Knee deep in shinguards.

There’s not a lot that Mark Teixeira and Gerald Laird have in common.  Teixeira has always been viewed as a cornerstone player, Laird a solid piece who has regularly had to go to camp as less than a lock to play every day.  Teixeira fields extremely well for an All-Star run producer, Laird does a lot of things well offensively for a standout defender.  Though appearances can be misleading, Teixeira comes across as all business, Laird as a goofball.

The reason that Texas traded Teixeira a year ago has very little to do with why the club might ultimately part with Laird.  But there’s one factor that the two share.

Scott Boras.

The fact that Boras represents Laird is not, in itself, reason to move the 28-year-old catcher.  First, he won’t be a free agent until after the 2010 season.  More importantly, unlike Teixeira, it’s not simply a matter of trying to assess whether Laird will want to extend his career here when he has the leverage to make that decision.  With Laird, the Rangers have to make the complicated decision of evaluating not only which player they envision holding down the catching duties over the next four or five years, but also which of the candidates would bring back the most useful return in trade.  The decision is easier if the answer to the first question is different from the one who answers the second.  

And even if the answer to both is Laird, maybe the decision isn’t that difficult because of the Boras factor.

It made sense to put Teixeira on the trade market last July for a few reasons: (1) holding him until this season, his final one before free agency, would have meant the Rangers were prepared to let him go for two draft picks, since they certainly wouldn’t trade him if they were in the race this July (as they’re on the edge of right now); (2) there’s no chance he would have negotiated a long-term extension last winter; (3) trading him in July rather than December made sense from the standpoint that other teams would theoretically pay more to have Teixeira for two pennant runs rather than just one; and (4) John Schuerholz was planning to step upstairs from the general manager’s chair in Atlanta, and accordingly was willing to go all in for Teixeira, to the Rangers’ benefit.

Those factors, particularly the first and third, could come into play with respect to Laird, but not until next year, as he’s three winters away from free agency rather than two.  But there are still a few reasons to consider accelerating the decision:

1. Jarrod Saltalamacchia has over 450 major league at-bats.  Max Ramirez and Taylor Teagarden have reached Arlington.  With Teixeira, there was no obvious heir apparent.  With Laird, there are several candidates, and it’s not as if you have to project two or three years down the road to envision at least one of them settling in.

2. Several contenders, most notably the Yankees and Marlins, have immediate needs at catcher, and Boston has to be thinking about who will succeed Jason Varitek behind the plate.  A healthy Laird is by far the best catcher conceivably available this month.

3. With Teixeira, everyone knew what they were getting.  With Laird, there’s more of a timing issue to consider.  He’s a player whose value has fluctuated over the last few years, and arguably (assuming he comes back in a few days with no physical issues) his value is at a career peak right now.

4. Boras.  If the front office believes that things are going to steadily get better here over the next few years — stated another way, that this isn’t a team whose window will begin to shut in the next two years — then keeping Laird until he can walk (and probably will) after the 2010 season shouldn’t be as important.  

It seems pretty evident that, two years (if not two weeks) from now, Laird or Saltalamacchia will be elsewhere.  You’re not going to have Saltalamacchia in a backup role for four years.  It’s too early to say whether Teagarden will be a big league starter or not (though the issue as to whether his arm will hold up seems to be going away), and Ramirez could end up as a designated hitter.  But it’s almost certain that Saltalamacchia will be a starting catcher here, or he’ll be with another team.  

And it’s almost certain that Laird will be elsewhere by the winter of 2010, at the latest.  Partly because he’ll just be 30 years old when that season ends and will probably give Boras the best catcher on the market to shop around, and partly because there will be younger alternatives here to settle in at catcher with a team that could feature Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton and Chris Davis and Ramirez right in their prime, Michael Young still producing, Elvis Andrus and Julio Borbon and Justin Smoak and Engel Beltre breaking in, and any number of young pitchers arriving.  

Is Laird the best catcher on the team right now, a team that finds itself playing meaningful games as August approaches?  Without question (in spite of the fact that the club is 15-11 since he landed on the disabled list).  But if he can bring an impact return in trade right now from a contender that zeroes in on him as a potential difference-maker down the stretch (and for the two seasons after this one), you can’t rule out the possibility that Texas will take its best player at that position and trade him in order to get better in the near future at another spot, preferably on the mound.

It’s going to be a tough call for Jon Daniels to make (unless he gets overwhelmed by another team, or gets no decent offers at all), but Laird’s productivity this season sure does validate Daniels’s decision not to trade him over the winter, when he unquestionably would have been selling low.

It also validates the tremendous work the Rangers have done overhauling their depth in catcher prospects over the last few years.  

In 2004, Texas signed Manny Pina out of Venezuela and drafted Mike Nickeas in the fifth round.  In 2005, Texas drafted Teagarden in the third round and signed Cristian Santana out of the Dominican Republic.  In 2006, Texas drafted Chad Tracy in the second round, moved infielder Emerson Frostad back behind the plate, signed Leonel “Macumba” de los Santos out of the Dominican Republic, and acquired Billy Killian from San Diego.  In 2007, Texas traded for Saltalamacchia, Ramirez, and Chris Stewart, signed Tomas Telis out of Venezuela (converting him from shortstop to catcher) and Jose Felix out of Mexico, and drafted Jonathan Greene (since moved to third base) in the eighth round.

Five years ago, Texas was unprepared to replace Ivan Rodriguez, and as a result Travis Hafner and Einar Diaz switched teams.  Fortunately, the Rangers didn’t take similarly desperate measures to patch the first base position after moving Teixeira, but more to the point, this organization has built the best catching situation in baseball, and next to pitching, there’s no better place to have an inventory surplus than behind the plate.  The franchise’s effort over the last four years to build this sort of depth is about to pay off, one way or another.

When Daniels gives us 90 minutes of his time at Newberg Report Night on August 3, three days after the conventional trade deadline, I’m not sure whether Laird, Saltalamacchia, Teagarden, and Ramirez will all still be in the fold, but regardless, I can’t wait to hear him address the catching opportunity he’s built here.

Laird caught Brandon McCarthy last night as each kicked off a rehab assignment with the RedHawks in Salt Lake City.  McCarthy gave up four first-inning runs before adding 2.2 scoreless innings.  He permitted seven hits (including three doubles) and a walk in his 3.2 frames, fanning four.  He threw 57 percent of his 63 pitches for strikes, and induced three groundouts and three flyouts.  Don’t fret
the fact that McCarthy was chased in the fourth; his start was scheduled to last 60 pitches, so the Rangers were probably not expecting more than four innings regardless of his effectiveness.

Laird walked, lined out to center, hit a run-scoring sac fly to left, and grounded out, coming out of the game in the middle of the sixth.  His rehab assignment, assuming no setbacks, is expected to last two more days, with a planned return to the big club on either Friday or Saturday in Oakland.

Nelson Cruz homered for the 32nd time in the 7-4 Oklahoma win.

According to Derrick Goold and Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Cardinals are one of a number of teams interested in Eddie Guardado.  The Rangers reportedly like 22-year-old righthander Jess Todd, who between High A and AA this season is 6-3, 2.01 with one save in 16 starts and four relief appearances, with 93 strikeouts and 24 walks in 107.1 innings, and a .199 opponents’ average, with only five home runs allowed.  Todd was St. Louis’s second-round pick last year.

Todd was teammates with Chris Davis at Navarro Junior College in 2005 and 2006, before transferring to Arkansas for his junior season — which is exactly what Davis would have done had the Rangers not drafted and signed him in 2006.

No American League hitter, by the way, has more than the eight home runs that Davis has hit since he arrived in the big leagues on June 26.

ESPN’s Rob Neyer wrote this last week: “[F]irst base [in Texas] is now occupied by the best hitter nobody’s talking about: Chris Davis.  Last winter I worked up lists of the best players of the next five years at each position.  Then, I’d never heard of Chris Davis.  I suppose this was an oversight, as Davis was then listed as the Rangers’ No. 2 prospect, but on the other hand he did strike out 150 times in 129 minor-league games last season.  Now, though?  He’s still striking out, but not as often.  And the guy’s power is off the %@#& charts: 13 homers in Double-A, 10 homers in Triple-A, and now six homers in 17 games with the big club.  Oh, and he turned 22 just last spring.  This season his combined slugging percentage is .645.  Can you find a better 22-year-old hitter in the game right now?  Anyone?”

Chris Davis is no Kevin Maas.

While I can’t understand why Houston would trade for Randy Wolf, or why San Diego would trade him for a 26-year-old (Chad Reineke) with a 4.41 ERA in AAA, the good news for any team with a starting pitcher to move is that there’s now one less proven starter out there for the legitimate contenders to go after.

Surprised me that Washington didn’t get more from Arizona for reliever Jon Rauch than 23-year-old infield prospect Emilio Bonifacio.

MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan suggests that Atlanta left-handed reliever Mike Gonzalez could interest the Rangers.  Hard to imagine he’d be available for anything less than two near-ready, blue-chip prospects (in spite of Will Carroll’s speculation for Baseball Prospectus that the Braves could be interested in Milton Bradley, Marlon Byrd, or Frank Catalanotto) — though if the Rauch trade helps set the market for closer-quality set-up men, maybe the price will be lower than I thought.  Gonzalez, age 30, will be arbitration-eligible in 2009 before he can be a free agent in 2010.

Carroll writes that there hasn’t been much interest in Hank Blalock, and that he could clear trade waivers in August.  I don’t know: Anyone scouting Blalock right now has to be filing good reports.

Dan Graziano of the Newark Star-Ledger reports that the Mets have had a scout watching the Rangers in Chicago, speculating that they might be interested in Byrd.  

Mike Hindman of the Dallas Morning News writes that, according to a source, Dodgers scout Toney Howell was also in attendance at the Chicago-Texas game last night.  Howell was a pro scout for the Rangers until being dismissed after the 2003 season.

While the Rangers offense has sputtered since the Break and the rotation consistency has dropped off lately, the relief corps has quietly improved.  As of June 18, the bullpen had a 5.31 ERA for the season.  In the 29 games since, the bullpen has put up a 4.33 ERA.

White Sox lefthander Clayton Richard makes his big league debut against Texas in this afternoon’s series finale, a week and a half after getting the starting assignment for the U.S squad in the Futures Game.  He’s 12-6, 2.44 between AA and AAA this season.

Kason Gabbard had surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow last week and is done for the season.  

The recent reports that Texas had signed 31-year-old lefthander Jason Stanford to an Oklahoma contract were apparently incorrect.

The Rangers brought catcher Nick Trzesniak back for another stint with Oklahoma, necessitated by Teagarden’s promotion to Texas (and imminent assignment to Team USA) and Kevin Richardson’s oblique strain.  The 27-year-old Trzesniak hit .224/.263/.355 for AAA Toledo before Detroit released him earlier this month.

Clinton center fielder Engel Beltre is number one on this week’s edition of Baseball America’s Hot Sheet, which recognizes the hottest prospects in the game.  Ramirez (late May) and Davis (late June) topped the BA list earlier this season, and Neftali Feliz was number two the week after Davis took the top spot.  Beltre earned the nod by hitting .545/.545/1.136 for the LumberKings from July 11-17, with six extra-base hits (including home runs in three straight games) among his 12 hits — all as the Midwest League’s youngest player.

Feliz is slated to make his fourth AA start tonight.  On Friday he one-hit Corpus Christi over six scoreless innings, walking two and punching out eight, including the first four Hooks he faced.  The Texas League is hitting .193 against the 20-year-old, and among the most impressive of his numbers is this: though he’s set 17 batters down on strikes in 17 innings, he’s been remarkably efficient, needing just 14.5 pitches per inning.

Clinton first baseman-right fielder Mitch Moreland, who is having a huge year in his first full pro season (.322/.396/.529 with 38 walks and 40 strikeouts), was called on to pitch the ninth inning of a 13-4 loss to Dayton on Sunday, striking out the side around one single.  Moreland (last year’s 17th-round pick) was a two-way star for Mississippi State, striking out 45 hitters in 32.2 innings as the Bulldogs’ closer.

Dominican righthander J.B. Diaz, who at age 25 came into the season with a career ERA of 5.89, earned a late-June promotion to Frisco after posting a 3.69 ERA in 19 relief appearances for Bakersfield.  In seven RoughRider outings, Diaz has scattered three singles and one walk in 11 innings, striking out 10 with an impressive 2.29 groundout-to-flyout rate.  

The Rangers released 24-year-old righthander Levi Romero, whom they selected from Houston in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft in December.  Romero, who sat 2007 out after elbow surgery, went 0-2, 4.82 in five starts for Bakersfield, Clinton, and the Arizona League squad.

Baltimore released righthander Esteban Yan.

The Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League signed outfielder Ruben Mateo, who, due to a freak injury that completely derailed his promising career, was traded at a time when Texas was helplessly selling low.

I’m not sure whether Gerald Laird will be traded this month, this winter, sometime next year, or not at all, but it seems pretty evident that, if he is traded, the Rangers have positioned things in such a way that they will be selling high, with enough potential strength behind him on the depth chart that they’ll be able to absorb his loss given what they might be able to move him for.

Stay tuned.

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

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