July 2008

Redemption.

Texas spanked the $48 million man, Carlos Silva, but Luis Mendoza couldn’t lock things down with a seven-run lead.  Jamey Wright was as ineffective as he’s been all year.

The game was still there to be won, thanks to some great work out of Frankie Francisco and Eddie Guardado, but C.J. Wilson blew the save.  

While Wilson doesn’t get a reprieve (Seattle donated two of the ninth inning’s three outs), Ramon Vazquez capped off a nightmare defensive game by taking a ground ball off the bat of a 36-year-old backup catcher, throwing it wildly, and instantly turning a 9-8 lead into a 10-9 deficit.

But in a season that’s featured redemption, in a way, for several men who wear the Rangers uniform, Vazquez redeemed himself in the bottom of the ninth, picking up his fourth hit and third and fourth RBI’s of the night, a night on which the first three hits and first two RBI’s would otherwise have been meaningless and forgotten, obscured by his second error of the night – the two-out throwing miscue in the fourth after which two runs scored – and his third, the devastating throwing error in the ninth on which another two scored.

Vazquez, a good defensive player whose horrendous night with the glove came hours after Vazquez told reporters that he expected to find a new team in 2009 and hours after the club placed Hank Blalock back on the disabled list, stood in with one out in the ninth against J.J. Putz and rifled a shot to right center field, eluding Ichiro’s sprint and reach, not only scoring Chris Davis from second but also Gerald Laird, not back at full strength yet as a runner, from first.

Ballgame.

Vazquez, the former Mariner, had one of the biggest hits of his career a year ago against Putz, taking the All-Star closer deep with a man on in the bottom of the eighth on July 25, 2007 to turn a 6-5 deficit into a 7-6 lead that would stand up.  Tonight’s two-run double was his second walkoff hit of the 2008 season – his home run off current Mariners closer Brandon Morrow on May 12 gave Texas a 13-12 win in 10 innings.

Then there’s Michael Young, who was told last night that he would miss 5-7 days after fracturing the ring finger on his throwing hand.

It was barely more than 5-7 hours after that that he told his manager that he was ready to play.

And 5-7 hours after that that Young was dive-bombing the top of the scrum on the field, right in the middle of the walkoff celebration.

No win is a bad win, but man, that was a poorly played game.  On a night when you chase the starter in the third and rack up 18 hits – a dozen by the six through nine hitters - you have no business needing to come from behind to pull it out.

But when it’s said and done, winning the ugly ones sure beats the “moral victory” of playing well but coming up just short.

The next 48 hours are going to be really interesting – Blalock’s return to the disabled list takes him not only away from the lineup but also off the trade market, while Laird and Guardado and Marlon Byrd certainly showed something tonight if there were scouts in the ballpark charged with the task of judging their work.  

There have been years during which the final week in July defined the Rangers’ season, including 2007.  There’s a lot of ways the next two days could play out off the field, but no matter what happens leading up to the trade deadline, there’s no question that the 2008 season will be defined by what this team has done on the field, and by the evolving sense that something really good is taking shape here.  Even on nights when there’s plenty of bad.

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

 

Bruise Cruz.

Oklahoma right fielder Nelson Cruz was hitting .339/.440/.671 on July 13, before taking the next day off with what was reported as left elbow soreness.  The whole league rested the day after that as the AAA All-Star Break got underway.  Cruz singled in three at-bats in the July 16 All-Star Game (playing center field), was off on the 17th with everyone else, and rejoined the RedHawks as they resumed their schedule on July 18.

If he’d tailed off at all at that point, if he’d even had a little cold streak at the plate coming off of an elbow issue and the lack of a real Break, it would have been OK.  As of July 13, he’d amassed 26 home runs and 74 RBI in 84 games.

But he jumped right back in on July 18 and has played every day since.  There’s been no cold streak.

In the 10 games since the Break, Cruz has 11 home runs.  

That’s a lot.

He’s 18 for 44.  That’s a .409 batting average.  

Which is also good.

(Interestingly, those 18 hits included no doubles or triples.)

Eleven home runs in 10 games — one for every four at-bats — with 19 RBI.  Good grief.

And then there’s this:

On Friday, Cruz made his second start of the season in center field, his first since May (if you discount the All-Star Game appearance).  

You thinking what I’m thinking?

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

Braves' new world.

On Saturday, Jarrod Saltalamacchia doubled in two runs with two outs in the second, drew a walk and scored on Josh Hamilton’s game-busting bomb in the fifth, singled and scored on Michael Young’s two-run single in the seventh, and struck out in the eighth.  

On Saturday, Matt Harrison earned his second big league win, his first on the road, giving up one earned run in five innings of work.  He was pitching to Saltalamacchia, who had caught him in the Gulf Coast League in 2003 (both players’ debut season), and in the Southern League in 2006 and 2007.  Saltalamacchia has caught both of Harrison’s big league wins.  He didn’t catch Harrison’s loss or his no-decision.

On Saturday in Frisco, Elvis Andrus singled in the first, homered in the third (off righthander Will Inman, one of San Diego’s top prospects), was drilled with two outs and nobody on in the fifth  — and proceeded to steal second, and singled in the seventh and proceeded to steal second — his 40th swipe of the season — forcing a bad throw that allowed Julio Borbon to score from third and Andrus to scamper to third himself.

On Saturday in Frisco, Beau Jones made his AA debut.  The 21-year-old lefthander’s work: strikeout swinging, groundout, strikeout swinging, ground-ball double, flyout, groundout, groundout, line-out, strikeout swinging.  That’s 2.2 scoreless innings, one hit, no walks, three strikeouts.  Threw 22 of his 34 pitches for strikes.

On Saturday, Neftali Feliz, up to 99 innings of work this year (17.2 frames more than his three-year pro total coming into the season), didn’t pitch.  The Rangers’ number one prospect, according to Baseball America and many others, is not hurt.  He’s fine.  Mike Hindman reports this morning on the Dallas Morning News blog, in fact, that Feliz, according to the Rangers, will pitch tomorrow.

Saltalamacchia is playing at the same level he was at when Texas acquired him from Atlanta almost exactly one year ago.

Harrison is playing two levels up.

Andrus is playing one level up.

Jones is playing two levels up.

Feliz is playing three levels up.

The Braves, five games under .500, 6.5 games back (and three teams) in the NL East, and hopelessly out of the Wild Card race, are trying to decide whether to trade Mark Teixeira in the next four days, measuring whether they’d be better off accepting one of the offers from a reportedly diminishing list of suitors (the Dodgers, Angels, and Red Sox are apparently the most interested) or just keeping Teixeira for the next two months and getting a couple compensatory draft picks for him.  Not sure whether Manny Ramirez’s possible entry into this week’s trade mix affects Teixeira’s market.

Teixeira is having another outstanding season.  But Atlanta, after having gone to the playoffs 14 non-strike years out of 15, will not have gone to the playoffs in two seasons with him.

Meanwhile, Ron Mahay is in Kansas City and might be the most coveted left-handed reliever on the market right now.

Have a great day.

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

Throwback.

We had a throwback day today.  

Took the kids bowling this morning.  I might have lived at the bowling alley in those days when I could barely lift the ball if we had lane bumpers back then.

Then we went to buy some vintage T-shirts for school.  Back-to-school shopping doesn’t need to be last-minute, and it doesn’t need to be for boring clothes.

A little lunch at the mall, because I remembered how cool I thought that was as a kid, for reasons I can’t really figure out.

After a quick trip to the grocery store, we came back home and finished watching the movie we started last night (“National Treasure: Book of Secrets”), which set up our trip to the library afterwards.  Max knew ahead of time that he was going to check out a couple baseball books (we’ll crack open “The Jackie Robinson Story” at bedtime tonight), but Erica wasn’t sure until after finishing the movie, which inspired her to find an Abraham Lincoln biography.

Then we hit Nick’s Sports Cards for our weekly visit to buy Max a pack of Topps.  We got a grab bag today as well, and among its contents were a 1977 Larry Bowa and a 1979 Cleveland Elam.  A lot of what we’d planned for today was straight out of my memory of the things I did on a summer weekend when I was Erica’s age or Max’s, and the Bowa and Elam cards stared back at me like winks from my own childhood.  

Hopped over to TCBY, just because.

We came home and swam a little bit, tiring the kids out before grilling, which I’m about to go do.  While in the car for much of the afternoon and while out in the pool, the Rangers were piped in on the radio.  Baseball, old school.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t have it in mind to plan this kind of day just because the Rangers weren’t televised.   But man, it fit perfectly.  That’s exactly how I remember so many July weekend days as a kid, when names like Kurt Bevacqua and Eric Soderholm and Jim Umbarger became larger than life to a kid whose childhood soundtrack featured Dick Risenhoover and Bill Merrill, and soon Mark Holtz and Eric Nadel.  Back in those days when Rangers games were rarely televised.  But always broadcast on the radio.

Time to fire the grill up for burgers, but first I had to grab a pen and draw my player of the game, even though I didn’t keep a scorebook while listening to the game, like I used to when seemingly all that mattered to me, even more than a trip to Baskin Robbins or Hannah’s Pies, was whether the Rangers won that day.

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I doubt Erica and Max will remember today 35 years from now, let alone in a month, but I will, just as clearly as I remember that day early in the 1977 season when Willie Horton went deep three times. 

On the radio.

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

 

No Maas.

Chris Davis debuted in the major leagues one month ago today.  Since his arrival, these are the American League leaders in slugging percentage:

Chris Davis……..694
Jhonny Peralta…..685
Grady Sizemore…..674
Justin Morneau…..632
Howie Kendrick…..627
Jermaine Dye…….625
Aubrey Huff……..620
Jim Thome……….617
Carlos Quentin…..608
Evan Longoria……602

Oh, and all those concerns about whether Davis was equipped to handle left-handed pitching at this level?  In 28 at-bats, he’s hitting .393/.452/1.000, with four home runs, three doubles, one triple, and three singles.

The lefties Davis has taken deep are the following scrubs: Mark Buehrle, Joe Saunders, Jamie Moyer, and Alan Embree.

Josh Hamilton is the second player in Rangers history to reach 100 RBI in fewer than 99 games played.  Juan Gonzalez did it three times.

No other American League hitter has more than 76 RBI.

Since July 5, when he reached 383 plate appearances, a lifetime high at any level of baseball, Hamilton is hitting .308/.361/.554 with four home runs and 18 RBI in 15 games.  Is that worth keeping tabs on?  I don’t know.

Edinson Volquez over the last month: 2-2, 5.97 in six starts.

The box score doesn’t look great, but that’s less important when there are scouts in the stands.  A lot of the hits Vicente Padilla gave up last night (six of seven came in the ugly third) were poorly struck, and he did retire the last nine hitters he faced.

Kevin Millwood is evidently headed back to the disabled list with a groin strain.  Eric Hurley will come off the disabled list to start tomorrow.

German Duran will miss six to eight weeks after tearing a ligament in his left thumb on a slide into second base on Tuesday night.  That puts him back in action sometime in September, when the RedHawks’ season is likely over.  I expect we’ll see him back in Arlington (rosters will have expanded by then) to get some reps in so he can go into the winter without any uncertainty about his thumb.

Bad break for Duran, who finishes the greatest baseball year of his life as a .225/.279/.363 hitter in 102 major league at-bats, primarily playing a position he’d never played and playing it well and fearlessly, and a .243/.288/.378 hitter in 74 AAA at-bats.

I bet Duran reminds Ron Washington of himself.

Joaquin Benoit had a forgettable return to the mound last night, making a rehab appearance for Frisco and retiring none of the five San Antonio hitters he faced.  Three singled and two walked.

Righthander Joselo Diaz cleared waivers and accepted an outright assignment to Oklahoma.

The Rangers promoted lefthander Beau Jones to Frisco and lefthander Glenn Swanson to Bakersfield.  Jones, widely considered the fifth of five prospects acquired in last July’s Mark Teixeira trade, had a 2.93 ERA with Bakersfield this year, but the bigger story is what he did after a shift from the Blaze rotation to the bullpen in early June.  The 21-year-old Jones (who I pegged in June as the system’s top left-handed reliever prospect in my “In Their Footsteps” column for MLB.com: http://tinyurl.com/6js34w) has a 1.11 ERA as a reliever this season, with 29 strikeouts, 10 unintentional walks, no home runs, a .202 opponents’ batting average, and a 1.22 groundout-to-flyout rate in 24.1 innings.

Swanson was in the midst of a Derek Holland-esque breakthrough in 2007 before succumbing to Tommy John surgery 13 months ago.  He gave up two runs on eight hits and no walks in four innings last night for the Blaze, striking out seven, after surrendering three earned runs on 11 hits and two walks (with 15 strikeouts) in 20 rehab innings for the Arizona League squad and Spokane.  

Teams on which third baseman-outfielder Fernando Tatis and righthander Brandon Knight have been teammates:

* the 1995 Charleston RiverDogs (Low A)
* the 1996 Charlotte Rangers (High A)
* the 1997 Tulsa Drillers (AA)
* the 2008 New Orleans Zephyrs (AAA)
* the 2008 New York Mets (NL)

The 32-year-old Knight, taken by Texas in the 14th round in 1996, was 5-1, 1.60 in five AAA starts and six relief appearances this summer, holding opponents to a .172 batting average with 49 strikeouts and 10 walks in 39.1 innings.

Another southpaw reliever and another outfielder moved yesterday (Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady from Pittsburgh to the Yankees).  It’s good for those teams who have their own southpaw relievers and outfielders available to trade every time others come off the board, especially this far out from Thursday’s deadline.

Another good thing for teams considering trading veterans is that the Yankees have won seven straight, cutting their six-game deficit in the East in half.  Not only are they unquestionably back in as buyers now, but their surge and the Marte-Nady acquisitions also turn the temperature up on Boston and Tampa Bay to do something.

Mets prospect Fernando Martinez reinjured a hamstring in his AA game yesterday, which presumably increases the odds that New York trades for an outfielder.

The Mets reportedly want Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, or Casey Blake, but do they really have enough firepower to go in one of those directions without compromising their big league roster?

Arizona League lefthander Geuris Grullon has a 2.79 ERA in 9.2 relief innings, but here’s the crazy part: his groundout-to-flyout rate is 8.00.  Anything over 2.00 is notable, anything over 4.00 is elite.  The 6’5″ 18-year-old posted a 2.64 rate last season in the same league.  In 30.2 pro innings, he has yet to surrender a home run.

Rusty Greer is joining the Texas Wesleyan coaching staff.

Rudy Jaramillo had left knee surgery yesterday and won’t return to the dugout full-time until September.  Minor league hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger will continue to fill in as Jaramillo’s replacement.  

Speaking of Rudy: Gary Matthews Jr. is hitting .182/.267/.234 since June 13 and is no longer a starting major league outfielder.  He’s making $9 million this year, will make $10 million in 2009, will make $11 million in 2010, and will make $12 million in 2011.

The Rangers acquired high school righthanders Michael Main and Neil Ramirez for the loss of Matthews.

Read this: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=pearlman/080721&sportCat=mlb

Laura Purcell, curator of the Sports Museum of America in New York City, has extended Newberg Report readers the following offer: if you go to http://www.sportsmuseum.com and use the code SMA80, you will get a $5 coupon to use towards admission to the museum.  You can also call 888-SMA-TKTS and mention code SMA80 to get the discount.

No TV for the Rangers this afternoon.  Join Eric and Victor for the radio call at 3:00, as Texas tries to bolster Oakland’s hold on third place.

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

Luxury Cruz.

Nelson Cruz in April:  .380/.537/.785, nine home runs

Nelson Cruz in May:    .292/.352/.615, seven home runs

Nelson Cruz in June:   .387/.464/.742, nine home runs

Nelson Cruz in July (with a week to go in the month):   .306/.386/.758, nine home runs (including eight in his last seven games)

He’s on a four-month hot streak.

Here’s the caveat:  Cruz sits at .342/.440/.718 overall.  Last year he hit .352/.428/.698 while in AAA.  It’s not like he hasn’t done this before.

But here’s what he hasn’t done before:

2006 in AAA: a walk for every 8.8 at-bats

2007 in AAA: a walk for every 7.7 at-bats

2008 in AAA: a walk for every 5.9 at-bats

He’s figured out how to make pitchers throw him strikes.  And Nelson Cruz does a lot of damage with strikes.

His proficiency in that area has been even more pronounced against lefthanders.  Facing southpaws, the role that he would presumably be called on to fill if he were brought back up here, he’s hitting .392/.495/.649, with 17 walks (one for every 4.4 at-bats) and just nine strikeouts in 74 at-bats.  

Plus, as always, he’s been a very good right fielder, with good range and jaw-dropping arm strength.

Cruz is not on the 40-man roster, and if that remains the case in October, the 28-year-old can leave as a six-year minor league free agent (and certainly will).  Is it time to figure out if he’s Ryan Ludwick, to see if once and for all he’s figured out how to translate his AAA dominance into big league effectiveness?

The Rangers offense hits .287/.357/.465 against righthanders but just .258/.327/.428 against lefties.  

If the right trade offer comes along, sure, trade Cruz.  (The July 31 deadline doesn’t apply to him, incidentally, since he’s not on the 40-man roster.  He can be traded afterwards without needing waivers — but of course the player(s) coming back will need to be acquired by Thursday if they are on the 40, or else they’ll have to be run through revocable August waivers first.)  If the return is meaningful — that is, something that the Rangers believe can help this year or next year, or a prospect further away with huge, tangible upside — then moving Cruz makes sense, since a reluctance to bring him up now apparently equates to a willingness to let him walk this winter.

But if such an offer doesn’t come along?  It’s time.  Just like July 28, 2006 and July 27, 2007.

I’m just about ready for Kiko Calero in this bullpen (waiting to see when he’ll first pitch on consecutive days, breaking a string of pitching every other day for the RedHawks), and I’m just about ready to see Nelson Cruz up here, one way or another, one last time.

And, based on how Cruz has changed in 2008, I’m not sure that it won’t be “one last time” that extends into 2009, if not further.

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

TROT COFFEY*

(* Trade Rumor Offerings To Chew On For Fun, Even Yuks)

Not to be confused with Cincinnati-Louisville Shuttle occupant Todd Coffey, the TROT COFFEY is a Newberg Report mailing list-only update (with the exception of this one) on what the media has unearthed as we approach next week’s conventional trade deadline:

• The Yankees have expressed interest in Gerald Laird (Fox Sports, Newark Star-Ledger)
• The Yankees have not expressed interest in Gerald Laird (ESPN)

The Giants, Twins, and Dodgers are interested in Hank Blalock, but
Texas won’t give him away as if he were Ray Durham – we want a
legitimate young pitcher (ESPN, Sports Illustrated)
• The Twins also like Casey Blake, but apparently not as much as Blalock (MLB.com)

The Rangers aren’t shopping Vicente Padilla but realize he’s as
talented as any pitcher on the market, and thus will listen to offers
as long as they include at least one young starter ready to step in;
the Yankees and Tigers have shown mild, preliminary interest (ESPN)
• There’s extensive interest around the league in Eddie Guardado and Jamey Wright but they’re unavailable (ESPN)

If the Braves and Rangers did discuss Mike Gonzalez for an outfielder,
talks went nowhere because Atlanta would only consider such a deal if
it were for Josh Hamilton (MLB.com, via Baseball Prospectus)
• Texas is among at least 10 teams expected to send a representative to watch Freddy Garcia audition for work (MLB.com)
• Toronto is quietly checking around to see what it could get for the less-than-happy Roy Halladay (Newark Star-Ledger)
• Halladay isn’t available (ESPN)

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you aren’t on the free Newberg Report mailing list (where future TROT COFFEY’s will be
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Jamey

Two underrated stars.

Last year at this time, the likelihood of the Rangers being central figures in the trade market was much greater than it is today, not just because the club isn’t hopelessly out of the hunt this time around but also because Texas has fewer obvious trade pieces right now.  On the one hand, it seems unlikely that the Rangers would part with blue-chip prospects for a veteran unless it were an impact player who would be under control for multiple years (not many of those available), and on the other hand, given where the team is right now, there may not be an active effort to trade a veteran who is a key part of the lineup or staff unless the offer is overwhelming.

But seeing national writers report, for instance, that the Yankees are calling about Gerald Laird, that the Dodgers have joined a couple other teams showing interest in Hank Blalock, and that there are any number of contenders that could use Eddie Guardado, and figuring that another gem out of Vicente Padilla tomorrow night could make him as valuable as any starting pitcher on the market, I find myself fired up that A.J. Preller and Don Welke work for my team.

The thing I love about the Yankees, as an example, showing interest in something we have is that I’m comfortable that Preller and Welke probably know New York’s international kids as well as anyone in the Yankees’ own front office.  Slight exaggeration.

When the 2007 season began, 18-year-old righthander Neftali Feliz was ranked by Baseball America as Atlanta’s number 18 prospect (lower than Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, and Beau Jones, by the way), having only 29 stateside innings under his belt.  

When the 2007 season began, 17-year-old outfielder Engel Beltre was ranked by Baseball America as Boston’s number 20 prospect.  He had yet to play a pro inning.

Less than four months into the season, they were Rangers property, Feliz after another 27.1 short-season innings, Beltre after a pedestrian 125-at-bat run (.208/.310/.400) in short-season ball.

But it’s not all about what your pro scouts can envision when watching other organization’s kids play Gulf Coast League and Appy League games.  Preller and Welke knew all about Feliz and Beltre well before they signed with the Braves and Red Sox.

Now, that’s not to suggest that those teams didn’t know what they had in Feliz and Beltre (or that other teams weren’t aware of them).  Recall this note from Peter Gammons after the Gagné trade:

“The biggest holdup in the Gagné deal, other than working out his negotiated rights to refuse a deal to Boston, was 17-year-old outfielder Engel Beltre.  When Epstein went to bed at 2 a.m. Tuesday morning, he had refused to include Beltre in the trade, so on Tuesday morning, the Rangers still were down to the Brewers ― who were on Gagné’s list of teams to which he could be traded ― and the Red Sox.  But Epstein decided a 17-year-old kid a half-dozen years from the big leagues probably was worth including for a shot to win the World Series.  ‘When Theo called and said he would put Beltre in the deal, it was down to the no-trade language and the paperwork,’ Daniels said.  That paperwork was so complicated that it almost was not completed by the 4 p.m. deadline.”

Let me put this another way.

Even if Texas doesn’t make a major trade in the next seven days, and does nothing except maybe find a new home for Frank Catalanotto, we won’t be getting someone’s Chad Reineke back.

And if Preller and Welke worked for the Padres, they wouldn’t have, either.

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

In Their Footsteps: The right-handed set-up man

Jeff Zimmerman was 28 years old and had already made a Major League All-Star Game appearance by time he’d earned as much money as a baseball player as Fabio Castillo was paid at age 16 to sign.  There is virtually nothing in common between the two righthanders, but then again very few professional athletes have a story even remotely like Zimmerman’s.

The Canadian native had pitched for Treasure Valley Community College (Oregon) in 1990 and Indian Hills Community College (Iowa) in 1991 before transferring to TCU, where he starred for two seasons, winning eight of 11 decisions – with his only three losses remarkably coming against teams (Texas, Texas A&M, and Arizona State) that were ranked number one in the nation at the time.  Still, the senior went unchosen through all 91 rounds of the 1993 draft.

After spending the summer pitching for the Canadian National Team, Zimmerman decided in 1994 to join the French National Baseball League, where he played for the Montpellier Barracudas in a league that he would later describe as junior college level.  It was in France that he learned the slider – that slider – that certainly would have made him a drafted minor leaguer had he featured it at TCU.  

After one year in France, Zimmerman rejoined Team Canada but, when the squad failed to qualify for the 1996 Atlanta Games, he returned to school, earning his M.B.A. at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.  A four-month search for a corporate job finally resulted in an invitation to interview with Fidelity Investments in Boston but, not prepared to enter a world that would have summarily slammed the door on his baseball career once and for all, Zimmerman declined the interview.  

Zimmerman found a job with the Winnipeg Goldeyes of the independent Northern League in 1997, going 9-2 with a league-leading 2.82 ERA, holding opponents to a .217 average and striking out an extraordinary 140 hitters in 118 innings.  The 25-year-old then sent out perhaps the most famous fax in Metroplex sports history, asking all 30 big league franchises for a chance.  Only one responded.

The Rangers purchased Zimmerman from the Goldeyes on January 6, 1998.  As the story goes, the purchase price was two dozen baseballs, and Zimmerman’s signing bonus was a plane ticket.  To Zimmerman, of course, it was as valuable as a winning lottery ticket.

“It was actually a difficult decision to sign Zim,” says Brewers director of player development Reid Nichols, who was then in the same position for the Rangers.  “We were limited on visas because our Latin American program needed them, and this was a 25-year-old pitcher.  I decided to go ahead and sign him, but all he got was an opportunity.”

It wouldn’t take long for Zimmerman to make the move look genius.  Thirteen months after taking a flier on the righthander, the Rangers were honoring him as their 1998 Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year.  He’d gone 5-2, 1.28 between High A Charlotte and AA Tulsa, with 81 strikeouts and 21 walks in 77.1 innings and an opponents’ batting average of .175, and followed it with a 1.73 ERA in the Arizona Fall League.  

Invited to his first big league spring training in 1999, Zimmerman didn’t win a job in camp with Texas, set to defend its second division title in three years, but eight days into the season (after 3.2 hitless AAA innings) he was summoned from Oklahoma to give the big league bullpen a boost.  What followed was perhaps the greatest season a Rangers middle reliever has ever had.

Relievers who don’t save games aren’t supposed to make All-Star teams, let alone those who are Major League rookies, but Zimmerman’s selection to the American League squad was no gimmick.  At the Break, the 26-year-old was 8-0 with an ERA of 0.86, setting up closer John Wetteland.  Zimmerman had permitted only 18 hits (.106 opponents’ average) in 52.1 innings, striking out 46 while issuing only 11 walks.  He would pitch a scoreless seventh in the American League’s 4-1 All-Star Game win in Fenway Park.  

Zimmerman’s ERA sat at 1.16 with five weeks to go in 1999, before a few rough outings resulted in a season-ending ERA of 2.36.  He held the opposition to a .166 average for the year, the best mark of any American League reliever, and had a team-record 26 consecutive scoreless appearances (29 innings, nine hits) at one point, which encompassed a scoreless June and July.  He pitched once in the Yankees’ three-game playoff sweep of the Rangers, striking out one in a scoreless inning of work.

After a disappointing sophomore season (5.30 ERA, .286 opponents’ average), Zimmerman took over for Tim Crabtree as Wetteland’s ninth-inning successor six weeks into the 2001 season and was brilliant, posting a 2.40 ERA, saving 28 games in 31 chances, holding hitters to a .192 average, and fanning 72 batters in 71.1 innings while issuing only 16 walks.

Zimmerman parlayed that season, his final as a pre-arbitration player, into a three-year, $10 million contract, but during a physical administered as part of the contract process, he had an adverse reaction to a diagnostic injection.  Whether the shot damaged his elbow or he adjusted his mechanics detrimentally to compensate for the discomfort, Zimmerman was shut down before the 2002 season began, and a series of elbow surgeries would ultimately prevent him from ever returning to the mound.  The phenomenal career that started too late would also end far too early.  

While Zimmerman defied all odds to become one of the game’s great relievers over a short period of time, it’s safe to say the Rangers hope that Castillo won’t be a relief pitcher at all.  Signing in July 2005 for $400,000, one of the largest international bonuses the Rangers have ever paid, the club views the 6’3″, 200-pound Castillo as a pitcher who could develop into a potential front-end starter.  

Castillo made one Arizona League appearance in 2006 (three scoreless innings), spending most of that season in the Dominican Summer League, where he went 1-4, 3.46 with 37 strikeouts in 26 innings and a brilliant 3.11 groundout-to-flyout rate.  In his next-to-last DSL start, the righthander one-hit the Orioles squad in 5.2 innings, walking none and getting an incredible 14 of his 17 outs on strikes.  

Castillo’s 2007 (Spokane) and 2008 (Clinton) seasons have been remarkably similar and relatively disappointing.  He has posted a 5.93 ERA over the two seasons with seven strikeouts and four walks per nine innings.  Working in the mid-90s and touching 97, he’s been unable to command his breaking ball or changeup consistently, and the Rangers have changed his role a couple times to try and get him into a rhythm.  Castillo began the season in the LumberKings’ bullpen, moved into the rotation in mid-May (though he was never stretched more than five innings), and returned to a relief role at the end of June.  

While nobody in baseball wanted to take a chance on Zimmerman despite his collegiate success, scouts continue to rave about Castillo in spite of his mediocre minor league results.  Even though his Northwest League ERA was 5.92 in 2007, managers and scouts ranked him as that league’s number five prospect (third among pitchers) after the season.  

Castillo has an undeniably tremendous upside, but perhaps notably, his best inning statistically in both 2007 and 2008 has been the first, which at least suggests that he might be most effective right out of the gate and in short spurts.  His power arsenal might even play up in concentrated doses, which is how you’d like your eighth-inning pitcher to profile.

Developing any 16-year-old into a big league pitcher has to be considered a success, even if not in the role originally envisioned for him.  And as Zimmerman proved in 1999, the Rangers’ last playoff season, having a shutdown pitcher around who owns the eighth inning can be immensely valuable, whether it leads to better things down the road or not.  

 

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.

Millwood's future.

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Kevin Millwood is in the third year of a guaranteed
four-year contract with a fifth-year club option in 2010 that vests if any of
the following are met:

 

•  He pitches at least 540 innings in 2007-2009;

•  He pitches at least 360 innings in 2008-2009; or

•  He pitches at least 180 innings in 2009.

 

Millwood pitched 172.2 innings last year, meaning the first threshold
is moot (that is, he can’t meet the 2007-2009 number without meeting the 2008-2009
number).

 

Millwood sits at 108.1 innings right now, averaging about
5.1 innings per start.  Assuming he misses no starts due to whatever today’s
injury was, he should make about another dozen starts.  At his 2008 rate, that
would be another 64 innings, meaning he’d fall short of 180 innings by
seven or eight innings, which would nullify the second threshold.  And obviously,
if today’s injury costs Millwood any time, it makes it even less likely
that he gets to 180 innings this year.

 

In other words, it’s starting to look like the only
way Millwood can lock in his $12 million 2010 contract will be to exceed 180
innings next season.  It’s not inconceivable – he logged 215
innings in his first Rangers season (2006) – but the trend isn’t
good.

 

The Rangers have signed two more 2008 draft picks,
California high school outfielder Clark Murphy (fifth
round) and Arlington Grace
Prep Academy
righthander Matt Thompson (seventh round).  Murphy had committed to UCLA and
Thompson had committed to TCU. 

 

The Rangers have now signed seven of their first nine picks (the
remaining unsigned selections are first-rounder Justin Smoak and second-rounder
Robbie Ross) and 22 of their first 26 choices (10th-rounder Kevin
Castner and 19th-rounder Harold Martinez are the other two
holdouts).

 

I sure like watching Josh Rupe pitch.

 


 

 

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