THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 9, 2007

Minor league camp gets a later start each year. Pitchers and catchers weren’t required to report until last Friday, and position players were to report yesterday. It’s one reason we haven’t yet seen Texas reassign any of the non-roster minor leaguers who were invited to big league camp without real chances of making the Opening Day roster, like righthanders Eric Hurley and Thomas Diamond, lefthander Scott Rice, catchers Kevin Richardson and Salomon Manriquez, and first baseman Nate Gold.

Not surprisingly, a great number of minor league players have been in Surprise for some time even though the first full squad workout isn’t scheduled until later this morning, and each day a few have been asked to suit up for the big club as “just in cases” for that day’s game. Pitchers Danny Ray Herrera, Doug Mathis, Luis Mendoza, Steven Rowe, and Broc Coffman, first baseman Jared Sandberg, and outfielders Kevin Mahar and Todd Donovan are among those who have been pulled over from the minor league side so far.

None of the “just in case” players have shown up in games so often that we should assume there’s any particular significance, but we’re just a week into games. In 2004, after a relatively pedestrian pro debut (.277/.352/.410 at Short-Season A Spokane), Ian Kinsler showed up in 11 spring training games for Texas. That obviously opened our eyes, a month before he would launch into his storybook 2004 season (.402/.465/.692 at Low A Clinton and .300/.400/.480 at AA Frisco).

In 2005, Orel Hershiser took a special interest in C.J. Wilson, who made only two spring training appearances but was brought over at least a half a dozen more times than that. He was the talk of camp in terms of players who had put themselves back on the radar.

In 2006, outfielders Rashad Eldridge (.462/.533/.692 in 12 at-bats) and Mahar (.429/.500/.714 in seven at-bats) kept showing up and kept doing good things, even though neither had been officially invited to big league camp.

This year, it may be too early to tell if there’s a “just in case” whom the Rangers brass is motivated to see more and more of against big league competition, but there’s one player who, like Wilson two years ago, is making some noise as quickly as most fans are learning his name. Lefthander A.J. Murray may be on the 40-man roster, but the way the last three years have gone, he may have come to Surprise as anonymous as any of the 32 pitchers invited to camp, including the nine who aren’t even on the roster.

Murray has no more chance of making the Opening Day staff as Wilson had two years ago, but that’s not the point. Wilson was coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2005 when he had his huge spring training, and though he was assigned to High A Bakersfield when camp broke, by June 10 he was making his big league debut. Don’t be stunned if Murray (who was my number three pitching candidate to break out this season, in the 2007 Bound Edition) shows up in Texas this season himself, though he’s not about to return to Class A in the meantime.

In two camp appearances so far, Murray has thrown two perfect innings, getting four of his six outs on strikes — and all four of his punchouts caught the hitter watching strike three. His fastball sits at 89-91 but he commands it, he works fast, and he’s deceptive. A week from his 25th birthday, Murray is far and away the lefthander that the system is most likely to feed to the big league staff this year, now that John Danks is gone.

Murray was the Rangers’ 19th-round pick in 2000 out of a Utah high school, monitored as a draft-and-follow through his 2001 season at Salt Lake Community College before signing with Texas days before that summer’s draft. He moved quickly, going 21-13, 3.07 over his first three pro seasons, including a sparkling 10-4, 3.63 mark with Frisco in 2003, posting the Texas League’s seventh-best ERA as one of the circuit’s youngest pitchers, at age 21.

But that’s when adversity set in, and not in a small dose. Shoulder surgery cost “Pirate” the 2004 season. He was assigned to Bakersfield when the 2005 season began, actually working in tandem with Wilson after the latter’s breakthrough spring training, as both were on strict pitch counts since they were returning from a year off due to injury. While Wilson earned a promotion to Frisco after one month with the Blaze, Murray struggled, posting a 6.00 ERA in five April outings. But he turned things around after that, going 1-1, 2.97 in six May starts (with 32 strikeouts and three walks in 33.1 innings), and after two starts in June, he was promoted to Frisco, where he’d been so good in 2003.

At first, Murray was not nearly as effective with the RoughRiders as he’d been with the same club two years earlier. He posted a 2-2, 4.15 mark in six starts but permitted opponents to hit .341. Texas sent him back to the Cal League for one start but then brought him right back to Frisco — to replace Wilson, who had been promoted to Texas.

In his second start upon returning to the RoughRiders, Murray combined with Steve Karsay and Scott Feldman on a perfect game in Corpus Christi, going six spotless innings and, amazingly, throwing fastballs on more than 80 of his 91 pitches. It was the first no-hitter that Murray had ever pitched in, going back to high school, and it was the third nine-inning perfect game in Texas League history, the first since 1983.

It also came on the 11th anniversary of the only big league perfect game in Texas Rangers history, authored by Kenny Rogers — the man that pitching coach Mark Connor said Arlington John Murray reminded him of after his first camp outing on Monday.

Following the July 28, 2005 perfect game, Murray made three more Frisco starts before debuting in Oklahoma in mid-August, getting two starts before the organization shut him down. He wouldn’t pitch again for more than a year, as he underwent a second shoulder surgery that cost him the 2006 season.

After the year of inactivity, the Rangers made Murray part of their Arizona Fall League contingent in October, and he went 3-2, 5.30 in three starts and six relief appearances, though that mark was marred by an awful 1.1-inning effort in which he allowed eight runs. In his other eight appearances, he posted a 1.56 ERA, and Texas added him to the 40-man roster in November. He might have been left off under the same circumstances in any other year, but given the changes in Rule 5, with very few exceptions the only minor league players considered by clubs for winter addition were those who had been eligible for the draft in prior years but left off the roster. Without a rule change, Texas would have added Danks and Thomas Diamond, and possibly Ben Harrison as well. But not needing to do so, Murray became a viable option, and he’s got a shot to make it pay off for the Rangers before long.

Lefthander John Koronka, the one candidate for the final rotation spot who’d had a rough Cactus League outing, bounced back by facing the minimum nine batters in three no-hit innings on Wednesday (he issued one walk but promptly induced a double play grounder). Koronka was so efficient that Texas had him throw 15 more pitches in the bullpen after he’d gotten through his three frames with just 31 pitches.

The outing may not erase the impact of Koronka’s first effort (six runs in an inning and a third), but it certainly puts him back in the mix for the number five spot. There’s been a lot more good than bad from each of the other primary candidates (Kameron Loe, Josh Rupe, Edinson Volquez, Jamey Wright, and Bruce Chen), who have collectively allowed no earned runs on seven hits and five walks in 13.2 innings, fanning five.

Lefty John Rheinecker, who has been battling back spasms, is slated to throw off a mound today, as long as he’s not held back by a stomach virus he’s caught. He’s all but out of the mix for the Opening Day staff.

It was thought that outfielder Nelson Cruz would sit yesterday’s game out with shin splits. But he entered the game in the seventh inning and delivered a two-run triple.

Shortstop-outfielder Joaquin Arias’s barky shoulder continues to limit him to plate work.

If righthander Joaquin Benoit keeps this up, there’s undoubtedly going to be a trade by the end of camp. In three relief appearances, he’s fired four scoreless innings, allowing one hit, walking nobody, and punching out five hitters. He’s working more quickly, harnessing his filth, and making a strong case for a long man job in the bullpen. He’s out of options, so he’s either building on his own trade value or putting Texas in a position to deal someone like Rick Bauer before camp breaks.

San Diego is force-feeding at-bats to outfielder Terrmel Sledge, and he’s capitalizing. Leading the Padres with 15 at-bats, he’s hitting .400/.438/1.000 with three home runs (one short of the league lead), seven RBI, and 15 total bases. Sledge was the tack-on from Washington in the Rangers’ trade of Alfonso Soriano to the Nationals last winter, and then the tack-on when Texas sent Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez to the Padres three weeks later for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka, and Billy Killian.

Righthander Alfredo Simon, whom Texas signed in November but lost to Philadelphia (via Baltimore) in the Rule 5 draft a month later, is getting spanked. In two relief appearances for the Phillies, he’s surrendered six runs on nine hits and two walks in three frames, fanning one. Simon has to make Philadelphia’s Opening Day pitching staff and spend all year with the Phillies or else be run through waivers and, if he clears, be offered back to the Rangers for half the $50,000 purchase price that the Orioles had to pay them in December.

St. Louis righthander Kip Wells has thrown five scoreless innings this spring.

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reports that, according to a major league source, the Cardinals, dealt another bullpen blow with the news that righthander Josh Kinney needs Tommy John surgery, could come to Texas asking for Otsuka.

Detroit manager Jim Leyland has invited Ron Washington to coach third base in this summer’s All-Star Game. Washington has accepted.

The Angels are reportedly looking into the viability of voiding Gary Matthews Jr.’s five-year, $50 million contract.

Wow.

Mark Hale of the New York Post wrote earlier this week that there were talks last summer between Texas, Baltimore, and Houston about a potential trade that would have sent Hank Blalock, Danks, and Diamond to the Orioles for righthander Roy Oswalt and third baseman Morgan Ensberg, whom Baltimore would have picked up by sending Miguel Tejada to the Astros. One apparent variation of the deal also involved righthander Brad Lidge coming to the Rangers.

On the heels of his contract extension, Michael Young is committing $500,000 to the Texas Rangers Foundation, which funds local charities.

On Monday, Rangers radio broadcaster Eric Nadel was named top play-by-play man in any sport in 2006-07 by the Texas Associated Press Broadcasters. Nadel had won his fourth National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Texas Sportscaster of the Year award earlier in the off-season.

According to Baseball America, the Rangers have signed their first pick of Day Two of the 2006 draft, 19th-round outfielder Miguel Velazquez, a high-ceiling 18-year-old out of a Puerto Rico high school. The organization also released catcher Jose Sanchez Jr.

Velazquez’s agent’s website notes that he signed for $72,000 plus an allowance to attend college later, bringing the deal’s value to about $100,000. The website also suggests that the 6’2″, 200-pound outfielder, who runs a 6.5 60, lasted until the 19th round only because of a knee injury (though he’s healthy now) and “certain personal problems that prevented him from attending most pre-draft workouts.”

Florida signed righthander Ricardo Rodriguez to a minor league deal. Kansas City signed infielder Jace Brewer to a minor league deal.

The Winnipeg Goldeyes of the independent Northern League signed outfielder Cameron Coughlan. The York Revolution of the independent Atlantic League signed catcher Luis Taveras.

News soon on who will succeed the great Mike Hindman at the helm of the daily farm reports this season. This is bittersweet for me. I’m excited about Mike’s replacement, but make no mistake: there will never be another MJH, and I want to thank him again for giving the Newberg Report new life in 2003 and, for the last four years, providing the best minor league coverage that this newsletter has ever provided, that the Dallas-Fort Worth market has ever been treated to, and that any team in baseball has been lucky enough to have.

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

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