July 2007

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — JULY 31, 2007: Gagné trade imminent, Teixeira trade expanded

According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, Texas has agreed to trade closer Eric Gagné to Boston for lefthander Kason Gabbard, center fielder David Murphy, and teenage outfielder Engel Beltre, a high-profile Latin America signing two years ago. It’s unclear whether Gagné has consented to the deal, as he has the right to veto a trade to the Sox.

Also, T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com reports that the Mark Teixeira trade has been finalized, with lefthander Matt Harrison being confirmed as the fourth player – and a fifth player, Class A lefthander Beau Jones, being added to the deal as well. Jones has gone 5-0, 2.96 with three saves for Low A Rome (48.2 innings, 38 hits, 12 walks, 46 strikeouts) and 0-0, 15.26 in five appearances for High A Myrtle Beach. The hard-throwing reliever was a first-round pick in 2005 (41st overall) out of a Louisiana high school.

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JULY 31, 2007: THE MARK TEIXEIRA TRADE

I’d been thinking for weeks about what I would write when The Trade happened. I changed my mind half a dozen times, and then gave up.

Despite efforts to lay the column out in my head in advance, ultimately I knew it would have to be a visceral sitdown at the keyboard. I was going to have to let the game come to me.

The thing about news of a trade like this breaking on a weekday morning is that sitting down to write about it gets shelved for 10 or 12 hours. As a result, even after there was news that Mark Teixeira had been traded, rather than just speculation, I once again changed direction over and over mentally as I imagined how I’d write this one up.

It comes down to this for me: This is a twofold issue. First, trading Teixeira. Second, the Teixeira trade.

The first one is more difficult to articulate. I never wanted Texas to trade Teixeira. He’s as complete a baseball player as anyone who has ever worn a Rangers uniform. My kids love watching him play. He and his wife Leigh have done great things in the community.

I wrote this on May 16, well before the subject of trading Teixeira became a topic of local discussion:

"I’ve come to what feels like an inescapable conclusion, after years of heavy, blind, wishful denial, that Mark Teixeira won’t be a Texas Ranger a year from today. It is with a great deal of sadness and reluctance that I now admit that to myself."

Factoring in some of Teixeira’s remarks to the press, the obvious history that his agent’s clients have of testing free agency, and the idea that the Union is probably encouraging him to hit the open market after the 2008 season and establish a new benchmark contract, it just added up that he was not going to extend long-term here. Waiting until the winter made sense if teams weren’t acting with the right amount of desperation in July, but waiting until this time in 2008 was too risky, because if the team found itself arguably in the race in the season’s fourth month, trading Teixeira at that point simply wouldn’t have been an option.

As I thought about Teixeira’s eventual departure, what occurred to me, maybe for the first time as a sports fan, was that in that role I’m not a free agent myself. I don’t get to survey the landscape and decide what team I want to latch onto. I’m in it for the long haul. The Rangers are part of my core.

And, maybe unrealistically, I’ve always hoped, in some cases more than others, that the best players on my team felt that way, too.

Though I’ve never doubted for a second that Teixeira gave it everything he had every time he stepped on the field for the Rangers, which was basically every night, there was always that underlying feeling that he wanted to play for the Yankees or Orioles or Braves, and establish his legacy there. I always hoped that nagging sense was off-base.

Instead, we all felt that Sunday was going to be Teixeira’s final game as a Ranger, the final act of his five years in Texas that end with his RBI total frozen at 499, prevented from reaching 500 by a quad injury that cost him five weeks this year (and by Larry Young and Tom Hallion on June 27, 2006 in San Francisco).

And it was the final act. As far as my team trading Teixeira is concerned, from an emotional standpoint, it makes me sad. I’m sure there are plenty of you reading this whose kids cried a bit yesterday when they found out Teixeira is no longer going to play for the Rangers. I would have when I was Erica’s age. I’m only glad that Max isn’t quite three years old — a couple years older, and this would have hit him really, really hard.

Emotionally, I wish it hadn’t come to this. But I’m glad he’s going to Atlanta, at least for now, a place where I can pull for him all season long, a place where he went to college and met Leigh, a place that isn’t New York or Boston or Anaheim.

And I’ll get over the sting of the thought that Teixeira will have great years somewhere else, that the factors that caused him to fall to the fifth pick in the 2001 draft are among those that probably led to his departure. For now, the thing that helps me get over that sting is to accept the reality that sunk in back on May 16, and to objectively look at what Jon Daniels, confronted with what could be the most important challenge of his career, was able to get done.

And that brings me to Part Two of this discussion: the trade itself.

Teixeira and lefthander Ron Mahay to the Braves for 22-year-old big league catcher-first baseman Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 18-year-old High A shortstop Elvis Andrus, 18-year-old Advanced Rookie-Level righthander Neftali Feliz, and one more pitcher to be named later, from a list that reportedly includes AA lefthander Matt Harrison. The deal is dependent only on a review of medicals, which will take place before this afternoon’s trade deadline.

A significant number of national columnists confidently claimed earlier this month that Daniels was going to find it impossible to get what he should for Teixeira, because in this baseball economy teams aren’t as willing to part with their best prospects as they used to be. Rangers fans were going to be extremely disappointed, said the high-profile scribes.

If they’re right, then Baseball America is dead wrong.

The industry standard ranked Saltalamacchia as Atlanta’s number one prospect going into the season. It ranked Andrus number two. It ranked Harrison number three. And all three were in the publication’s ranking of the top 100 prospects in baseball.

If you happen to be one of those who treats Baseball America with a dose of skepticism when it comes to prospect rankings, especially in the case of the some of the more allegedly manipulative organizations — like the Braves — consider that John Sickels, whose prospect evaluations carry as much weight for me as anyone’s other than Baseball America’s, had all three in his top 100 as well.

If the reports were accurate that the Dodgers and Angels had backed out of the bidding for Teixeira over the weekend, and that the Diamondbacks were only halfheartedly in the mix, then Daniels succeeded in pulling off the seemingly impossible, getting a standout package of prospects despite this apparent trend of teams hoarding their kids and the real possibility that Atlanta had secured a bit of leverage as its competition for Teixeira ducked out.

The key to the deal is unquestionably Saltalamacchia, the switch-hitting catcher whose first professional game at a different position, at any level, came this June, when he appeared at first base for the big club. One local report says this morning that he’ll share catching duties with Gerald Laird the rest of the way, seeing some time at first and at DH, while another says he’ll play first primarily, filling in from time to time behind the plate.

When Saltalamacchia hit .314/.394/.519 with 35 doubles, 19 home runs, and 81 RBI in 129 games for High A Myrtle Beach in 2005, two years after the Braves had made him the 36th pick in the draft, he was widely considered the top all-around catching prospect in baseball. That, however, was the same year that Atlanta broke Brian McCann into the big leagues, and McCann (who signed a six-year, $26.8 million contract four months ago) is just a year older than Saltalamacchia. For the two to coexist as Braves, Saltalamacchia was going to have to find a new position.

Will he have to in Texas?

Regardless of what position he plays most often over these final two months, the idea might be to evaluate his readiness behind the plate, assess the risk of watering down a young player’s offensive potential by keeping him at catcher, and decide in the off-season whether to deal Laird, who would certainly have meaningful trade value. (That’s not to say Texas couldn’t trade Laird today, but that would be a longshot — and forget those crazy rumors out of Chicago yesterday afternoon that the Cubs were floating center fielder Felix Pie for Laird and a reliever. Chicago’s not going to do that.)

Saltalamacchia struggled in 2006, hampered by a wrist injury that dogged him for most of the season (remind anyone else of Adrian Gonzalez’s first season in the Rangers farm system?), hitting just .230/.353/.380 for AA Mississippi before going on a tear in the Olympic qualifying tournament and Arizona Fall League.

Atlanta returned him to Mississippi this spring but this stay in the Southern League lasted just four weeks. Hitting .309/.404/.617 with seven doubles and six homers in 22 games, Saltalamacchia got the call on his 22nd birthday (May 2), a day after McCann bruised a finger and, later in the same game, backup catcher Brayan Pena sustained a concussion, hit in the head on the follow-through of Phillies pinch-hitter Greg Dobbs’s swing.

McCann missed a couple days and Pena was sidelined for just two weeks, but Saltalamacchia kept his roster spot, hitting .284/.333/.411 with six doubles and four home runs in 141 at-bats (including a .313/.405/.438 May and .327/.352/.558 June). He was slightly better against left-handed pitching, in keeping with his 2006 production but just the opposite of how he’d fared in 2005 and over the first month of this season while still in AA.

Scouts praise Saltalamacchia’s smooth swing and ability to drive the ball from both sides of the plate, his strong arm behind the plate, and his work ethic. Many project him to be a 30-homer, 110-RBI force, suggesting his bat will play on a corner — but I keep thinking Jason Varitek and Jorge Posada. If keeping Saltalamacchia at catcher means he’ll only be a 25-90 guy but plays solid defense, that’s more than acceptable. You keep him at catcher.

If he can stay behind the plate, there’s no other hitter (James Loney, Casey Kotchman, Conor Jackson) I would have rather had from the teams who were most firmly in on Teixeira these last few days.

Teixeira broke into the big leagues at age 23, hitting .259/.331/.480 as the Rangers’ everyday first baseman. Put Saltalamacchia’s .284/.333/.411 at age 22 in that context. Teixeira is now a perennial .290/.380/.550 hitter. There are some who believe Saltalamacchia could settle into a similar level of productivity. It’s not a lock, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility, and Texas controls him for six years after this one.

What does this mean for Taylor Teagarden and the rest of the Rangers’ stable of catcher prospects? Much too soon to worry about that, especially before we know what the Rangers’ defensive plans are for Saltalamacchia. And the good thing is that too much catching, as we discussed when Texas acquired Max Ramirez for Kenny Lofton a few days ago, just means more trade ammunition.

Three years ago, Texas acquired 19-year-old shortstop Joaquin Arias as the second piece in a blockbuster trade. The Rangers are banking on the 18-year-old Andrus, the second piece in this deal, to become everything that Arias has thus far failed to become.

Andrus shows the plus range, plus arm, and fluid hands that Arias has always shown, not to mention the athleticism and promise of offensive productivity as his body matures. He exhibits an advanced ability to use the entire field with the bat, his walk rates are unusually good, and he’s an instinctive player in all phases.

Andrus is an unfinished product, to be sure, but he’s holding his own in High Class A at an age when his United States contemporaries started the year as high school seniors and are just now getting in their pro debuts, mostly three levels lower in the complex leagues in Arizona and Florida, if not still negotiating their signing bonuses. Andrus is hitting .244/.330/.335 in the notoriously pitcher-friendly Carolina League. He had a 14-game hit streak a month ago.

And this is key — away from the severe pitchers’ park he plays his home games in, he’s a .296/.379/.413 hitter. Against pitchers four years older than he is. Let that sink in.

In Baseball America’s "Baseball for the Ages" feature in 2005, the two players named as honorable mention 16-year-olds were Andrus — who was at the time the youngest player in pro ball — and righthander Blake Beavan, the Rangers’ top pick in last month’s draft.

It’s been written that Andrus "plays with a joy and energy that’s infectious," which separates him in one sense from Arias, at least at the time that the latter arrived in the Alex Rodriguez/Alfonso Soriano trade. The Arias I saw in camp in 2004 appeared introverted, seemingly lonely and bewildered at times. I couldn’t have conceived of anyone describing an "infectious energy" when talking about Arias as a teenager. Andrus has also become fluent in English since arriving from Venezuela in January 2005.

In Baseball America’s "Best Tools" survey earlier this season, Carolina League managers called Andrus the league’s Most Exciting Player, a testament to the reputation he has developed and the potential that baseball people believe he has. He needs to polish his game and get stronger, but he’s got enormous potential. Sickels invokes the names of Edgar Renteria as a possible comp, if it all comes together. Others in the game have said Andrus reminds them of Derek Jeter or Miguel Tejada.

Andrus and Max Ramirez were Danville (Appalachian League) teammates in 2005 and Rome (South Atlantic League) teammates in 2006.

Andrus won’t need to be added to the 40-man roster until after the 2009 season, if he hasn’t reached the big leagues by then.

Feliz is on the same 40-man roster track as Andrus, and he’ll surely need all of that time before the Rangers would even consider his big league candidacy. But his upside is enormous.

The lanky righthander signed with Atlanta in 2005, pitching briefly in the Dominican Summer League that summer (four runs on seven hits [no home runs] and 11 walks in 10 innings, fanning eight) and only slightly more in 2006, when he arrived stateside and pitched in the Gulf Coast League.

In 29 innings last year, Feliz used a mid-90s fastball that reportedly touches 98 with late life, plus a still-immature slider and change, to hold hitters to a .192 average — and no home runs — issuing 14 walks and punching out 42 hapless opponents. He was at his best down the stretch, logging 11 scoreless innings in four August appearances, scattering four hits and one walk while fanning 15 hitters. At the conclusion of the season, Baseball America judged his fastball to be the best in the entire Braves system, despite just 39 innings of work in his two pro seasons combined.

And despite that limited body of work, Baseball Prospectus went so far as to name Feliz the number 98 prospect in baseball going into this season, saying: "This is a teenager with a lightning arm who could turn into a frontline starter or a dominant closer, but right now, he’s a teenager with a lightning arm."

Atlanta assigned Feliz to Danville this summer (the developmental equivalent of the Rangers’ affiliate in Spokane), and in six starts and a relief appearance, he’s gone 2-0, 2.05. In 26.1 innings, he’s permitted 16 hits (.178 opponents’ average) and 12 walks, striking out 28 and again keeping the opposition homerless. Lefthanders and righties have been equally inept against him.

Harrison, by most accounts, is one of Atlanta’s top two pitching prospects (along with fellow southpaw Jo-Jo Reyes), and it may be that the reason that the trade currently includes one player to be named is that the Rangers want to be sure that Harrison’s arm is sound before committing to him as the final piece to the deal.

The 6’5" lefthander hasn’t missed a start for AA Mississippi but over the weekend it was being reported that a potential shoulder strain led to an MRI. Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus reports that the diagnostics came back clean, and in fact the 21-year-old touched the mid-90s in his last start on Wednesday. But there was one unconfirmed report that Harrison will nonetheless miss a start or two, and might have been placed on the AA disabled list.

The Braves’ second of two third-round picks in 2003, Harrison came into the 2007 season with a four-season record of 30-20, 3.45, with 314 strikeouts and only 82 walks in 430.2 innings of work. He reached AA in 2006, at age 20, invoking the standard Tom Glavine comparison with his command of three pitches. He works down in the zone, consistently coaxing more groundouts than flyouts and keeping the ball in the yard.

Harrison hasn’t shown himself to be a strikeout pitcher, but scouts praise his coachability and his potential for getting the most out of his repertoire. He’s producing results at age 21 in AA, and that bodes well.

Harrison would have been Rule 5-eligible this past winter had it not been for the CBA revisions. Instead, he’ll need to be added to the 40-man roster this off-season.

Again, however, recognize that Harrison is not a confirmed part of the trade, though multiple reports indicate that he’s on the list of candidates Texas can choose from to round out the deal. I’ve seen about six or seven other names that could be on the list and won’t spend time going through their profiles until the names are confirmed.

Of interest, however, is that one of the rumored names is 23-year-old righthander Joey Devine, the Braves’ 2005 first-rounder and occasional holder of the club’s closer-in-waiting label. Devine is currently at AAA Richmond (one run on five hits and two walks in 5.1 innings, six strikeouts), after stints with AA Mississippi (2-4, 2.06 with 16 saves, 26 hits and 13 walks in 35 innings, with 51 strikeouts and just one home run allowed) and Atlanta (one run on four hits and one walk in three innings, two strikeouts).

I’m not here to predict that this deal will produce for Texas what Bartolo Colon and Tim Drew to Montreal for Grady Sizemore, Brandon Phillips, Cliff Lee, and Lee Stevens gave Cleveland five years ago, but this is a remarkable return, given all the factors at play.

Are the Rangers done? Chances are that Daniels has another move or two in him before this afternoon’s 3:00 trade deadline. The rumored deal that would send Octavio Dotel from Kansas City to the Braves helps Texas in that teams that were in on Dotel may now be turning their attention to Gagné. The good thing as far as Gagné is concerned is we’re virtually assured of getting two picks in the first two rounds if we keep him and he leaves via free agency, so that’s where the trade offers begin — prospect(s) that are worth more to us than two premium draft picks. The Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Cubs, and Brewers are reportedly showing interest.

The Dodgers had shown interest in Joaquin Benoit as part of a Teixeira deal — would Los Angeles part with someone like outfielder Andre Ethier or minor league closer Jonathan Meloan, two players rumored to be involved in the Teixeira talks, in a one-for-one deal for Benoit?

I’m still saying a prayer for the Mets to decide they will be marginally better off with Sammy Sosa.

If Daniels adds Ramirez, Saltalamacchia, Andrus, Feliz, Harrison, and another prospect or two for Gagné and/or Benoit this week, and if the Rangers get deals done with first-rounders Beavan and Neil Ramirez and some other relatively high unsigned picks in the next two weeks, and if the organization adds a handful of high-ceiling Latin American teenagers this summer as it has the past few years, this farm system is going to look amazingly different from the way it looked when the season started.

But so will the big league lineup, which for the next two months will feature Jarrod Saltalamacchia at-bats that once belonged to Mark Teixeira. I’m looking forward to seeing Saltalamacchia injected into the order, hopefully along with Jason Botts, but to be honest I’m not sure how it will feel not to have Teixeira there as a fixture, as the Rangers’ most feared weapon.

I know this, though: a Teixeira trade had become virtually inevitable, and from that standpoint I’m excited about what Jon Daniels pulled off. I’m looking forward to checking those Elvis Andrus box scores in Bakersfield and those Neftali Feliz short-season pitching lines, and to imagining what my team’s roster could look like two years from now, when Saltalamacchia could be part of the Rangers’ identity, and Teixeira may very well be in pinstripes or adorned by an orange and black bird, as the Braves work to try and sign the two draft picks they received when Teixeira left for the Coast.

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

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — JULY 30, 2007

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.com, Texas and Atlanta have agreed in principal on a trade that will send Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay to the Braves for Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, and two pitching prospects, pending a review of the players’ medical records.

More as details develop.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JULY 30, 2007

The Braves designated recent trade acquisition Wil Ledezma for assignment yesterday, depleting their bullpen of its only established left-handed reliever.

Operating on the fairly confident assumption that Texas would never trade C.J. Wilson, at least not now, in this context, I have to believe that Ron Mahay has to be a fixed component of the trade dialogue that John Schuerholz and Jon Daniels will have today.

Between the weekend promotion of catcher Taylor Teagarden and last night’s promotion of Bakersfield third baseman Chris Davis (according to the Bakersfield Californian), the attendance numbers are about to skyrocket in Frisco, if for no other reason than Teagarden and Davis are going to have huge friends-and-family contingents on hand.

That, and those two players are among the most exciting position player prospects in the Rangers system this year.

The Californian also reports that third baseman Johnny Whittleman (.273/.385/.480) will be promoted from Clinton to Bakersfield to replace Davis (.297/.339/.575, leading the Cal League with 24 homers and 93 RBI in 98 games) and put on the same Blaze uniform as catcher Max Ramirez, whom Whittleman played against earlier this month in the Futures Game.

The promotions of Whittleman, who had a huge first half until recent struggles at the plate, and Davis, who has reached AA in his first full pro season, are exciting in their own right and the type of thing on which I’d probably spend more paragraphs than I should, generally speaking.

But today, I find myself distracted, wondering what must be going through the mind of Mark Teixeira, as he gets his off-day underway, in Cleveland, with the rest of his Texas Rangers teammates.

Stay tuned for what promises to be a fascinating day to be a Rangers fan, whether a trade does or doesn’t come down.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JULY 29, 2007

There are two local stories that now indicate that Braves AA starter Matt Harrison has come down with arm problems, one of which reports that he has been shut down with a strained shoulder. That obviously impacts the thought that Harrison was going to be part of Atlanta’s offer — in fact the only pitcher rumored to be in the package — for Mark Teixeira.

According to T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, Texas is talking to Arizona, the latest entrant in the Teixeira sweepstakes, about first baseman Conor Jackson, outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, and a pitching prospect. Nineteen-year-old lefthander Brett Anderson, a command artist who is in his first pro season, is a good bet to attract the Rangers’ interest. In 116.1 innings between Low A South Bend and High A Visalia, Anderson is 11-7, 3.18 with 120 strikeouts and just 19 walks.

Note that Anderson didn’t sign with Arizona until September 7 last year (as the club’s second-round pick, out of Stillwater HS in Oklahoma), meaning he can’t be traded until this coming September 7. If Texas and Arizona make a trade and he’s a part of it, he’ll be a player to be named later until that time.

As for www.newbergreport.com, sorry for the outage today. We’re back up and running.

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

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — JULY 28, 2007

This is how one game can conceivably change the temperature as the trade deadline nears.

Arizona blanks Atlanta in nine out of ten innings, winning in 10, 4-3.

The Braves managed five singles and two doubles on the night. First baseman Julio Franco went hitless, fanning twice from the eight hole, dropping his numbers to .200/.316/.275.

The Diamondbacks won their eighth straight, pulling to within a virtual tie with the Dodgers for the NL West lead. The Braves fall 3.5 games behind those two clubs in the Wild Card race.

Atlanta needs Mark Teixeira. And now Arizona, according to T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, wants him, too. Prospect-rich Arizona.

Oh, and in the Dodgers’ 6-2 loss to Colorado, which allowed the Diamondbacks to catch them? Olmedo Saenz got the start at first base against lefthander Jeff Francis, going 0 for 4 while batting third, and seeing his line drop to .192/.313/.359.

Angels first base tandem Robb Quinlan and Casey Kotchman had a double, walk, and sac bunt in LA’s 10-3 pasting of the Tigers, a game perhaps more notable in this context because Detroit carried a 3-1 lead to the bottom of the sixth, only to see its bullpen get torched. The Tigers nurse a half-game lead over Cleveland, with a screaming weakness in the bullpen.

The Indians, incidentally, fell to Minnesota, 3-2, with closer Joe Borowski taking the loss. Cleveland needs late-inning help, too.

Octavio Dotel’s rough ninth against the Rangers doesn’t hurt, either.

Neither does the Houston-Tampa Bay trade involving reliever Dan Wheeler and infielder Ty Wigginton, two players that the Yankees had shown interest in.

There’s obviously a meaningful risk in not pouncing on a trade offer that you like, but patience is often richly rewarded as well.

Hang on tight.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JULY 28, 2007

Nobody was prepared to argue over the winter that Kenny Lofton was a better player than Gary Matthews Jr. And despite the fact that the 40-year-old Lofton (.303/.380/.438) is outproducing Matthews (.268/.332/.414) – even outslugging him – I’m not going to sit here and claim he’s the better of the two.

But the fact is that the Rangers got four solid offensive months out of Lofton (at $1 million per month), and as a result of the decision not to pay the $50 million that Matthews commanded from the Angels, they come away with first-round righthander Michael Main, the rights to supplemental first-rounder Neil Ramirez, and catcher Max Ramirez, who was obtained yesterday from Cleveland in a straight-up deal for Lofton.

There are several keys to this trade, the most important of which was to create an everyday spot for Nelson Cruz, who hit .352/.428/.698 with 15 home runs and 45 RBI in 45 AAA games and will be out of options when the season ends. He’ll move back into right field and should get a couple hundred at-bats to prove to Texas that the anemic .188/.245/.306 numbers he put up over the first two months of the big league season were not indicative of what he can provide this team going forward. Time to find out what he is, once and for all.

The deal also gives Marlon Byrd a two-month audition in center field, a position he has played every day in the past, but not in expansive Rangers Ballpark.

And it gives the Rangers a really interesting bat to add to the system.

Max Ramirez was thought of highly enough a year ago that Atlanta was able to get Cleveland’s closer, Bob Wickman, at trade deadline time by agreeing to part with him alone, even though he was in Low A at the time.

And he’s been a better player in High A than he was in Low A.

I got a lot of emails yesterday asking why Texas would go get a catcher, when it’s a position already perceived as a relative strength in the system.

Two things:

1. I’m not sure what kind of pitcher people expected Lofton to bring, at his age.

2. Look at Ramirez’s line for High A Kinston this season, at the league-appropriate age of 22: .303/.418/.505, 53 walks, 20 doubles, 12 home runs, 62 RBI in 277 at-bats. If the Rangers got a first baseman or left fielder with that stat line, some of the same people questioning this deal would be thrilled. Will Ramirez’s bat play on a corner? Maybe. But you never move a player from the middle of the field until you have to.

From that standpoint, there’s a similarity between Ramirez and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the player that Ramirez was behind developmentally before Atlanta traded him to the Indians last July. Saltalamacchia, the player reportedly at the forefront of the Braves’ multi-player offer to the Rangers for Mark Teixeira, is a catcher who is seeing time for Atlanta at first base, and while that’s largely because the Braves have an All-Star behind the plate (Brian McCann) and a black hole at first, some think that Saltalamacchia will eventually be a first baseman regardless of team needs, and that his bat will play there just fine.

It’s also leads to an obvious comparison with Cleveland’s Victor Martinez, not to mention the Indians’ Ryan Garko. Detroit’s Chris Shelton, too, and a handful of others. Ramirez isn’t considered a great catcher, but by all accounts the former third baseman is getting better defensively (the Kinston staff that he has handled leads the Carolina League with a 3.37 ERA), and when he shows up in Bakersfield today, he’ll presumably share catching and DH duties with Taylor Teagarden, at least until the defensively advanced Teagarden (.315/.448/.606, 65 walks, 25 doubles, 20 home runs, 67 RBI in just 81 games) is promoted to Frisco.

The Rangers are as deep in catching instructors as they are in catching prospects. Third base coach Don Wakamatsu and director of player development Scott Servais are probably looking forward to joining minor league catching coordinator Damon Berryhill at instructs and in spring training and rolling their own sleeves up as the Ramirez education continues.

Ramirez was not on Cleveland’s 40-man roster and therefore doesn’t go onto the Rangers’ 40, but he will need to be added this November to ensure that he can’t be drafted away via Rule 5 in December. Count on that happening.

Ramirez signed with the Braves out of Venezuela in October 2002, spending 2003 in the Dominican Summer League (.305/.386/.492) and the next two seasons in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League (.275/.339/.480) and Appalachian League (.347/.424/.527). The most remarkable aspect of that breakthrough season at the plate in 2005 was that it was during the season that Atlanta moved him from third base to catcher (the position he actually played as a teenager before signing with Atlanta). He was the co-Appy League MVP, tying for the league lead in hits and finishing near the top in nearly every key offensive category.

In 2006, Ramirez was hitting .285/.408/.449 for Low A Rome in the South Atlantic League when he was traded on July 20 for Wickman, and reassigned to Low A Lake County (also in the Sally League). He would hit .307/.435/.465 for the Captains, giving him an overall line for the year of .292/.417/.454, with 76 walks, 23 doubles, 13 home runs, and 63 RBI in 394 at-bats.

This season, in more than 100 fewer at-bats, Ramirez has 53 walks, 20 doubles, 12 homers, and 62 RBI. While his defense is getting more acceptable, his offense is growing more potent. Ramirez was the Carolina League’s mid-season All-Star catcher (he sits at fourth in the league in hitting, second in reaching base, fourth in slugging, first in walks, and third in RBI) and was selected to play in the Futures Game earlier this month. He served as designated hitter for the World Team and doubled in three trips.

A right-handed hitter, Ramirez has fared better against right-handed pitching (.332/.443/.527) than against lefties (.247/.366/.462) this year, something he also did for Lake County last year but just the opposite of how he fared for Rome in the same league earlier that season.

Baseball America judged Ramirez to have the best strike zone judgment in the Carolina League this year, remarkable recognition for a middle-of-the-order hitter. You just don’t see young power hitters draw that many walks at the low levels without envisioning big things down the road. Combine his extraordinary selectivity with his developing power and his proven ability to hit for average, and you have a player who you can get excited about – even if he were not a catcher.

Put it this way: I’d be surprised if there was a better bat offered for Lofton this summer. At any position.

What’s stunning is that Cleveland is bringing Lofton in to play left field, since the club obviously has no needs in center. There’s basically no market among contending clubs for center fielders right now, which makes the Rangers’ flip of Lofton for Ramirez even more remarkable.

You may discount this because my wiring is such that adding high-ceiling prospects usually meets with my approval, but I’m so pumped about Max Ramirez that I’m not going to water this particular report down with commentary on the rumors that the Yankees are apparently now pushing on Eric Gagne; or that the Angels have offered Casey Kotchman and Joe Saunders for Teixeira, in response to which the Rangers have reportedly asked for a third player from a list including Nick Adenhart, Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick, and Ervin Santana; or that Boston is not going to offer Clay Buchholz and/or Jacoby Ellsbury and thus the Sox are probably not going to stay in talks for Teixeira; or that the Braves offer for Teixeira appears to include Saltalamacchia and Elvis Andrus (or possibly Brent Lillibridge) but who else gets added to either side of the deal seems to be what is preventing a finalized trade; or that the Dodgers may be out of the mix for Teixeira unless they cave in and make Clayton Kershaw available – yet they have reportedly offered the very intriguing package of James Loney, Andre Ethier, and Jonathan Meloan for Teixeira and Joaquin Benoit; or that the Cubs, owners of blue-chip center field prospect Felix Pie, are reportedly kicking the tires on Gerald Laird; or that San Diego showed momentary interest in Brad Wilkerson but reportedly chose not to make an offer.

Or that the Mets are now rolling with a bench that includes no real outfielders now that Carols Beltran is dinged, as are Endy Chavez and Carlos Gomez, and Lastings Milledge is having to start a bunch. Marlon Anderson and Damion Easley as your outfield depth? Maybe Omar Minaya will place a call about Sammy Sosa after all, allowing the Rangers the opportunity to bring Jason Botts up in an everyday role much as they’ve done for Cruz.

Today’s report is not about those things. There’s so much speculation in the back half of July that it’s sort of a relief when there’s actual news to report.

As for the question you might have surrounding the addition of another catcher with promise to a stable that already includes Teagarden, Chris Stewart, Guillermo Quiroz, Salomon Manriquez, Kevin Richardson, Manuel Pina, Chad Tracy (who has actually played very little catcher this season), Jonathan Greene, Chris Gradoville, and Cristian Santana on the farm, it isn’t a problem you should spend much time fretting over. Having an overabundance of young catchers with upside can facilitate trades for veteran help.

As demonstrated by Atlanta last summer, and Cleveland yesterday.

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

Swapping Stories: The Harold Baines Trade of 1989

July 29, 1989: Texas trades shortstop Scott Fletcher, outfielder Sammy Sosa, and lefthander Wilson Alvarez to the Chicago White Sox for designated hitter Harold Baines and utility infielder Fred Manrique.

The Texas Rangers have reached the post-season three times, facing the New York Yankees in 1996, 1998, and 1999 and winning once in 10 tries.

It’s impossible not to wonder whether the results might have been better had the club not made one particular trade a decade earlier.

After launching a pronounced commitment to youth in 1986, which was Bobby Valentine’s first full season as the club’s manager, and winning 87 games that year, Texas lost 87 games in 1987 and 91 games in 1988. But the Rangers went 17-5 in April 1989, owning at least a share of first place in the seven-team AL West for all but three days during the month. Even a 10-17 May didn’t completely kill the buzz. The club’s 27-22 record was their best June 1 mark in eight years.

The Rangers had a budding star in 23-year-old Ruben Sierra, who was on his way to finishing second in the 1989 MVP vote, and a couple 24-year-olds, Rafael Palmeiro and Kevin Brown, growing into core roles. Thirty-year-old Julio Franco was certainly not past his prime, forty-somethings Nolan Ryan and Charlie Hough were still winning games, and the bullpen was anchored by 27-year-old Jeff Russell and 24-year-old Kenny Rogers.

Meanwhile, Sandy Johnson’s player development effort continued to bear fruit, particularly out of Latin America. In the Rangers farm system when the 1989 season began were catcher Ivan Rodriguez, infielders Jose Oliva and Jose Hernandez, and a couple outfielders named Juan Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa, not to mention Wilson Alvarez, a 19-year-old lefthander out of Venezuela.

By mid-July, the Chicago White Sox were buried in last place in the AL West, more than 20 games out of first. Their roster was relatively young, with the exception of 41-year-old catcher Carlton Fisk and designated hitter Harold Baines, who at age 30 was Chicago’s only other regular not in his twenties. General Manager Larry Himes was interested in getting even younger, as his club was bad and his farm system was exceptionally weak.

Texas, on the other hand, was thinking about October. On June 28, the club had gotten back to within two games of the division lead, even though it had three teams to catch. The allure of the franchise’s first post-season led Rangers GM Tom Grieve to take some of the organization’s farm system depth and embark on a mid-summer effort to find a veteran to plug into the middle of the lineup.

Down at AA Tulsa, the Rangers were led offensively by Gonzalez and 20-year-old third baseman Dean Palmer, and two lefthanders who had begun the season with High A Charlotte: 21-year-old Brian Bohanon (the club’s first-round pick in 1987) and Alvarez. Sosa started the season with the Drillers but was summoned to Texas when Pete Incaviglia landed on the disabled list with a neck strain on June 15. Over a five-week stint Sosa hit the first of what would be more than 600 big league home runs, a solo shot off Boston’s Roger Clemens on June 21.

Sosa hit just .238 in his 84 Rangers at-bats before he was returned to the farm, this time to AAA Oklahoma City. Gonzalez, meanwhile, was having a huge year in Tulsa (.293/.342/.506, 21 homers, 85 RBI in 133 games) that led to a big league call-up in September, when he became the youngest Ranger ever to homer. It was easy to imagine that, within a year, Sosa and Gonzalez would join Sierra in an outfield that could do it all, and would do so for years and years. Cecil Espy and Incaviglia were reasonably productive but were hardly in the way. The Rangers had drafted outfielders Donald Harris (first round) and Dan Peltier (third round) that June, but they were years away and far from sure things. Kevin Reimer, Tony Scruggs, and Monty Farris had possibilities. But there was no blueprint that didn’t have Sierra, Gonzalez, and Sosa as the imminent outfield of the future in Texas.

Starting pitching, as it has always been in Texas, was an issue at the big league level, and there was not a lot of hope on the farm. Alvarez had an uninspiring debut season in 1987 and an interesting one in 1988, but in 1989 he broke through in a big way. He went 7-4, 2.11 in 13 starts for Charlotte and then 2-2, 2.06 in seven Tulsa starts before Texas summoned him to make a July 24 start in Arlington against Toronto, in place of the injured Hough.

Why not Bohanon, who was two years older and had been even more dominant in Charlotte and Tulsa that season? Or Mark Petkovsek, who at age 23 was certainly a better bet to survive the experience?

Alvarez’s start came five days before Texas would send him, along with Sosa and shortstop Scott Fletcher, to the White Sox for Baines and infielder Fred Manrique. Alvarez was undoubtedly being showcased.

Rangers fans would look back with favor on that July 24 start had it convinced Himes not to make the deal. Alvarez faced five Blue Jays hitters and retired none of them, giving up a single, followed by back-to-back home runs, and then back-to-back walks. Valentine ended the hazing, taking the ball from Alvarez after he’d delivered it 26 times without recording an out. But Chicago was undeterred.

So was Texas, regretfully. On July 28, the club fell to seven games out of first in the division, the furthest out it had been all year. There’s no question that the Rangers’ DH spot was in need of an upgrade, as Buddy Bell’s ineffectiveness and mid-season retirement resulted in a revolving door of undeserving candidates that had actually begun a year earlier when Larry Parrish was released. To go after a hitter of Baines’s stature was not a mistake. To give up Sosa and Alvarez – who immediately became Chicago’s top two prospects – to do so, when the club was so far back in the standings, was unfortunate.

Baines had no impact on the Rangers’ pennant run, hitting .285/.333/.390 with just three home runs and 16 RBI in 50 games (he’d hit .321/.423/.505 with 13 homers and 56 RBI in 96 White Sox games before the trade). Texas finished 83-79, 16 games out of first. Three clubs in the division won more than 90 games.

Baines was slightly better for Texas in 1990, hitting .290/.377/.449 in 321 at-bats, but on August 29, with the Rangers 14.5 games out of first, they shipped him to Oakland for two players to be named later. The disappointment over the production Baines gave the club in 153 games – only 19 doubles, 16 homers, and 60 RBI – paled in comparison to the disappointment over having given up Sosa and Alvarez to get him and then, 13 months later, moving him for a meager return eventually identified as righthanders Scott Chiamparino and Joe Bitker. It was a classic example of buying high and selling low.

Gonzalez was brought up to Texas the day that Baines was traded to the A’s, and he wouldn’t return to the minor leagues until the end of his career. He would almost instantly become the Rangers’ most feared hitter and among the most feared in baseball, hitting .319 and averaging 43 home runs in the club’s three playoff seasons.

Sosa, who went from the White Sox to the Cubs in a 1992 deal for George Bell, hit .291 in those same three years, with an average of 56 homers. Alvarez averaged 10 wins with a 4.36 ERA for a decent Chicago club and two awful Tampa Bay teams in those three seasons.

Had Texas remained true to its plan to build with youth, the 1989 and 1990 seasons probably wouldn’t have turned out any better than they did with Harold Baines in the lineup.

But had the club held onto Sammy Sosa and Wilson Alvarez in 1989 rather than bank on Baines helping them make up a seven-game deficit, it’s entirely possible that the Rangers’ playoff years of 1996, 1998, and 1999 might have had happier results.

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.

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — JULY 25, 2007

I gave Mark Teixeira a standing ovation when he came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning, knowing it might be his last game in Rangers white. The screamer he rifled off of Adrian Beltre’s body probably left a mark, but it was hit with such velocity that Beltre had time to recover and get Teixeira out at first.

I rose to my feet again when, in the top of the eighth, Teixeira leaped and snared Michael Young’s jump throw from the hole and tagged Kenji Johjima out in one motion. It might have been his final highlight play at home as a Rangers defender, fittingly done in tandem with Young, who might be the greatest teammate Teixeira ever has, regardless of where he plays next.

The look on Teixeira’s face as he met Young and Joaquin Benoit and Gerald Laird at the mound after the 27th out was not one of a guy who was thinking about whether it might be his last such moment in Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, but rather the look of a player on a team that had just completed a sweep of a team that couldn’t afford to get swept. The look I’m sure he had after a Little League win or one at Mt. St. Joseph’s or Georgia Tech or Team USA or Charlotte or Tulsa.

It was the same look on Kenny Lofton’s face as he strode in to join the celebration, holding onto the ball that he’d squeezed to end the game, yet another one-run win that wouldn’t have been but for his own two-run home run in the third and run-scoring single in the fifth. He had to know, in the back of his mind, that his days as a Ranger might be numbered as well.

The Rangers next play at home on August 6, and it’s entirely possible – maybe even likely – that a couple key components of this team won’t be back here with them.

It’s a thought I can’t quite get my head wrapped around right now, especially in Teixeira’s case, but as my team packs its bags for Kansas City – or maybe somewhere else, in the case of some of the guys – all I can think about right now is buckling in for what could be a critical six days in terms of the long-term prospects of this organization.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — JULY 25, 2007

Force yourself to drop the Ranger-centric point of view for a minute — imagine how miserable you’d be right now if you were a Mariners fan.

Seattle comes in here, winners of 19 out of 26 (to move from 7.5 games out of the division lead to one game back) before dropping its last two games in Toronto, ready to get back on track with a trip to visit the last-place Rangers, against whom the club had won six of eight this year. The Angels were reeling, having lost five of seven going into its Monday series against Oakland.

Time to fatten up.

Instead, the Mariners have lost three games to the Rangers, each by one run.

On Monday, their first five batters reached against Kevin Millwood, whose first 19 pitches included 12 balls and just seven strikes — three of which turned into singles. Seattle was up, 2-0, with the bases loaded and nobody out.

Yet when Millwood was finally chased in the sixth inning, Seattle had scored only three runs.

Mark Teixeira scored behind Michael Young on a Sammy Sosa double in the third. Or did he? The umpire said he did.

And the game ended on a spectacular Marlon Byrd-to-Teixeira double play. With Ichiro waiting on deck.

Stomach ache for Seattle fans.

Then on Tuesday, a twinbill. A chance not only to erase Monday’s could’ve-been’s but get on top of the series.

An opener against John Rheinecker, who in his last 12 months was an 0-3, 11.39 big league pitcher (five starts, eight relief appearances) with an opponents’ batting average of .412 — but who promptly went seven strong innings to get the daytime win, giving up an unearned run on six hits and a walk, before Joaquin Benoit and Eric Gagné each fired a scoreless, two-strikeout frame to seal the 2-1 win.

And then a nightcap against Kameron Loe, who had struggled with his command the last two times out. With Jarrod Washburn on the hill, having won three of his last four decisions. But despite being arguably gifted two runs in the fifth to take a 3-1 lead, Seattle couldn’t make it stand up, as Washburn failed to execute the shutdown inning and let the Rangers tie it right back up, with the second run coming in on a wild pitch.

Veteran Chris Reitsma enters the tie game in the eighth to face the bottom three in the Rangers’ order. Gerald Laird singles. Ramon Vazquez bunts him over to second. Up steps Travis Metcalf, who is in the big leagues only because Hank Blalock is hurt. Metcalf, who was hitting .184 when this series began.

Metcalf, who has gone 7 for 11 in these three games, with three doubles and a triple.

The final of those three doubles plated Laird with the decisive run, sandwiched between shutdown efforts by C.J. Wilson and Gagné, who combined to punch out four Mariners among their seven recorded outs. It’s the first two-save day in Gagné’s career.

Remember that Rangers series in Tampa last August, the one that followed the huge series in Detroit and effectively ended the club’s 2006 hopes and Buck Showalter’s hold on his job here?

Bet this one feels like that if you’re a Mariners fan.

But you’re not, and so aside from the good feel that this series has provided, your focus is probably on Tuesday’s trade deadline. The rumors are flying now, and since I’ve never been one to sit here and list story links, this would be a pretty masochistic time to start.

Here’s the thumbnail sketch: the Braves, Dodgers, and Angels are reportedly the most aggressive clubs in Teixeira talks, with the Yankees, Red Sox, Giants, and Orioles lurking as well. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports suggests that Atlanta might part with 22-year-old catcher-first baseman Jarrod Saltalamacchia after all, especially since he’d have no position if the Braves, who aren’t about to displace Brian McCann behind the plate, were to acquire Teixeira or another frontline first baseman.

An MLB.com story out of Atlanta suggests that the Braves might even include 18-year-old shortstop Elvis Andrus (who is holding his own in High A) and a pitching prospect, possibly 22-year-old lefthander Jo-Jo Reyes, along with the switch-hitting Saltalamacchia. Wow.

But before you take that story to the bank, consider that the author reported that Teixeira is in the final year of his contract. How do you get something that important that wrong?

Several stories report that the Rangers might be willing to pad a Teixeira deal with a reliever (most likely Joaquin Benoit) in order to get the prospects they want, regardless of which team they’re dealing with.

Since the Angels won’t trade John Lackey or Kelvim Escobar or Jered Weaver, and the Rangers probably wouldn’t trade Teixeira within the division if the pitching piece coming back were Joe Saunders or Ervin Santana, it sounds like the chance of hooking up with the Angels might depend on whether Los Angeles would be willing to include Nick Adenhart (probably with first baseman Casey Kotchman) and whether that would be enough to persuade Jon Daniels to forgo other available deals.

Boston apparently won’t deal Clay Buchholz or Jacoby Ellsbury, and the Yankees are hoarding Philip Hughes and Joba Chamberlain, meaning those two clubs are probably going to fall short of getting Teixeira — unless one of them gets nervous that the other is going to step up.

Marlon Byrd: Triples ma-CHINE.

I watched Ichiro take batting practice on Monday, and what they say is true. I have no doubts that he could be a devastatingly good cleanup hitter, if that’s what he set his mind and his approach to. Just about every one of his swings produced a Jim Thome moonshot or a Julio Franco laser into the seats.

Blalock and Ian Kinsler took B.P. on Monday as well. Kinsler is set to kick off a rehab assignment tomorrow or Friday, likely in Oklahoma.

Righthander Akinori Otsuka probably won’t be activated before Tuesday’s trade deadline.

Righthander Vicente Padilla made a rehab start for Frisco last night, giving up one hit in two scoreless innings, throwing 30 pitches as planned. Second baseman German Duran hit his 18th home run in the game.

Oklahoma righthander Edinson Volquez improved his AAA mark to 2-0, 1.38 after holding Portland to one run on two hits and three walks in six innings last night, fanning eight. In his two RedHawks starts, he’s allowed only three hits in 13 innings.

Oklahoma outfielder-DH Jason Botts should be eligible for activation from the disabled list today.

Baseball America ranked Eric Hurley as the number 68 prospect in baseball before the season. The publication issued an updated list this week, and the RedHawks hurler now sits at number 19.

Bakersfield third baseman Chris Davis went deep for the 23rd time last night, and DH Taylor Teagarden hit his 19th and 20th homers.

Clinton first baseman Mauro Gomez has eight home runs in his last 10 games.

Nineteen-year-old Spokane righthander Jacob Brigham is 4-1, 1.49 in seven starts, scattering 18 hits and 18 walks in 36.1 innings, fanning 29.

I’m still shaken every time I read or hear more about Mike Coolbaugh’s tragic death on Sunday night in Little Rock. The former Rangers farmhand (1996 with High A Charlotte and AA Tulsa) had been the hitting coach and first base coach for Tulsa (now a Rockies affiliate) for only three weeks when he was struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of 28-year-old Drillers backup catcher Tino Sanchez.

It was Coolbaugh’s first coaching job after 17 years as a player. He leaves a wife and two children, plus a third due in October. Coolbaugh’s older brother Scott, who played for the Rangers in 1989 and 1990, is currently Frisco’s hitting coach.

The Drillers have set up a memorial fund to benefit Coolbaugh’s family. If you’re interested in contributing, checks can be made payable to the Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund and sent to:

Mike Coolbaugh Memorial Fund
c/o Spirit Bank
1800 S. Baltimore Avenue
Tulsa, OK 74119

Former Rangers catcher and current USC coach Chad Kreuter has hired Tom House to be his pitching coach. Kreuter and House were with the Rangers when Scott Coolbaugh had his swim through Arlington.

The White Sox optioned righthander Nick Masset to AAA.

Oakland designated righthander Colby Lewis for assignment.

I was at Monday’s Texas-Seattle game, and I’ll be at tonight’s, not only to see if Texas can pull off what would be an impressive sweep of a good team, but also to see what very well could be the last Rangers home game for any number of veteran players.

It’s a bit of a surreal time to be a Rangers fan.

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

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