August 2007

NEWBERG REPORT PLUS — AUGUST 2, 2007: Kason point

Kenny Rogers spent seven years in the minor leagues before arriving in the bigs at age 24. In those seven years on the farm, how many times did the former 39th-round pick land on Baseball America’s list of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects?

None.

I’m not suggesting Kason Gabbard, who was born a couple months before Rogers was drafted, and would be drafted himself 18 years later, 10 rounds earlier, out of a Florida high school 200 miles southeast of the one that produced Rogers, and spent six years in the minor leagues before reaching Boston at age 24, is on his way to winning 200 games or making over $70 million playing this game . . . .

But Gabbard sure looks like a Rogers starter kit. Slightly less velocity as a young Rogers, and not quite as deliberate mechanically, but similar actions in his delivery, similar release point, similar plane on the bigger of his two curves, and, for the most part, pretty good command that helped him induce 12 groundball outs and just one flyout, toeing it up against a team that he’d faced just a week ago, in the same park.

He’s got a pretty good chance to be pretty dependable, if not quite in Kenny Rogers’ neighborhood.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — AUGUST 2, 2007

I swear, I am into this thing right now like it’s Opening Day. That’s two really good victories, against a club that badly needs wins right now.

One of the good baseball people I know commented early in last night’s game: “There’s a vibe going on here. This is going to be kinda fun.”

I’m not exactly sure whether he was talking about the dugout or about Rangers fans, but I think he nailed it either way.

I don’t know if this club — this remodeled club — is going to play .550 ball the rest of the way, but it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Eric Gagné follows through on his remarks from a few weeks ago and decides over the winter that he wants to be right back in Texas.

The big league roster is certainly not as strong today as it was a week ago, after the trades of Kenny Lofton, Mark Teixeira, Ron Mahay, and Gagné, but there seems to be a renewed energy in a roster that now features Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Nelson Cruz, and Jason Botts on an everyday basis, C.J. Wilson and Joaquin Benoit in higher-leverage roles, and in general a lot more smiles.

No, smiles don’t count for much. But they’re indicative of that vibe my buddy was talking about, and vibe counts for something.

Jon Daniels has to be feeling it, too, and not just because of the two wins his team has grabbed in Cleveland, but because of the furious amount of work he got done off the field as the Indians series was about to get underway.

As Tuesday’s trade deadline loomed, word came down that Daniels had exacted an extra prospect out of the Braves to complete the Teixeira trade, and that he’d struck a deal with Boston, sending Gagné to the Red Sox for lefthander Kason Gabbard and outfielders David Murphy and Engel Beltre. There’s a natural rush when a baseball fan learns his team has made a trade, especially on July 31, but when word first broke that Texas and Boston were nearing a deal, I was a bit underwhelmed, for two reasons.

First, because I had it in my mind that Gabbard was probably something like 28 years old.

And second, because the early speculation didn’t include Beltre.

My hope on Tuesday was that the Yankees would get nervous enough about their bullpen situation, not to mention the chance that Boston could get Gagné, to agree to part with righthander Ian Kennedy or outfielder Melky Cabrera. Or that the Mets would part with a young outfielder (Carlos Gomez being the most likely of their three very good ones) for the Rangers closer.

But in hindsight, maybe Boston was the perfect place to trade Gagné — mainly because he won’t close games there and for that reason the Sox are unlikely to be able to resign him. I want him back in Texas.

I was stunned when I checked up on Gabbard and realized he was just 24 when the season began. And what do you make of a pitcher who posted a 5.65 ERA in his pro debut in the Gulf Coast League, a 10.29 ERA in his first run at High A hitters, a 6.28 ERA in his first swim through AA, and a 5.23 ERA in his first stint in AAA — but is 5-3, 3.64 in 11 big league starts and three relief appearances? A pitcher who, this season, is 4-0, 3.77 in seven big league starts, scattering just 28 hits (.196/.303/.308) in 41 innings?

Heck if I know.

Here are the things I do know: as a 7-2, 3.24 pitcher for AAA Pawtucket this year, Gabbard had a phenomenal rate of 2.61 groundouts for every flyout. In his seven Red Sox starts, it was a sturdy 1.83. In 2006, he posted rates of 2.52 in AA and 3.16 in AAA.

In 2007, among those with enough innings to qualify, there are only 11 starting pitchers with rates over 2.00. There were 10 such pitchers in 2006, only seven in 2005.

You think it’s coincidental that Boston doesn’t roll too many left-handed starters out, given what a lineup stacked with right-handed hitters might do to the Monster? It’s not, and it makes Gabbard’s success in Fenway Park (5-0, 1.60 in four starts, 18 hits [.162 opponents' average] and nine walks in 33.2 innings, 27 strikeouts) even more remarkable.

And we all know that groundball pitchers, especially those who throw from the left side, fit the ideal profile for a Texas Rangers starter. As long as the infield catches the ball behind him, he has a chance to help. Gabbard has an above-average curveball and an idea how to use all his pitches.

Consider this: Kyle Lohse (6-12, 4.58, $4.2 million) and Matt Morris (7-7, 4.35, $10.04 million) were the two starters of consequence who were traded this week. Gabbard (4-0, 3.73, $380,000) doesn’t have the skins on the wall that Lohse and Morris have, but he’s pitching better, for millions less, and will be under team control for six more years.

Gabbard and Saltalamacchia were teammates at Royal Palm High School in West Palm Beach, Florida. Saltalamacchia was a freshman when Gabbard was a senior, a year (2000) when Gabbard needed elbow surgery, the first of four he’s had (including one that essentially wiped out his 2003 Class A season). Boston drafted him in the 29th round in June 2000, followed him as he pitched the following spring for Indian River Community College, and signed him before the June 2001 draft.

Gabbard’s Rangers career gets underway in a few hours, when he takes the ball in Jamey Wright’s place and attempts to lead Texas to a sweep of the Indians, who have fallen to one game behind Detroit in the AL Central and hold a dwindling half-game lead on Seattle for the Wild Card berth. Will Saltalamacchia get his first start behind the plate this morning, reuniting the old Wildcat teammates?

Baseball America’s Jim Callis suggested that Texas turned down a chance to get heralded 20-year-old Class AA righthander Michael Bowden from the Sox, opting instead for Gabbard.

Is Gabbard a lock to pitch in the Rangers rotation in 2008? Of course not. But if his audition here is marked by a reasonable level of consistency, the Rangers can go into next season with a southpaw in the rotation who might be good for 170 innings at a pre-arbitration salary. What would those 170 left-handed innings cost you on the free agent market?

The other two players Texas got from Boston are center fielders, one who stands to bounce between AAA and Texas for the next year and a half, the other who may never reach AAA but who has perhaps the highest upside of any outfielder in the Rangers system.

Twenty-five-year-old David Murphy, a Houston native who was Boston’s first-round pick out of Baylor in 2003, is a good defender whose bat has never met the expectations scouts had for him coming out of college. He projects as a fourth outfielder, but so were Gary Matthews Jr. and Marlon Byrd when they came to the Rangers, so you can’t rule anything out.

In five pro seasons, the left-handed hitter has a minor league line of .273/.343/.407. He’s made cameo appearances in Boston in 2006 and 2007, hitting .250 with a double, triple, and home run among his six hits. He reports to Oklahoma.

There was a note in December that Boston and Texas briefly discussed an off-season deal that would have sent righthander Kameron Loe to the Red Sox for Murphy.

Beltre is a fascinating acquisition, one that has A.J. Preller’s fingerprints all over it. A year ago, Boston signed the then-16-year-old Dominican for a hefty $600,000 bonus. The evoked comparisons to Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and Darryl Strawberry were irresponsible but at the same time instructive of the type of tools Beltre possesses. The left-handed hitter has limitless power potential to go along with plus speed and arm strength, and he’s said to have unusually good plate discipline for a young Latin American player.

ESPN Deportes ranked Beltre as the number two signable international prospect last year.

Though he signed so late last summer that he didn’t debut until 2007, Beltre was nonetheless pegged by Baseball America before the season as Boston’s number 20 prospect (Gabbard didn’t even make the list of 30). He was hitting an unimpressive .215/.314/.413 in the Gulf Coast League before Tuesday’s trade, but had five home runs and six steals in 33 games. He will remain at the rookie level for Texas, reporting to the Arizona League.

When Texas traded Ruben Mateo to Cincinnati for Rob Bell in 2001, the Reds insisted on 18-year-old Puerto Rican infielder Edwin Encarnacion as a sweetener. Same idea here.

Several stories since the trade suggest that if Beltre were subject to the draft, he’d be a sure first-rounder, possibly even a top 10 pick (similar to righthander Neftali Feliz from the Teixeira trade). If the Rangers kept Gagné and lost him to free agency over the winter, they would be compensated with two picks, neither of which can be any higher than number 16 and realistically would have ended up around number 25 and number 40. And the 2008 draft is expected to be weaker at the top than the 2007 crop.

The flip side is that Texas, if it signs Gagné away from Boston in the off-season, will forfeit only its second-round pick (unless the club plays well enough the rest of the way to finish with one of the league’s 15 best records). The idea of renting Gagné for two months — which will also allow the Rangers to further test Benoit, Wilson, and Frankie Francisco in the meantime — and getting Gabbard, Murphy, and Beltre back while losing only a second-round pick is tantalizing.

Doug Melvin told Milwaukee reporters that if Gagné had not approved the deal to Boston, the Brewers (to whom Gagné could not have prevented a trade) would have acquired him for outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr., AAA lefthander Zach Jackson, and another minor league prospect.

Unless the third player was significant, that package wouldn’t have been as strong as what Texas got from Boston, and what Texas got from Boston wasn’t as strong as what the club got from Atlanta for Teixeira. The Braves return was strengthened further Tuesday afternoon when, because of the shoulder issues that lefthander Matt Harrison is now experiencing, Daniels insisted on a fifth player and got him: 20-year-old lefthander Beau Jones.

Jones, whom Atlanta used the 41st overall pick on in 2005, went 5-0, 2.96 with three saves out of the Low A Rome bullpen this year, giving up 38 hits and 12 walks in 48.2 innings while fanning 46. Five appearances for High A Myrtle Beach didn’t go so well (13 earned runs on 10 hits and 14 walks in 7.2 innings, three strikeouts). He works in the low-to-mid-90s and mixes in a power curve and a developing change. He’ll report to Clinton, where he’ll presumably work in relief.

Teixeira drew a bases-loaded walk in his first Braves plate appearance and hit a three-run homer later in the game, a 12-3 win over Houston in which Mahay pitched a scoreless eighth. Atlanta released Julio Franco upon Teixeira’s arrival. Gagné warmed up in Boston’s 5-4 win over Baltimore but didn’t appear. We know what Lofton did in his second of two hitless at-bats last night, getting manhandled by Wilson to end the game.

In the last week Daniels has acquired a number of high-ceiling position players who occupy the middle of the field (Saltalamacchia once he returns to catcher, Elvis Andrus, Max Ramirez, Beltre) and a couple power arms (Feliz and Jones). Negotiations continue with center fielder Julio Borbon and a number of high school pitchers from the draft. The Rangers are still active in Latin America. All of this promises a greater ability to make future impact trades.

Case in point, as Daniels pointed out on Tuesday: Cleveland acquired Ramirez last summer for Bob Wickman when the Indians were sellers, which enabled them this summer, when they were once again buyers, to flip Ramirez and go get Lofton.

Speaking of Cleveland, the club designated righthander Fernando Cabrera for assignment yesterday. I might take a chance on that guy.

In the past two days, Texas designated Desi Relaford for assignment, optioned Travis Metcalf and Scott Feldman to Oklahoma, and recalled A.J. Murray and Wes Littleton (in addition to Botts).

Conflicting reports suggest the Rangers may or may not have given Sammy Sosa the chance to take his release yesterday and seek out his own opportunity elsewhere. If it happened, he declined, opting to accept a reduced role as Botts gets a heavy dose of at-bats. I’ll talk more about Botts’s return next time.

Texas should be able to get Sosa through revocable August waivers, clearing the way for a possible trade to a contender this month. Of course, if he doesn’t clear waivers, the Rangers will have the right not to revoke and simply convey him to the claiming team.

Is part of the reason that the Rangers don’t want to release Sosa a fear that it will have a negative impact on the organization’s credibility among Latin American kids?

Independent league signings: lefthander Mario Ramos (Fort Worth Cats, American Association) and Mateo (Newark Bears, Atlantic League).

Tom Hicks told the press that he offered Teixeira and his agent Scott Boras $140 million over eight years to remain a Ranger, and that Teixeira and Boras rejected the offer (which was made a couple weeks ago) without a counter. It’s not surprising, as Teixeira is likely to test the market after the 2008 season, but it hammers home the point that Texas needed to trade Teixeira, particularly now that we know that his trade value dramatically exceeded the allure of two compensatory draft picks. He was not going to stay in Texas.

The analysis wasn’t as clear in the case of Gagné, whose value in trade wasn’t near Teixeira’s level and who has said he would in fact like his next contract to be with the Rangers.

I’m feeling good about this new-look club the Rangers are rolling out right now. Hope Gagné continues to keep tabs on what’s happening here and feels good enough about what’s being built in Texas that he wants to be a part of it in 2008, and beyond.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — AUGUST 1, 2007

Imagine it’s the dead of summer and you’ve just caught all 17 innings of an intense, adrenaline-packed, draining ballgame, a war in which momentum shifted back and forth a thousand times. Runners left on base by both teams in seemingly every extra frame, sometimes in scoring position, until finally your team walked off with a dramatic win, obscuring all the second-guesses that had built up while the outcome hung in the balance. As the euphoria of the win wore off, you started to feel the physical toll that the game took on you.

And then you had depositions the next morning.

Wait.

Oh, never mind.

I’m invoking the Newberg Report equivalent of a day-game-after-a-night-game, and writing myself out of the lineup this morning. I’ve got plenty to say about the Eric Gagné trade, but I’m going to wait a day to do it.

Now watch Sammy Sosa decide after a particularly satisfying lunch that he’s going to pack his bags and stroll off into the sunset, personally jetting out to Fresno to pick up Jason Botts and deliver him to the visitors’ clubhouse in Cleveland. That will be my punishment (gladly accepted) for postponing my Gagné report by a day.

I really do have depositions.

Catch you tomorrow.

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

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