THE NEWBERG REPORT FROM SURPRISE, AZ: March 21, 2008

Kasey Kiker was ridiculous in the top of the first against a Seattle squad yesterday, striking out the side, but I bet he’ll remember the bottom of the first for a lot longer.  After Kiker exited the dugout to get in his post-appearance stretch, he was intercepted by a man who threw his final big league pitch when Kiker was five years old.  I couldn’t hear what Nolan Ryan was saying to the 20-year-old lefthander and it didn’t matter.  The smile on Kiker’s face and the look in his eyes as he nodded through five minutes of Nolan’s observations, whatever they were, said it all.

Kevin Millwood had to make the dreaded two-hour trip to Tucson yesterday in order to make his first exhibition start of the spring, but if it ticked him off, he took it out on the Diamondbacks lineup.  Millwood went five scoreless innings (needing only 63 pitches), punching out five while scattering three hits and a walk. 

It will be the righthander’s only Cactus League appearance of the spring.  He’ll start a minor league game on Tuesday rather than face the Mariners, whom he’s scheduled to face on Opening Day.

Hank Blalock continued to shake any residual concerns about his readiness for the season as well, hitting his second home run and adding his third double.  He sits at .258/.343/.548, with five of his eight hits going for extra bases.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.231/.259/.615) doubled in a run and crushed a three-run homer, and though he’s not hitting for average, five of his six hits have gone for extra bases.  Meanwhile, Gerald Laird (.290/.313/.710) is having a terrific camp, leading the club with four homers.  The fascinating issue of which catchers Texas will take to Seattle heats up.  (T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com reports that Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, and San Diego have each called Texas about Laird.)

The spirited battle for a roster spot between Jason Botts (.351/.368/.459) and Kevin Mench (.353/.463/.647) continues (Sullivan reports that Seattle and Tampa Bay have asked about Nelson Cruz), while Josh Hamilton (.538/.581/.949), Ian Kinsler (.450/.531/.600), and David Murphy (.405/.409/.762) keep on putting up video game numbers.

Yesterday I saw Kinsler take batting practice for the third or fourth time since getting out here, and it struck me that the kid who hit .400 in Clinton and slugged .500 as a minor leaguer nonetheless has to be one of Rudy Jaramillo’s proudest sculptures.  Kinsler has come a long way from the dead pull hitter he was on the farm to a potential star who has learned to quiet those lightning-quick hands enough to create a legitimate spray chart.  In batting practice, he’s showing an ability to hit the ball to right center with tremendous authority, and I think we’re about to see a player about whom we should be thinking not about 30-30 but about 30-30-.300, a leadoff hitter whose power may make him even more dangerous than Craig Biggio.

In six fewer at-bats, Murphy (32) has three times as many total bases as Marlon Byrd (11), who is hitting .188/.264/.229.  I’ll say it again: there’s nothing that’s convinced me that Murphy can’t be a factor on a championship team, and he’s done nothing in his eight months here to confirm the notion that he’s merely a fourth outfielder. 

Think about how much the Rangers could get right now for Murphy, Engel Beltre, and Kason Gabbard, none of whom the Rangers would have any interest in trading right now.

I don’t know what Milton Bradley is going to look like coming out of the box (he debuts tonight as the designated hitter and will only sit once in the next five games), but if BP is any indication, he’s going to look great in it.  His back field sessions at the plate are impressive, and business-like.

Name one hitter in the Rangers lineup whom you can’t reasonably expect to improve on his 2007 numbers. 

This lineup, assuming it stays relatively healthy, is going to score.

Mark Connor’s assessment of the best pitches on the big league staff: C.J. Wilson features the best fastball (even though Franklyn German throws harder), Kason Gabbard’s curve ranks ahead of Millwood’s, Joaquin Benoit possesses the top slider as well as the filthiest change (“one of the best I’ve ever seen”), Luis Mendoza unquestionably totes the best sinker, and German has the best split.

Wilson was really sharp in a minor league outing yesterday, getting three outs on strikes and one on the ground in a 20-pitch appearance.  He’s expected to face Seattle in tomorrow’s big league game.

Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News learned that Hamilton’s favorite TV show, naturally, is “Smallville,” which is about a young Superman.

Edinson Volquez shares the strikeout lead in all of baseball this spring, and his 21 punchouts have come in fewer innings (15) than co-leaders Johan Santana (20 innings) or John Maine (19.1).  Volquez (3.00 ERA) has walked only three hitters and hasn’t been taken deep.

Cincinnati has reassigned uberprospect Jay Bruce, the player whose apparent readiness was a key factor in the Reds’ decision to trade Josh Hamilton, to minor league camp.  Bruce is going to be a star, but his big league debut will apparently not be a week and a half from now.

Justin Duchscherer, Clint Brannon, and Freddie Thon.  Thon completes the trifecta of players whom I’ve seen get the spring training word that they’d been traded.  I was standing outside the dugout during Gabbard’s minor league start on Wednesday when, as Thon came off the field after the top of the first, he left the dugout with his bat on his shoulder and a smile on his face, as teammates and coaches slapped him on the back and wished him good luck.  I learned later that the career .290/.318/.429 hitter who had a tremendous second half at Bakersfield in 2007 (.313 with 10 homers and 46 RBI after the All-Star Break) had been traded to Toronto.

One more full day at the fields, capped by Rangers-Angels under the lights tonight.

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

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