THE NEWBERG REPORT — JANUARY 19, 2008

Boston’s 2003 draft is marked by the fact that the Red Sox stole Mississippi State righthander Jonathan Papelbon in the fifth round, not that its haul was led off by Baylor outfielder David Murphy in the first round and Georgia Tech outfielder Matt Murton in the supplemental first. Five years later, is it conceivable that Murphy and Murton could share a job in Texas?

T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com published a story last night suggesting the Cubs have called the Rangers about Marlon Byrd — who finished fourth in the National League Rookie of the Year vote the year that Murphy and Murton were drafted — and could be willing to give the 26-year-old Murton up to get the 30-year-old Byrd. I have my doubts that Texas could make that deal one for one.

Murphy and Murton teamed up for Wareham in the Cape Cod League as standout college freshmen in 2001 and 2002, for Short-Season A Lowell in 2003, and for High A Sarasota in the first half of 2004 before Boston shipped Murton to the Cubs at the trade deadline, along with fellow Georgia Tech alum Nomar Garciaparra, in a four-team deal that brought Doug Mientkiewicz and Orlando Cabrera to the Red Sox.

A year later — two years to the day after he signed out of the draft — Murton was in the Chicago starting lineup, putting together a perfect day in a 9-6 Cubs win over Florida: a single and a walk off Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, followed by an RBI sac fly and a double off reliever Randy Messenger.

Coming into that 2005 season having never played above Class A, Murton hit .342/.403/.498 for AA West Tenn (313 at-bats), .353/.421/.500 for AAA Iowa (34 at-bats), and .321/.386/.521 for the Cubs (140 at-bats) that year, not only slugging higher in the big leagues than on the farm but also posting a better walk-to-strikeout rate in the majors.

As Chicago’s regular left fielder in 2006, Murton hit .297/.365/.444 with only 62 strikeouts in 455 at-bats, but the Cubs’ acquisition last winter of Alfonso Soriano relegated Murton to fourth-outfielder duties, and in 235 at-bats he hit .281/.352/.438, spending a month and a half at mid-season back in AAA, where he hit a robust .331/.407/.570.

A right-handed hitter, Murton has proven to be markedly more effective against left-handed pitching (.326/.399/.510, as opposed to .280/.346/.425 against righties), which would theoretically make him a suitable candidate to share time with Murphy, who (in spite of some impressive reverse splits in his 127 Rangers at-bats last summer) has historically fared better against righthanders. In terms of tools, Murton has generally projected to hit for a higher average than Murphy but doesn’t throw nearly as well. While Murphy has the defensive chops to play anywhere in the outfield, Murton is probably out of position anywhere other than left.

That defensive limitation is the only reason I can conceive of that the Cubs would entertain the idea of moving Murton for Byrd, who is adequate in center field. While both players can probably help a contending team in 2008, the four-year age difference would be significant for a team looking not so much at what sort of noise it can make this season but more at a longer-term fit, like Texas.

Whether you believe Byrd’s breakout in 2007 (.307/.355/.459, 70 RBI in two-thirds of a big league season, but .269/.310/.417 after the All-Star Break) was a mirage, it’s hard to argue that at age 30 he’s a player to build with (especially now that his ability to play center field is no longer pivotal here). On the other hand, with Chicago believing it can win now and wanting a right-handed hitter capable of sharing center field duties with 22-year-old lefthander Felix Pie, Byrd makes some sense. I just can’t imagine the Cubs would trade Murton for him without demanding a legitimate prospect tossed in.

Think about it this way: Byrd was a career .263/.327/.373 hitter before busting through with that .307/.355/.459 line last year, on the wrong side of age 30. Murton’s career line is .296/.365/.455, remarkably similar to Byrd’s 2007.

I wonder if Texas can interest the Cubs in whoever the 41st player on its roster is. Someone needs to come off the roster to make room for Jason Jennings — Robinson Tejeda? Scott Feldman? — and if the Rangers can add that player to Byrd to get Murton, it would have the same effect here of designating the player for assignment (unless Texas were able to get that player through waivers in order to outright him to the farm, which in Tejeda’s case in particular would be unlikely).

Still not sure that gets a Byrd-Murton deal done.

The deal Byrd agreed to with the Rangers to avoid arbitration earlier this week was for $1.8 million. Gerald Laird settled for $1.6 million.

Laird’s first arbitration-driven deal comes six years and four days after the six-player trade that sent him from Oakland to Texas, as does the three-year, $24 million contract that Carlos Pena signed yesterday with Tampa Bay, his fourth club since his six-month stint with the A’s.

Jennings’s Rangers deal is for $4 million base, with another $4 million available for reaching a series of innings pitched levels, topping out at 200 frames.

Atlanta avoided arbitration with Mark Teixeira by agreeing to terms on a one-year, $12.5 million contract. This is his final year, of course, before he can be a free agent.

According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Sammy Sosa and the Rangers both acknowledged yesterday that the 39-year-old, who continues to seek a job that could lead to 400-500 at-bats, will not return to the Rangers. Not really news aside from the on-the-record finality it offers.

Meanwhile, St. Louis is kicking Juan Gonzalez’s tires.

Ron Washington says he doesn’t foresee a platoon at first base, where he plans to use Ben Broussard against all pitching. Jason Botts and perhaps German Duran will get looks at first nonetheless, as the club assesses its backup options there.

Mike Hindman has completed his ranking of the Rangers’ outfield prospects at http://rangersfarmreport.mlblogs.com/.

St. Louis named Bryan Eversgerd its pitching coach at AA Springfield and Derek Lilliquist its extended spring training pitching coordinator.

The White Sox named Rob Sasser hitting coach for High A Winston-Salem.

The independent Fort Worth Cats released infielder Marc Mirizzi and signed righthander John Maschino, the Rangers’ 17th-round pick in 2006 who reportedly signed as a draft-and-follow out of Seminole Junior College last May but never appeared on the field.

I’ll update you when Texas gets its roster down to 40 players.

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

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