April 2008

In Their Footsteps: The backup catcher

The focus on my column for MLB.com in 2006 was on baseball’s procedural rules, subject matter that was fertile enough to feed a new story idea every week for a full season.  But not more than that.

In 2007 I wrote about a noteworthy trade from Rangers history each week, but since the bit was that each installment would be written on the anniversary of the trade in question, I couldn’t really extend that column into a second year, either.

So we change focus once again in 2008.  This year’s column will mix a look back with a look ahead.  Each week I’ll take one spot on a standard 25-man roster and feature not only the player from Rangers history who stood out most for me in that role but also a prospect or two from today’s deep Rangers farm system who might project to settle in at that roster spot if they develop as anticipated.

The catch is that the backup catcher will really have been a backup catcher.  No cheating by choosing Pudge Rodriguez and Jim Sundberg as the two catchers on the roster.  The bullpen will have one closer, not six.  The long reliever will really have been a long reliever, the fourth starter really a fourth starter, the utility infielder exactly that.

Given the length of the baseball season, which has roughly as many weeks as there are spots on a big league roster, we’ll methodically work our way from the back of the roster to the most important spots.  

Let’s start with what on some teams might not be the 25th spot, but in Rangers history — maybe more so than with any club since Texas joined the league 36 years ago — there’s no question that the last player on the roster has been the backup catcher.  When as a franchise you have a run of 16 Gold Gloves between 1976 and 2002, your second-stringer behind the plate tends to have only slightly more significance than Matt Cassel.

The Rangers, however, have had a bunch of good ones in their history, particularly during the Rodriguez years.  Geno Petralli was the capable caddy in Rodriguez’s first three years in the big leagues.  Dave Valle played sparingly in his two seasons as a Ranger but made a huge impact off the field, especially in August of 1996, when he called the most storied clubhouse meeting in franchise history.

But I’ve never felt better about the second-string Rangers catcher than when Bill Haselman held the job down, and the fact that he had three separate stints in Texas suggests the organization was equally comfortable.  The Rangers’ first-round draft pick in 1987 — a year before the organization signed Rodriguez — Haselman was well prepared to be the lifetime backup he’d turn into, having served as the number two quarterback behind starter Troy Aikman at UCLA. 

In his five Rangers seasons (1990, 1998, and 2000-2002), Haselman amassed what amounts to one full season of at-bats.  Playing sporadically, as backup catchers usually do and Rangers backup catchers in those days always did, he was a solid .273/.317/.419 hitter over 620 lifetime Texas at-bats, with 37 doubles, 18 home runs, and 89 RBI.  He was solid defensively, a leader, a guy who never complained about the scarcity of his playing time and made the most of his opportunities when he got them in a 13-year major league career. 

When Haselman was on the doorstep of the big leagues, Texas had just gotten Mike Stanley to Arlington and had Haselman, Pudge Rodriguez, and Chad Kreuter on the farm.  The Rangers might have had the deepest stable of catching prospects in baseball at the time, a distinction that 20 years later they once again boast.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez, Cristian Santana, Manny Pina, and Leonel De Los Santos are all prospects behind the plate, and though you never want to label a player as a future big league backup, one catcher in the system seems to fit the profile best.

If you were to draw it up yourself, you’d want your number two catcher to offer defense ahead of offense, especially in the American League, where the ability to pinch-hit is less important.  Pinch-run for your starting catcher late in a close game, and that spot in the order may never come up again, but the catcher who replaces him defensively better be able to handle your closer’s nasty stuff, and ideally help control the other team’s running game.

Saltalamacchia is going to be a frontline catcher in the big leagues, or else he’ll end up at first base.  Teagarden is a brilliant defender, but the way his bat has played, he projects to start in the big leagues as well, if all goes as planned.  Ramirez and Santana are hit-first types who could reach the big leagues at other positions, especially if they remain Rangers property.  De Los Santos is a 19-year-old freak of nature, a budding defensive star who is built more like the backup batboy than the backup catcher.

Pina, ago 20, is the player in the Rangers organization who most fits the prototype.  Just a .234/.298/.294 hitter in his three pro seasons, he nonetheless has impressive bat control, striking out only 44 times in 411 career at-bats (including an phenomenally low eight times in 142 second-half at-bats for Clinton last year).  But his game is built behind the plate, where the Venezuelan is aggressive, athletic, intelligent, and fortified with a cannon arm that bounced back well in 2007 from 2006 elbow surgery.  He cut down 38 percent of Midwest League runners attempting to steal last season.

Rangers Director of Player Development Scott Servais, who himself started more than half of his team’s games just three times in a sturdy 11-year big league career behind the plate, acknowledges that Pina has work to do with the bat but is hardly discouraged.  “He’s a legitimate prospect behind the plate, with a plus throwing arm.  He still has things to clean up offensively, but we’re challenging him at Bakersfield this year.”

Good defensive catchers can carve out long big league careers, even if mostly in backup roles.  Pina may not be the Rangers’ top catcher prospect, but his defensive skills are certainly strong enough that he could get to the major leagues whether he hits or not, and once he does there would be no shame in lasting as long as Haselman and Servais did. 

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com.  A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger.  He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com.  This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.   


Minor leaguers open tonight

the Rangers rest, their four full-season farm affiliates kick their seasons off
tonight.  The Opening Day starters are
scheduled to be righthander Eric Hurley (Oklahoma), lefthander Matt Harrison (Frisco),
righthander Tommy Hunter (Bakersfield), and lefthander Derek Holland (Clinton),
though some reports indicate that righthander Scott Feldman could get the RoughRiders
assignment rather than Harrison.

Lucas has created a spectacular organization depth chart, detailing the Rangers’
minor league rosters, including likely starting lineups, 40-man roster status, and
acquisition history.  Check it out at http://rangers.scottlucas.com/site/org.htm.

This is going to be a fascinating season on the Rangers farm.

Also, my MLB.com column returns today.  Each week this season I’ll take one spot on a
standard 25-man roster and feature not only my favorite player from Rangers
history in that role but also a prospect or two from the current Rangers farm
system who might project to settle in at that roster spot if they develop as

I submitted the first installment last night and will send out an
email once it’s posted.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — April 2, 2008

Callback to the April 1, 2008 Newberg Report, sent two and a
half hours ago, with Seattle
ahead in the second inning, 1-0:

feel good about this game.”

think it’s going to be Josh Hamilton or David Murphy who does something to turn
this thing around.”
  Check.  Check.

man, I sure would like to see us catch the ball better.”

Wow.  I’m such a
basket case of a sports fan.  There’s no reasonable
explanation for Game Two (that’s April, not October) kicking my tail like this
one did, but I don’t see any way that I’m going to be able to sleep for at
least another hour.  Might as well write.

That was a great game. 
And an awful game.  There’s no
chance that this morning’s papers will have enough space to tell the whole
story, which of course is a terrible shame since a lot of you probably weren’t
able to stay up to watch the last few unbelievable innings.

But before the crazy final third of the game, the Padilla
Flotilla was on a mission, following Kevin Millwood’s outstanding start in the
opener with an equally strong effort.  I’m
not sure either righthander looked as good at any time in 2007, which is a big
thing.  If we can get a good bit of 2006
out of those two, you best not write 2008 off prematurely.

The defense got even sloppier after I sent that earlier email
(kudos, by the way, to Padilla for not unraveling when his defense was showing
signs of doing just that), and I’m sort of hopeful that the flu has had
something to do with the middle infielders being off their game in the field.  (Young, in particular, was really sick
tonight, I understand.)  I was thinking
the fastball off Ian Kinsler’s right hand in the seventh might have affected
him on the Ichiro grounder that he lost the handle on in the ugly eighth, but
the incredible at-bat Kinsler then had off J.J. Putz to start the ninth (an
at-bat that will unfairly get lost) convinced me that his hand, no matter how
bad it was, wasn’t going to get in the way, or serve as an excuse.  Brenden Morrow.

I said on the radio yesterday that for me, Joaquin Benoit (along
with Jason Jennings) might be the swing guy on the pitching staff, a guy whose
ability to follow up on his 2007 success might be the difference between making
this staff a really good one and a real problem.  Tonight was not very encouraging. 

C.J. Wilson, on the other hand?   Ten strikes in 14 pitches.  He looked completely in control of the game.

So did Eddie Guardado, whose 10 strikes out of 15 deliveries
in the seventh had his old teammates consistently off balance.

Callback to March 27: “[Hank] Blalock is going to have a huge year.  Huge.”

I haven’t felt this good about Blalock since his first full

Everyone will remember what Hamilton did with the bat tonight, but his
speed made an absolutely huge difference in this game, on defense and on

Incidentally, if it were Boston
or the Yankees who managed to pry Hamilton
loose from the Reds this winter, he would have been on the cover of
Time Magazine before camp

I’m such a huge David Murphy fan.

King Felix is not only really, really good at pitching
baseballs, he’s a heck of a good fielder, too.

You could hear Tom Grieve laughing underneath Josh Lewin’s
call of the Hamilton
blast off Putz.  Eric Nadel’s voice
cracked slightly when Ben Broussard dug Michael Young’s throw out to retire
Ichiro and end the game.  This was a game
that rewarded great baseball fans, and I truly hope most of you stuck around
past midnight to experience all of it.


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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — April 1, 2008

Callback to the May 28, 2007 Newberg Report:

can’t believe the defense this team plays. 
I’m not talking about errors (though only the two Florida teams have committed more), and I’ve
never been one to look at sabermetric measures so I’m not about to begin
now.  The mistakes the Rangers make in
the field ― throwing to the wrong base, diving when they shouldn’t, taking bad
routes, misplaying balls even when the routes are solid ― are stunning. 

It’s certainly not at that level right now, but 11 innings
into the season, six Rangers defenders have not made plays that they should
have, and it’s not rocket science to suggest that while you can’t afford to do
that against any major league lineup, it’s potentially suicidal when you’ve got
Erik Bedard or Felix Hernandez facing yours.

Still feel good about this game, and I think it’s going to
be Josh Hamilton or David Murphy who does something to turn this thing around,
but man, I sure would like to see us catch the ball better.

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