THE NEWBERG REPORT FROM SURPRISE, AZ: March 22, 2008

It was our final full day in Surprise, and it began with a coolmoment.  As we were walking down the path to the fields, we were within
earshot as Mark Connor pulled his golf cart up alongside Blake Beavan,
who had taken a line drive off his foot Wednesday night:

Connor: “How’s the foot?”
Beavan: “Good, it’s good.”
Connor: “You showed me something.  You showed me something getting back up there.”


As 1:00 rolled around, Vicente Padilla and Frankie Francisco and Tommy
Hunter settled in for their day’s work, with Padilla pitching to Chris
Stewart in the AAA game, Francisco pitching to Patrick Arlis in the AA
game, and Hunter pitching to Max Newberg in the grassy area between.

Shortly thereafter, after I’d relieved Hunter (and Beavan), minor
league pitching coordinator Rick Adair stopped his golf cart in front
of me (mercifully giving me a 20-second break from what felt at that
point like a 20-hour throwing session with Max, who announced this week
that he intends to be a “fessional baseball player”) and told me he’d
never seen a kid Max’s age who wanted to throw as much as he does.  I
vowed not to let him throw curveballs until he’s 17 or 18.

Padilla’s and Francisco’s San Diego counterparts on the mound were
former Rangers draftees John Hudgins (2003, 3rd round) and Cory Luebke
(2006, 22nd round, unsigned).

Emerson Frostad followed a sick morning batting practice display with a monstrous home run off of Hudgins in the afternoon. 

Cristian Santana’s BP looks more like Pudge Rodriguez’s every time I see it. 

Max Ramirez is going to do a lot of big league damage offensively.

Matt Smith may be a better bet to coach one day than to even reach AAA
as a player, but his actions at shortstop are great.  I mean great.

We finished the day as part of the largest crowd in Surprise Stadium
history, as Texas fell to the Angels, 4-1.  Ron Washington flipped
Michael Young and Josh Hamilton in the order, moving Young to his more
familiar number two slot and dropping Hamilton into the more classic
run-producing spot at number three.  Washington attributed the move to
a concession that putting Hamilton in a less pressured role is no
longer a concern, given the spring he’s had.

T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com projects the Oklahoma rotation to include Eric
Hurley, Doug Mathis, and A.J. Murray; the Frisco rotation to include
Matt Harrison, Michael Schlact, and Michael Ballard; the Bakersfield
rotation to include Hunter, Omar Poveda, Zach Phillips, Beau Jones, and
eventually Kasey Kiker, though he could start the year in extended
spring training as he did in 2007; and the Clinton rotation to include
Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland.  Center fielder Engel Beltre, though
just 18 years old, will start out at Clinton as well.   

Scott Feldman could land in either the Oklahoma or Frisco rotation, as
he was optioned yesterday.  Jason Davis was returned to minor league
camp as well.

The trade of Class A first baseman Freddie Thon to Toronto was for future considerations.

Looking back at the list of 32 things I said on March 13 that I
couldn’t wait to see in camp, there’s no question that the trip has
been a productive one:

1. Elvis Andrus and Engel Beltre, just to be sure I wasn’t seeing things in October.  Jorge Quintero, too, for that matter.  Check
as far as Andrus and Beltre are concerned, and it’s actually possible
that I’ve been underselling those two.  Missed out on seeing Quintero,
though.

2. Thomas Diamond, reasserting himself while nobody is looking.
Check; but count me among those who wasn’t looking.  I got to the back
fields five minutes too late to catch his unannounced sim game on
Wednesday.

3. Neftali Feliz.  Check.  Struggled some in Wednesday’s Prospect Game, but what he brings to the table is mesmerizing.   

4. Jason Botts, on one side of the complex or the other, in one shade of blue or another.  Check; he still belongs to us, for now.

5. Josh Rupe, my pitching sleeper for 2008. Check on getting to see him given the opportunity, but he hasn’t quite capitalized on it yet.

6. Whatever super-turbo-groovy kicks A.J. Preller is sporting these days.
Check, but he clearly ceded the yellow jersey to Mel Didier, who was
brandishing one rockin’, explosive pair of running shoes on the back
fields one afternoon.

7. A chance to talk to Chris Davis to figure out at what point his
boyhood dreams were surpassed by the reality of the last month.  German
Duran, too.  Unfinished business.

8. Jarrod Saltalamacchia, making a late rush.  Luis Mendoza finishing what he’s started.  (Kyle Lohse? No, thanks.)  Check, though it appears that Saltalamacchia won’t break camp as the starting catcher.

9. David Murphy, continuing to quietly do his thing.  Check, though I’m not so sure how quiet it is anymore.

10. Michael Young becoming more and more like Don Mattingly was, and Ian Kinsler becoming more and more like Michael Young is.  Check.  Check.

11. The March 2008 version of March 2004 Ian Kinsler.  I’m not sure who
it will be, but it won’t surprise me if in a week I’m putting my money
on Cristian Santana. Not ruling out
Santana, but I saw a couple others who I could see exploding this
season.  Max Ramirez has probably accomplished too much already, so
give me Johnny Whittleman.

12. C.J. Wilson, using adversity to his advantage on the mound.  Channeling, I think it’s called.  Check.  He was especially dirty on Thursday, and will pitch in the big league game today.

13. Kea Kometani, whose increasingly legitimate velocity and
consistently nasty splitter belong on someone far less unassuming than
he is.  Root for that guy.  Saw him throw a side but not in a game.

14. Brandon Boggs, perhaps the most unfairly overlooked player in the system.  Check.  Quietly filled the box score the couple times I saw him play.

15. Macumba.  Check.  Wow.

16. Taylor Teagarden at full strength, I hope.  Not quite there, but getting closer.  And getting antsy.

17. A sense that Joaquin Arias hasn’t given up.  Check.

18. Milton Bradley, leading as he can.  He’s a baseball player.  Check, check, check.

19. Wilmer Font, Julio Borbon, Michael Main, Max Ramirez, and Tommy Hunter.  Lots. Check, thanks in part to the Prospect Game (though Main of course was shut down).

20. As many conversations with Don Welke as he’ll tolerate.  Check – though you’ll have to ask him whether it got to the point at which it was a beating for him.  (I don’t think it did.)

21. Nolan Ryan, watching the Texas Rangers with as great a hope and
confidence as any of us have that things are headed in the right
direction, and with as great a passion as any of us have to see this
team win.  Check.  More on that in a bit.

22. Blake Beavan and Neil Ramirez, neither of whom I got to see pitch at Instructs. Check.  It will probably be close to summer before we see them in box scores, but it will be worth the wait.

23. The look in Eric Hurley’s eyes, which has been different, and better, every March that I’ve seen him take the mound. Check.

24. Johnny Whittleman and Michael Schlact, two players whose standing
among the Rangers prospect hierarchy seems to have waned, but only
because of the dramatic, headline-y influx of high-end prospects in
June’s draft and July’s trading season.  There’s no reason they
shouldn’t be on everyone’s watch list. CHECK.

25. Johan Yan, hopefully looking less raw with those sick skills.  It’s time.  Jury’s
still out.  Still looks as good as ever in BP and infield practice, but
in the few game situations I saw him in, he wasn’t as dangerous.

26. Zach Phillips and Derek Holland, either of whom could be a year or two away from being Matt Harrison.  Big check, particularly Holland.

27. This rumor that Franklyn German has found command.  Check.  Very interesting.

28. Fabio Castillo, of course.  The resoundingest of checks.

29. The booth alongside Victor Rojas for Monday’s webcast, weather permitting. Check.

30. Speaking of which, a couple mistaken weather forecasts for Sunday and Monday would suit me just fine.  Check, sorta.  Wasn’t as bad as forecasted, but we didn’t break out the sunblock until Tuesday.

31. Erica and Max, hopefully having half as good a time as they’ve been anticipating for weeks.  Missed on this one.  They seemed to have twice as good a time as they had hoped.

32. Josh Hamilton.  In batting
practice and in games, at the plate and in center field.  Interacting
with fans 20 years his junior and with his teammates of three months
who have accepted him unconditionally, as one of them.  Doing
everything loudly between the lines, quietly outside them.  Helping
redefine what the Texas Rangers plan to be about, with all of us
watching intently.  Massive check.  One league scout told ESPN’s Jayson
Stark that Hamilton “has been the best player in Arizona,” and I can’t
offer a counterargument.



As our Friday night ended, I got the chance to introduce my family to
Nolan Ryan, a moment that I don’t have to tell you was one I won’t
forget.  Though exhausted from yet another day in paradise, Max managed
to give Ryan a high five and tell him that his favorite player is
Michael Young.

What followed was a brief discussion of a breathtaking play that
Hamilton had made in left center in the sixth inning, gracefully
outrunning a Torii Hunter blast and hauling it in as he reached the
warning track on the dead run, lunging at full extension.  It was Ryan
who initiated that discussion, and he had a high five in his eyes as he
recounted the play.

Nolan Ryan has a better idea as I type this of who Max Newberg is than
Max does of who Nolan is.  That will change, of course, as Max get
older, though I’m guessing he won’t remember last night’s
introduction.  We asked for no autograph, no photograph, just an
opportunity to say hello.

What struck me, though, is that, impossibly, Nolan and Max have
something very real in common.  Hearing one of the greatest to ever
scale a major league mound talk in almost giddy terms about the
phenomenal play that his team’s new center fielder made in the middle
of a game that didn’t count was, in a way, no different from watching
Max play catch this week with Michael Young and Jason Botts and Thomas
Diamond and Tommy Hunter and Blake Beavan and John Whittleman Sr., and
seeing him flawlessly handle a two-hop fungo from Ron Washington.  It’s
a passion for the game, pure and alive and infectious.

I expected to come away with certain things on this trip, but not a
sense that Nolan Ryan and Max Newberg share something.  Baseball,
always offering surprises, is one of the great inspirations in my life,
as was the game’s all-time strikeout leader, as is my son, and I saw
this week, on a new level, how much the game inspires, and energizes,
the two of them as well.

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

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