April 2007

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 19, 2007

Mark Buehrle was really good last night. Before that game, the things that would pop into my mind at the mention of his name were:

a. lightning-fast worker
b. wary of center field Morse Code-esque light signals
c. John Rheinecker

Now Buehrle is redefined.

Give the dude credit. Seriously.

The point is not what happened after the 18th Ranger out, or Jerry Hairston’s slide, or my impulsive email last night. Buehrle was dealing, and the Rangers couldn’t solve him.

So please resist chuckling at the double-entendre of all those mentions in today’s papers of how good his “cut” fastball was. It’s unbecoming.

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

Swapping Stories: The Calvin Murray Pickup of 2002

April 22, 2002: Texas acquires outfielder Calvin Murray from San Francisco for cash considerations.

By time the Texas Rangers traded for Calvin Murray early in the 2002 season, the great promise that the outfielder had offered as an amateur had dissipated to the point that the return for the two-time first-round pick was not a big league arm or a pair of near-ready prospects, but instead $75,000 in cash, which in Major League Baseball is almost considered token consideration.

Not many players in the last generation have been first-round picks out of both high school and college. The most prominent are probably Charles Johnson, Jeremy Sowers, and John Mayberry Jr. But none of them were taken in the first half of the first round twice like Murray, who was the 11th pick in 1989 by Cleveland (out of W.T. White High School in Dallas) and the seventh pick in 1992 by San Francisco (out of the University of Texas).

When Murray arrived in high school, he first drew attention because he was the younger brother of Kevin Murray, who had gained national repute as the quarterback of a strong Texas A&M program. Soon, though, the younger Murray made a name for himself as an elite prospect on the baseball diamond.

Rangers Senior Advisor John Hart was in his first draft room in 1989, when he was a special assignment scout for the Indians, being groomed as General Manager Hank Peters’s eventual replacement. Hart recalls that the room was split as to what Cleveland should do with its first pick.

“Calvin had superior tools but a questionable bat,” said Hart. “There were some who had reservations about the projection in his bat, but he was a such a fantastic high school athlete that we took him.”

Despite strong indications that Murray was intent on honoring a letter of intent to play for the University of Texas, and even though Cleveland had no second-round pick by virtue of the signing of lefthander Jesse Orosco, the club used the 11th pick in that 1989 draft on the fleet outfielder. The Indians had a terrific draft class that summer, landing Jim Thome in the 13th round and Brian Giles in the 17th round, plus future big leaguers Alan Embree, Curtis Leskanic, Jerry DiPoto, Kelly Stinnett, Jesse Levis, Billy Brewer, and Andy Sheets. But they couldn’t get Murray signed.

In three years at UT, Murray set a school record with 139 stolen bases and was a First-Team All-American (and Team USA participant) in 1992, when San Francisco used the seventh pick in the first round on the Longhorn junior, immediately after the Yankees took a high school shortstop named Derek Jeter. Represented by Scott Boras, Murray dragged negotiations out long enough that he wouldn’t debut as a pro until 1993. The $825,000 he signed for in November 1992 was the second-highest bonus paid in that draft.

The speed on the basepaths and in the outfield that had convinced Cleveland and then San Francisco to spend first-round picks on Murray translated well to the pro game, but the questions about his bat were validated as well. Through three minor league seasons Murray had hit just .240. It wouldn’t be until 1999, Murray’s seventh season, that he reached the big leagues, getting just 19 at-bats that year.

Murray would spend the entire 2000 season and most of 2001 with the Giants, serving primarily as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement. He broke camp with San Francisco again in 2002, appearing in 11 of the club’s first 17 games but going hitless in 12 at-bats.

On April 16, 2002, Rangers outfielder Gabe Kapler strained a rib cage muscle badly enough that he would be sidelined for a week. Carl Everett, who had started in center field on the days Kapler didn’t, was hitting an anemic .146/.208/.333. Hart, in his first season as Rangers general manager, had a low-cost alternative in mind to roam center for Texas, whose record was 3-11 when Kapler got hurt. He called the Giants to see if Murray was available.

“We had no doubts about Calvin’s makeup and his defensive ability. He was a good fit for us at that time. And there was the hope that [hitting coach] Rudy [Jaramillo] could get him to hit.”

Texas agreed to send the Giants $75,000 for Murray (plus another $25,000 if he lasted 90 days with the club), and for a month and a half he played most days, primarily as a starter at first but then settling into a late-inning role. He chased balls down like few Rangers center fielders had before, but in keeping with his history he didn’t hit much.

After a bunt single on May 14, Murray would go hitless in his next 22 at-bats, and on June 10, sporting a batting line of .169/.238/.260, he was designated for assignment. No team claimed the 30-year-old off waivers, and he was outrighted to Oklahoma, where his AAA season would last less than six weeks. On July 24, playing right field, he collided with RedHawks center fielder Jason Romano and fractured his right kneecap.

Murray spent 2003 in AAA with the Dodgers. He spent the 2004 and 2005 seasons in AAA with the Cubs, getting an 11-game stint with Chicago in 2004. Retiring from the game in 2006, Murray hooked on with Boras once again, only this time not as a client, but as a lieutenant.

Not all trades make big headlines, and not all trades have a significant impact. For what it’s worth, the Rangers, who lost 90 games in 2002, went 28-20 in the games in which Murray appeared. But his stint in Texas was just another in a line of opportunities he had to convert his potential into results on the big league level, and it never fully came together for the toolsy outfielder.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 18, 2007

A quick bundle of notes on some of the minor leaguers who have gotten off to excellent starts, with this repeat message: they won’t all wear the home whites in Arlington. But the idea is still to get as many of them as possible into a position to help Texas win.

Some will never reach the big leagues. But even among those there could be a Guillermo Mercedes, the Rangers’ Dominican Summer League coach who was traded 12 years ago to Cleveland for lefthander Dennis Cook, a key component of the club’s bullpen in its 1996 playoff season.

Some will get to the big leagues with other organizations. Aaron Harang, John Danks. Michael Young and Frankie Francisco, on the flip side. Some may debut as Rangers but establish themselves somewhere else. Adrian Gonzalez. In the other direction, Robinson Tejeda.

Some will make it here, and maybe in a big way, like Ian Kinsler.

But remember that Texas signed off on a deal that would have put Kinsler (and Erik Thompson) in Colorado in July of 2004, only to have Rockies outfielder Larry Walker veto the trade.

So as you look over the following, try to resist imagining the next Kinsler (because those don’t come around every decade) or even the next Wes Littleton. Just appreciate the fact that they’re producing, which can help in a number of ways.

As Scott Lucas points out this morning, the Oklahoma bullpen has pitched 32 innings this season and has yet to allow a run. Not even an unearned run. Francisco has walked one in four hitless frames, punching out a staggering nine. A.J. Murray has been perfect in four innings, fanning four. Littleton has set two hitters down on strikes in 6.1 innings, scattering four hits. Significantly, Ezequiel Astacio has yet to issue a free pass in six innings, striking out five and permitting two hits in that span. Willie Eyre has fanned eight in 6.1 scoreless frames, allowing only two hits, and absurdly, he’s probably no closer than the number five option to help the big league squad among RedHawks relievers.

Right-handed power pitchers Francisco Cruceta (eight walks in 11 innings) and Alfredo Simon (six walks in 13.1 innings) need to correct that column, but in two starts each, their bottom lines look good. Cruceta has an ERA of 0.82, permitting only three hits and fanning seven, while Simon’s is 2.70, with nine strikeouts and six hits allowed.

Outfielder Victor Diaz is smoking the ball, hitting .409/.471/.614 with 10 RBI in 12 games. Jason Botts sits at .205/.314/.318, but he’s picking it up. Nate Gold was hitting .194/.293/.306 before a fractured finger forced him to the disabled list.

Frisco righthander Eric Hurley is 2-0, 0.98 in three appearances, allowing two runs on 11 hits and two walks in 18.1 innings, punching out 16 Texas Leaguers. Out of the bullpen, independent league import Ken Chenard has allowed one hit in seven scoreless frames, walking three and fanning nine.

First baseman Emerson Frostad — whose name comes up a lot when Jon Daniels is asked to talk about minor leaguers who are coming in under the radar — is hitting .343/.395/.600 in 35 at-bats. The organization has moved him back to the infield after a one-year look behind the plate, a decision that Daniels says was made because of the depth that the club has built system-wide at catcher. Outfielder Steve Murphy is hitting .356/.420/.489.

The pitching stories at Bakersfield, at least from a statistical standpoint, are Edinson Volquez’s 0-1, 15.75 line (14 runs on 10 hits and eight walks in eight innings over two starts; eight strikeouts) and minor league Rule 5 addition Kendy Batista’s first 11 innings, over a start and two relief appearances: two runs on six hits and no walks, 10 punchouts. The 25-year-old Batista had apparently thrown only 15.1 innings of organized ball since 2001. Nice scouting.

Blaze catcher Taylor Teagarden (.367/.558/.667, 13 walks and six strikeouts in 30 at-bats) and outfielder Brandon Boggs (.303/.477/.576) are raking.

Clinton righthander Omar Poveda and lefthander Glenn Swanson are each 2-0, 1.64 in two starts. Poveda has scattered six hits and three walks in 11 innings while fanning nine, while Swanson has allowed seven hits and a walk in 11 frames, striking out eight. Southpaw Broc Coffman has given up one run on eight hits and two walks in 10 innings, striking out 11, and a couple undrafted lefthanders signed last summer are dealing out of the bullpen. Tim Gudex has punched out 11 hitters in seven scoreless frames, permitting three hits and a walk, and Jared Locke has fired four hitless innings, walking one and fanning four.

Reliever Nate Fogle retired.

Outfielder Grant Gerrard has been the club’s best hitter, putting together a .375/.462/.531 line with three stolen bases in 32 at-bats, but just as encouraging has been third baseman Johnny Whittleman’s start. He’s hitting .310/.459/.414 in 29 official trips after a disappointing 2006 season with the LumberKings.

Oklahoma infielder Tug Hulett’s father, ex-big leaguer Tim Hulett, has been hired to manage Short-Season A Spokane. Hulett replaces Andy Fox, whom the Marlins added to their big league coaching staff in March. Former big league pitcher Carlos Pulido will serve as Spokane’s pitching coach.

The Rangers have signed 29-year-old lefthander Onan Masaoka, who appeared in the big leagues with the Dodgers in 1999 and 2000. He’ll get into game shape in extended spring training.

The Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League signed catcher Jason Torres. The Lincoln SaltDogs of the independent American Association released righthander Randy Truselo.

Truselo was the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2000, which illustrates part of the point of this report. There will be premium draft picks who never make it, and 17th-rounders who could end up winning an American League Player of the Week Award in the first month of their second big league season. There are players named in this report who could become household names with other organizations.

The idea for the Rangers, as with any other organization, is that some of these players either turn into integral parts of a Texas playoff team, or become key chips in trades that allow the club to add veterans that fit that description.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 15, 2007

Kickin’ ma-chines.

Ugh. Not the crispest couple losses.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 14, 2007

Kevin Millwood, six innings of one-run ball. That’s close to how they drew it up on December 29, 2005.

Joaquin Benoit with a seventh-inning hold, permitting a run but throwing 10 of 13 pitches for strikes and fanning two. That’s close to how they drew it up a few weeks ago.

Aki with a scoreless eighth, Gagné with a scoreless ninth. That’s exactly how they drew it up on December 19, 2006.

Good stuff.

And then there’s last night’s pair of offensive stars.

From an interview I did with “Batter’s Box Interactive Magazine” in early March:

Batter’s Box: Finish this sentence: “According to Jamey Newberg, the biggest surprise about the 2007 Texas Rangers will be . . .”

Newberg: Michael Young’s RBI total. Ian Kinsler’s All-Star Game appearance. C.J. Wilson.

Then, from the March 23 Newberg Report:

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 [Matt] Kata be the new DeRosa?

It’s a little early to take Kinsler’s march or Kata’s possibilities to the bank. But I’m feeling very good about my chances.

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

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — APRIL 13, 2007

Ron Washington said on the Manager’s Show on KRLD before tonight’s game that Kameron Loe will get the start a week from tomorrow when Oakland is in town. Jamey Wright had been slated to get that start but was placed on the disabled list this afternoon.

This is good.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 13, 2007

Both local papers and MLB.com are reporting that righthander Jamey Wright didn’t make the trip to Seattle with the club and that he is expected to be placed on the disabled list to make roster room for this afternoon’s activation of Eric Gagne.

Not an unsurprising development, as Wright had complained of arm fatigue after his tune-up start in Frisco a week ago, and this allows Texas to avoid removing a reliever from the staff (and in Bruce Chen’s case, risk losing him to another organization).

If Wright does land on the DL, it means he won’t make the April 21 start that is next earmarked for the fifth starter. That assignment will likely fall to Chen or Kameron Loe. After both had been pitched an inning or less in each of their appearances out of the bullpen to start the season, Chen went two frames on Tuesday and Loe went three on Wednesday. Keep an eye on their usage in this weekend’s Mariners series.

According to Baseball America, Frisco outfielder Luke Grayson was placed on the temporary inactive list and Oklahoma righthander Chris Baker was placed on the restricted list. Neither has appeared this season.

Boston signed righthander Carlos Almanzar. Florida released catcher Nick Trzesniak, Milwaukee released outfielder Tydus Meadows, San Diego released outfielder Juan Senreiso and righthander Mark Roberts, and Philadelphia released outfielder Ryan Fleming. Righthanders Spike Lundberg (Dodgers), Matt Lorenzo (Pittsburgh), and Marc Lamacchia (Florida) and outfielder Jason Grabowski (Tampa Bay) landed on the minor league disabled list.

Don’t miss Scott Lucas’s minor league report this morning to get the latest on the outstanding starts to the season for Frisco righthander Eric Hurley and Bakersfield catcher Taylor Teagarden.

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

Swapping Stories: The Mitch Williams Trade of 1985

April 6, 1985: Texas trades minor league third baseman Randy Asadoor to San Diego for lefthander Mitch Williams.

Long before Joe Carter turned a Mitch Williams fastball around and sealed the baseball legacy for both of them, Williams was notable for another, less heralded reason. He was one of the greatest Rule 5 draft picks of his generation.

It’s an almost impossible story. San Diego had chosen the 17-year-old in the 1982 draft, Sandy Johnson’s first as Padres scouting director. The organization’s roving minor league pitching instructor, Tom House, watched the skinny, untamed southpaw at fall instructs and told Johnson that the eighth-rounder would have a longer, more successful career than Dallas Thomas Jefferson righthander Jimmy Jones, who was the third pick in the entire draft – two spots ahead of fellow high school righty Dwight Gooden.

It’s not that House didn’t believe in Jones. “I could just tell that Mitch was goofy enough not to let the game bother him,” House says. He was onto something.

Plenty of teenaged pitchers probably would have been bothered enough to call it quits, assuming their organization hadn’t already taken the decision out of their hands, if they’d issued 314 walks in 372.2 innings like Williams did in his first three pro seasons, an unfathomable rate of 7.5 free passes per nine frames. But Williams was unfazed.

So was Johnson, who became the Rangers’ scouting director in November 1984. Four weeks into the job, Johnson persuaded general manager Tom Grieve to use a Rule 5 pick on the 19-year-old Williams, meaning that he’d have to break camp on the big league roster or else be run through waivers and offered back to the Padres.

When Rangers players got their first look at Williams in spring training in Pompano Beach, the club’s left-handed hitters refused to take batting practice against him. Opposing hitters had no choice, but in seven innings of work that spring, they touched him up for 10 earned runs.

The club simply couldn’t devote a roster spot to Williams, but as it turns out, his terrible spring was probably a blessing in disguise for Texas. The club got him through waivers unclaimed, and as Rule 5 requires, they offered him back to San Diego for $25,000. But that’s not all they offered the Padres.

Texas had used its third-round pick in 1983 on Fresno State third baseman Randy Asadoor, thinking enough of him to launch his pro career at AA Tulsa. In 582 Driller at-bats between 1983 and 1984, he clubbed 24 homers and drove in 81 runs. Texas, which still had a productive Buddy Bell at the hot corner, offered Asadoor to the Padres, who were starting 40-year-old Graig Nettles at third base without a clear successor in place, in exchange for Williams. Because Williams had cleared waivers, he’d effectively been returned to San Diego, meaning a trade for him at that point wouldn’t require a big league assignment.

On April 6, 1985, San Diego agreed to the deal. (The Rangers immediately converted AAA second baseman Steve Buechele to third base, and three months later Texas traded Bell to Cincinnati and brought Buechele up to Texas, where he would man third base for seven years.) Asadoor played in AAA in 1985 and 1986 before getting a cup of coffee with San Diego in September 1986. He hit .364 in a 15-game look, but it would turn out to be the only big league action of his career.

Meanwhile, Texas assigned Williams to Class A Salem, where he led the Carolina League with 117 walks (in 99 innings) even though he spent only four months in the league before a promotion to Tulsa. He exhibited even less control with the Drillers, walking 48 Texas Leaguers in 33 frames over six starts.

Then something inconceivable happened. The following year, Mitch Williams would lead the American League in appearances, a Major League rookie record 80 games pitched, saving eight, winning eight, and holding opponents to a .202 batting average. His walk rate was nearly half of what it had been in Salem and Tulsa the year before, and his 3.58 ERA was lower – by more than a full run – than it had been in any of the four years he’d spent in the minors. It was magic.

Not according to House, though. Texas had hired him in January, and nobody in the organization understood Williams’s upside better than House, who had been with the Padres ever since the wild lefty had signed and, like Sandy Johnson, was thrilled to have him as a potential piece of the Rangers’ future. House was initially brought on as a pro scout, but when general manager Tom Grieve fired manager Doug Rader in May and replaced him with Bobby Valentine, the new skipper made House his pitching coach. How Williams was developing in Salem, Virginia was not House’s concern at that point, but he offered one piece of input.

“I thought Mitch needed to be in the bullpen,” says House. “When he had too much time to think between starts, all that amounted to was time for him to figure out how to screw things up.” Williams had appeared in 91 games before making his big league debut. Ninety of them had been starts. The conversion to relief began that off-season, with Santurce in the Puerto Rican Winter League.

Sporting a new job description, Williams gave up just three runs (and five walks) over 10 relief innings in spring training in 1986, and House convinced Valentine and Grieve that he was ready to contribute to the Rangers pen. By mid-June, he’d won six games, saved two more, and had a 1.60 ERA. He’d finish the year with 90 strikeouts, most of any southpaw reliever in baseball, and after an even more dominant season in 1987, he became the Rangers’ closer in 1988.

After the 1988 season, Williams was the key to the six-player package that Grieve sent to the Cubs for Rafael Palmeiro, Jamie Moyer, and Drew Hall. He would pitch for nine more years, including a 1993 season with the Phillies in which he’d log a career-best 43 saves but ultimately end up on the wrong end of one of the most legendary moments in World Series history.

Today Williams is a regular contributor on the 610WIP Morning Show in Philadelphia, the site of the devastating moment that’s unfortunately his baseball epitaph moment. But as far as his Texas Rangers legacy is concerned, it’s nothing but positive, due in no small part to the vision that Sandy Johnson and Tom House had for Williams to redefine himself, solidifying the Rule 5 pick and the trade that followed as among the finest in franchise history.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 11, 2007

If things work out this season like you and I hope they do, this is one we’ll look back upon with favor. Righthander Jamey Wright didn’t get his job done, snapping a string of five straight Quality Starts by the Rangers rotation, but the bullpen came on and turned in what was effectively a Quality Relief Effort (6.1 innings, one earned run) while the offense did to Tampa Bay starter Jae Seo what a good offense should.

Texas evens its record at 4-4, after series with two of the league’s best teams and the first two games of a take-care-of-business series at home. It’s nothing to be satisfied with, but it’s workable.

The immediate question is whether sending Wright back to the mound is workable. His stuff definitely moved a lot, but too often it moved off the plate, inside to righthanders, and far too often when it stayed in the zone it was up, and exceedingly sluggable. Not pretty.

Can Texas really drop another arm from the bullpen to make room for Eric Gagne, just to ensure that Wright is around for his next start, which won’t be for another 10 days? It wouldn’t be stunning to see Wright be the roster casualty when Gagne is activated for Friday’s series in Seattle — and possibly sooner if the club wants to get a reliever with options (Wes Littleton? Frankie Francisco?) up here for tonight’s homestand finale in the meantime — especially since Wright appeared to do nothing last night to earn the April 21 start against Oakland.

I suppose the club could find that Wright, who complained of arm fatigue after his Thursday start in Frisco, needs a stay on the disabled list, but if so he wouldn’t be eligible to pitch on the 21st. But it would be fine with me if Wright doesn’t get the four starts that journeymen Alan Benes and Robert Ellis once got as Rangers. Not sure he’s earned a second outing.

Add the fact that lefthander Bruce Chen has been pretty good in his three relief appearances (no earned runs [three unearned] on four hits and no walks in four frames, three strikeouts, 72 percent strikes), and the idea of exposing him to waivers to make room for Gagne seems a lot less palatable than sending Wright packing.

Loved seeing Kenny Lofton and Frank Catalanotto breaking out last night. That duo isn’t going to reach base eight times every night, but when they’re setting the table like they can, this lineup looks dramatically better.

The offensive explosion on Monday night may have had an effect on last night’s third-inning barrage. C.J. Wilson noted in his MLB.com blog, after Monday’s 8-4 win that was highlighted by a six-run sixth: "Last night, we busted out the bats in a big way, we had a great rally against the Devil Rays bullpen, which is always a great way to start a series. The main benefit of wearing out the bullpen in the first day is that if we get to the starter early again today, they might have to leave him in a bit longer, hopefully giving us some more runs to play with in the bullpen."

Prophetic. Rays righthander Jae Seo was left in to absorb every bit of the third-inning damage last night, ending up with a line of 10 runs in three frames of work.

Wilson told reporters that he threw a gyroball to Kevin Youkilis on Sunday night, getting a called strike.

To make room on the active and 40-man rosters for Wright, the Rangers optioned righthander Mike Wood to Oklahoma before the game, and designated Frisco lefthander Daniel Haigwood for assignment. The Haigwood move was surprising, as Texas now has 10 days to trade him, try to get him through waivers, or release him. Certainly the ideal result would be to slide him through waivers unclaimed, but if that move fails, the Rangers will have nothing to show for the June 29 deal in which they traded interesting lefthander Fabio Castro to Philadelphia for the 23-year-old Haigwood, who went 1-2, 3.63 for the RoughRiders in 12 starts last summer after going 2-5, 3.54 in 15 starts for the Phillies’ AA affiliate in Reading.

Haigwood hadn’t yet appeared for Frisco this season. He was slated to replace Wright in the RoughRiders’ rotation after the veteran made the club’s Opening Day start last Thursday, but when the Rangers made the procedural move yesterday afternoon, Haigwood was necessarily scratched from making his first start last night.

Frisco manager Dave Anderson instead went with a bullpen effort, sending six relievers to the mound, the final one of which was Gagne, who fanned one Springfield hitter in a perfect ninth, sandwiched between a groundout and an infield pop-up. He needed only eight pitches, firing seven for strikes. Half were fastballs, topping out at 93 mph.

It’s apparently the final tune-up effort for the veteran closer, who should be activated on Friday. Ron Washington initially suggested he may pitch Gagne a few times in non-save situations before asking him to get the job done with the game on the line in the ninth, but he’s apparently changed his mind, and Gagne will assume the closer’s role immediately.

Tampa Bay third baseman Akinori Iwamura is a dazzling defender. Wow.

Fascinating look under the surface of Brad Wilkerson’s 2006 numbers by the Newberg Report’s own Scott Lucas, in an entry he posted on his blog yesterday.

Two Bakersfield lines worth keeping an eye on: catcher Taylor Teagarden, whose defense is his calling card, is hitting .455/.684/.818 through four games. He’s 5 for 11 with a double and a homer, drawing eight walks while fanning three times. Righthander Michael Schlact gave up three runs on five hits and a walk in five innings in his first Blaze start, fanning two and allowing only one of the final 13 batters he faced to get the ball out of the infield, and last night he fired five scoreless innings, scattering four singles and no walks while setting four hitters down on strikes. He may not be in California for long.

A week after signing first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a four-year contract worth $9.5 million (with a club option for $5.5 million in 2011), San Diego inked righthander Chris Young to a four-year contract of his own, a $14.5 million deal with an $8.5 million club option in 2011. Although Young didn’t get the no-trade clause he sought — having been traded three times, he wanted that added stability — he did get escalators in his contract that will trigger salary increases if the Padres were to trade him.

Don’t count on that.

Gonzalez celebrated his former and current teammate’s extension by going 3 for 5 with two home runs and four RBI last night.

St. Louis righthander Kip Wells in his first two Cardinals starts: 1-1, 1.38, six hits and five walks in 13 innings, 14 strikeouts, no home runs, 1.3 groundout-to-flyout ratio.

In independent league news, Fargo-Moorhead designated hitter Harry Berrios retired and was promptly named hitting instructor for the Schaumburg Flyers, a fellow Northern League affiliate.

Robinson Tejeda-James Shields tonight. Like Jae Seo last night, Shields is a guy that the Rangers offense, when going well, should treat badly.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — APRIL 10, 2007

The best game of Chris Stewart’s 2004 season was on August 27, when he went 3 for 4 and scored three runs for AA Birmingham. That day Stewart caught Brandon McCarthy, who was making the third AA start of his career and his best to date, improving to 3-0, 2.84 as a Baron with a sterling seven-inning effort as he gave up one Mobile run on four hits and two walks while punching out nine BayBears.

It’s not a stretch to say that Stewart and McCarthy, roommates for that month McCarthy spent in Birmingham, teamed up on August 27, 2004 and had the biggest game of each of their baseball lives.

Stewart made his first and only big league start with the White Sox two years and a month later, on September 27, 2006 against Cleveland. He went hitless in three trips but gunned Grady Sizemore down trying to steal, twice. And he caught McCarthy, who won his fourth game of the year with 5.2 innings of two-hit ball, walking one and fanning eight.

It was, without question, the game of the year for McCarthy in 2006, and obviously the highlight of Stewart’s big league career at that point.

And last night, Stewart made his Rangers debut, getting his first big league hit and first big league RBI and scoring his first big league run, adding a great-looking sacrifice bunt and the cutdown of one out of two would-be basestealers. Stewart, of course, caught McCarthy, who notched his first Texas win with a solid six frames of work, holding a good Devil Rays lineup to two runs on four singles, a double, and two walks, striking out five. It was the fifth straight quality start for the Texas rotation, with McCarthy notching the bookend efforts.

The high points of Texas 8, Tampa Bay 4 were the sixth inning in which the offense scored twice as many runs — after recording two outs — than it had in all but one game this season. A career-high four hits from Ian Kinsler and career-high three from Nelson Cruz, the two Rangers hitters I’m highest on in terms of having breakout seasons. An 8 for 14 effort from the lineup with two outs. A 7 for 14 performance with runners in scoring position.

But it was a big night for Chris Stewart and Brandon McCarthy, too, something the two of them might have dreamed out loud about three years ago at a late-night diner in Mobile, Alabama, each sporting a per diem that, put together, might have been enough to buy a hot chocolate at a chilly big league ballgame on April 9, 2007.

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

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