Hank Blalock, third baseman.

When Texas takes the field in the bottom of the first tonight, Hank Blalock will be creeping in from the corner, against the possibility of Carlos Gomez trying to bunt for a hit.

But not from the corner we all expected.

The emergence of Chris Davis (.259/.328/.655) as a power threat and a dependable defender is obviously a factor in the decision the Rangers announced yesterday to return Blalock to third, as is the return to earth of Ramon Vazquez (.257 in July, one extra-base hit), but was there more?

Jon Daniels says that trade value was not a factor.  Moving Blalock back to third is clearly meant to give an instant boost to the lineup — not, apparently, to boost Blalock’s value to other teams willing to trade young players for a veteran bat this month.

But a lot can happen in the next 10 days.  There are teams on which Blalock can be a fit, including the one in whose park the Rangers arrive today, and even if Daniels isn’t giving credence to media suggestions that Blalock is being showcased, if the right offer comes along, I don’t think there are more than two or three players on this team who are untouchable.  

Blalock is moving back to third because the organization believes it has a better chance of beating Glen Perkins, Livan Hernandez, and Scott Baker in Minnesota this weekend with him in the lineup and not displacing Davis.  If Blalock plays healthy, it might prompt a discussion between general managers — initiated by the Twins — and we know enough about our GM to know he’s going to listen.

As the press tosses this scenario around, you’ll hear the name of big lefthander Tyler Robertson, the 20-year-old son of Rangers special assistant Jay Robertson (and the brother of the Rangers’ currently unsigned 29th-round pick from last month’s draft, high school righthander Charlie Robertson), as a candidate to come this way in any trade.  It’s no nepotistic speculation.  Robertson, among the youngest pitchers in the High A Florida State League, is more than holding his own, sitting at 5-3, 2.72 in 15 starts, with eight strikeouts and three walks per nine innings.  

Righthanders Jeff Manship (a 23-year-old starter), Anthony Swarzak (a 22-year-old starter), and Anthony Slama (a 24-year-old reliever) are good names, too, while Deolis Guerra and Kevin Mulvey are probably off-limits in a trade like this one would be.

But what would it take, along with Blalock, to get lefthander Francisco Liriano, who has apparently decided to file a grievance (with the Union’s backing) against the Twins for failing to recall him from the minor leagues (where he is 8-0, 2.53 in his last 10 starts), allegedly to prevent him from accruing enough big league service this year to accelerate his arbitration eligibility and qualify this winter as a “Super Two.”

Could Texas offer a couple of its best prospects along with Blalock to get Liriano?  Doubt it.  It stands to reason Minnesota would rather give up prospects to get Adrian Beltre or Casey Blake or Garrett Atkins than to get prospects and have to give up Liriano, in order to get Blalock and the health questions that come with him.  Worth checking, though.

Before you yell at me for suggesting that we be “buyers” this month, this is no different from what I’ve been saying for weeks now: if “buying” means you can go get a guy who could conceivably front your rotation for years to come (the pitching equivalent of acquiring Josh Hamilton), that’s when you willingly part with some of the phenomenal depth this club has amassed on the farm.  The name I’ve been keying on this summer is Kansas City’s Zack Greinke.  Liriano fits as well.

The kind of trade I’m talking about is the one Boston made to get Josh Beckett.  Greinke isn’t Beckett, and neither is Liriano.  But there aren’t many young pitchers with big league experience I’d rather have, at least among those who would conceivably be available for the right price.

A quick aside that’s not really an aside.  You know that I’m as much of a champion of players like Elvis Andrus and Tommy Hunter and Engel Beltre and Martin Perez as anyone.  But too often we form attachments to prospects and lose sight of the very strong likelihood that we may not have a Greinke or Liriano in our system.  Maybe we do.  But we probably don’t.  

And that’s why when the opportunity presents itself to go get someone like that, someone who can step in right away and lead your pitching staff for years, if you ask yourself what the chances are that the prized pitching prospect you’re having to part with ever becomes the guy you’re getting, if that answer is “doubt it,” you have to be willing to act.

Not someone like Victor Zambrano, who cost the Mets Scott Kazmir.  

Someone like Greinke or Liriano.  If they’re even available.

If the last three paragraphs don’t ring true, or even if they do, you must read this column by Rangers blogger Jason Parks — it’s one of the best pieces I’ve read on the subject of hype and expectations, something all of us who cover the minor leagues are guilt of practicing, and propagating: http://mvn.com/mlb-rangers/2008/07/12/give-it-a-name/.  Read it.

Something else that would suit me, though it’s a more difficult scenario to cook up, is to get a key bullpen piece — one that would be under control for multiple years — for Blalock.  The problem there is that teams who show interest in Blalock will be looking to improve their chances to win in 2008, and teams trying to win now are unlikely to part with a plus reliever.

But what about a minor league reliever like Boston’s Daniel Bard, who has a 1.92 ERA in 61 innings between Low A Greenville and AA Portland this year?  The 2006 first-rounder has punched out nearly 12 batters per nine innings this year and walked just three per nine, and opponents are hitting an anemic .171 off of the 23-year-old.  The Red Sox, as we discussed last year at the time of the Eric Gagné trade, have a pretty clear top tier of prospects but are the type of franchise that might be willing to move prospects from their second tier since they aren’t going to rebuild any time in the foreseeable future.  A club like Boston is just as likely to add a big-dollar free agent as a prospect to its roster mix as it retools its club each off-season.  The Sox will probably count on a rookie or two each year, but not too many more.  

Boston has a couple other presumably near-ready relievers in the upper levels of its farm system (righthander Beau Vaughan, lefthander Hunter Jones), and then there’s always Craig Hansen, who is still just 24 and has bounced in three of his four pro seasons between Boston (a very disappointing 6.15 ERA in 67.1 innings) and the farm (2.62 ERA in 127.2 innings) since the Sox drafted him in the first round in 2005, a year before they took Bard.  Hansen’s only year with no big league service was 2007.

Would Boston, if unable to get Mark Teixeira or a similar impact hitter in the next two weeks, entertain the idea of Blalock as a designated hitter option while David Ortiz rehabs?

T.R. Sullivan thinks the Rangers will trade Oklahoma middle infielder Joaquin Arias before they trade Milton Bradley.  That can be read a couple ways, but what I take from it is that he’s learned that Arias (.289/.320/.387) he resuscitated some of his trade value, which would be a good thing.  Over the last four weeks, he’s played shortstop more often than not for the first since 2006, which is important as far as his marketability is concerned.

At this point, if Arias and Nelson Cruz can help get a trade done, great.  Cruz is out of options and can leave this winter via free agency if not added to the 40-man roster first.  Arias will have one final option in 2009 and doesn’t seem to figure into the plans as long as Andrus
is around, not to mention German Duran and Jose Vallejo and Marcus Lemon.

Catcher news: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has been slowed by a groin injury, didn’t work out with the team in Minnesota yesterday because of the flu, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.  If he needs to go on the disabled list, Max Ramirez would assume starting duties — Gerald Laird is reportedly still a week away from a rehab assignment — and presumably Taylor Teagarden (slated to head to Team USA) would be brought up.  

Ian Kinsler got plenty of props during the All-Star Game for being 23 of 24 in stolen base attempts this season, but what the broadcast crew failed to point out was that the one caught-stealing on Kinsler’s ledger in a 2008 game that counted was actually a pickoff that resulted in a rundown out.  

Another All-Star Game note: Brad Lidge, against whom Michael Young ended the game with the sacrifice fly to right field, had allowed only one sac fly in 40 innings this year.  He’s given up only 10 sac flies in 441 career innings.  His groundout-to-flyout rate in 2008 is 1.52.  

Alex Rodriguez met with the media in the clubhouse in the sixth inning Tuesday night, having already changed into a suit and tie.  His teammate, Derek Jeter, was right there nine innings after he’d been lifted from the game himself, the first (along with Kinsler) to congratulate Young on the field after his 15th-inning game-winner.  Sort sums up the difference between Jeter and A-Rod.

Baseball America says Frisco righthander Neftali Feliz is the Rangers’ number one prospect, offering this comment: “Reports that he hit 101 mph twice in his Double-A debut aren’t making the Braves feel any better about the Mark Teixeira trade.”

Since the trade with Texas, the Braves have a 72-77 record (45-50 in 2008), while Texas is 77-74 (50-46 in 2008).  

It’s not Teixeira’s fault — he’s hit .288/.385/.533 in 147 games with Atlanta, with the second-highest RBI total in baseball (125) over that stretch — but the trade has unequivocally been a failure for the Braves.  And it could get worse when we see what they get for Teixeira in the next two weeks, compared to the package they gave Texas a year ago to get him, or when they’re left only with two compensatory draft picks if they can’t trade him before the deadline and he leaves this winter.

Righthander Brandon McCarthy gave up a run on five hits and a walk in three innings yesterday, striking out three Arizona League Giants.  A transfer to a higher level for the continuation of his 30-day rehab assignment could be around the corner.

Frisco righthander Thomas Diamond reportedly won’t have surgery after all to remove a bone spur in his right foot.  He had a cortisone shot instead and hopes to be back on the mound this season.

Texas placed Bakersfield lefthander Kasey Kiker (5-3, 4.55) on the seven-day disabled list with arm fatigue.  Doesn’t sound too serious.  Up in his place is righthander Tanner Roark, the Rangers’ 25th-round pick last month.  Roark had allowed one earned run (0.73 ERA) on nine hits (.209 opponents’ average) and three walks in 12.1 Arizona League innings, fanning 11.  Roark pitched for the University of Illinois for two years before leaving the school for academic reasons, spending time with the Southern Illinois Miners of the independent Frontier League before Texas drafted him.

Two weeks ago, I called Bakersfield lefthander Derek Holland the system’s most overlooked player.  Now that Holland has gotten the press he deserves lately, I think the torch has been passed to his teammate Renny Osuna, who is hitting .413/.478/.463 for the Blaze after the infielder hit .360/.425/.502 for Clinton through late June.  

Beltre is one of very few top prospects in the Rangers system who had a disappointing first half statistically, but he could be on his way to player of the month honors with a huge July for Clinton, sitting at .369/.379/.631 thus far in the month.  He has multiple hits in five of his last six games, a stretch that included a three-game homer streak.

In 10.1 innings between the Arizona League and Clinton, 5’7″ left-handed reliever Joseph Ortiz has allowed two earned runs (1.74 ERA) and six hits (.171 opponents’ average) while fanning 11.

He’s 17 years old.

As Scott Lucas pointed out this morning, Clinton’s Cristian Santana (.239/.310/.435) caught last night for the first time in 2008.  The Rangers moved him from catcher to the outfield in spring training.

The Rangers signed lefthander Jason Stanford and assigned him to Oklahoma.  The 31-year-old has a lifetime 3.61 ERA in parts of three seasons (2003, 2004, 2007) with Cleveland.

Texas came to terms with eighth-round pick Mike Bianucci, who was second in the Cape Cod League in home runs and RBI this summer.  He hit .320/.438/.635 for Auburn this season, after hitting .343/.414/.601 over his freshman and sophomore seasons combined.  In 553 career Tiger at-bats, Bianucci hit 35 home runs and drove in 127 runs.

Minnesota selected righthander Shooter Hunt, whom Texas drafted in the 34th round in 2005 but couldn’t sign, as the first pick of the supplemental first round last month.  In his first 14 pro innings, pitching in the rookie-level Appalachian League, Hunt has allowed two hits, walked two, and set 28 hitters down on strikes.  Impressive.

Seattle optioned infielder Tug Hulett.  The 25-year-old infielder, hitting .302/.378/.508 for AAA Tacoma, went 1 for 3 in his first look in the big leagues.

Cincinnati released righthander Ezequiel Astacio.

Righthander Spike Lundberg, pitching this season for Quintana Roo in the Mexican Pacific League, earned his 100th minor league win on Saturday.  He’s unofficially the second-biggest active winner in the minor leagues, behind Pat Mahomes.  

The Joliet Jackhammers of the independent Northern League sold first baseman Freddie Thon to the White Sox, who assigned the 24-year-old to High A Winston-Salem.  The Atlantic City Surf of the independent Can-Am League released righthander Jim Wladyka.  The Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League signed infielder Edgardo Alfonzo and outfielder Richard Hidalgo.

In a fair world, VH1’s “Rock Honors” would be shown in prime time on a major network, instead of [choose any of the 108 reality shows currently weighing down the schedule].  I wasn’t a huge fan of The Who, but that show last night was amazing.

Trade deadline talk picks up major steam with the start of the second half, but it sure feels good that the story on the field is just as compelling, if not more so, than the speculation as to who the Rangers might be selling in the next couple weeks.

Let the games, on the field and off, begin.

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

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