THE NEWBERG REPORT FROM SURPRISE, AZ: March 18, 2008
Monday started with a surprise for Erica, proof of an overnight visit from Iggy, the Egotistical Iguana, who serves as the Greater Phoenix Tooth Fairy despite the fact that his foot is severely burned (the ugly result of a Starbucks mishap you wouldn’t believe if I told you) and, sadly, unable to bear weight. Iggy passed the crucial test, coming through with a suitable exchange for the left maxillary central incisor that Erica no longer had any use for.
Stunningly, Max was awake earlier than the rest of us, a huge upset considering not only the fact that Erica had gone to sleep Sunday night almost grudgingly, with a single purpose of waking up just to see whether the Tooth Fairy was keeping up with her dental status even 1,100 miles from home, but also the yeoman’s work Max had turned in on a brisk Sunday in Surprise, volunteering both to get Jason Botts some extra work at first base:
. . . and to catch an extra side for Thomas Diamond as he continued his impressive return from Tommy John surgery:
It didn’t much matter to Max on Monday morning that Cristian Santana might see some time as a corner outfielder in 2008 to avoid overdoing things behind the plate as he tries to put 2006’s shoulder injury and 2007’s thumb injury behind him. He wasn’t concerned about whether Dad would manage to find another way to lead the report with Josh Hamilton, and he wasn’t fixated on the truth to the rumor that Marcus Lemon had come to camp bigger, in a good way.
The simple, innocent reason Max was ready to go before the rabbit who had attacked T.R. Sullivan a couple days earlier had rolled out of its own bed was that the two minor league baseballs he’d come home with on Sunday were trophies, yes, but more like gateway drugs. “These are gray baseballs, Dad. I need white baseballs.”
Telling Max that we’d see what we could do, but that we couldn’t promise anything, was like telling rookie Mike Young he wasn’t going to hit enough to be a starting middle infielder in the big leagues.
The boy was determined.
We got to the fields early, but there aren’t baseballs to be hunted down when the players are merely loosening up. Soon the back fields started to fill up, with what was easily four times as many fans as there had been the day before. I didn’t want to tell Max that baseballs would be harder to come by (too soon to start those Adam Smith lessons), fearing it would crush his spirit.
Distracted by another sick Josh Hamilton Batting Practice Display, followed by yet another eye-opening round from David Murphy – and a completely punishing effort from both sides of the plate (particularly the right side) by Milton Bradley, which fired me up more than anything else I saw on Tuesday – the Quest for White Baseballs seemed like it had, at least momentarily, slipped Max’s mind.
Having also watched the big club take infield, which is still one of my favorite things to watch in all of sports, and drawing Max’s attention to how much of a weapon an outfield of Murphy in left, Hamilton in center, and Nelson Cruz in right can be (and coming to my own conclusion that Jarrod Saltalamacchia really does look like what a big league catcher looks like), we decided to head west from the batting practice field to the back fields, where the minor leaguers were getting their work in.
On the walk there, Max got hold of an abandoned foul ball, lightly used, certainly closer to white than the two scuffed balls he’d come away with on Sunday. On the rest of that walk to the four minor league fields, with Max clutching the relatively new baseball, he never looked up, staring down at that ball with a smile on his face that cannot be faked, until persuaded by Mom and Dad to look up for just a second.
We settled in with maybe half a dozen others to watch the trio of Chris Davis, Elvis Andrus, and Max Ramirez get their batting practice reps in, a display that, while not at the level of Hamilton-Murphy-Bradley-Marlon Byrd, would have had any serious Rangers fan salivating, unless they were three and a half years old and more intent on fielding ground balls with that new, game-issue prize he was toting around. As I threw him grounders, and Erica was doing cartwheels (literally), he was doing the same (figuratively).
Soon it was time for lunch, and on the way to the car a fan handed Max another ball. Of course, that turned lunch into a nuisance for Max, who couldn’t wait to get back to the fields. We got back in time to grab a patch of grass on the stadium berm just before the Rangers and Mariners stood out of their dugouts for the National Anthem, a closer call than we imagined it would be because we hadn’t counted on passing the mini-wiffle ball park, in which Max dutifully took some cuts, hitting two inside-the-park home runs that, in his mind, clearly ended with plays at the plate since he insisted on sliding home both times.
Jason Jennings was effective through four innings, even though several of the outs were loud (but predictably he was no match for Cha Seung Clemens, who inexplicably toys with Texas like it was a lineup of kids in wiffle ball park). Jennings’s velocity was up a tick or two (touching 87 a few times), and he limited the Mariners to two hits and no walks with a solid array of off-speed offerings, fanning a pair. He felt good enough that Texas had him throw an extra 17 pitches in the bullpen after his four innings were done.
The Rangers are going to pitch Jennings in a minor league game on Saturday so that they don’t give Seattle another season preview. Eric Hurley will get the big league start that day, which is a pretty interesting development considering that by then we’ll be just over a week from Opening Day. I’m still convinced that Hurley needs to be in Oklahoma in April, but the more camp innings he gets with a big league defense behind him and big league hitters in the box, the better.
Robinson Tejeda was impressive again in relief; it’s obvious why Texas isn’t in a rush to give up on his arm, especially with Frankie Francisco (still toting one option) not seizing an opportunity thus far. Tejeda, who pitched one inning yesterday, will the get the ball again today, the next step in the process of evaluating whether he’s capable of pitching in a high-leverage bullpen role on back-to-back days.
I’m still hanging onto my prediction that Josh Rupe is this year’s pitching surprise.
The Rangers don’t seem concerned about Kason Gabbard’s lack of effectiveness so far, which is good enough for me right now, but the more and more I see of Murphy and Engel Beltre, the more I’m convinced that the Eric Gagne trade will have a place right next to the Mark Teixeira trade in Jon Daniels’s trophy case, no matter what Gabbard does.
I don’t know how brilliant the inning and a half was that I got to do alongside Victor Rojas during yesterday’s Webcast, but I had a blast. I believe if you go to this link, you can listen to yesterday’s game for free. I did the seventh inning and the top of the eighth. Thanks to those of you who emailed questions to the booth – there were apparently tons of questions we never got to.
You must read Mike Hindman’s final spring training observations. Great stuff.
Texas released a handful of minor leaguers, the most prominent of which was probably speed merchant R.J. Anderson, a standout high school cover corner and punt returner who turned down stacks of Division I football opportunities (and ultimately a commitment to the University of South Florida) to take the Rangers’ above-slot signing bonus as the club’s ninth-round pick in 2005. Beset by hamstring issues in his first season, he never found a rhythm and, with the dramatic influx of center field prospects in the system since the time Anderson was drafted, his chances here had been minimized. The Rangers also released catcher Joe Hulett, infielder Jason Sowers, and outfielder Luke Salas.
I know the error totals have been disappointing, but you watch Johnny Whittleman get his infield work in and you do see a third baseman. In the box he looks like a number six hitter, maybe a number three depending on where he takes things over the next two years.
According to Baseball America, Texas will assign Julio Borbon to Bakersfield to start the season. I’m not sure whether BA is drawing that conclusion from Borbon’s camp assignment once he was optioned (those assignments are often not final) or if a Rangers official confirmed that that’s where the 2007 supplemental first-rounder will play in April, but it was his likely destination in any event.
The Hunt continues today. Max has his agenda, I have mine (which is not to say that the girls don’t have their own). Tops on my list is to take in a couple Class A games today, plus another opportunity, if possible, to watch Milton Bradley continue on his path to regular season readiness. If he’s physically right, he has the chance to significantly impact the level of damage that this team’s lineup is capable of inflicting. Perhaps dramatically.