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.
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.