non-roster invite.

That 1987 AAA Rochester team managed by John Hart didn’t include just Ron Washington, Craig Worthington, Billy Ripken, Rene Gonzales, and Anthony Telford. Dom Chiti, Jamie Reed, and Josh Lewin were there, too.

The Windy City Thunderbolts of the independent Frontier League signed first baseman Phillip Hawke and traded catcher Jason Mann to San Angelo of the United League for a player to be named.

The Lincoln SaltDogs of the independent American Association released lefthander Chris Russ.

The Rangers settled the lawsuit filed in California by Craig and Jennifer Bueno regarding the September 2004 incident in Oakland when Craig Bueno’s taunts directed at several Rangers relief pitchers led to an altercation in which Jennifer Bueno’s nose was injured by a chair thrown by Francisco. Terms of the settlement were not announced, but the Bueno’s and the Rangers jointly released a statement that said, in part: “The parties are pleased to put this matter behind them. The Rangers organization reiterated their regret over this incident and apologize to Mrs. Bueno for the injury suffered.”

Glad to see that story go away.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 12, 2007

The Rangers loaded up for Daisuke Matsuzaka and Barry Zito and were in the final mix, only to be blown out of the water by the Red Sox and Giants. As a fallback Texas targeted Mark Mulder but couldn’t lure him from his 2006 club.

The Rangers wanted to keep Mark DeRosa but couldn’t offer him the playing time that the Cubs promised. As a fallback they went after Mark Loretta but ran into the same issue. Let’s face it: With the four infielders that Texas goes to war with, getting another DeRosa to choose to play here would be as tall an order as the Cowboys convincing a top-flight defensive coordinator to come in for what amounts to one secure season under a head coach who doesn’t give out much leash in the first place.

Failing to land one more stud starter or another dependable veteran bat might qualify as disappointing, but how great would it be if Josh Rupe or Kameron Loe on one hand, and Jason Botts on the other, allow us to look back on this the same way that we can now view the Cowboys’ decision not to trade Tony Romo to New Orleans for a mid-round pick?

There’s nothing wrong with opening up the fifth spot in the rotation, which can be skipped two or three times in April, to a competition among a group of young pitchers like Rupe and Loe and John Koronka and Edinson Volquez.

And definitely nothing wrong with giving Botts every chance to claim the right-handed half of the DH spot. It would have been one thing to bring in an impact, middle-of-the-lineup bat to fill that role. But short of that, might as well fill the utility infield spot with a guy like Jerry Hairston Jr. — because having your utility man capable of playing all over the outfield makes a lot more sense than trying to find one who can DH a third of the time. And that versatility theoretically means a guy like Botts can make the club even if he’d only be counted on as a platoon DH.

It’s sort of goofy how some people have responded negatively to the non-roster invite given last week to Hairston. If he weren’t linked (by the series of trades that got him here in the first place) to Chan Ho Park, nobody would pan the move. He’s made between $1.5 million and $2.3 million each of the last four seasons, is only 30 years old, and is here on a non-guaranteed deal. If used correctly and not overexposed, he can help.

Ramon Vazquez, Joaquin Arias, Drew Meyer, and Matt Kata all have shots at the utility role, but it would stand to reason that Hairston comes in as the frontrunner.

A couple stories have gotten this wrong lately: The Rangers no longer control lefthander Derek Lee, who tore through the Dominican Winter League with a 6-0, 1.80 regular season ERA and has a 1-0, 1.29 mark after two playoff appearances. The 32-year-old TCU product went 6-12, 4.26 for Oklahoma in 2006, but is now a free agent.

The Rangers have hired former Dodgers and Giants infielder Dave Anderson to replace Darryl Kennedy as Frisco manager. Since retiring in 1992, Anderson has managed in the Detroit farm system, coached at the University of Memphis, and served as the Dodgers’ minor league infielder coordinator.

Righthander John Thomson signed with Toronto. Pittsburgh gave righthander Kevin Gryboski a minor league contract. Righthander Esteban Yan signed with Japan’s Hanshin Tigers.

Cleveland designated righthander Brian Sikorski for assignment. Oakland released utility man Cameron Coughlan.

Boston named Bruce Crabbe its minor league infield coordinator and Mike Cather the pitching coach for AA Portland. The Angels hired Tom Gregorio to be their roving catching instructor. San Diego named Bob Skube the hitting coach for Low A Fort Wayne.

Catcher Jason Mann signed with the San Angelo Colts of the independent United League, and righthander Shawn Phillips signed with the Windy City Thunderbolts of the independent Frontier League. The Sussex SkyHawks of the independent Can-Am League released infielder Marcos Agramonte.

In 2007, the Rangers will start all June, July, and August home night games (roughly coinciding with the time that schools are out) at 7:35, rather than 7:05. The only day games during that stretch are scheduled for Saturday, June 23 against Houston (2:55 p.m.) and Sunday, July 8 against Baltimore (2:05, the final game before the All-Star Break).

A week from tomorrow (Saturday, January 20), the Rangers will hold a free hitting and pitching clinic at DBAT Baseball Academy of Dallas (at 15605 Wright Brothers, Addison, Texas 75011; 972-387-3228), from 4:30 until 6:30. Ian Kinsler, Wes Littleton, and Rick Bauer will be hand for the clinic and will sign autographs. There will also be club giveaways, and everyone who attends will get complimentary tickets to Fan Fest.

For the second straight year, the Rangers are giving the Newberg Report community a discount on tickets to the Dr Pepper Texas Rangers Sluggers of the West Awards Dinner, which is on Friday, January 26 at Eddie Deen’s Ranch in downtown Dallas, starting at 6:30 p.m.

The tickets are $50 to the public, but you can go for $40 if you call Jessica Beard at 817-273-5203 and tell her you’re part of the Newberg Report group.

We filled three tables (of 10 people each) at last year’s dinner, and I know a few of you have already taken advantage of the offer this year. Most (if not all) of the tables at the event will have Rangers players or other club representatives at them. Seating is limited, so the sooner you register, the better your chances of having a player at your table.

The organization will hand out awards for Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and Minor League Player and Pitcher of the Year at the dinner, and there will be special interviews with Mark Teixeira and Ron Washington during the program. Josh Lewin will co-host the event with Mike Doocy of Channel 4, and Eric Nadel, Victor Rojas, and Tom Grieve will also chip in. Net proceeds from the event benefit the Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation.

Thanks to Chuck Morgan, Jim Sundberg, and Kate Jett for making this special deal available again this year to the Newberg Report community.

The Rangers are losing a really good guy and a master at his job. Manager of media relations Jeff Evans, a Seattle native, is leaving to join the Mariners public relations department.

Eleanor Czajka has put the transcript of Kat O’Brien’s chat session with the Newberg Report up.

As I mentioned a few days ago, the 2003 Bound Edition is no longer out of print. Although I’ve been out of stock of the book for nearly a year, I’ve found the files and will have 50 new copies of the book printed in a few days. It’s the largest of my eight books (just short of 400 pages), and features Mark Teixeira, Travis Hafner, and Laynce Nix on the front cover and C.J. Wilson and Ben Kozlowski on the back.

I’m selling the 2003 book for $15 a copy, which is less than my cost to print and ship it. (For the 15 of you who told me in the last few days that you want a copy, you may go ahead and send payment now if you’d like.)

A complete set of all eight Bound Editions — which I can now finally provide — is $115 (which is a $15 savings).

At some point today, the new and improved Newberg Report website will settle in. There’s a brand new look, lots of new features, and more functionality than ever.

I’d like to hear your feedback, whether you encounter any bugs or simply have comments or criticisms to share. My thanks to a number of people who put a lot of time and effort into the creation and beta-testing of the new site, most of all Don Titus of Dokati Interactive and Jason Rutherford of Rutherford Creative, Bob King, and Corey Elliott.

Give it a spin and let me know what you think.

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

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — JANUARY 9, 2007

According to story on CBS.Sportsline.com, Gregg Clifton, the agent for free agent pitcher Mark Mulder, said yesterday that the lefthander will decide by tomorrow or Thursday whether he will pitch this summer for St. Louis, Cleveland, or Texas.

Sure sounds like a veiled message by Clifton to the Cardinals that they now have a deadline by which to match the high offer made by the Rangers or Indians.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 6, 2007

There are many reasons that The Great Game, for me, is the greatest game, not the least of which is that, among the three bigs, baseball is the least likely — by a ton — to be affected so monumentally by phantom judgment calls by the officials rather than by plays made by players, the least susceptible to such a sickening travesty of officiating. (And no, I’m not talking about the Cowboy’s final play from scrimmage.)

My decompression from finishing the Bound Edition gave away instantly to a five-week stomach ache of watching this team play football, a disgusting stretch that ended half an hour ago. But the stomach ache will be gone when I wake in the morning. The 2007 baseball season is underway, as far as I’m concerned. No more decompressing, no more football.

The final three words of the 2007 Bound Edition apply to baseball, to the exclusion of the other pro sports I love.

Pitchers and catchers in five and a half weeks.

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

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