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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