THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 21, 2008

Putting a pet down, even when it’s clearly the right thing to do, is hard.  It’s especially hard when you see how upsetting it is for a seven-year-old and how confusing it is for a three-year-old, leaving you with an urge to try and make everything okay for them when you know that that’s not possible.  

It does put everything in perspective, making a three-game skid by your baseball team seem less apocalyptic and the imminent shift of Hank Blalock to first base seem less earth-shattering.

The Blalock development is very interesting, even if not the tipping point that some with blogs or radio frequencies would have you believe.

The news broke over the weekend that Blalock, who continues to rehabilitate his hamstring injury, volunteered to Rangers management to move across the infield, evidently on a permanent basis.  A crash course at extended spring training is underway — Blalock played first base in a game on Monday and then yesterday in a simulated game in which he didn’t bat but instead played his new position for both teams.  He’ll play in a game today, and then a decision will be made on whether he’ll join the big club Friday in Cleveland.

On the whole, this is basically a veteran player offering to make a move that he believes, right or wrong, will be best for the team.  It doesn’t have the impact that Michael Young’s march into Buck Showalter’s office in February 2004 to volunteer to move from second base to shortstop had, but the Blalock move does have implications beyond the effect it will have on Ron Washington’s lineup.

Is this a good move for Blalock?  Since he volunteered to make the switch, he obviously believes so.  With one guaranteed year left on his contract and likely a second before he hits the open market (he has a $6.2 million option for 2009 that Texas — or whoever — is sure to exercise, as long as he is reasonably healthy), moving to a theoretically less taxing defensive position could help keep him on the field and boost his production at the plate.  Showing some versatility also helps his market value, of course.

Is this a good move for Texas?  If the club didn’t think so, it wouldn’t be happening.  

Is the infield defense better with Blalock on one corner and Ramon Vazquez (or perhaps Travis Metcalf [now back in action at AAA] after another couple weeks) on the other, as opposed to Blalock and either Frank Catalanotto or Chris Shelton?  Last night’s Shelton Web Gem notwithstanding, the answer to that question has to be yes, without having any idea how quickly Blalock will grasp the nuances of the new position.  Infield defense on this club, with this pitching staff, is monumentally important.

The offense at first base stands to be better, too.  Texas first basemen are hitting an anemic .200/.285/.363 this season.

Accentuating the odds of keeping Blalock healthy obviously helps the Rangers as well.

The bench gets better.  Blalock at first could mean you keep German Duran around, while Blalock at third would probably mean the less versatile Shelton has the edge on the bench job.  (Still, Duran could trade places with Metcalf at some point, especially if there’s an effort to get Catalanotto more outfield at-bats upon Blalock’s return, which would make Duran’s ability to play the outfield less important for the makeup of the bench.)

And then there’s the gorilla issue.  If the idea is that, at some point, whether it’s this summer or this winter or a year from now or more, Elvis Andrus becomes the Rangers’ next shortstop, shifting Blalock away from third base would allow Young to move at that point to third base — where his defensive strengths would play exceptionally well and where his life expectancy in baseball could be extended — without having to disrupt the lineup anywhere else.  

(Yes, Young told reporters this week that “there is no reason for me to move to third base” and that “for right now and the near future, any position other than shortstop is not an option.”  But he also said that “if something happens down the road and the team is better served by me moving, I’m sure there will be some discussions.”  Plus, back in 2004, when the talk of trading Alex Rodriguez was gaining momentum, Young initially said that he wouldn’t be crazy about a move to shortstop — and then he volunteered to make the move himself.  He’s always been a team player, and he’ll do the right thing.)

(And I believe that, as part of that ethic, Young would be less inclined to accept a proposed move to third base if, in the process, it would mean the supplanting of Blalock, his longtime teammate.  Not an issue now.)

Does the Blalock move throw a barrier up in front of Chris Davis?  Absolutely not.  He’s this team’s big-picture first baseman, just as much as he was last week.  He’s inflicting massive damage in Frisco (.323/.372/.587), but just two years ago his uniform said “Navarro College” on it.  When he’s ready for the big leagues, he’ll be here.  But the rules say someone has to play first base until that happens, and right now it appears that Blalock could be the best fit.

And here’s the thing.  If Blalock fits really, really well, and if he produces this summer, there are probably more teams in need of help at first base than at third (which isn’t to say that those needing a third baseman would automatically scratch Blalock from the list).  

The Yankees.  The Mets.  The Athletics.  The Astros, theoretically (moving Lance Berkman back to the outfield and making Michael Bourn a fourth outfielder).  

In the off-season, the Giants.  The Mariners.  

The Braves.

Blalock at first base could open several new trading doors.  The Rangers choose either to nudge them open, or not to, which could depend on where the team sits in the standings in two months.  No-lose situation.

Couple other quick things.

Washington says the next save opportunity will “probably” go to C.J. Wilson, who has had command issues (and an 8.49 ERA) over the last month.

Righthander Kevin Millwood is progressing well but is expected to miss another two starts as he recuperates from his injured groin.  The club doesn’t want a repeat of last season’s mess when Millwood returned from the disabled list in mid-May and, 1.2 innings into his first start back, reaggravated his hamstring injury and landed right back on the DL.

Whether righthander Doug Mathis comes back to make the next start in Millwood’s spot has apparently not been decided.  Lefthander A.J. Murray is a candidate to take the ball if it doesn’t go to Mathis.

Righthander Luis Mendoza’s shoulder is no longer holding him back from resuming his rehab assignment, but he had to cut a bullpen session short after just three pitches due to a recurring blister on the middle finger of his throwing hand.

Righthander Thomas Diamond is reportedly getting today’s start for Frisco.  It will be his first official game action since September 1, 2006, when he last appeared for the RoughRiders.  Diamond had Tommy John surgery on March 20, 2007.

Diamond will join righthander Tommy Hunter in the Frisco rotation.  Hunter debuted on Monday for the RoughRiders, permitting one run on five hits and no walks in seven innings, fanning four.  He needed only 88 pitches to get through seven, and threw a sparkling 73 percent of them for strikes.

Clinton righthander Neftali Feliz had fired five straight scoreless starts before giving up one run (on three hits and no walks with six strikeouts in six innings) on Sunday in Cedar Rapids.  All told, his scoreless streak reached 23.1 innings, and in 42.2 innings for the season he has fanned 49, walked 16, and has yet to be taken deep while limiting the Midwes
t League to a hapless .193 average and .255 slug.

The Rodriguez-to-Boston trade that the league killed before Texas moved A-Rod to the Yankees reportedly would have brought Manny Ramirez to the Rangers, along with a southpaw prospect who had just completed his first full pro season by going 6-9, 3.65 for the Low A Augusta Greenjackets.  His name: Jon Lester, proud new owner of a major league no-hitter.

New trend in the game, or at least one that the media is now noticing: Cincinnati is apparently the latest team timing its promotion of a blue-chip young player with regard to his eventual arbitration or free agency status.  According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, the Reds are waiting until late this month to promote 21-year-old AAA outfielder Jay Bruce (.366/.394/.665) because at that point he’ll likely no longer qualify as a “Super Two” arbitration candidate after the 2009 season, even if he’s in the big leagues to stay.

The Atlantic City Surf of the independent Can-Am League released righthander Greg Runser.

There are a number of reports that Buck Showalter might be in line to replace the retiring Ron Polk as coach at Mississippi State, where Showalter played collegiately.  

I wrote this on September 13, 2007: “According to T.R. Sullivan, the University of Oregon approached Buck Showalter before hiring Cal-State Fullerton’s George Horton to be its head coach.  I’ve said it for years: I think Showalter would make a spectacular college coach, for a number of reasons.”

Whether Hank Blalock will make a spectacular first baseman is anyone’s guess.  But there’s some upside for the player with this move, and some for his team as well, and we’re going to start to find out soon enough what the payoff might be.  

The story here is not an unthinkable position switch at a mind-boggling time of the season, however; it’s a veteran making an interesting decision based on what he believes is best for his team and for himself.  The implications are worth watching.

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

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