In Their Footsteps: The middle reliever

One of the recurring themes of the Newberg Report over the years has been how well teams can do on the trade market if they have catchers to deal.  Considering what teams have been able to get for A.J. Pierzynski (Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano, and Boof Bonser), Johnny Estrada (Kevin Millwood), Einar Diaz (first Travis Hafner, then Chris Young), and Eddie Taubensee (a young Kenny Lofton), the fact that the Rangers are stockpiling catchers on the farm right now should encourage any fan of the team.

Before the 2004 trade of Diaz to Montreal in a deal to get Young, the last time Texas moved a catcher in a significant trade was in 1998, when the Rangers and Blue Jays exchanged former second-round picks.  Headed to Toronto was Kevin L. Brown, a AAA catcher who at age 24 was just a year and a half younger than Pudge Rodriguez, who had already started five All-Star Games.  Coming back to Texas was 28-year-old Tim Crabtree, who would develop into perhaps the best middle reliever in franchise history.

Doug Melvin was a believer in buying low on pitchers who’d had previous big league success.  It didn’t pay off when he traded for Justin Thompson after the 1999 season.  But Melvin struck gold twice before the 1998 season, when he picked up Aaron Sele from Boston and Crabtree, who’d had elbow surgery during the 1997 season, from Toronto.

Crabtree had reached the big leagues three years after being drafted, and in his first two Blue Jays seasons, he appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the league’s best relievers, posting a combined 2.72 ERA in 1995 and 1996 and holding opponents to a .234/.305/.326 line with a fastball that touched 98 and a hard slider.  But he had a lost 1997, compiling an 8.46 ERA before a June elbow scope, and lowering it to 7.08 upon his return for the final two months of the season.

Brown rode a fast track to the big leagues himself, reaching Arlington in 1996, his third pro season.  But his minor league power had disguised otherwise disappointing progress, and when the Rangers acquired veteran Bill Haselman in the Sele deal in November 1997, Brown — who had been surpassed as the organization’s top catcher prospect by AA teenager Cesar King — became expendable.

Toronto had signed veteran catcher Darrin Fletcher to a two-year, $4.35 million deal that winter, but wanted a right-handed hitter to back him up.  With two weeks to go in spring training, Melvin’s good friend Gord Ash came calling, asking for Brown.  Melvin’s price was Crabtree.  They made a deal.

Brown would get 110 at-bats for Toronto in 1998, which would turn out to be more than half of his career workload, amassed over seven seasons.  Crabtree, on the other hand, played just four years for Texas, but made a big impact along the way, particularly in 1998 and 1999.

John Wetteland owned the ninth inning those two seasons, with Xavier Hernandez, Danny Patterson, and Scott Bailes working the eighth inning in 1998 and Jeff Zimmerman holding that role down in 1999.  Both years, Crabtree consistently held seventh-inning leads for manager Johnny Oates.

Crabtree went 6-1, 3.59 in 1998 and 5-1, 3.46 in 1999.  He struck out nearly seven batters per nine innings, walked just three per nine, and, perhaps most importantly, induced twice as many groundouts as flyouts and allowed only seven home runs in 150.1 innings.  

Middle relievers often enter the game in the middle of an inning, with runners on base, so groundball artists are key (especially in Rangers Ballpark).  Crabtree’s sinking fastball and a cutter that ran in on left-handed hitters made him particularly effective at getting hitters to drill the ball into the ground, keeping the opposition in check as he helped get the game to the eighth and ninth.

Crabtree, who holds the Rangers franchise mark for playoff pitching appearances (four), was the Rangers’ most dominant pitcher in the 1998 post-season, holding New York to an infield single in four otherwise spotless innings.  Facing the minimum 12 batters in those four frames, Crabtree coaxed nine outs on the ground, set two Yankees (Paul O’Neill and Derek Jeter) down on strikes, and allowed just one ball out of the infield, a Chuck Knoblauch flyout to shallow right center. 

Toronto developed Crabtree as a starter before converting him to relief the year before he broke into the big leagues.  The plan appears to be far more certain with righthander Andrew Laughter, the Rangers’ 10th-round pick last summer out of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette.  In his four-year college career (the first two seasons of which were at Jacksonville University), Laughter started twice in 54 appearances.  All 39 of his pro appearances have come out of the bullpen.

Featuring a sinker-slider combination just as Crabtree did (though with slightly less velocity), Laughter went 0-1, 2.03 with 11 saves for Short-Season A Spokane in 2007, with a standout ratio of 32 strikeouts to four walks in 31 innings and a 1.85 groundout-to-flyout rate.  

In 2008, Laughter was asked to skip Low A Clinton, as the club assigned the big righty (he stands 6’4″, 225, just like Crabtree) to High A Bakersfield, but he didn’t last long in the California League.  In 16.1 Blaze innings, he gave up 13 hits and two walks, striking out nine and inducing 2.14 groundouts for every flyout.  Early this month he became the first Rangers’ 2007 draftee to reach AA, leaving Bakersfield with three saves and a 0.00 ERA (he allowed one unearned run) as he was promoted to Frisco.  In his first three RoughRider appearances, Laughter has a 3.60 ERA and a 1.75 G/F rate.

In 47.1 pro innings over his two seasons, Laughter has yet to be taken deep.  His control and his ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the park make him a strong candidate to enter the Rangers’ bullpen picture by sometime in 2009, mostly likely somewhere in the middle innings.  

If Laughter develops from a Day Two draft pick into a reliable major league middle reliever, it will be a scouting and development success story — yet one more way in which he’d have something in common with Crabtree, who was acquired for a player who projected at best to be a backup catcher.

 

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

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