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.

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