May 2008

THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 23, 2008

Batting third, he was instrumental in a dramatic win, raking a single to right with a man on first in the ninth, and coming around to score when the next hitter blasted a walkoff home run.  Once you heard that they won the game in the ninth, you knew he was somehow in the middle of it.

That’s what Carl Yastrzemski did on May 21, 1981, the day Josh Hamilton was born.

It was 14 years after Yastrzemski won the American League Triple Crown.  

Nobody has won it since.

Josh Hamilton has now played in 138 games for Cincinnati and Texas, amassing 495 at-bats, a conservative equivalent of a full first year in the big leagues.  His line: .309/.372/.578, 30 doubles, 31 home runs, 100 RBI, and nine assists.

It’s a phenomenal set of numbers even before you consider that it’s basically coming from a rookie, a guy who is still seeing most pitchers for just the first or second time.

Surely I read this wrong, but Jeff Wilson of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram wrote yesterday that when Hamilton reached 50 RBI in 45 games on Monday, he set an all-time American League mark for the fastest to reach that level, breaking a record shared by Joe DiMaggio (1936) and Carl Everett (2000), each of whom got to 50 RBI in his 46th game of the season.  Didn’t Juan Gonzalez do it in 40 games in 1998, the year that he had 101 RBI at the All-Star Break?

According to Evan Grant of the Dallas Morning News, the Rangers have had “internal discussions and at least one casual conversation with [Hamilton's] agent” about a long-term contract.  As it stands, the Rangers control him unilaterally in 2009 as well as in his arbitration years of 2010, 2011, and 2012.  

Thanks in large part to Hamilton’s heroics (which came on a day on which he had to talk his way into the lineup), the Rangers extended their unbeaten streak to eight series.  

Milton Bradley sits at .322/.433/.570.  Tell you what: I have no interest in moving him in July, even if this team is out of the race, and even if some team is crazy enough to Max Ramirez us.  I want Bradley around all year, not only between the lines but in the room for all this team’s young players to learn from.  He leads the league in reaching base and is fourth in both hitting and slugging, but almost as big as far as I’m concerned is his intensity and tenacity and how those things never let up.  

If Bradley decides to move on this winter, there should be a couple picks in the first two rounds coming our way as a consolation.  But if he’s interested, I want the 30-year-old around next year and a couple after that.

C.J. Wilson in the bottom of the 10th yesterday: 12 pitches, 10 strikes.

Michael Young’s defensive game on Wednesday might have been his best in a year or two.  He was extraordinary.  

Nobody in the major leagues has more than David Murphy’s 18 doubles.

Hank Blalock is expected to rejoin the team today in Cleveland, but it’s no longer a lock that Chris Shelton (.360 over the last two weeks) is the roster casualty, particularly since Frank Catalanotto’s back continues to bother him.

The Rangers career of Franklyn German is likely over.  Even if Texas can slide him through waivers, since he’s been outrighted before (by Florida in 2006), he has the right to decline any subsequent outright assignments and take free agency.

Righthander Kameron Loe, recalled to take German’s place in the bullpen, hasn’t had a good AAA season (5.14 ERA, .319 opponents’ average), but in his last nine appearances — only one of which was as brief as one inning — he had 12 strikeouts and no walks, and he has a sparkling 3.06 groundouts for every flyout this season.

According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, if Boston had traded Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester to Texas for Alex Rodriguez, the Red Sox were also set to trade Nomar Garciaparra to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez, Brandon McCarthy, and Arnie Munoz.

Frisco lefthander Matt Harrison’s numbers since Texas acquired him in July from Atlanta: 8-1, 2.64 in seven Arizona Fall League starts and seven RoughRiders starts.  And he’s still three months away from his 23rd birthday.  

Scott Lucas had this interesting note: Harrison’s six walks in Sunday’s no-hitter — all of which came with two outs — were the most he’s ever issued in 104 pro appearances.  In fact, he hadn’t walked more than three in a game since August of 2004.  Control like that from a young lefthander who works in the low 90s and touches 95 is legit.

Ramirez leads the Texas League in reaching base (.464) and in slugging (.701) and in total bases (108, in 43 games), he’s second in hitting (.390), and he shares the league lead in home runs (11) — with teammate Chris Davis.

Oklahoma righthander Eric Hurley last night: seven scoreless innings, six singles, three walks, five strikeouts, nine groundouts and five flyouts, and double plays to end four of his last five frames.  Outstanding.

The mercurial season of Bakersfield lefthander Zach Phillips (4-3, 5.13) continued last night, as he punished Visalia with a complete game three-hitter (including a bunt single).  His catcher, Manny Pina, went 3 for 4 with his first home run of the season.  

The last time that Pina struck out was 63 at-bats ago, on April 25.  Can there be a longer streak anywhere in baseball?

On that date, Pina — a defensive wizard behind the plate — was hitting .149/.241/.170.  Since then: .390/.415/.525.

The Rangers released righthanders Dan Touchet and Jake Dittler and catcher Hunter Harrigan, and acquired catcher Tim Gradoville from Philadelphia for future considerations.  Gradoville is a Creighton University product, like his cousin Chris Gradoville, who catches for Bakersfield, and Rangers director of player development Scott Servais.  Tim has joined the Frisco roster.

San Diego righthander Chris Young landed on the disabled list with a fractured nose, and thank goodness the news isn’t worse than that.

Seattle designated inexplicable Ranger destroyer Cha Seung Baek for assignment yesterday, recalling R.A. Dickey from AAA in exchange of swingman righthanders.

The Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent American Association claimed righthander Mark Roberts off of waivers from the Lincoln Saltdogs, where Roberts had been teammates with righthander Ryan Dittfurth.  The Yuma Scorpions of the Golden Baseball League released catcher Angel Sanchez.

If your kid is in T-Ball or Little League right now like mine is, there’s all kinds of camps coming up at the Rangers’ newly renovated Dr Pepper Youth Ballpark, which now features a green-monster style wall in left field.  Here’s what’s available:

* Hitters Only Camp: Saturday, May 31 & Sunday, June 1 (ages 9-12; instructors will teach hitting mechanics; $275 fee includes two tickets to Rangers-A’s game in a luxury suite on the 1st)

* All Skills Camp (ages 6-12; instructors will teach hitting, pitching, catching, fielding, throwing, baserunning, weight training, flexibility, team offense, and team defense; $225 fee) — camps are 9 a.m. until noon on June 10-13, June 17-20, July 8-11, July 22-25, and July 29-August 1

* Mini Camp: June 9, 10 a.m. until noon (ages 4-6; all-around baseball skills; $50 fee)

For additional information, contact Breon Dennis, the Rangers’ Senior Director for Baseball Programs, Corporate Clinics & Youth Ballpark, at 817-273-5297 or bdennis@texasrangers.com, or visit texasrangers.com/youthballpark.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 21, 2008

Imagine if the Rangers faced Adam Eaton or John Wasdin tonight and got pounded with this:

IP     H    R    ER    BB    SO
9.0    6    1     1      1       5

That’s how it must feel to be a Twins fan right now, watching Sidney Ponson take game-ending congratulations on the mound rather than in the dugout.

Eighteen groundouts (that’s got to be close to a franchise record, huh, Rich Rice?) and three flyouts.  A complete game in just 110 pitches, 65 percent of which were strikes.

The decision not to trade Gerald Laird over the winter is looking very good.  His trade value has to be at an all-time high right now, six months after it was at an all-time low.

Tack on the return of Frisco’s Thomas Diamond (who allowed six runs in 4.2 innings, but had a stretch at one point in which he retired eight straight, and more importantly, was able to take the ball in a game that counted), supported by seven hits and eight RBI by the Max Ramirez-Chris Davis duo, plus a brilliant effort from Clinton’s Blake Beavan (perfect until allowing a single with two outs in the fifth, finishing with a 5-1-0-0-0-3 line and a 7/4 groundout/flyout ratio) against the Beloit Snappers – a Minnesota affiliate – and it’s been a pretty rewarding night to be a Rangers fan.

And a crummy one to be a Twins fan.

===================================

The great Rich Rice has come through: there have been five greater groundout efforts in Rangers history – three by Kenny Rogers (22, 20, 20) and one apiece by Ryan Drese (21) and Kevin Millwood (20).  Drese also had an 18, as did Scott Feldman, a week ago tonight. 

The only pitchers in baseball who have out-groundouted Feldman and Ponson this season are Chien-Ming Wang (20, three days ago) and Brandon Webb and Daniel Cabrera, each of whom induced 19 on May 8.

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

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.

Matt Harrison spins a no-hitter

Lefthander Matt Harrison, part of the bounty Texas acquired from Atlanta
for Mark Teixeira and Ron Mahay in July, has just thrown a no-hitter in Game
One of Frisco’s doubleheader against San
Antonio.  The 22-year-old
(3-1, 3.15) walked six and fanned five in the seven-inning effort, a 2-0 RoughRiders
win.  He needed 120 pitches to complete the
gem.

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

Hank Joe Blalock: First baseman

According to both local papers, when Hank Blalock comes
off the disabled list (possibly next weekend in Cleveland), he’ll do so as a first baseman.

Blalock reportedly volunteered to make the move,
believing it will be best for the team.

In 10 pro seasons, Blalock (whose work at the new
position got underway this morning in extended spring training) has never
appeared at first base.  His only
defensive appearances at a position other than third came in 2002, when he
played second base four times for Oklahoma,
and in 2003, when he played second four times for Texas.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 17, 2008

Vicente Padilla, Sidney Ponson, and Josh Rupe.

Those are the only three Rangers pitchers with multiple wins since April 10.

And yet, since Texas fell to 7-16 on April 24, the club has gone 15-6, with wins from 10 different pitchers: Padilla (four), Ponson (two), Rupe (two), Kevin Millwood, Scott Feldman, Jamey Wright, Joaquin Benoit, Franklyn German, Doug Mathis, and A.J. Murray.

Seven plus 15 equals 22, which is also what 16 plus six equals.  It’s crazy to think that, just over three weeks after that seven-game losing streak which dropped the Rangers to that 7-16 mark, and had any number of jobs reportedly in jeopardy, Texas has pulled back to .500 for the season, and now sits just 2.5 games out of first in the AL West and three games behind Boston in the Wild Card race.

Three weeks ago, news that John Mayberry Jr. has shown up at first base for the first time since Stanford would have led one of these reports.  While not insignificant, it’s a footnote given what else is going on right now.  The reason most of us care about what goes on in the minor leagues is because it impacts what could happen at the big league level.  For most of us, keeping tabs on who is progressing at Clinton and spotlighting who is switching positions at Oklahoma and monitoring next month’s draft are all functions of us wanting the Texas Rangers to win major league games, to reward our passion and our loyalty and our stamina, and our understanding that there’s a whole lot more that ultimately feeds that formula than whether Frankie Francisco comes in and strands a couple inherited runners.  Baseball offers us that in a way that no other sport does.

Unquestionably, what Max Ramirez and Chris Davis and Warner Madrigal and Julio Borbon are doing is absolutely important to any appreciation of where this thing could be headed, soon.  Presumably you read these reports because it’s more rewarding to understand why the arrival in Arlington of Mathis and German Duran and Brandon Boggs is so much different from welcoming Nick Bierbrodt or Desi Relaford or Adam Hyzdu.  

Most of us figured we wouldn’t have had this much to talk about in 2008 about Kennil Gomez or Renny Osuna or Ben Harrison or Ian Gac.  Recognizing what Jose Vallejo and Johnny Whittleman have done in extended spurts makes their overall numbers sing even more.  While I got the chance in March to sit in with Victor Rojas during a spring training broadcast and predicted that Mathis and Tommy Hunter were the two pitchers in the system I most expected to go from under the radar to squarely in the picture in 2008, it’s now looking like I undersold them.

All of those things are essential.  Not because we’re all keyed up to boast a Midwest League championship (though as we’ve said recently, winning helps create winners), but because the more big league prospects this franchise develops, the better this big league baseball team will be, one way or another.

Following the minor leagues is part of my core interest in baseball, and it would be even if I weren’t writing about the sport.  But anticipating Thomas Diamond’s return to action isn’t nearly as much about how it could strengthen the RoughRiders’ division lead as it is about what it could mean for the Texas Rangers if he comes back healthy and effective and dominant.

But thank goodness for a baseball season that, at this admittedly early stage, allows me write about players we can watch play every day, to write that Padilla is 4-0, 1.60 over his last five starts, that he has already exceeded 100 pitches more times in 2008 (six) than he did in all of 2007 (five), and that Josh Hamilton is 12 for 12 this year in driving in a runner from third with fewer than two outs.  That Hamilton hit .179/.226/.429 against the Astros last year, with six RBI in 28 at-bats, and is hitting ..875/.889/1.875 against them in 2008, with five RBI in eight at-bats.

And I can’t tell you how spectacular it will be to watch if this team, in July, finds itself healthier, still in the hunt, and in a position, perhaps the league’s best position given its depth in legitimate prospects, to be on the other side of one of those Mark Teixeira trades, pooling three or four prospects – without crippling the muscle of this dramatically improved farm system – to go get the best hitter on the trade market, or a number two starter.  

As I’ve said a couple times recently:  

It’s not about this year.  

But it is about tonight.

Drinking the Kool-Aid and riding the adrenaline of seven straight series wins, let me restate that:

It’s not about this year.  

But it is about tonight.

And it may be about this year.

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 17, 2008

pudge.jpg

 


OK,
OK. 

I’m
the third-best baseball player ever to wear this uniform.

 

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 16, 2008

pudge.jpg

 

 

Hi. 

I’m Ivan.

I’m the second-best baseball
player ever to wear this uniform.

 

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

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

THE NEWBERG REPORT — May 16, 2008

Some quick hits today.

Hank Blalock was scratched last night from the kickoff of
his rehab assignment with Frisco when his hamstring — partially torn just
three weeks ago — tightened up during pregame warm-ups.  Good. 
There’s no sense in rushing things, regardless of what you think the
big-picture plan should be with the veteran third baseman.

Righthander Luis Mendoza had to cut his own Frisco rehab
outing short on Wednesday due to a blister on his pitching hand.

David Murphy leads the American League with 15 doubles.

Baseball Prospectus’s reputable VORP formula ranks Josh
Hamilton as the top center fielder in the American League.  Torii Hunter is a distant third.

Bakersfield
righthander Tommy Hunter is second in all of minor league baseball in innings
pitched, with 58.1 over nine starts. 
He’s 5-4, 3.55 with 50 strikeouts and eight walks — and five straight
quality starts.  He won’t be in the
California League when this season ends.

But he may not get the chance to play alongside Chris Davis
this season (though they might share a uniform in Arlington at some point in 2009).  In the Frisco slugger’s first 27 games this
year, he hit an impressive .306/.345/.595 with seven walks and 30
strikeouts.  In the 10 games since then
he’s hit an otherworldly .436/.489/.641 — with five walks and only seven
strikeouts.

Davis
doesn’t have an extra-base hit in 21 trips against left-handers this season.  With the first base situation what it is in Texas, and with the news that Max Ramirez is taking ground
balls at first in pregame warmups for the RoughRiders, is it out of the question
that the two of them are platooning at first for Texas in September?  Ramirez (who doesn’t discriminate on the
basis of pitcher-handedness) gets additional at-bats at designated hitter and
backup catcher.  Conceivable?

Frisco outfielder Ben Harrison, having a terrific
bounceback season after his 2007 was hampered by a shoulder injury, is not only
hitting .354/.444/.659 but also has seven home runs and 28 RBI in 82
at-bats.  Last year, between Bakersfield and Frisco, Harrison
totaled seven homers and 30 RBI in 246 at-bats.

Your votes on the Newberg Report message board resulted
in Ramirez and Oklahoma outfielder Nelson Cruz
sharing minor league player of the month honors for April, and Clinton righthander Kennil Gomez earning pitcher
of the month recognition.  Eleanor Czajka
has posted the overall voting results at http://www.dickiethon.com/eczajka/april_2008.htm.

It was reported this week that Fresno State
righthander Tanner Scheppers has a stress fracture in his shoulder and will be
sidelined for six weeks.  While Scheppers
wasn’t likely to be available when the Rangers pick at the 11th slot, this
probably means someone else who would have been there for Texas no longer will be. 

One player whose availability to the Rangers could be
directly impacted by the Scheppers injury is Tulane righthander Shooter Hunt,
who figures to go in the vicinity of the Rangers’ pick.  Texas
drafted Hunt in the 34th round in 2005 but couldn’t dissuade the New Jersey high schooler from attending the University of Virginia (where he pitched in 2006
before transferring to Tulane).

Dish Network dropped Rave HD from its channel lineup.  I may not only be the only person upset by
this — I may be the only person who noticed.

The Mets purchased the contract of 33-year-old infielder
Fernando Tatis from AAA New Orleans, where he was hitting .242/.345/.592 with
12 homers in 120 at-bats.

Seattle
signed outfielder Victor Diaz to a minor league deal.

The Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League
signed lefthander Eric Cyr.

The red-hot Astros show up tonight to take on the red-hot
Rangers.  Good stuff.

 

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

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