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.

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