THE NEWBERG REPORT — MARCH 10, 2008

It’s no secret that I wasn’t a big fan of the Sammy Sosa project, because of where this team was in its development, the players to whom the Sosa at-bats could have gone instead as Texas spent time figuring out in 2007 where it might be in 2009, and the obvious point that Sosa, even if he ended up giving the Rangers as much production as he did, was nonetheless never going to be part of this lineup when they were contenders again.

There was one thing about the Sosa dalliance that made sense to me, even if not at the outset, and it’s the one potentially interesting aspect (though on a much smaller scale) of the signing of Sidney Ponson, even if his utility to this franchise as a pitcher could be only slightly greater than that of Mark Redman in 2007, Jose Silva in 2006, or Aaron Sele in 2005.

I’m sure that Sosa’s return to baseball energized a whole new crop of middle-teenaged kids in San Pedro de Macoris and all around the Dominican Republic. I couldn’t be more excited about the work A.J. Preller, Don Welke, and Manny Batista are engineering in Latin America, but in a landscape where every kid is a free agent, it’s probably Sosa, and not Preller and Welke and Batista, who was responsible for a surge in Rangers caps showing up on kids’ heads in the streets and on the sandlots in that country. Bet the Rangers’ street cred in the Dominican, already ticking up over the last few years, spiked with Sosa’s reemergence.

There may be no more than one prospect in Aruba for every hundred in the Dominican Republic. Truthfully, there may be no more than one for every hundred in San Pedro de Macoris. There have been four Arubans to play in the big leagues: Ponson, righthander Calvin Maduro, lefthander Radhames Dykhoff (Ponson’s cousin), and outfielder Eugene Kingsale. Every one of them got his start with the Orioles, each having been signed by scout Jesus “Chu” Halabi, whom Texas hired a month ago to cover Aruba, along with Curacao and Cuba.

Ponson, who along with Kingsale and Maduro was made a Knight in the Order of the Dutch Royal House by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands (whose kingdom includes Aruba) after the 2003 season, is the best player that country has produced. Chances are Halabi will find the next one. But the odds are even better, theoretically, with Sir Sidney around.

Aside from that, don’t expect a big impact from Ponson, or even a Sosa-like contribution. With the injury to Brandon McCarthy, he’ll likely get a chance to face big league hitters at some point this month, but in all likelihood what he’s auditioning for is an opportunity to get the ball every fifth day for Oklahoma. A lifetime 82-101, 4.94 pitcher in the big leagues, he hasn’t had an effective season since 2003, though he did have a solid first two months for St. Louis in 2006 (4-0, 2.93 over eight starts).

The 31-year-old had made more news the last five years off the mound than on it. On Christmas Day 2004, he was charged with assaulting an Aruban judge in an altercation on the beach and briefly jailed. He was charged with driving under the influence twice in 2005, once in Florida and once in Maryland.

Baltimore attempted to trade Ponson to San Diego in July 2005 for Phil Nevin, but Nevin exercised his limited no-trade clause and vetoed the deal. Within a week, the Padres traded Nevin instead to Texas (not on his no-trade list) for Chan Ho Park.

Ponson comes in with no guarantees — not even a lock on a AAA job — and while the fastball may be heavier and the body trimmer, he’s still a longshot to make a difference at any point in Arlington, and certainly won’t prevent someone like Luis Mendoza, A.J. Murray, Eric Hurley, Doug Mathis, or Matt Harrison from getting a shot when the organization decides they are ready.

As for Mathis, there’s an interesting message that the organization is sending by adjusting his status three weeks into camp. As a “just in case” brought over from minor league camp, the 24-year-old has appeared in three Cactus League games, allowing three hits in 2.1 scoreless, walkless innings, fanning one. There’s no reason the club couldn’t have continued with the status quo, using Mathis as needed until the determination was made that he needed to get on a routine rotation schedule on the minor league side.

There is a reason, however, that Texas decided yesterday to give Mathis an official non-roster invite to camp, which means a lot more than the locker in the clubhouse, the boost in per diem, and the extra time with big league coaches and around big league players — I bet to Mathis the simple recognition means a lot more. Consider this remark from Jon Daniels: “We talk in the organization about our starters working quickly, controlling the game, throwing strikes and executing pitches. Doug has come into the game two or three times and done just that. This is a good reward for him and a message for everybody else.”

Nobody from the Rangers’ 2005 draft has had to be protected on the 40-man roster yet, but John Mayberry Jr. (1st round), Taylor Teagarden (3rd), German Duran (6th), Kea Kometani (15th), and now Mathis (13th) are in camp as non-roster invites. Solid.

Mendoza, historically a four- or five-strikeouts-per-nine-innings guy, has punched out seven hitters in 6.2 innings this spring, including his B game effort on Saturday.

C.J. Wilson is slated to throw a bullpen today and another later in the week, with an eye toward pitching in a game next weekend.

While Gerald Laird (.250/.250/.500, better defense) has appeared from the outside to have a leg up on Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.214/.267/.571) in the competition for starting catcher duties, Ron Washington told MLB.com: “By March 14, I’ll have a better idea of which way I want to go.” I’m not sure what it means for the next four or five games when Washington says: “After this weekend we’re going to start revving it up,” other than perhaps each will be asked to go the distance behind the plate on days they start. There’s also the possibility, I suppose, that with the likely candidates for the big league staff starting to stretch out more, the coaching staff could charge Laird and Saltalamacchia with a greater responsibility to call the game.

Travis Metcalf’s standout camp (.412/.444/.824, team-leading two home runs, one strikeout in 17 at-bats, typical plus defense) has been halted by a tendon strain in the shin area of his left leg that he suffered in Friday’s game.

It’s probably time for Ben Broussard (2 for 18, no walks) to start hitting.

On the plus side, Broussard has only two strikeouts in his 18 at-bats. The same is true for Jason Botts, who has done a lot with the small sample, hitting .389/.421/.556.

Read Evan Grant’s story in the Sunday Dallas Morning News on the history and present status of Omar Beltre and Alexi Ogando’s ban on returning to the United States to play. It’s great work.

Quarantined in the Dominican Republic for the last three seasons, Beltre (from the country’s capital city of Santo Domingo) and Ogando (from Sosa’s hometown of San Pedro de Macoris) didn’t get the chance to share a clubhouse last spring — if not last summer, in Beltre’s case — with Sosa.

I don’t know if Ponson has another stretch in him like the one he gave the Cardinals in April and May of 2006, but I suppose that even if he gives the Rangers nothing more than Luther Hackman did, maybe there are a couple kids in Aruba who will be more excited about putting on one of those Rangers lids that Chu Halabi carries around.

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

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