THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 31, 2008
The disappointing news regarding Hank Blalock brings to mind what this team went through with Akinori Otsuka a year ago. Otsuka, who had ceded his 2006 closer’s role when Eric Gagné was signed to pitch the ninth inning in 2007, was motoring along in the first half last year when he was sidelined with what was termed at the time as mild forearm stiffness. The Rangers got nothing from him, or for him, after that.
That’s not to suggest that Blalock’s days here are potentially done, or that his career is in jeopardy, but the timing couldn’t have been worse with Otsuka, and it’s not great with regard to Blalock, either, though for not exactly the same reasons.
When Otsuka got two outs in a scoreless eighth in Boston on July 1, he lowered his ERA to 2.51 as he handed the ball off to Gagné, who got the final four outs, earning his 10th save and whittling his own ERA down to 1.11. Just that morning, Ken Davidoff of Newsday had gone so far as to write that Otsuka and Gagné, pitching for what was then a 33-47 Rangers club (16.5 games back in the West), were two of the top three available pitchers in baseball as the trade deadline approached. Otsuka had fired 12 scoreless outings out of 13, and was proven both as a closer and in the eighth inning, plus he was affordable ($3 million) and would be under team control for both 2008 and 2009 by way of arbitration.
But that’s when his forearm tightened up.
Lots of teams had reportedly been calling on Otsuka before the precautionary move to rest him in July. On July 19, after 18 days of inactivity and no meaningful improvement, Texas placed Otsuka on the disabled list, and though it was made retroactive to July 9 and left open the possibility that he could return to action before the conventional trade deadline at the end of the month, his official deactivation effectively shut down any possibility Texas had of flipping him for a prospect or two. (Octavio Dotel brought Kyle Davies last July. Scott Linebrink brought Will Inman, Steve Garrison, and Joe Thatcher. We know what Gagné brought.)
There were no reports of improvement in August.
On September 5, the Rangers moved Otsuka to the 60-day disabled list.
Two weeks later, the club acknowledged that he wouldn’t return before the end of the season.
In October, reports indicated that Otsuka was throwing again in Surprise, and Texas reinstated the 35-year-old from the DL. Early in December, word came out that he’d been throwing without pain or setback for at least a month.
But on December 12, the Rangers non-tendered him, making him a free agent that Texas no longer had to go to arbitration with. That was disappointing enough, considering how dependable Otsuka had been for Texas for a season and a half, but then there was a report from T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com that, at some point before the non-tender, Texas and the White Sox were prepared to swap Otsuka and 20-year-old Class A first base monster Chris Carter.
Instead, Chicago traded Carter to Arizona for a 25-year-old outfielder who had struggled in 2006 and 2007 looks with the Diamondbacks. That outfielder, whom the Sox picked up for Carter after they were frightened off by Otsuka’s medical reports, was Carlos Quentin. You’ll see him when Chicago comes to town July 11-13 — and probably two days after that in the All-Star Game.
Otsuka’s absence in the second half last year paved the way for the emergence of C.J. Wilson and Joaquin Benoit in bigger roles. But Otsuka’s inability to pitch after July 1 probably cost the Rangers a pretty good return in trade, whether in July or in the winter, if not an effective bullpen piece in 2008 had he proved to be healthy and wasn’t moved.
What is Blalock’s absence, first due to a torn hamstring and now due to a sudden onset of carpal tunnel syndrome in his right wrist (as he was otherwise poised to return to action), costing Texas? Yes, the club is 20-12 since he last played, but this lineup would look a lot better if Blalock (who was hitting a healthy .299/.365/.460 with the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career when he got hurt) were in it, especially at first base, which is where it had been determined he would play before this latest setback.
For now, the Rangers are obviously surviving Blalock’s absence. But he’s certainly a hitter you’d rather have in the lineup than not.
But the other, less immediate question looms. At what point will he be back to show the Rangers what he can do at first base? Setting aside for the moment the possibility that he could help a much improved team stay in the 2008 race, Texas holds a $6.2 million option (or a $250,000 buyout) on Blalock for 2009. If this move across the diamond is permanent, Blalock will need to show not only a recovered rhythm at the plate but also evidence that he can be an effective defender at first base, for two reasons: (1) I bet management believes this team can contend in 2009, particularly with the way it’s played over the last month; and (2) if Chris Davis is going to be ready in 2009 (if not sooner), does it make sense to spend more than $6 million to delay his arrival?
Or, depending on Milton Bradley’s ability to play defensively (and the Rangers’ interest in bringing him back), could Blalock be a designated hitter (assuming, perhaps unwisely, that Max Ramirez won’t be ready to take over that role in 2009)?
Or could Blalock be traded?
We talked 10 days ago about the list of teams who could conceivably be in the market for a first baseman this summer (the Yankees, the Mets, Oakland, and Houston, moving Lance Berkman back to the outfield) or this winter (San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta). Blalock has too much potential value to Texas, either as a lineup fixture and improvement at first base (though to be fair, Frank Catalanotto and Chris Shelton are hitting .284/.375/.431 in May), or as a possible trade chip.
Reportedly, Blalock should be out of action another 20-30 days as he recovers from yesterday’s surgery to alleviate pressure on the irritated median nerve in his wrist (resorted to when the wrist didn’t respond to anti-inflammatory medication or a cortisone shot). I’m really hopeful that the prognosis is on target, that Blalock comes back when projected and that he comes back healthy and productive.
That, unlike Otsuka, he becomes very valuable to the Rangers, once again.