March 2007

THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 30, 2007

It took a disappointing development to make another disappointing development make a little more sense. Eric Gagne will open the season on the disabled list, which makes the decision to put Kameron Loe in the bullpen — for now — add up a bit more.

Gagne’s DL assignment is retroactive to Wednesday, when he last appeared in a spring training game, which makes him eligible for activation on April 13, when Texas opens a week-long trip to Seattle and Chicago. According to the Rangers, Gagne is healthy, but they want to get him some additional innings, and have him pitch on consecutive days, before putting him in high-leverage game situations.

There’s a blueprint in place for Gagne’s appearances before the Mariners series: he’s slated to pitch tomorrow, Monday, and Wednesday in Arizona, April 6 and 7 for Frisco, and again for the RoughRiders on the 10th.

Meanwhile, the fifth starter decision between Loe and Jamey Wright, as it turns out, involved more than weighing the importance of three April starts against the impact that the long man could have in that month. Surely Texas didn’t suddenly decide yesterday to hold Gagne back for a couple weeks; that issue was almost certainly tied into the Loe-Wright discussion, and it helps explain why the club is putting Loe in the pen — a disappointment for lots of fans, myself included, but a decision that was the end result of a lot of camp developments that weren’t anticipated.

The Rangers probably didn’t plan on Wes Littleton needing to go back to AAA to get his mechanics ironed out. Hoped Frankie Francisco would be further along with his command. Counted on Josh Rupe making a stronger push for a job, whether in the rotation or the seventh inning. Expected Rick Bauer to justify the $730,000 plus incentives they’d agreed in January to pay him.

But those four failed to claim jobs in camp, Gagne was slowed by a stomach virus, and suddenly the bullpen depth was emaciated to the point that non-roster candidates began figuring in. Joaquin Benoit capitalized on an opportunity not only to win a job but to make it a pivotal one, but he’s just about alone among relievers to have made a significant step forward in March.

Other than Loe, but of course he wasn’t supposed to be fighting for a bullpen role. Reportedly promised a chance to win a rotation spot, he certainly exceeded expectations and did everything conceivably possible to do just that. But given the bullpen issues that have settled in over the last couple weeks, punctuated by the Gagne news — and undoubtedly taking into account the fact that there are questions about how ready the front four in the rotation are to consistently get the ball to the seventh inning — Ron Washington needs the strongest bullpen that the club can assemble as the bags get packed for Anaheim.

In other words, Loe is not about to pitch mop-up in April, or be used solely to rescue a starter who can’t get out of the third or fourth inning. That job is likely going to fall to Mike Wood, whose work of late, if we’d been paying attention, might have suggested that’s where this was headed. In his last four appearances, Wood has thrown 2.0, 3.0, 3.0, and 3.1 innings (and by the way, giving up no runs on five hits and one walk in those 11.1 frames, fanning nine, throwing 57 strikes out of 61 pitches — which simply cannot be correct — and coaxing twice as many groundouts as flyouts), which is the standard type of workload of a long man.

Bruce Chen probably figures in as well, at least for the first week until Wright’s contract is purchased in time for the April 10 start in the Tampa Bay series. Chen pitched six innings in a AAA game on Wednesday, fanning seven and allowing one run on three hits and no walks.

So what was envisioned as Gagne-Otsuka-maybe Littleton trio in the seventh through ninth is now, to start out, maybe Otsuka-Benoit-Loe, with C.J. Wilson still probably the guy used to get the tough lefty out in the seventh or eighth. When you measure the importance of the seventh-inning man against that of the fifth starter (who will pitch three times in 26 April dates), you start to see why Loe was assigned to the role that calls for more predictability in the early going — even though most of us feel like he earned the rotation job (his 0.92 ERA was the best in baseball this spring among pitchers who logged at least 15 innings) and should have been rewarded with it.

Also on Thursday, Texas optioned Jason Botts to Oklahoma, placed Joaquin Arias (infected thumb) and John Rheinecker (strained back) on the disabled list, and reassigned Ramon Vazquez to minor league camp. The final pitching spots appear all but settled (the homer-prone Ezequiel Astacio will almost certainly be run through waivers in the next few days, and Francisco Cruceta already has been, clearing and accepting an outright assignment to Oklahoma though he had the right to decline it). The final bench job comes down to Matt Kata or Marlon Byrd, and the backup catcher will be either Chris Stewart or Miguel Ojeda (Guillermo Quiroz will hit the waiver wire as well), with Kata and Stewart seemingly having the edge.

Kata (.396/.404/.585) saw action at second base and first base yesterday, contributing a double and a triple in four trips.

The Rangers must finalize their Opening Day roster by 11 p.m. tomorrow.

Brandon McCarthy pitched 5.2 innings yesterday and gave up three runs on five hits and no walks, striking out four — including one run on three hits in the first 5.1 frames. Ron Mahay pitched a perfect 1.1 innings and Wilson fanned one in a one-hit, scoreless ninth.

Texas released Bauer on Wednesday, eating about $180,000 of what would have been his $730,000 base salary.

Infielder Adam Fox cleared waivers to set up an outright assignment, having earned a few days on the 40-man roster (and all the benefits that go along with it) as a reward for doing things right. The 40-man roster is now down to 38 members, and Astacio and Guillermo Quiroz will come off the roster as well to help make room for Sammy Sosa, Jerry Hairston Jr., and possibly Kata.

If Kata makes the team, Byrd will be dropped from the 40-man roster. If Stewart makes the team, on the other hand, Ojeda (I believe) can be optioned. All that would put the roster at 38, leaving room for both Wood and Chen if the club goes in that direction with the pitching staff. When Wright is purchased on the 10th, barring unforeseen developments with someone else, Wood or Chen would be removed not only from the big league staff but from the 40-man roster as well.

The Rangers released the following minor leaguers: righthander Shane Funk (the Rangers’ fourth-round pick and first pitcher chosen in the 2005 draft, a $250,000 signee), righthander Brandon James, third baseman Matt Jaimes (who drew a reported $100,000 signing bonus in last year’s 12th round), catcher Ben Crabtree, and infielder Johnny Washington (who hit .183 in four seasons in the system).

Texas acquired 23-year-old righthander Bear Bay from Cleveland for a player to be named later. Originally a draft-and-follow signed by the Cubs out of Angelina Junior College in Lufkin, Bay had two strong seasons in the Chicago system before being shipped to the Indians at the end of camp two years ago in exchange for journeyman righthander Cliff Bartosh. A fastball-slider type, Bay split the 2005 season between High A and AA, spending most of 2006 in AA (with one spot start in AAA), and at each stop he exhibited solid control and decent strikeout numbers.

The Rangers also signed 28-year-old lefthander William White, who spent seven seasons in the Diamondbacks system after signing as their third-round pick in 2000. A lifetime 13-22, 4.88 pitcher, he closed games for the first time in 2006, fanning 76 in 63.2 innings for AA Tennessee. White, who has yet to pitch above AA, lives in Terrell Owens’s birthplace of Alexander City, Alabama.

Former Rangers closer Ugueth Urbina was sentenced to 14 years in prison for the attempted murder of five workers on his family’s Venezuela ranch.

A reminder on the Sports Illustrated poll — I’m not sure how much longer the voting will remain open, but if you want to weigh in on which Rangers blog out there is the best one, you can vote at www.si.com/rangersvote.

And don’t forget, Rangers radio analyst Victor Rojas stops by the Newberg Report chat room at 10 a.m. this morning. Vic never pulls any punches. Go to www.newbergreport.com and click “Chat.”

Baseball Prospectus has enlisted writers around the country this spring to pen articles on how each team can win the World Series in 2007. I was entrusted with the Rangers piece, and it went live on the BP site yesterday. There’s also a segment that I did with Will Carroll on Baseball Prospectus Radio in conjunction with the feature; the radio segment is linked up at the end of the article. Both can be found here.

The article is for BP subscribers only, but I’ve learned that I’ll be able to republish it myself on Sunday for those of you who aren’t current subscribers (though you should be). The lengthy radio segment, however, is free to everyone — and we talked about nearly every player on the club, plus some minor leaguers.

Take my Baseball Prospectus article with a grain of salt if you’d like, but how about this: USA Today’s Bob Nightengale makes the Texas Rangers his pick to win the whole thing in 2007. Now he wrote that before it was announced that Eric Gagne wouldn’t head up the Rangers pen at the start of the season, but if Nightengale thought the first nine games of the year would be the difference between Texas succeeding in 2007 and not, he probably wouldn’t have gone so far as to call the Rangers his favorite to become World Champs, let alone a division winner. It’s certainly a longshot, but this is a respected national writer stepping out on the limb, not a local glass-two-thirds-full blogger.

If Nightengale’s vision is going to play out, there are necessarily going to be a handful of Rangers players who will have amped it up in 2007, redefining themselves and maybe even redefining the role into which they were thrust. If we’re playing games in October, my money says one of those players will have been the bull who ducked off the plane in Arlington last night having had the best spring training of any Rangers pitcher, as many star turns on TV as earned runs allowed, and the interesting message that the reason he hadn’t won the job he fought for six weeks to win was that he was too important for another role that, because of the calendar and because of the readiness of one teammate and the struggles of a couple others, had taken on a higher-leverage job description.

I didn’t make it out to the airport last night, but if I had, the first hand I would have sought to shake would have been Kameron Loe’s, less so in a gesture of condolence than to convey to him that, whether he eventually forces his way back into the rotation or carves out a bullpen role that shortens Rangers games and helps pad the win column on a regular basis, he succeeded in going out this spring on a mission and making himself freakin’ indispensable.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 28, 2007

Courtesy of Weather.com:

Friday, April 6: a high of 71 degrees, 10 percent chance of rain

And courtesy of the great Chuck Morgan, who stopped by the Newberg Report message board last night to share some details you probably haven’t seen anywhere else regarding new changes at Rangers Ballpark and events planned for Opening Day:

* Ballpark changes

* Home opener plans

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 27, 2007

There’s a batch of punch lines ripe for the picking as far as today’s 24-7 score is concerned, and none of them are good.

But that’s the thing about the Great Game. San Diego 24, Texas 7 is now a thing of Baseball Past, no more relevant to the imminent Rangers season than:

* Bill Caudill’s half-beard
* John Pacella’s flyaway lid
* Oddibe McDowell’s butter knife
* Todd Burns’s OCCD
* Mark Lemongello
* The Peterson-Kekich wife swap

Especially since it’s spring training. Even if this were June, a loss is a loss when they figure out on September 30 which teams get to keep playing, whether it’s a 17-run drilling or a 2-1 squeaker. But in spring training, a loss isn’t even really a loss, and statistics (especially for veterans locked into roster spots) don’t scare up a whole lot of significance.

Then again, if I’m going to go on and on about Joaquin Benoit’s dirty 7.1 camp innings and dare to invoke the words “Mark DeRosa” when talking about Matt Kata’s work in Surprise, it would be sorta hypocritical to ignore what happened to Kevin Millwood and Ron Mahay and Eric Gagne today.

But just as spring training win-loss records and player stats don’t really have a lot of meaning, blogs don’t really have a lot of rules, and so you’ll either forgive me when I elect to spend no more time discussing today’s box score than I’d spend waxing nostalgic about Greg Harris’s reversible Mizuno, or you can spare yourself the email demanding further analysis of today’s drubbing and use that time to Google “Roger Moret’s catatonic trance.”

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 26, 2007

A few things.

The reason Adam Fox was added to the 40-man roster this afternoon is that you can only designate a player for assignment when the roster is otherwise full, and so in order to DFA Rick Bauer, Texas needed to get the roster to 40 full members. Righthander Alexi Ogando had been moved to the restricted list to clear a spot earlier in the day for the waiver claim of righthander Ezequiel Astacio, and so another player had to be added in order to permit the Bauer move.

Texas rewarded Fox, a new father and one of the more popular teammates in the entire Rangers system, with the paper move, which makes him a Union member for a few days – probably until the moves are made to add Sammy Sosa, Jerry Hairston, and possibly Matt Kata to the roster this weekend. It’s a classy move by the Rangers, much like one they made with Jeff Pickler and Paul Ottavinia in May of 2003, a gesture to a guy who has done everything the organization has asked and been the consummate professional in his four seasons in the system.

So Fox (who is 5 for 7 in camp) will be designated for assignment sometime this week. He’ll most likely clear waivers and be outrighted to the farm. But he’s in the MLB pension plan now, and he’ll always have that Union card. Very cool.

The Rangers now have 10 days to trade Bauer, try to get him through waivers (though he’s been outrighted before so he can become a free agent even if he clears waivers), or release him. Count on a trade for a non-roster prospect, but by no means a blue-chipper. It hasn’t been a good spring for Bauer, but he still ought to interest a handful of teams needing a swing man in the pen, based on his solid first half last year.

Jon Daniels said during the game that the organization decided during the day who the fifth starter would be, before Jamey Wright’s outing (5.1 innings, five runs on six hits [including two homers] and a walk, no strikeouts). Guess we’ll know soon.

Astacio is in fact out of options. He’ll have to win a spot in the Texas pen in the next week or else the Rangers will have to run him through waivers themselves. Waiver priority is currently based on 2006 win-loss records, and it would stand to reason that Texas will have a slightly better chance to get Astacio through waivers than Houston did, because it will be closer to the deadline to finalize rosters and because we already know that the half of the league that had a worse record in 2006 than the Rangers have already passed on Astacio once, even though the 27-year-old has had a very good camp (2.25 ERA in eight innings, four walks, seven strikeouts, impressive opponents’ line of .143/.250/.214).

High ceiling, low risk. Think of Astacio’s situation as similar to what might have happened if Joaquin Benoit, also out of options, hadn’t had such a good camp and was designated for assignment himself. Guys like that are going to get multiple chances.

(On that subject, pray that Benoit isn’t just teasing us. Good grief, is he nasty right now. That 7.2-2-0-0-0-11 line is dazzling – but he actually looks better than his numbers, if that’s possible.)

Having never been outrighted (unlike Bauer), Astacio would remain a Ranger if the organization successfully runs him through waivers unclaimed.

Astacio and Chris Burke (and in some versions, Mike Burns) were the rumored package that Houston reportedly offered Texas for Alfonso Soriano two winters ago. Houston had acquired Astacio from Philadelphia for Billy Wagner in 2003, along with fellow righthanders Brandon Duckworth and Taylor Buchholz, both of whom have moved on as well.

Philadelphia optioned Fabio Castro today.

Kip Wells is going to start the second game of the season for St. Louis. Wow.

Ron Washington and Tug Hulett’s dad Tim missed each other in Baltimore by just over one year, and while they were never teammates, they both finished lengthy playing careers with a stint in Oklahoma City in their final pro season. Tug doubled off the wall in the 8th tonight – he’s now 3 for 3 in camp, with three doubles.

Texas has released minor leaguer righthanders Shannon Wirth and Austin Weilep, infielder Jared Sandberg, and outfielder Brian Nelson. All but the journeyman Sandberg were Day Two draftees of the Rangers last June.

There’s a new indie ball league set to play in the Metroplex this summer, called the Continental Baseball Association. The Lewisville Lizards will be managed by former Rangers center fielder Tom Goodwin, while former Rangers infielder Curtis Wilkerson will manage the Tarrant County Blue Thunder. League tryouts will be held this weekend in Lewisville.

Peter Gammons called the Rangers, in a weekend article, “everyone’s favorite sleeper.”

Good night.

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

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — MARCH 25, 2007

OK. There are fewer than four people I know whose baseball acumen I consider to be virtually unassailable. One of them suggested I consider something as far as the Rangers’ pitching staff is concerned.

The way the season’s first month is constructed, the Rangers’ fifth starter will probably pitch on April 10 at home against Tampa Bay, on April 21 at home against Oakland, and on April 26 in Cleveland. And that’s it.

Let’s say that pitcher will give Texas 16 innings in those three starts. (Rangers starters as a whole averaged 5.2 innings a game last year. Their primary number five types in 2006 – John Koronka, John Rheinecker, and Kameron Loe – average 5.1 frames a start.)

Last year there was no de facto long man out of the bullpen when camp broke. It turns out there were five games in April in which a long reliever was called upon: Joaquin Benoit once, Fabio Castro once, Rick Bauer two times, and C.J. Wilson once. In those five games, they contributed 14.1 innings.

So maybe – maybe – the idea is this: as dirty as Loe has been this spring, is it possible that Texas wants to have him nail down the long man role out of the gate, where he can impact five or six games (to be determined, rather than preset) where he is needed to stem the tide and keep Texas in it, rather than earmark him to face the Devil Rays, A’s, and Indians and most likely sit the other 23 games in April?

And then, when April comes to a close, and a more regular rotation is called for as May’s 29 games loom, if Loe is still outpitching Jamey Wright at that point he and Wright can be exchanged and Loe can get the ball every fifth day.

In other words, maybe the long man will be more valuable to the Rangers in April than the number five starter will be, getting just about as many innings and contributing them in games where the situation – rather than the calendar – calls for him to get the ball.

I dunno. I’m just trying to figure out why Kam Loe hasn’t been pronounced a member of this club’s rotation, a job he was given the opportunity to win and in battling for which he certainly has done everything the club could possibly have wanted to see out of him, and this theory was as good as any I’ve heard.

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

NEWBERG REPORT ALERT — MARCH 25, 2007

IP H R ER BB K HR
K.Loe 6.0 5 2 2 0 1 0
TOTAL 19.2 13 5 2 4 7 0

• 1-0, 0.92 for the spring.
• 2.92 G/F for the spring.
• Opponents’ line of .186/.255/.204 before today (sorry, not updated yet to include this afternoon’s numbers; by the way, all five Chicago hits off Loe were singles)
• Today’s effort was the longest stint by a Rangers pitcher this spring, made possible by virtue of the fact that Loe needed only 58 pitches to get through his first five frames.
• Loe induced 16 groundouts today. One flyout.

For the less attentive out there, let me repeat something:

Loe induced 16 groundouts today. One flyout.

Just sayin’.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 25, 2007

For Texas to have gone ahead yesterday and anointed Jamey Wright as the number five starter, over Kameron Loe and Bruce Chen, four days (including another Loe start and another Wright start) before they needed to, at least one of the following must be true:

1. The club believes Wright’s mechanical issues the last time out, symptomatic of a career of inconsistency, are immediately correctable, if not fluky.

2. The club, despite Loe’s spotless spring ERA, has doubts about his ability to hold things down in a role that will be sporadically used, relatively speaking, in April.

3. Chen, who had likely fallen to third in the three-man race for the job, pitched himself out of contention on Friday. The choice between Wright and Loe — regardless of how they pitch today and tomorrow — was so close that, in essence, the choice was simple. This was the decision that allows Texas to keep both righthanders: Wright in the rotation, and Loe either in relief or in AAA. Had Loe gotten the number five nod, Wright would be lost to another organization. Stated another way, this theory suggests Loe was in fact penalized in a way for having an option.

Number three is the one that seems most likely to me. Should Wright falter — for that matter, should Brandon McCarthy or Robinson Tejeda falter — Loe is there as the first reinforcement, whereas choosing Loe would have left Texas with no clear “number six” since Wright and Chen would be gone.

But it still seemed a bit strange to make this decision on Saturday, rather than waiting a couple days for Loe and Wright to each pitch again. (Plus, I was really pulling for Loe.)

McCarthy in his 10.1 spring innings: 12 runs (10.45 ERA) on 19 hits (.396/.491/.771, five home runs) and seven walks, 11 strikeouts.

John Danks, who has won the number five starter spot with the White Sox, in his 16.2 camp frames: nine runs (eight earned: 4.32 ERA) on 17 hits (.266/.309/.453, two home runs) and four walks, 12 strikeouts.

Just sayin’.

Yesterday was my first time to really study a McCarthy outing since he two-hit Texas over 7.2 scoreless innings in what was Edinson Volquez’s big league debut on August 30, 2005, and as dazzling as that effort was, yesterday’s was equally deflating. He had no command at all, and seemed to throw an overwhelming preponderance of curves and changeups. I found myself hoping that he went into the start with a game plan to work on the yakker and the change, exhibition results be damned. Not that it would have been all that much more acceptable.

Yes, I understand that the strike zone was tight (Ron Washington: “If the umpire misses some pitches, make another one”). But that doesn’t excuse the hanging hooks or the wildness in the zone. I’m looking forward to seeing a lot better from McCarthy.

Know what? Let’s add one more possibility to the list that started this report:

4. Maybe the club needs both Wright and Loe on the staff for another reason. Maybe there’s some concern about McCarthy’s readiness (mechanics? sharpness?) for April 4 in Anaheim. Maybe the club wants Loe ready to go long on the 4th. After neck spasms sidelined Loe on Thursday, as mentioned earlier, he will go today. That puts Loe on a five-day schedule to be ready to throw again on April 4.

This is a longshot theory, I think, but let’s pay attention to who goes for Texas this Friday against the Brewers in Frisco. If we get a heavy dose of both McCarthy and Loe that night, it could tell us that the club is setting things up to have Loe ready to rescue McCarthy if needed the following Wednesday afternoon.

Congrats to Danks and to Nick Masset, who are going to be Chicago White Sox rather than Charlotte Knights in about a week.

Danks dealing for another team. Volquez not only optioned, but badonkadonk-optioned, all the way down to Class A on a program designed to get him back to Texas systematically. Thomas Diamond out for the year due to Tommy John.

You never have enough pitching prospects.

The final big league relief spot, assuming Loe joins the pen, appears to be down to Frankie Francisco or Scott Feldman. Wes Littleton is evidently headed for Oklahoma to get things straightened out, and Rick Bauer just hasn’t done anything this spring to stay in the mix. Mike Wood is probably ahead of Bauer on the depth chart.

The Rangers have lost Spokane manager Andy Fox to Florida. The Marlins, reacting to the sudden retirement of former Rangers coach Perry Hill (to be with his ailing wife Olivia), hired Fox to fill Hill’s role as the club’s first base coach and infield instructor. No immediate word on whom Texas will hire to replace Spokane, whose Northwest League season doesn’t begin until June.

Texas has sold righthander Jose Vargas back to Yucatan of the Mexican League.

Journeyman righthander Brandon Puffer was a “just in case” for the Rangers yesterday. I had no idea we’d signed him.

Oakland signed righthander Colby Lewis. The Mets signed third baseman Fernando Tatis. Houston released Richard Hidalgo.

Check out Grant Schiller’s excellent interview of Ian Kinsler.

The Grand Opening of Mooyah Burgers & Fries, my brother Barry’s new project, is slated for April 7 (though the restaurant should be open to the public on March 30). The first 100 customers at the April 7 opening (on Plano Parkway just west of the Tollway) win one year of free burgers — if you’re on my mailing list, you received an attached flyer with more details.

Invite Kam Loe if you’d like. Hopefully he won’t be too far away.

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

NEWBERG REPORT ALERT — MARCH 24, 2007

T.R. Sullivan is reporting that Jamey Wright has won the fifth starter’s job, which is interesting since Kameron Loe is starting tomorrow and Wright will go on Monday, two days before Texas would have to elevate Wright to the roster to avoid the risk of losing him. The Rangers, according to Sullivan, have nonetheless gone ahead and made their decision.

As a result, Kameron Loe goes into the mix for a bullpen spot (he can also be optioned though he’s certainly pitched well enough this spring to avoid a return to AAA), and Bruce Chen is about to change teams. If Texas can’t move him in the next week (Sullivan suggests there is some trade interest), he’ll surely exercise his April 1 out and find a new club on his own.

More in the next Newberg Report.

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

NEWBERG REPORT ALERT — MARCH 24, 2007

Fascinating. According to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, the Rangers are taking the unconventional step of optioning Edinson Volquez to High A Bakersfield, a level at which he last pitched in the first part of 2005, when he embarked on a breakthrough season that ended in Arlington.

The Rangers are hoping that Volquez will correct the command issues that dogged him last year and this spring by returning to a lower-pressure environment, one that doesn’t promise an imminent return to the big leagues.

The most well-known precedent for this sort of move was when Toronto sent an out-of-whack Roy Halladay, then a veteran of parts of three big league seasons, to High A Dunedin to begin the 2001 season. Halladay methodically worked his way back to Toronto that year, after pitching at AA and AAA as well, and since then he has gone 82-34, 3.17, including his Cy Young season in 2003.

Rangers pitching coach Mark Connor was Toronto’s pitching coach in 2001.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 23, 2007

I heard this really cool feature on NPR yesterday while driving home, a series called “Vocal Impressions” in which listeners were asked, with respect to various distinguished voices, to write in with the words they would use to describe how those voices sound to them.

One listener described Jack Nicholson’s voice as “what’s left of a grin when you take the smile away.” Another’s Nicholson interpretation: “Awakening in the middle of the night to the smell of a fine cigar being smoked by a burglar robbing your house.” Of Norah Jones: “That pebbly mud that feels good squished between your toes.”

On NPR’s website, Morgan Freeman’s voice was described by one listener as “a wet velvet suit drying in the sun,” by another, intriguingly, as “the perfect pie crust.” The grooviest interpretation, I thought, was that Freeman’s was “a voice too tired to hurry and too powerful to slow down.”

I share this with you because, one, often you are the unwitting (and perhaps unwilling) victim of my inclination to jot something down as a Note to Self for me and my kids to be able to read years from now and, two, it gives me an opportunity to make you the undoubtedly unwilling victim of a stretched baseball segue.

Morgan Freeman isn’t the voice of baseball (his gear notwithstanding as the principal in “Lean On Me”), but he might as well be the voice of spring training, a span of time too tranquil to hurry and too purposeful to slow down.

You’d like to hurry it up as far as Ian Kinsler and Gerald Laird and Joaquin Benoit and maybe even Matt Kata are concerned, so that we can take advantage of the grooves they’re in, to capitalize on them when it counts. Maybe you’d like to slow it down a bit for Brad Wilkerson, who hasn’t gotten it going, or for Robinson Tejeda or C.J. Wilson, guys who are starting to round into form after some early struggles. Not that those three or any of their teammates want to extend their time in Surprise at all.

A week ago, Kameron Loe was on the first list and Nelson Cruz was on the second, but things can change quickly. Loe’s spring has been phenomenal — 13.2 frames, 0.00 ERA, eight hits and four walks, six strikeouts, 1.92 groundout-to-flyout ratio — but instead of facing the Angels yesterday afternoon in what might have been his clinching effort in terms of sealing a rotation spot, he was scratched due to a stiff neck.

If Michael Young is fully comfortable with a batting helmet right as camp breaks, if Mark Teixeira is completely confident in his left knee right as camp breaks, no sweat. But Loe is in a dogfight with Jamey Wright and Bruce Chen for the fifth starter’s job, and he’s the only one of the three that Texas wouldn’t risk losing if he doesn’t make the Opening Day staff. So every setback for Loe, however minor, is meaningful. The hope is that this is something that works itself out in a day or two, but every day in that competition counts at this point.

(It should be noted, of course, that yesterday’s game was rained out after two innings, which were dissected by a 51-minute rain delay that likely would have limited Loe’s work to one frame.)

Wright starts Monday (after a poor outing on Wednesday), and if Loe is healthy enough to make his next scheduled start (assuming the club doesn’t accelerate it, which is possible), he’ll go on Tuesday. Those are two big days, as Wright has an out on Wednesday that allows him to take immediate free agency if he’s not placed on the 40-man roster by then.

As for Cruz, a week ago it seemed like he was in danger of running out of time to solidify his starting spot in right field, having been slowed by a sore hamstring and then shin splints followed by a fastball to the head, the residual swelling and occasional dizziness from which sidelined him past mid-March and threatened to keep him from ever getting his timing down going into the season. But in his last three games, the outfielder is 5 for 10 with two doubles and two home runs, and just like that, you sort of want the first real game against the Angels, set in 10 days, to hurry up and get here.

The center field picture has muddied a bit. With the backup role as important as it is, Marlon Byrd has basically been the opposite of what was expected, producing with the bat (.306/.381/.417, just five strikeouts in 36 at-bats) but reportedly struggling defensively. As a result, Kata — who has flourished at the plate (.472/.487/.667) — has a chance to make the team along with Jerry Hairson Jr., which would give Ron Washington an extremely versatile bench. Byrd is strictly an outfielder, while Kata plays everywhere other than behind the plate.

I’ll tell you this: if I’m Jon Daniels and some team calls me asking for a relief pitcher in the next week, the first thing I do is check with my scouts to see what center field prospect that club has that might be available in the deal. A center fielder, particularly one who can lead off, might be the system’s primary need right now. With the second half and fall league that John Mayberry Jr. had, I’m sure the Rangers aren’t second-guessing that draft pick right now (there’s a serious need for run-producing outfielders in the system as well), but Jacoby Ellsbury, who went to Boston four spots after Texas popped Mayberry late in 2005’s first round, sure would look good in Rangers blue right now.

Before you summarily dismiss the following question, ask yourself if you were one of the overwhelming majority of fans who, in 2005, thought Texas made a mistake keeping non-roster invite Mark DeRosa over Ian Kinsler and Esteban German out of spring training:

Could Kata be the new DeRosa?

There have been reports that Texas is keeping tabs on a few backup center field possibilities around the league, including Cincinnati’s Chris Denorfia and San Francisco’s Jason Ellison.

Joaquin Arias has six hits in 14 camp at-bats but nothing else has gone right. He still hasn’t played defensively, first due to a shoulder strain and now because of a right thumb infection, and so the idea that he might compete for a super-utility role by proving himself in center field never got off the ground.

Benoit (6.1 scoreless innings, two hits, no walks, eight punchouts, plus another 3.1 shutout frames in a “B” game appearance, walking one and fanning four) has made the team, securing a job in a bullpen that will include Eric Gagne, Akinori Otsuka, Wilson, Ron Mahay, and two more relievers from a group of contenders that includes Scott Feldman, Frankie Francisco, Wes Littleton, Mike Wood, Rick Bauer, and Francisco Cruceta. Loe and Chen are candidates as well if they don’t win the rotation job, but Washington has already said that Chen’s lefthandedness will not factor in. He’s comfortable with the two southpaws in the pen; beyond that, it’s purely a meritocracy.

Gagne made his first “A” game appearance on Wednesday and threw one curve ball out of 14 pitches, leaving it up on a 1-2 count to the first hitter he faced, San Francisco’s Kevin Frandsen, and seeing it leave the park. He then coaxed two groundouts and fanned a batter, firing 10 of his 14 pitches overall for strikes. He sat at 90-92 on the eight fastballs he threw.

Vicente Padilla, who was scratched from his last start with elbow tenderness, is slated to pitch today, probably in a minor league game rather than in tonight’s “A” game.

Tejeda had his best outing of the spring on Tuesday, pitching four scoreless (but not spotless) innings against the Giants. He gave up six hits and a walk, fanning only two. But my amateur advice is not to worry about the strikeout number. Here’s an excerpt from my feature on Tejeda from the 2007 Bound Edition:

“In nine starts down the stretch, Tejeda went 4-2, 2.32 for the Rangers, with seven quality starts . . . striking among his results was the fact that, in the first half, when he went 1-3, 9.78 with Texas, he fanned 15 hitters and walked 17 in 19.1 innings — while in those nine second half starts, he struck out 25 and issued 15 walks in 54.1 frames . . . in other words, he was awful when striking out seven batters per nine innings, and close to dominant when fanning four per nine . . . he was more economical, trusting his plus stuff (and, significantly, commanding it), and the Rangers game-planned his starts to be sure that he maintained a quick, aggressive tempo . . . no American League starter had a better ERA than his 1.13 mark in September, a month in which Texas named him its player of the month (the only month in which the club gave the award to a pitcher).”

Tejeda worked at 94-96 mph on Tuesday and touched 97.

Michael Young only had half the sutures in his left ear removed on Wednesday but that didn’t keep him out of the lineup, as he played in yesterday’s rain-shortened game. He’ll have the remaining sutures removed next Wednesday, just before Texas breaks camp.

Washington has told reporters that Miguel Ojeda is leading in the battle with Chris Stewart and Guillermo Quiroz for the backup catcher’s job. Texas has also reportedly talked to Philadelphia about Chris Coste and the Angels about Jose Molina, with each club seeking relief pitching in return.

Thomas Diamond’s Tommy John surgery reportedly went smoothly. Nonetheless, he’s out for the season.

Righthander Alfredo Simon struggled in camp with Philadelphia, giving up six runs (12.46 ERA) on 10 hits and two walks in 4.1 innings while fanning three, and the Phillies returned the 25-year-old Rule 5 pick to Texas for $25,000, which is half the fee the Rangers received from Baltimore for drafting Simon (before the O’s traded him to the Phillies) in December. The Rangers aren’t constrained by Rule 5, meaning Simon doesn’t have to be on the club’s Opening Day roster or even on the 40-man roster. He’ll likely relieve in Oklahoma.

Lefthander John Danks and righthander Gavin Floyd will each pitch for the White Sox today against Colorado, as those two vie for Chicago’s final rotation spot. Danks had a rough outing last time out, raising his spring ERA to 5.68, but he still features a sparkling ratio of 10 strikeouts to one walk in 12.2 frames.

Southpaw specialist Mike Venafro has come out of nowhere to fight for Minnesota’s final bullpen spot, firing eight scoreless innings in camp, scattering five singles and two walks while fanning five.

Lefty Fabio Castro has had a poor camp for Philadelphia. In 11.2 innings, he’s allowed 15 runs (12 earned, for a 9.26 ERA) on 18 hits (.340/.419/.604) and eight walks, setting six down on strikes. He might be ticketed for AAA.

Still hate the turn of events that made him a non-Ranger.

According to Baseball America, the Rangers have released righthanders Derrick Jones and Joey McLaughlin, who pitched briefly in 2006 for Spokane and Clinton, respectively, as well as righty Juan Garcia, who pitched for both. The organization also released lefthanders Forrest Rice, who appeared in the Arizona League last summer, and Buck Cody, signed in January after the Giants had released him, and both signed and subsequently released catcher-pitcher Jared Abruzzo.

The Nationals signed righthander Pedro Astacio to a minor league contract. They released righthander Colby Lewis.

Detroit signed outfielder Andres Torres, and Atlanta signed righthander Bart Miadich. The Mets released outfielder Ruben Sierra, the Cubs released first baseman Jason Hart, Seattle released lefthander Matt Perisho, and Colorado released second baseman Adam Morrissey.

It’s now been three and a half months since Oakland released righthander Juan Dominguez, and I haven’t seen a bit of news about him since. As I said in December, I sure hope this isn’t where the spiral begins.

The independent Fort Worth Cats signed infielder Marc Mirizzi.

The Mets named Jonathan Hurst pitching coach for Low A Savannah and Robert Ellis pitching coach for the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Mets.

The Ticket’s Bob Sturm and Dan McDowell (BaD Radio) will have a weekly segment with Jon Daniels at 2:10 on Monday afternoons this season.

A final offering from the NPR crowd’s better descriptions of Jack Nicholson’s voice: “A snake oil salesman perfecting his pitch.”

There’s either a bad Kameron Loe joke tucked away in there somewhere, or a loud and clear verification that I am in desperate need of an end to spring training, and the opening of the gates at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

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

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