THE NEWBERG REPORT — JUNE 6, 2007

Those of you who were around the Newberg Report six years ago might have smirked, as I did, when Mark Teixeira stepped in last night against Jason Grilli (whose name has appeared 37 times in the Newberg Report since 2001). A fitting tribute to draft week.

Over the weekend I heard a talk show refer to Thursday as the most important day in Rangers history. While I wouldn’t go that far, we’ve referred to tomorrow’s massive significance, to the opportunity that Texas has in this draft to reshape its farm system and perhaps, in turn, its fortunes over the next generation of Rangers baseball.

Eleven years ago, the Rangers had picks 18, 24, 32, and 53, a quiver that looks somewhat like this week’s 17, 24, 35, 44, and 54.

As the 1996 draft approached, the newspapers and radio shows weren’t calling it the most important day in franchise history. That April, Texas started out with seven straight wins and had at least a share of first place for all but three days of the season. The club had never been to the playoffs, but the division lead hovered around five games in the days leading up to the draft, and so the likelihood is that the Rangers’ draft power was never mentioned by the media until Draft Day itself.

Doug Melvin, in his second Rangers draft, focused heavily on pitching and primarily on hurlers he thought could arrive quickly, just as he did in his first draft the year before, when he popped Florida State righthander Jonathan Johnson with the seventh overall pick, passing over a college pitcher like Matt Morris who wasn’t considered quite as big league-ready, a high-ceiling high school arm like Roy Halladay, and a slam-dunk college hitter like Todd Helton.

Notably, Melvin’s better picks in 1995 were on a third-round Canadian high schooler (Ryan Dempster), a couple small college hurlers (Ryan Glynn and Mike Venafro), two junior college righthanders (Danny Kolb and Brandon Knight), and a high school hitter (Craig Monroe). But he stayed with the philosophy in 1996, owning four picks in the first 53, to favor pitching and to find some that could help in Arlington soon.

With pick number 18, Texas took Tennessee righthander R.A. Dickey, a three-time All-American and star on Team USA. At 24, the Rangers grabbed Tampa high school righthander Sam Marsonek. At 32, the choice was N.C. State southpaw Corey Lee, and at 53, with the club’s second-round pick, they selected James Madison University righthander Derrick Cook.

Dickey, for all his intangible positives, hasn’t been a very good big league pitcher. And he didn’t come quickly, because of arm injuries that may or may not have had anything to do with the missing ulnar collateral ligament that was discovered during an extensive team physical as he was about to sign with the Rangers. But the pick was not considered to be a reach. Baseball America projected Dickey — who was regularly clocked at 96 leading up to Draft Day — to be in the mix for the Giants at number seven and, if San Francisco passed on him, the likely choice of the A’s at number 10.

Marsonek, a big, hard-throwing specimen, was projected to be a second-round talent. Arm troubles and ineffectiveness limited him to 182.2 innings in three seasons and led to his trade to the Yankees (with Knight) for outfielder Chad Curtis in 1999. He made one big league appearance for New York in 2004 (1.1 scoreless innings), finishing out a 10-3 home in Yankee Stadium, against his hometown Devil Rays. Marsonek is out of baseball.

Like Marsonek, Lee managed one big league appearance before taking his game briefly to Japan in 2005. After three strong minor league seasons (26-18, 3.86), the wiry lefthander split the 1999 season between Tulsa (8-5, 4.44) and Oklahoma (3-0, 2.02) and earned a call-up late in August, entering a 7-7 tie in the 11th at home against the Yankees on the day he arrived. Lee gave up a three-run Tino Martinez home run to take the loss, which cut the Rangers’ lead in the West to 5.5 games. Lee was optioned to Oklahoma four days later, and would never get back to the majors, though Melvin did use him to acquire Herbert Perry after the 2001 season, a solid deal.

Cook was projected to go about where Texas took him, if not a bit earlier, based purely on projectability. Baseball America described him as an “enigma” in college, a prototype with “little feel for his craft” who “[hadn't] learned how to pitch in three underachieving seasons at James Madison.” In six minor league seasons, all but 6.2 innings of which came as a Rangers farmhand, Cook went 34-29, 4.29.

Interestingly, Cook was teammates with Venafro at James Madison. The 29th-rounder has obviously had a measurably better career than the second-rounder, which speaks less to the Rangers’ decisions to take those two where they did (Venafro was passed on 793 times in 1995, including 28 times by Texas, before his name was called), and more to the amazing crapshootiness of the baseball draft.

Instead of Dickey, Texas could have opted for less of a quick fix and taken high schoolers Jake Westbrook or Gil Meche, who were taken three and four picks later.

Rather than Marsonek, the Rangers could have gone to the other coast and chosen Nick Bierbrodt, who went to Arizona six picks later. But there were five picks between the two pitchers who didn’t even get the one big league appearance that Marsonek did.

If Texas decided to go young when it selected Lee, the pick might have been Canadian righthander Chris Reitsma or New York righty Jason Marquis, high school pitchers who went two and three slots later.

Cook went immediately after the Cubs chose high school outfielder Quincy Carter, and before 12 largely forgettable names that rounded out the second round.

It’s probably fair to look back at the Rangers’ 1996 draft and call it a disappointment, given the strength that Texas went into Draft Day with, but because the Rangers were on their way to their first-ever playoff appearance and a string of three post-seasons in four years, it wasn’t a huge story at the time.

When it became a story was when that string of playoff seasons came to an end and the farm system wasn’t churning out rotation help, or significant help anywhere else in the lineup for that matter. By 2000, Texas probably envisioned that at least two of the four pitchers that the club chose in the first two rounds in 1996 would be impacting the staff and alleviating the need to go out the next few seasons having to sign two or three free agents to fill the rotation.

It was that 2000 season when Texas had somewhat similar draft strength, but the club didn’t capitalize on picks 24 (California high school catcher Scott Heard), 35 (unsigned University of North Carolina outfielder Tyrell Godwin), 39 (Baylor righthander Chad Hawkins), or 56 (Houston high school infielder Jason Bourgeois). A little forgiveness is warranted, though, as the 2000 draft was historically weak at the top.

Not the case in 2007. There is added scrutiny as the Rangers get set to use picks 17, 24, 35, 44, and 54 tomorrow, and it’s not only because the big club is having an abysmal first half and the farm system is thin at the upper levels. It’s because this is considered to be one of the best draft crops in years, maybe even since before that 1996 draft.

Even though they didn’t directly impact the Rangers’ playoff clubs in 1996, 1998, and 1999, to me the greatest string of moves that a Rangers general manager has ever put together were the trades for Rafael Palmeiro (Cubs) and Julio Franco (Indians) and signing of free agent Nolan Ryan on December 5, 6, and 7, 1998.

Can Jon Daniels and Ron Hopkins and the Rangers’ team of area scouts and crosscheckers nail things tomorrow and Friday and give this franchise another landmark couple days of moves that end up impacting the core of the roster down the road and helping this team eventually get back to October?

We’d settle for a repeat of the Rangers’ 1999 draft class, which, although it didn’t quite work out as planned at the top (supplemental first-rounders Colby Lewis and David Mead), nonetheless produced Nick Regilio (second), Hank Blalock (third), Kevin Mench (fourth), Aaron Harang (sixth), Justin Echols (11th, part of the package used to get Chris Young from Montreal), Jason Jones (13th), unsigned Noah Lowry (19th), and Jason Botts (46th).

Also taken in that 1999 draft was 30th-round pick Dustin Smith, a catcher out of a Kansas high school. Smith didn’t sign but Texas drafted him again in 2000, this time out of Cowley County Community College, eventually signing him as a draft-and-follow. Smith is now an area scout for the Rangers, responsible for the same Midwest territory he came out of (Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas). He replaces Mike Grouse, the area scout who had signed Smith as a player. Grouse, who is responsible for Travis Hafner, Ian Kinsler, Travis Hughes, Doug Mathis, Travis Metcalf, and Steve Murphy, among many others, is in his first year as Central Crosschecker for the organization.

It’s probably not a stretch to say tomorrow is the biggest day yet in the professional careers of Grouse and Smith, and Hopkins and Jake Krug and Kipp **** and Doug Harris and Kevin Bootay and Randy Taylor and Todd Guggiana and another dozen or two baseball grinders. Including Gary McGraw, whose scouting territory is home to Phillippe Aumont, an 18-year-old horse from Quebec who most say has more upside than Canadian pitchers Dempster or Reitsma or Eric Gagne or Rich Harden had as amateurs.

It’s adrenaline time.

I had planned to talk today about Ron Washington, Gagne, Kinsler, Victor Diaz, Brandon McCarthy, Vicente Padilla, Nelson Cruz, Matt Kata, Taylor Teagarden, Omar Poveda, Nate Gold, Brad Wilkerson, Joaquin Arias, Jon Weber, Chan Ho Park, Cody Smith, and scouts from the Braves and Tigers. But those notes will have to wait.

And with apologies to Texas 7, Detroit 4, in the big picture that this season has forced us to look at earlier than we’d like, that result takes a back seat to tomorrow, which is, to be sure, one of the most important days in this franchise’s history. Given where everything stands right now, there’s a much bigger win at stake in the war room.

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

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