THE NEWBERG REPORT FROM SURPRISE, AZ: March 20, 2008

Imagine settling in at your favorite movie theater, and tiled on the massive screen, all playing at once, each in one of four corners, are “The Usual Suspects,” “Braveheart,” “Silence of the Lambs,” and “Godfather II,” each with the sound up loud.  The frustrating whole would be a lot lousier than the sum of its parts.

That’s what it can sometimes be like on the back fields in Surprise, particularly in the mornings, when there’s activity on all four diamonds and maybe some on the row of mounds where pitchers get in their side work, too.  Spend too much time watching Zach Phillips and Jorge Quintero and Kea Kometani throwing sides and you might miss Max Ramirez and Elvis Andrus taking their cuts on the field over your shoulder.  Focus on Engel Beltre and David Paisano’s dazzling outfield displays during a round of infield practice on one field and you might deprive yourself of the spectacle of Manny (Pina) being Manny behind the plate on another.

In 2008, more than ever, there’s just too much worth seeing on the back fields, which accordingly means there’s a lot that gets missed.

But that problem was momentarily erased at 7 p.m. last night, when the Rangers staged the 2008 Prospect Game, pitting the organization’s best AA and AAA farmhands against its best Class A kids in a nine-inning affair under the lights in Surprise Stadium.  It was gold for me, a chance to sit in one seat and take in, over the space of three hours, what would normally take three days to see – and without the attendant risk of missing something I failed to see simply by virtue of facing the wrong direction.

I settled in and saw that one squad would be sending Derek Holland, Fabio Castillo, Blake Beavan, Carlos Pimentel, and Martin Perez to the hill.  If that wasn’t enough to fire me up (on a night that would see the temperature dip 20 degrees between gametime and the final out), the opposing team would feature Tommy Hunter, Neftali Feliz, Wilmer Font, and Neil Ramirez on the bump.

Judging by the pitching talent that would be on display, it felt like I was about to take in the Futures Game.

Johnny Whittleman must have had the same feeling.  Having homered off then-Mets phenom Deolis Guerra (since traded to Minnesota as the key to the Johan Santana deal) in July’s Futures Game, the 21-year-old had two great at-bats against Hunter last night, fouling off a thousand 1-2 pitches in the second inning (before going down looking) and then hitting the game’s only home run in the fourth when he drove a ball authoritatively to the base of the Home Run Party Deck beyond the fence in right field.

Four hours earlier, I watched Whittleman put together one of the most impressive batting practice sessions I’ve seen in years.  It looked like Hank Blalock, vintage 2001.  It carried over into the Prospect Game, where Whittleman had two really solid trips to the plate before his night and that of the rest of the starters were finished.

But make no mistake: This night belonged to the pitchers. 

I loved what I saw out of Holland, a slight lefthander who punched out 83 Northwest Leaguers while issuing only 21 walks in 67 innings in 2007, his debut season.  If I’d never seen Holland and you’d told me the 25th-round draft-and-follow was actually a second-round pick, I not only would have believed it but would have been impressed with how he’d made the selection pay off.  He flashed a very good fastball and threw two curves for strikes, a sweeping bender and a harder version (mixing in a terrific move to first).  There’s unquestionably something there – and the fact that Texas rewarded him with a start last night suggests the organization is convinced of that.

Holland’s opposing starter, Hunter, struck out five in his four innings of work, including Davis looking at a curve twice and Whittleman watching the curve once.  He was victimized, however, by a textbook first inning, that is, if your textbook is titled “Small Ball.”  Julio Borbon led off with a bunt to the third base side of the mound, which Hunter fielded quickly and cleanly but whose throw couldn’t beat Borbon to the bag.  Andrus then executed a perfect hit-and-run, bounding a ball through the vacated hole on the right side, sending Borbon to third.  Duran singled to right on another hit-and-run, scoring Borbon and allowing Andrus to move to third.  After Davis struck out, Max Ramirez shot a ball 390 feet to center on a rope, scoring Andrus as Beltre hauled the fly in.

In the third, Andrus reached on a Marcus Lemon error, stole second easily on a hit-and-run attempt that Duran swung through, and would have swiped third had Duran not skied to shortstop on the next pitch.  Get used to Andrus creating offense.

Of the seven pitchers who appeared in relief, only two logged multiple innings, and they had far different results. 

Castillo was absolutely filthy, striking out the side on just 11 pitches (10 of which were strikes, six looking) in the fifth and then inducing three routine groundouts – on a total of five pitches – in the sixth.  He was stinkin’ great.

Feliz, however, struggled in his three frames.  As he was warming up, I wrote in my notes the word “SICK” and underlined it and underlined it and underlined it.  The velocity and the ease with which he gets the ball up there are spellbinding.  But he had trouble locating, issuing three walks and throwing, by my count, five breaking balls in the glove-side dirt and to the backstop.  It wasn’t his night.

Grant Gerrard rifled Beavan’s second pitch off the big righthander’s right foot, which created a resounding “thud” (fortunately not a resounding “crack”) before the ball bounded all the way back to the third base dugout.  Beavan satisfied coaches and trainers that he was OK to stay on the mound, and he proceeded to induce a 6-4-3 double play and a fly to left to quickly end his lone inning of work.

Pimentel flashed a good-looking curve and kept his fastball down.  He was solid.

Font is more stunning to watch than Feliz.  There’s more effort in his delivery than in Feliz’s (which makes him no different from any other pitcher), but the explosion of his fastball would make you giddy even if he were 22, rather than 17.  His results weren’t spectacular last night (he walked his first two batters, though he did pick off the first, Andres James, with a very good move before throwing his first pitch to the second, Casey Benjamin), but when Mauro Gomez stepped in as the third batter to face Font, I found myself praying for a 6-4-3 so that “Macumba” (catcher Leonel de los Santos) wouldn’t have to face Font (who must carry nearly twice Macumba’s weight) on what by then was about a 55-degree night.  But Gomez singled sharply to right, and Macumba swung at four straight pitches, making contact the final three times, ultimately flying out to right. 

Perez, a short but athletic lefthander who at age 16 has a ton of poise on the mound, retired the side in order in the top of the ninth with a varied assortment, and Neil Ramirez, displaying a big, sharp curve to offset his plus fastball, had some command issues but was helped out by left fielder Miguel Alfonzo, who handled a Tim Rodriguez single cleanly and fired a one-hop rope to the plate to gun down Johan Yan by 10 feet. 

In the couple times I’ve seen Alfonzo play, in October at Fall Instructs and this week in camp, he’s done something good every time.  For me, Miguel Alfonzo is the new Butch Davis (the old Red-Shoed Rangers outfielder, not the football coach).

Beltre and Andrus, opponents last night, were trash-talking from in front of opposing dugouts just before game time.  Those two guys are magnetic.

Watching Pina work behind the plate is worth the price of a ticket.

Tim Smith just hits.

Joaquin Arias still has some pop in his bat.

I hate the drive from Houston to Dallas.  But there’s that moment, about 30 minutes from home, when the Downtown Dallas skyline emerges in the distance, and even though you know there’s a ways to go, and probably some irritating traffic along the way, it’s still a bit of an adrenaline rush to see home on the horizon.  That’s what I thought of when I saw the look in Thomas Diamond’s eye yesterday afternoon, as he’d just gotten finished throwing a 30-pitch simulated game, his first work against hitters swinging bats in about a year.  He threw lots and lots of strikes (including every one of his curves), and while a good number of them were hit squarely, you wouldn’t know it from the smile on his face after his outing was complete.  A return to full action is still down the road a bit, but I think Diamond saw the skyline yesterday.

Which is a bit different from what I saw last night.  Diamond, if all goes well, will be in the big leagues before Fabio Castillo and Wilmer Font and Derek Holland, but as Diamond’s path back to full strength and, ultimately, to Arlington progresses, there’s an armada forging ahead a ways back, deep in numbers and heavy on power. 

The Rangers, I feel comfortable saying, have never had this big a swarm of high-ceiling pitchers in the system at one time.  Last night I was fortunate enough to see a lot of them in one place, and at one time, with no risk of choosing the wrong way to look. 

The siege is underway, and even if they won’t all move at the same pace, the Rangers’ fleet of young arms moves in a unified direction, toward us.

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

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