December 2007

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 31, 2007

A reader emailed me recently asking what I thought the correlation was between the strength of a franchise’s farm system and the eventual success of its big league club, given the recent revitalization of the Rangers’ prospect depth.

I suggested there’s more to the equation. Strength on the farm has to be accompanied by shrewd trading. It’s rare that a franchise wins based solely on a wave of prospects arriving. It’s important to be able to use some of your prospect depth to make smart trades for established players.

Hopefully the Cincinnati trade works out, and is the first of several like it over the next few years. I look forward to the time when Texas is in a position, based on the big league standings, to be on the other side of the Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagné, and Kenny Lofton trades of five months ago. The organization, for the first time in years, should be able to compete in those trade markets based on where the farm system now stands.

In the meantime, I look forward to writing about Chris Davis and Elvis Andrus and Engel Beltre and Nick Ramirez in 2008. About Johnny Whittleman and Kasey Kiker and Taylor Teagarden and Neftali Feliz. About another few dozen players on the Rangers farm who are on a path, if things continue to break right, to figure in as Texas gets better. Some will make it to Arlington one day, others will be traded before they ever get that chance. Those in the latter category have as much of a chance to help the Rangers get better as those who will play here. Maybe more.

Although developing attachments to some of these kids may make it seem like the Rangers are giving up on them when they give them up, that’s not the point of a trade. The point is to get better, to improve your chance to contend, to compete for the chance to play in October. The best trades are the ones that set your team up not only to win, but to sustain some of that success over several years. Boston will never regret trading Hanley Ramirez. And nobody will ever accuse the Red Sox of giving up on him.

I think the story I’m most pumped about writing in 2008 is Josh Hamilton’s. If this works out like it might, then Edinson Volquez and Danny Ray Herrera will forever be two of my favorite players to ever come through this organization, in a Ryan Dempster, Fernando Tatis, Kevin “The Catcher” Brown sort of way.

Happy New Year to you and your families. And thanks for helping make 2007 a cool year for the Newberg Report.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 28, 2007

As T.R. Sullivan pointed out in his Friday blog for MLB, righthander Omar Beltre is leading the Dominican Winter League in ERA, with a sparkling 2.03 in 44.1 innings of work. The 26-year-old has a 4-3 mark in eight starts and two relief appearances, scattering 29 hits (.187/.254/.200), among which are only two doubles, no triples, and no homers, with 13 walks and 24 strikeouts. Interestingly, he’s faced twice as many left-handed hitters (.180/.254/.190) as righties (.200/.254/.218), but none of them have had a chance. As usual, he’s dealing.

I haven’t seen anything to suggest, however, that we should be optimistic that Beltre’s quarantine will be lifted and that he (or fellow righthander Alexi Ogando, who went 6-1, 0.96 in the Dominican Summer League this year, with 35 punchouts and five unintentional walks in 28 frames) will be able to come stateside in 2008, though Sullivan reports that the Rangers continue to have lawyers working on the situation.

By the way, Padres outfielder Vincent Sinisi is second in the DWL in hitting (.306), first in reaching base (.405) and slugging (.488), first in extra-base hits (16), third in home runs (six), and second in RBI (28). He’s also second in doubles (nine), trailing the man the Rangers traded him (and righthander John Hudgins) for in May 2006, Fast Freddy Guzman. Guzman is also second in the league in stolen bases (13), trailing only former Ranger utility infielder Esteban German (16).

Outfielders Jason Botts and Nelson Cruz, each out of options, are each making a case to survive further trimming of the 40-man roster. Botts is hitting .335/.425/.513 in the Mexican Pacific League (with a league-leading 53 RBI in 61 games), while Cruz is at .314/.383/.476 in the DWL.

Another note from Sullivan: the .922 OPS and .554 slug that Josh Hamilton posted for Cincinnati last year were each the 16th-highest number in the last 50 years for a big league rookie with at least 250 at-bats.

Baseball Prospectus’s Christina Kahrl looked under the surface at Hamilton’s 2007 numbers and discovered a couple interesting things. The left-handed hitter pulled a remarkably small 15.4 percent of the fly balls he put into play, and he also ranked fourth in the National League in “OPS versus sliders.”

Texas, now presumably even more interested in bringing a veteran starter to camp on a make-good deal now that Edinson Volquez has been removed from the mix, reportedly continues to consider righthanders Bartolo Colon and Jason Jennings, both of whom are coming off of unproductive, injury-marred seasons. The Rangers also kicked the tires on righthanders Mark Prior (who has signed a one-year deal with San Diego) and Freddy Garcia but were sufficiently turned off by their medicals.

Other free agents that the Rangers are rumored to have looked at are lefthanders Mike Maroth and Mark Hendrickson and righthander Josh Towers.

Colorado signed lefthander John Koronka and infielder Matt Kata to minor league contracts.

Former Rangers minor leaguer Craig Frydendall has been hired as a pitching coach by Neosho County Community College in Kansas. A draft-and-follow signee in 2002, the lefthander pitched for Pulaski in 2002, Spokane in 2003, and Clinton in 2004 before spending the last two seasons in the independent Golden Baseball League.

Omar Beltre’s last three minor league stops were Pulaski, Clinton, and Stockton, from 2001 through 2004. The Dominican Summer League, where Beltre has pitched in the three years since, may be more fertile ground for future big leaguers than the Golden Baseball League, but sadly the odds of Beltre ever emerging from his homeland and competing at the level that he’s capable of seem to grow longer and longer.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 24, 2007

‘Tis the season for prospect rankings, and there are two things about the Rangers lists that are getting unwrapped that ought to fire you up if this is your team.

One, the depth is unprecedented as far as this franchise is concerned.

Two, as for who the well-respected publications and bloggers are touting as the Rangers’ number one prospect, check this out:

John Sickels (Minor League Ball): Taylor Teagarden
Kevin Goldstein (Baseball Prospectus): Neftali Feliz
Scott Lucas (Ranger Rundown/Newberg Report): Eric Hurley
Mike Hindman (Rangers Farm Report): Engel Beltre
Jason Cole (Lone Star Dugout): Eric Hurley

I’ve got Chris Davis at the top myself.

Baseball America won’t disclose its Rangers rankings for another couple weeks. I doubt Elvis Andrus will emerge as BA’s number one, because Jim Callis admits his skeptical take on the shortstop creates more internal debate at BA than on any other prospect in baseball — but Andrus is nonetheless the type of prospect who could conceivably top a respectable ranking of this franchise’s minor league talent.

Maybe Adam Morris at Lone Star Ball, who hasn’t weighed in yet, will make Andrus his number one.

You won’t see any Rangers prospects showing up in a list of the top 10 prospects in baseball this winter, but there’s a reason that a number of national experts are putting the organization in baseball’s top five as far as overall prospecty goodness is concerned. The depth is exciting.

On top of that, the idea that people who spend lots of time studying these things disagree so noticeably as to who this strong system’s top talent is, in my opinion, stinkin’ cool.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 23, 2007

Jim Reeves, in his Sunday column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, notes that the Rangers have brought Johnny Narron (brother of former Rangers and Reds manager Jerry Narron) aboard in a number of capacities, the most important of which will be to continue to serve as confidant and mentor to center fielder Josh Hamilton.

Narron, who coached Hamilton as a youth in North Carolina, served in that role last year for the Reds, in addition to running the club’s video system. According to Reeves, he’ll do the same for Texas and will also assist the organization as an in-game scout and help hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo. Notably, Narron also provided support for Cincinnati hitting coach Brook Jacoby, who had been with the Rangers for four years before getting the Reds job and had filled in for Jaramillo as big league hitting coach when Jaramillo was sidelined due to cancer treatments.

Narron was also a manager and hitting coach in the Brewers system, but his experience as a friend to Hamilton is why he’s here.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 22, 2007: Volquez and Herrera for Hamilton

From the December 14 Newberg Report:

"There’s obviously a need on this club for another high-ceiling young outfielder.  Texas has to be as light in impact outfielders between the 40-man roster and the upper levels of the farm system as any organization in baseball.  The club can’t afford to go into every foreseeable winter (until Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre and maybe John Mayberry Jr. arrive — which assumes that everything goes right with their own development) trying to add an outfielder or two.  It’s too expensive and it hamstrings the effort to effectively build other parts of the roster."

As far as the Rangers’ outfield crew is concerned, the organization just acquired its ace.   

In exchange for a pitcher many hoped had reasserted himself in 2007 toward becoming the future ace of the Texas rotation.

Wow.

One of the fascinating things about Edinson Volquez (plus Danny Ray Herrera) for Josh Hamilton is that, just one year ago, you can argue that neither Volquez nor Hamilton had any trade value at all.  Today, it’s stunning that either team would trade its player.  For anyone.

Like the McCarthy-Danks-Masset trade, which was made a year ago tomorrow, this is one that’s sure to draw skepticism from fans of both teams at the outset.  Count on a lot of "Why would we do that?" calls into the talk shows.  For me, that question bears a lot more scrutiny if I were a Reds fan.  I understand the imminence of Jay Bruce’s big league career, but there were ways to find room for both Hamilton and Bruce in that lineup.

The 24-year-old Volquez, in his six seasons in the Rangers system, saw his identity change from Julio Reyes to Edison Volquez to Edinson Volquez.  But Hamilton, age 26, has undergone a far more striking series of transformations in his career.

The top pick in the 1999 draft out of a North Carolina high school, Hamilton — who was considered every bit the lock that Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. were considered coming out of high school — hit .347/.378/.593 in the Appalachian League that summer and followed it with a .302/.348/.476 campaign that earned him co-MVP recognition in the South Atlantic League in 2000.  The 6’4", 200-pound specimen went into the 2001 season as baseball’s top prospect, featuring five plus tools (including a throwing arm that had fired 95-mph fastballs off his high school mound), production to match, and game instincts that were ahead of his years.  The only debate was how long it would take Hamilton to get to Tampa Bay.

But that’s when the decline began.   

One of those declines that finds the word "demons" invoked a bunch.

The first dose of adversity actually came on July 31, 2000, when Hamilton tore cartilage in his right knee chasing a fly ball, causing him to miss the final month of that season and succumb to arthroscopic surgery.  He’d apparently recovered in time for spring training 2001 but was in a pickup truck with his parents on the final day of February when it was struck by a dump truck that ran a red light, injuring Hamilton’s back.  Recurring back problems and a torn quadriceps limited him to an unproductive 100 regular season at-bats (.200/.250/.290) in 2001. 

Limited to DH duties in 2002, Hamilton hit a sturdy .303/.359/.507 for High A Bakersfield, driving in 44 runs in 56 games (with one of his nine home runs traveling a reported 549 feet), but he tore his rotator cuff in July and missed the rest of the year.  Whether he hurt his shoulder on a now-legendary throw he made from the Bakersfield warning track, nailing a runner at the plate, is unknown.   

Back in camp in 2003 and having been added to the 40-man roster over the winter, Hamilton was apparently ready physically to get back on a fast track to the big leagues.  But days into spring training, after showing up late for a couple workouts early in camp, Hamilton was sent home by manager Lou Piniella and, shortly thereafter, he began to no-show workouts altogether.  On March 23, he left the team for undisclosed off-the-field reasons.

Early in May, Hamilton resurfaced to work out with the Devil Rays’ AA Orlando club, insisting that he didn’t have a drug problem and had been away simply to take care of some personal issues.  Nine days later, however, he disappeared again, and Tampa Bay announced that he would take personal leave for the remainder of the year.  He did show up briefly to work out with AAA Durham in August, but never did get on the field in 2003.   

In February 2004, MLB suspended Hamilton, initially for 30 days, and fined him for multiple violations of its drug policy.  At least two more failed drug tests within that 30-day period (according to the St. Petersburg Times) led MLB to extend Hamilton’s suspension to a full year.  He would miss his second straight season in 2004.

And his third straight in 2005, due to additional violations.

In November 2005, Tampa Bay designated Hamilton for assignment, and the troubled outfielder with the can’t-miss tools slid through waivers, unclaimed by 29 organizations that weren’t willing to devote so much as a 40-man roster spot to him.   

And that’s because of what began to surface as facts underlying the "personal issues" that Hamilton had been dealing with.

The teenager reportedly spent a lot of his down time during his injury-marred 2001 season at a Florida tattoo parlor, where he not only got 26 tattoos over the year but was also introduced to recreational drugs, according to an interview he gave ESPN in 2004.   

Hamilton began to abuse crack cocaine and prescription anti-anxiety medications.  There was alcohol, too.  A reported eight stints in drug rehab and three suicide attempts would follow over the next few years.  The question as to whether Hamilton would ever get his career back on track gave way to much bigger questions.   

But he’s been clean, he says, since October 2005.

In June 2006, eight months into Hamilton’s sobriety, MLB lifted his suspension.  Tampa Bay kept him in extended spring training for about a month and then assigned the 25-year-old to the New York-Penn League in July.  He was playing against players four years younger, but then again Hamilton hadn’t played in a game since his rotator cuff tear four years earlier, while everyone else had been competing.  It’s a strong indication of the ridiculous natural talent that he has that he was able to compete at all, after going through such an extended layoff, not to mention overcoming what he had to overcome in those four years.

After the June 2006 activation Hamilton appeared in 15 games with the Hudson Valley Renegades, the first of which was on Independence Day.  He flew out in the first inning, batting third as the club’s DH, and hit an opposite-field double in his next at-bat, scoring on a single.  He would finish at .260/.327/.360 in his 50-at-bat run, but more important than the production was that he showed up every day, flashing the sick ability that had somehow survived Hamilton’s self-destructive behavior.  That is, until another knee injury — this time the left — that ended his season late in July and led to August surgery.

Why the Devil Rays didn’t put Hamilton back on the 40-man roster last winter is a question they’re probably tired of answering.  Surely it was largely a function of an organization that was exhausted, tired of being disappointed so many times by a singular talent that was supposed to lead its club to prominence and keep it there.  Tampa Bay had Hamilton back in uniform and back on the field, an achievement to be sure, but putting him back on the roster was not something the club was prepared to do.  He’d slid through waivers a year earlier.  The Devil Rays probably figured his 50 at-bats in short-season ball weren’t enough to change other clubs’ minds 12 months later.

But the Reds’ manager in 2006 was Jerry Narron, and the club’s video coordinator was his brother Johnny Narron.  Jerry knew Hamilton well, through Johnny, who had coached Hamilton as a teenager in North Carolina.  They convinced Reds GM Wayne Krivsky to take a low-risk, Rule 5 shot on Hamilton last December, and Krivsky not only bought into the idea but made sure no other team would thwart the plan.  The Reds sat at number 15 in the draft but paid the Cubs to take him for them with the third overall pick.

Hamilton led Cincinnati in spring training at-bats, and what he did with them was stunning.  After a four-year absence from the game, he not only proved that his knee was sound and that his skills and his timing hadn’t atrophied, but he also showed that the player that Tampa Bay gave $4 million to as a high school grad in 1999 could still produce.  Hamilton hit .403/.457/.556 and made the Reds squad.

One of the decisions Cincinnati made was that Hamilton wouldn’t be handed meal money before road trips like his teammates.  Johnny Narron would be in charge of it, parceling the cash out as needed.

Hamilton made his big league debut on Opening Day 2007, pinch-hitting for reliever Kirk Saarloos in the bottom of the eighth inning of a game Cincinnati led, 5-1, against the Cubs.  As Hamilton was announced, Chicago manager Lou Piniella — a key character in the Hamilton backstory, of course — lifted right-handed reliever Michael Wuertz and inserted lefthander Will Ohman.  A 22-second standing ovation erupted as Hamilton stepped up.  ("The crowd stood and cheered me for what seemed like forever.  It was the best sound I’ve ever heard.")   

The first pitch Hamilton saw was low and outside.  The second one he lined to left, where Matt Murton made a sliding catch to rob him of a hit.

Hamilton’s first start came on April 10, and in it he would get that first big league hit, a two-run home run off Arizona righthander Edgar Gonzalez.

That began a season of highlights for Hamilton, who was the Reds’ primary center fielder but also saw action on both corners.  He hit .292/.368/.554 (including .314/.391/.637 against righthanders) with 19 home runs and 47 RBI in just 298 at-bats, a total that was limited due to several physical issues.  Gastroenteritis cost him two weeks in May and June.  A right wrist sprain sidelined him for five weeks in July and August.  He missed time at the end of the season with a sore hamstring.   

Hamilton’s versatility offensively was underscored by the fact that he appeared in every spot in the Reds lineup, hitting leadoff more than anywhere else.  He reached base at .411 or higher in three different months.  He slugged at least .609 in three different months.  His ratio of a home run for every 15.7 at-bats in 2007 was 10th-best in baseball among players with at least his number of at-bats.  His left-handed swing could be a perfect fit for the jet stream and the porch in Arlington.   

It’s not often that a player is a candidate for both Rookie of the Year and Comeback Player of the Year in his sport, but Hamilton was unquestionably both in 2007.   

Hamilton wrote an article for ESPN about his incredible off-the-field story.  You should read it.   

Although Texas now has four guys capable of playing center field on the big league roster (Hamilton, Milton Bradley, Marlon Byrd, and David Murphy), Hamilton goes into camp as the starter there, without question.  But his game should certainly play on a corner in a couple years if Julio Borbon or Engel Beltre push their way into the picture.

And I love the idea, as I’ve dreamed repeatedly in this space for years, of having three center fielders patrolling the Rangers Ballpark outfield together.  Add the fact that the starting outfield could boast three plus arms — Hamilton is possibly a top 10 thrower in the game — and all of a sudden Texas has a chance to change the way opposing runners behave.  That’s a really good thing.

Having that sort of depth and versatility in the outfield — while it’s still far from the best outfield in the league — is a positive considering that Hamilton and Bradley in particular are health risks.  Nobody will need to play 160 times.

Concerned that Hamilton couldn’t stay healthy in 2007?  Valid to question that.  Focus on the fact that he played in only 15 professional baseball games from 2003 through 2006, and was then asked to ramp up to 128 in 2007 (counting spring training and a brief minor league rehab stint).  But of course, that cuts both ways.  The hope is that he’ll have more stamina in 2008.

It would also help if he were to pull that .222/.296/.292 against lefthanders up.  That alone should mean more games played.  (For what it’s worth, he hit Class A lefties better than righties in 2001 and 2002.)

Concerned about Hamilton’s age?  Sure, you’d rather have him at age 22 than 26, but consider this: Travis Hafner got his first extended big league look (291 at-bats) in 2003, when at age 26 he hit .254/.327/.485 with 14 home runs and 40 RBI for Cleveland.  Hamilton went .292/.368/.554 with 19 homers and 47 RBI in his 298-at-bat season last year, at age 26.  Hafner became a star the next season, when at age 27 he hit .311/.410/.583 with 28 home runs and 109 RBI in 482 at-bats.  Can Hamilton make the same leap in 2008?  Bill James thinks so.   

If you’re a James believer, get this: He projects Hamilton to hit .305/.382/.598 in 410 at-bats in 2008, with 31 home runs and 71 RBI (which I suppose was based on him leading off for a National League team, a role that has to depress RBI projections a bit).   

And this: James projects only seven players to have a higher OPS than Hamilton in 2008 — Barry Bonds, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez, and Miguel Cabrera.  Among those whom James projects Hamilton to out-OPS: Prince Fielder, Matt Holliday, Vladimir Guerrero, Manny Ramirez, Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira, Adam Dunn, Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson, Grady Sizemore.

And Hafner.

By now you might be asking yourself the same question that dogs me about this trade: Why is Cincinnati doing this?

We all know the promise that Volquez has.  But the bottom line, from a Reds standpoint, is they’re trading a potential star who makes the league minimum and is under club control for five more years in exchange for a pitcher who is 3-11, 7.20 in the big leagues.  Does that make sense?

Now, if Cincinnati were retrenching and looking at the trade as a 26-yr-old for a 24-yr-old as the club builds for a couple years down the road, that’s one thing.  But the Reds’ activity this winter (hiring Dusty Baker, giving huge money to Francisco Cordero, sniffing around on Erik Bedard) sure seems to suggest that they want to win now.  So why would they trade such a valuable, integral piece like Hamilton unless (1) they fear he won’t repeat 2007 or (worse) that he’ll fail to keep his past demons buried or (2) they think Volquez is about to win 17 games?

And why wasn’t there another team offering them more than Volquez and Herrera?

A similar question was surely asked by fans and media when Florida traded Josh Beckett (drafted immediately after Hamilton in 1999, incidentally) to Boston in 2005 for a package keyed by shortstop Hanley Ramirez, a top prospect coming off a relatively disappointing second tour through AA (.271/.335/.385).  Ramirez was the player the Marlins wanted, and when he was made available, a deal got done.  They knew what they were doing.

Maybe Volquez is that player for the Reds, the guy they’ve keyed on through this process of seeing what they can get for Hamilton.

After the breakthrough 2005 season that took Volquez from Class A to Texas, a disappointing big league showing in 2006 led the Rangers to send him back to make the same progression that he’d made two years earlier.  Statistically, 2007 didn’t start very well, but the 0-4, 7.13 mark Volquez posted in Bakersfield was far less important than the commitment the righthander made to the organization’s effort to rebuild him.  After a promotion he went 8-1, 3.55 for Frisco and then 6-1, 1.41 for Oklahoma (his one loss and one no-decision were both 1-0 RedHawk losses).   

Despite the poor start with the Blaze, Volquez held minor league hitters to a .190 average for the year, second lowest among minor league starters to the Yankees’ Ian Kennedy.  Volquez was back in Texas in September, going 2-1, 4.50 in six starts, showing far greater command than he had in his first two Texas stints and reviving a lot of the promise that he seemed to squander in 2006.

Volquez didn’t hit rock bottom in the way that Hamilton did, but strictly in a baseball sense, it was a pretty big deal.  His comeback in 2007 was far less heralded than Hamilton’s, and surely less unlikely, but there’s no question that what he was able accomplish on the mound last season, confronted with a challenge that many players would have considered demeaning, was extremely impressive.   

Impressive enough that Cincinnati decided that adding Volquez was worth giving Josh Hamilton up.

I wrote yesterday that I figured the Reds would insist on a second player like Taylor Teagarden to make this deal.  I underestimated how much they valued Volquez.  According to Tom Hicks: "When I blessed the trade, the other owner didn’t want to do the deal . . . we had to sweeten it up because [Hamilton] was their most popular player."  Which suggests there was a moment, perhaps, when Cincinnati was open to a one-for-one deal.

The sweetener was Herrera, a fan favorite himself because he’s smaller than most of us and has only slightly more velocity, yet gets hitters out and consistently makes them look silly doing so with a dizzying array of changeups.  A year and a half after drafting the 5’7" lefthander out of the University of New Mexico in the 45th round, Texas was able to close a major trade by including him.  That’s an outstanding draft success, spearheaded by area scout Rick Schroeder’s vocal recommendation.  In his two pro seasons, Herrera’s record is 11-5, 2.65 with three saves, and an impressive ratio of 142 strikeouts to 37 walks in 122.1 innings, with just four home runs surrendered and nearly two groundouts for every flyout.

The 23-year-old, a product of Odessa Permian High School, will pitch in the big leagues, and will probably have a couple very good years.  Think Erasmo Ramirez.

My thoughts when first digesting this trade wandered to Mark Connor, Scott Servais, Rick Adair, Mike Anderson, Terry Clark, and Andy Hawkins, wondering whether their own initial instinct was disappointment that Volquez, their prize 2007 pupil, had been shipped away to wear someone else’s uniform, or instead if they’re feeling good about the unconventional plan they engineered for Volquez and his growth through that process to the point that Texas has now acquired a young everyday centerpiece for him, something they absolutely could not have gotten done nine months ago.

It’s a scary deal.  Is there something we don’t know about Hamilton?  (Said Jon Daniels at yesterday’s press conference: "We’ve done as much homework on this guy as we’ve ever had on anybody."  That reportedly included conversations with Jerry Narron to get his assessment of Hamilton.)  Do the Reds think his past makes him susceptible to further injury, even if there’s no concern about him staying sober?  (The Rangers insisted on an extensive physical, which Hamilton passed yesterday, before they would agree to the deal.)  Could Volquez go win 16 a year for Cincinnati, just as former Rangers farmhand Aaron Harang is doing?  Surely the Reds don’t have a better bead on what Volquez is and will be than the Rangers do.

Despite having upside to be much more, Volquez was penciled in as the Rangers’ number four or number five starter going into camp.  He’ll be the same in Cincinnati.  Will Reds pitching coach **** Pole (in spite of the track record Baker has with the long-term fortunes of young pitchers) be able to take the next step with Volquez and turn him into Fausto Carmona?  Or is he instead the next Ramon Ortiz?  (Surely his worst-case scenario is closer to Ortiz than to Robinson Tejeda.)

Or is Volquez a possibility to be spun to Baltimore in a package for Bedard?  If that happens, good.  I’d love to see Bedard out of the American League, and particularly not in Seattle.

As for Hamilton, he arrives in Texas not only as the club’s starting center fielder, but not inconceivably this team’s best player.  The annual assumption that the Rangers are pitching-thin and heavy in bats simply isn’t true right now.  Texas lacks offense, and as stated at the outset of this report, the weakest of the weak spots is in the outfield, where there wasn’t a sure thing on the big league roster and no player on the farm threatening to compete for a starting spot anytime soon.

Hamilton is no sure thing, either, given his track record through 2006, a season that ended with the Devil Rays essentially inviting the rest of the league to take him off their hands.

But I’d rather have him than any center fielder who was on the market this winter.  Give me Hamilton for Volquez and Herrera over Torii Hunter for $90 million and a second-round pick.

Ask yourself this: given the choice between Hamilton and Volquez, which player do Billy Beane and Dave Dombrowski and Mark Shapiro take?

But regardless of how you answer, there’s more texture involved here.  What Daniels appears to be saying with this move is not only that this team’s offense is a greater need area than the rotation right now, but also that he thinks that the franchise, in the long run, will be better able to withstand the loss of a high-ceiling arm like Volquez than to go forward with the collection of outfielders in the system.

In other words, maybe Eric Hurley, Kasey Kiker, Matt Harrison, Luis Mendoza, A.J. Murray, Doug Mathis, Armando Galarraga, Josh Rupe, Thomas Diamond, and Omar Poveda, not to mention Michael Main, Blake Beavan, Tommy Hunter, Neftali Feliz, Fabio Castillo, Zach Phillips, and Wilmer Font, make dealing Volquez tolerable, even in the eyes of someone who thinks he has more upside than anyone else on that list.  Maybe the analysis differs if Jacoby Ellsbury is here rather than John Mayberry Jr.  But maybe not.  The point is that the pitching depth on the farm, which is as healthy as it’s been here in a long time, maybe ever, facilitated this trade.

If Hamilton is healthy — on the field and off — he starts (and possibly stars) for just about every team in baseball, and it’s five years before he can become a free agent.   

That profile makes this trade hard to pass up.   

But, again, it also makes you wonder why the Reds would move him at all.

The added aspect to this trade that energizes me is that my team’s general manager is taking risks.  The Rangers aren’t just one move away, however shrewd, from being a World Series contender.  There’s lots of work to be done.  Jon Daniels, to his credit and to our benefit, hasn’t chosen the path of least riskiness since the unfortunate January 2006 trade with the Padres.  The last thing this club needs is for its general manager to get reticent, to ease his foot off the pedal.   

I trust Daniels’s baseball instincts and I trust his team of advisors, and I consider it a positive when he demonstrates, as with this trade, that he continues to trust both as well.  Gunshy is not welcome around here.

There’s a real chance this move could set the franchise back, which makes me nervous.  But there’s also a real chance it could accelerate things by not only filling a need spot but doing so with a potential star who could be here for a long time.

The scariest thing about a trade like this one — for both teams — is that the spectrum of what Edinson Volquez and Josh Hamilton could be in 2008 and 2009 and 2012 is massively wide.  Both players are sickeningly skilled but had shown themselves to be unpredictable, if not undependable — until huge resurgences in 2007.

Both Texas and Cincinnati are selling high in this deal.  Only time will tell whether they were buying smart.

 

==============================

ADDENDUM:  If I had seen this before writing this morning’s report, I probably could have saved myself more than 4,100 words.

A reader who spoke to Josh Hamilton yesterday said that the outfielder commented to him that “hitting homers is fun, but my favorite thing is throwing someone out at home.”

Love that.  My kind of player.

– Jamey

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 21, 2007

My general routine is to write on days where there’s at least one big story to comment on, which typically works out to anywhere from two to four times a week. Follow it up with some sidebar stuff, maybe toss in an earmark or two, something tangential, if not self-indulgent.

But when there’s no real news to use as a hook for more than three or four days, the secondary stuff starts to pile up. Time for a little housecleaning.

There have been stories locally and by a couple national writers in the past few days reporting that Texas and Cincinnati have discussed center fielder Josh Hamilton, with a couple of the articles suggesting the Reds are interested in Edinson Volquez.

Don’t get your hopes up. It would take significantly more than Volquez — or at least should — to get Hamilton, one of the National League’s most productive hitters in 2007. The company he kept statistically last year is made even more amazingly when you consider Hamilton was not only a rookie, but one who had basically been inactive for four years as he fought a drug addiction.

Just a guess, but considering what the Reds have and need, it wouldn’t surprise me if their price for Hamilton — if they’re really willing to trade him — would be something more along the lines of Volquez and Taylor Teagarden (which I wouldn’t do), or Volquez and a different trade chip they can spin to Baltimore in a deal for Erik Bedard.

I love Volquez, especially after what he accomplished last summer, but surely Cincinnati will get more — whether from Texas or someone else — for an above-average up-the-middle defender who is a .292/.368/.554 hitter after one big league season, with five years of club control ahead. For all the upside Volquez has, he’s a 3-11, 7.20 pitcher in the major leagues. Lots of promise — and trade value — there, but Hamilton has already crossed that line from potential to results.

Don’t hold your breath.

Recent signee Edgardo Alfonzo is hitting .331/.395/.506 in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Don’t hold your breath on him, either. This is basically this year’s version of Desi Relaford. Does he have a shot? Sure, I guess. But it’s a long one.

According to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.com, Texas and Houston have been the most aggressive suitors for free agent righthander Mark Prior. ESPN’s Buster Olney, on the other hand, suggests the Padres are the frontrunners.

Still no word on whom the Rangers will drop from the 40-man roster to accommodate the additions of Milton Bradley and Kazuo Fukumori, who bring the roster to 41 players.

If Fukumori spends at least 30 days on the disabled list in 2008, the second year of his two-year, $3 million contract apparently converts to a club option with a $200,000 buyout.

Seattle decided to give four years and $48 million to righthander Carlos Silva, and as a Rangers fan, I’m happy about it.

Mark Teixeira underwent arthroscopic knee surgery three weeks ago to clean out some loose tissue. Not a big deal. He should be ready to go when spring training gets underway.

The other player Atlanta received from Texas in the Teixeira trade, lefthander Ron Mahay, signed a two-year, $8 million deal with Kansas City. Because the Braves offered Mahay arbitration, they’ll get a compensatory draft pick between rounds one and two in June, probably around 39 to 42.

ESPN’s Keith Law said in a live chat yesterday that Texas can make a legitimate case that it has baseball’s number two farm system, behind Tampa Bay.

I think it’s too early to say that, but a year from now, as a lot of the players who make up the top tier of the system graduate to its upper levels, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more than just Law making that sort of comment.

Major League Baseball has suspended second baseman Julio Gonzalez for the first 50 games of the 2008 season for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance. The 19-year-old hit .253/.304/.337 for the Rangers’ Arizona League squad in 2007.

The Rangers have promoted Mark Giegler (who has spent 18 of his 22 scouting years in the Rangers organization) from amateur scout to pro scout and have hired Scot Engler (who had been an amateur scout with the Marlins) as a pro scout.

Milwaukee signed Gabe Kapler, who managed in the Boston minor league system last year, to a one-year deal to compete for an outfield spot.

Washington signed Rob Bell to a minor league contract.

The Laredo Broncos of the independent United League traded something to the Reno SilverSox of the independent Golden Baseball League for outfielder Juan Senreiso.

Happy Holidays.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 15, 2007

Six years ago at the Rangers’ Winter Carnival, among the guests we had at the Newberg Report table were Hank Blalock, 21 years old and coming off his breakthrough season (.352/.424/.550 between Charlotte and Tulsa), and Mark Teixeira, also 21 and two months away from making his pro debut, in Charlotte.

Hank_and_jamey

Tex_and_jamey

      

Teixeira was with us at 11:00 on that Saturday morning, Blalock at 11:30.  They were there together for about 15 minutes, and it was one of the first times they’d spent any time together.   

I remember wondering what was going through the minds of the two young third basemen, both of whom were consensus locks on anyone’s list of the top 10 prospects in baseball at the time.  One or the other was going to have to make a position change before long, arguably to a less challenging position on the field.  But if there was any tension, it was invisible.  Teixeira and Blalock treated each other more like future teammates, future keys to the next great Rangers lineup.

The same thing went through my mind last night as Chris Davis and Johnny Whittleman, two third basemen who have never been teammates but who are two of the most promising hitting prospects in the Rangers system, were together at our book release party, meeting fans and signing autographs and taking questions.

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  Davis

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Whittleman (on left)

And then each of the five players — Davis, Whittleman, German Duran, Doug Mathis, and Blake Beavan — were asked to name the player they respect most and model their game after.   

Davis said Jim Thome.  Duran: Marcus Giles.  Mathis: Brandon Webb.  Beavan: Randy Johnson.  Whittleman: Derek Jeter and Manny Ramirez.

But then asked to name the best player he’s played with or against, Whittleman said it was Davis, and was quick to add that there’s no friction between the two of them even though they play the same position — one that is still occupied by Blalock.  “We all just want to get to the big leagues.  If we have to change positions to get there, we’re happy to do it.  And we want each other to do well.  We want to be Texas Rangers together and be part of a team that wins a championship.”

Despite ridiculous weather and traffic, we had a solid 150 of you there last night.  Lots of toys donated, baseballs and books signed, Grant Schiller fastballs thrown at the microphoned players.   

A few observations.

Forgive me if this borders on sacrilege, but Davis reminds me of Tony Romo.  He’s confident but not brash, has that self-deprecating sense of humor ("You might have noticed I have no problem talking — I’m the guy who everyone tells to shut up before I can get to my point"), and is always smiling.  Davis is magnetic, and there’s nothing off-putting about him.  He’s a leader.

Whittleman is another effortless leader, though a different kind.  He strikes me as more of a Jason Witten, someone who doesn’t crave the spotlight but who teammates will gravitate toward because of that ideal combination of intensity and charisma (and production).   

Duran is impressive.  He sort of wears his unimposing physical stature as a chip on his shoulder, in a good way.  He surprised a lot of people who underestimated him in 2007, and he’s not through surprising people.  Try to get a fastball by him, and watch what happens.  Sick bat speed, and lots of confidence.  You’ve never seen someone so pumped to have been asked to take ground balls at third position, and fly balls at a fourth.  His time is coming.  Soon.

Mathis, who came in from Arizona for this, has the maturity of a guy who has spent more than the two-and-a-half seasons he’s had in the pros.  There’s a reason he reached AA in his first full season and AAA in his second that goes beyond that sinker and the three pitches he complements it with.  If those back issues are behind him, he has a chance to put himself on the doorstep in 2008.

If you thought you had a book on Beavan, based on his comments in June just after being drafted, you might have changed your mind a bit last night.  There’s no doubt about his confidence — all successful power pitchers have it — but there was plenty of humility, respect for the game, and repeated references to how much he hasn’t done yet.  Whether that smile he never took off his face would have been there if he’d been at a Cleveland Indians event is something probably he doesn’t even know, but there’s no question about how energized he is to have been drafted by his hometown team.

You might raise an eyebrow when you hear that an 18-year-old kid has an entourage of 20 that follows him to an event like last night’s.

But then you find out that all 20 were family members, and any concerns you might have had give way to the thought that family support like that stacks the deck in Beavan’s favor.

Thanks to Danny Fine, Chris Faulkner, Coty Kaptain, Valerie Morales, Chris LeBlanc, and the rest of the Rangers’ Dallas Office crew, to Taunee Taylor and Rush Olson and Hugo Carbajal, to the U.S. Marines for overseeing the toy drive collection, to Spring Creek Barbecue for feeding us, and to Jim Sundberg, who stepped forward to participate in the Q&A at the request of the fans.

Thanks also to Eleanor Czajka and “Baseball Mom” Toni for predictably making everything go so smoothly.  And to Marty Yawnick, whose exquisite work on the book cover drew more compliments last night than I could count.

Mathis (Show Low, Arizona) and Whittleman (Humble) weren’t the only ones to come in from outside the Metroplex, nor was Scott Lucas (Austin).  I know a bunch of you traveled to get there, in spite of the elements, and I appreciate it a bunch.

I’ve seen some write-ups on the event on various website message boards, but this is the one that counts: Grant Schiller’s review.

Eleanor has posted a bunch of photos from the party.

Last night’s group included a prospect who split 2007 between Frisco and Oklahoma, one who spent the whole year in Frisco, another who split between Bakersfield and Frisco, another who split between Clinton and Bakersfield, and one who has yet to appear in a pro game.

Doug Mathis, German Duran, Chris Davis, Johnny Whittleman, and Blake Beavan all charted different paths in 2007, and most will start their April assignments without any of the other four wearing the same uniform.  But one of the things that makes gatherings like last night’s so cool for me is to see the unmistakable bond these guys have with each other, even if some are theoretically battling for a job that ultimately they both can’t have.   

Whittleman said it best during the Q&A.  It’s not always about who has the biggest contract or the best endorsement deals.  You take a group of players and let them grow together as teammates — in this case four of five who grew up in Texas to begin with and wanted to be Texas Rangers before that opportunity became a reality — and you start to build a chemistry that can turn out to be the difference between merely putting up big numbers, and winning a division title, if not a World Series.

Thanks to everyone who was part of last night’s celebration of Two Months Until Pitchers and Catchers Report.

 

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 14, 2007

According to T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com, Texas was poised to trade Akinori Otsuka to the White Sox for Class A first baseman Chris Carter this winter before Chicago killed the deal upon reviewing Otsuka’s medical reports.

Two immediate thoughts:

1. Whatever turned up on the medical reports helps explain Wednesday’s non-tender.

2. And that bites. Because Texas apparently could have turned Otsuka into outfielder Carlos Quentin otherwise (as Chicago obtained Quentin for Carter a couple weeks ago).

There’s obviously a need on this club for another high-ceiling young outfielder. Texas has to be as light in impact outfielders between the 40-man roster and the upper levels of the farm system as any organization in baseball. The club can’t afford to go into every foreseeable winter (until Julio Borbon and Engel Beltre and maybe John Mayberry Jr. arrive – which assumes that everything goes right with their own development) trying to add an outfielder or two. It’s too expensive and it hamstrings the effort to effectively build other parts of the roster.

Sullivan adds that Texas hasn’t talked to Scott Boras about center fielder Corey Patterson since the Winter Meetings.

Good.

The Rangers have a 2:00 press conference this afternoon to announce the signing of Japanese right-handed reliever Kazuo Fukumori to a two-year, $3 million deal that reportedly includes a club option for 2010.

The whole Mitchell Report story gave me tired head about five minutes into his presentation yesterday, but I thought the following note from ESPN.com’s Rob Neyer was interesting:

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Upon my first skim-through of the Mitchell report, my favorite passage is the one about Eric Gagné. Shortly after the 2006 season, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein e-mailed scout Mark Delpiano, “Have you done any digging on Gagné? I know the Dodgers” — not to mention everybody else in the world — “think he was a steroid guy. Maybe so. What do you hear on his medical?”

Delpiano’s response:

“Some digging on Gagné and steroids IS the issue. Has had a checkered medical past throughout career including minor leagues. Lacks the poise and commitment to stay healthy, maintain body and re invent self. What made him a tenacious closer was the max effort plus stuff . . . . Mentality without the plus weapons and without steroid help probably creates a large risk in bounce back durability and ability to throw average while allowing the change-up to play as it once did . . . . Personally, durability (or lack of) will follow Gagné . . . .”

Nine months later, the Red Sox traded three young players — two of them pretty good prospects — for Gagné. And four months after, the Brewers gave Gagne $10 million. Gives you a little bit more respect for scouts, huh?

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Makes that trade look even better, from a Rangers standpoint.

Would the Astros have been able to make a better trade for Miguel Tejada if they’d waited just one more day?

Weird management.

Looking forward to seeing a lot of you tonight at the Book Release Party, where you can meet Chris Davis, German Duran, Doug Mathis, Johnny Whittleman, and Blake Beavan, five likely future big leaguers. Bring a baseball or bat, get it signed up along with your 2008 Bound Edition, and give it to your kids or a good friend for the holidays.

And please don’t forget to bring new, unwrapped toys for the Toys for Tots Drive as well.

Leave your Mitchell Report at home.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 13, 2007

The road just got a little clearer for Chris Davis, German Duran, and Brandon Boggs. And the role just got a little more cemented for C.J. Wilson.

By acquiring 31-year-old Ben Broussard from Seattle for minor league infielder Tug Hulett on Wednesday night, the Rangers added a veteran first baseman who, like Chris Shelton, is here on a one-year commitment. Texas probably would have had to commit two years to a player like Sean Casey or Mike Lamb had the club gone in that direction. With Texas not committed to Broussard (a lifetime .267/.328/.458 hitter) past 2008, if Davis produces this season anything close to what he did in 2007 and the Rangers feel he’s ready to impact the lineup in 2009 (and if they feel he fits best at first base), there’s no roster impediment as far as his arrival is concerned.

This also seemingly makes it more likely that Texas either trades Gerald Laird before April or options Jarrod Saltalamacchia to Oklahoma to start the season. Not a lock, but more likely now.

As for Duran, there’s no question that his upside is greater than Hulett’s, but since Hulett was a level ahead of Duran in 2007, you might argue that Hulett would have gotten the first shot at an emergency utility role in case of big league injury in 2008.

That’s a trade you make without thinking twice, developing a college senior taken in round 14 into a tradeable commodity and flipping him for a player who should start for your club. Hulett, an on-base machine who developed a little pop in 2007, is likely going to play in the big leagues, but he’ll probably always be a role player, and you don’t hesitate to move those when an opportunity arises to make your lineup better.

As for Boggs, these are the eight outfielders now on the roster: Boggs, Milton Bradley, Julio Borbon, Jason Botts, Marlon Byrd, Frank Catalanotto, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy. Borbon won’t be in Texas in 2008. It’s unclear where Botts and Cruz will be, other than it won’t be on the farm with Texas, as both are sure to be clamed off waivers if not traded first in the event that they fail to make the Opening Day roster and are designated for assignment. The point is that, with the designation for assignment of Nick Gorneault on Monday (to make roster room for Broussard), Boggs becomes the only outfielder on the roster who stands to start the year in the upper levels of the Rangers’ farm system. That’s key when considering what the club will have to do when and if one of its outfielders needs a stay on the disabled list.

If Gorneault clears waivers, Texas will be able to outright him to the minor leagues without the 28-year-old having the right to decline the assignment, since this would be the first outright of his career.

Botts is hitting .330/.422/.535 in the Mexican Winter League.

As for Wilson, a month ago there was speculation that Texas was interested in bringing Eric Gagné back and was kicking the tires on Kerry Wood and LaTroy Hawkins, and stories that Akinori Otsuka was throwing again, pain-free. Today, however, there is no question who the team’s closer is. It’s Wilson.

Texas declined to offer a contract to Otsuka by last night’s deadline, making the arbitration-eligible righthander a free agent. The Rangers can continue to negotiate with the 35-year-old, who was sidelined for the season’s final three months with right forearm inflammation, but they won’t have to go to arbitration with him and be on the hook for what’s probably a meaningful amount more than his market value, considering his arm health and age. If we think his arm is sound, though, I’d like to see him back.

Jon Daniels is not optimistic about an Otsuka return to Texas, however, according to multiple local reports.

Bradley, incidentally, passed his physical on Wednesday and was officially signed (one year for a reported $5 million plus incentives). With the addition of Bradley and Broussard and the removal from the roster of Gorneault and Otsuka, the Rangers’ roster remains at a full 40 players. Someone else, then, is in jeopardy of losing his spot when and if Texas signs set-up reliever Kazuo Fukumori.

Interesting: San Diego general manager told Tom Krasovic of the San Diego Union-Tribune that he acted quickly to acquire Bradley last summer partly because he believed Texas was on the verge of trading for him.

According to Daniels, the organization is cautiously optimistic that Bradley — barring any setbacks — could be ready to go in April. He added that Bradley could see some time in center field.

Really hoping we get to see Bradley healthy. The guy has monster bat speed.

Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel seems to stick a note into his space every couple days that the Brewers are sniffing around on Hank Blalock. Haudricourt speculates that the club’s designation of Kevin Mench for assignment (and its lack of resistance to Geoff Jenkins’s decision to leave via free agency) is an indication that Ryan Braun is headed to left field and that GM Doug Melvin will now target a third baseman — perhaps Blalock.

The Rangers traded righthander Jeremiah Haar to Florida for outfielder J.T. Restko, according to Baseball America. Haar, signed as an undrafted free agent in June 2006, went 10-6, 4.15 with seven saves in two seasons with the Rangers, swinging between the bullpen and rotation for the Arizona League squad, Spokane, and Clinton. Restko, the Marlins’ 10th-round pick in 2003, is a career .267/.341/.392 hitter in five seasons, none above Class A. The 6’5″ righty turns 23 later this month, as does Haar.

Texas released righthanders Craig Crow and Jesse Hall, lefthanders Anton Maxwell and William Rodriguez, and infielders Wally Backman Jr., Nick Cadena, and Jay Heafner.

The Dodgers signed righthanders Tanyon Sturtze and Rick Asadoorian and catcher Danny Ardoin to minor league contracts.

All I’ll say regarding this article about Michael Young and his wife Cristina is that you must read it:

See you tomorrow night at the Book Release Party.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — DECEMBER 12, 2007

Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News reports that Texas is on the verge of signing Japanese reliever Kazuo Fukumori to “at least a two-year deal.” The righthander went 4-2, 4.75 with 17 saves for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in 2007, a season in which he was beset by elbow issues that ultimately resulted in surgery to remove bone chips.

In the three years Fukumori has pitched for the Golden Eagles, he’s logged 124 strikeouts in 157 innings. In 2005, he went 4-3, 3.57 with 11 saves, and in 2006 he went 0-3, 2.17 with 21 saves. I’ve seen indications on the Web that he’s 31 and others suggesting he’s 33.

Dr. Lewis Yocum cleared Fukumori’s elbow in October. He’s reportedly a guy who works in the 88-91 range and features a splitter. He’s not likely a closer candidate but instead someone who could figure in as a seventh- or eighth-inning guy. Just last week the Yankees reportedly entered the eight- or 10-team mix to sign Fukumori.

Outfielder Kosuke Fukudome is apparently spurning the Rangers and ignoring Akinori Otsuka’s advice and is about to sign with the Cubs. Rumors are that it will be a four-year deal for somewhere around $50 million.

Outfielder Milton Bradley is expected to undergo his physical examination for Texas today.

The Rangers signed righthanders Franklyn German, Jake Dittler, Adalberto Flores and Alfredo Gonzalez, lefthanders Eric Cyr and Carlos A. Perez, and shortstop Corey Ragsdale to minor league deals. Only German gets an invite to big league camp.

Milwaukee got outfielder Laynce Nix through waivers and outrighted him to AAA Nashville.

The Brewers designated outfielder Kevin Mench for assignment.

Oakland signed lefthander Ryan Wing to a minor league contract.

Tampa Bay hired Jared Sandberg to serve as a Class A coach.

Gotta cut this one short today. More details on some of the above next time.

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

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