July 2008

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.

Stepping up.

On August 16, 2006, the Rangers beat the Angels, 9-3.  Scott Feldman was one of four Texas pitchers, getting two groundouts in the ninth before drilling Adam Kennedy and getting tossed from the game.

You might remember that night as the one on which Feldman’s pitch, with one out left in the game, incited a bench-clearing brawl that everyone knew was coming after Vicente Padilla had been run the night before for hitting Vladimir Guerrero and Juan Rivera, and after Kevin Gregg drilled Michael Young and Brendan Donnelly drilled Freddy Guzman in the bottom of the eighth, both getting tossed themselves and setting up Feldman’s entry in the ninth to finish things off.

That’s not why I bring that game up tonight.

That August 16, 2006 win, a game in which Feldman made a name for himself in a way (he not only stood up for his teammates that night but, after returning from a six-game suspension, was spotless the rest of that rookie season, throwing eight scoreless innings in seven relief appearances), bears some added significance tonight.

Feldman, who hadn’t pitched in 11 days, was pretty outstanding tonight, holding the Central-leading White Sox to one run in six innings in what amounted to an emergency start, earning his fourth win of the season as Josh Hamilton and Hank Blalock powered the offense back up and the bullpen threw three innings of one-hit, no-walk, six-strikeout ball to nail down a 6-1 victory.

The reason August 16, 2006 is meaningful tonight is not because of Feldman’s sidearm haymaker in that fight-marred ninth, but instead because of the effort that the revitalized 25-year-old gave his team tonight, helping Texas move into second place in the West for the first time (outside of April) since . . . August 16, 2006.

Moves: Pitchers and catchers.

The Rangers have decided to give righthander Eric Hurley a little extra time on the disabled list.  Hurley was slated to make tonight’s start against the White Sox but he’s dealing with a little shoulder stiffness, and as a result, he won’t be activated, though the club expects him to go when his turn comes back around.

Instead, righthander Scott Feldman, who was eligible today to return to the active roster (after a requisite 10 days on the farm), will start in Chicago.  The Rangers had planned to move Feldman to the bullpen in order to keep his workload down in the second half, but that plan will apparently stay on hold until later this week.

The Rangers are reportedly going to option catcher Taylor Teagarden to Oklahoma to make room for Feldman.  This would seem to pave the way for Teagarden to join Team USA – the 24-year-old who would have gone out soon anyway since Jarrod Saltalamacchia is well again and Gerald Laird is getting closer to his own return.

Tea's afternoon.

Penny and Bruce’s son, Taylor Hill Teagarden, may not admit it publically, but that had to be just about exactly what he’s dreamed about for 24 years.  

Gets his first big league hit – a sixth-inning home run to bust up a perfect game and give his team a lead – guns down his first big league runner, and, maybe most importantly, is behind the plate for a 1-0 shutout, catching two former Major League All-Stars and a Major League closer whom he meets halfway between the plate and the mound for the first congratulations once Ian Kinsler to Chris Davis produces the 27th out.  

Teagarden’s first experience as a big leaguer is probably about to end, for now.  He’s probably a day or two away from a ticket to Oklahoma City, if not to join Team USA as it prepares for an Olympic run in China.  

But it’s all good, because in the meantime, there’s a souvenir heading back to the Metroplex with Taylor, headed for Penny and Bruce’s mantel.

That was a very good day.

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

Life with Derek.

It’s the spring of 2006.  You’re Rick Schroeder, or Jeff Wood.  You’ve laid the road map out and found Hanceville, Alabama, the home of Wallace State Community College.  You know, eight miles south of Cullman.  

Wallace State-Hanceville, that school of a couple thousand that sports bitter rivalries with Alabama Community College Conference foes Bevill State-Sumiton and Northwest Shoals.  You throw the records out when the Wallace State-Hanceville and Northwest Shoals go to war.

You know, Wallace State-Hanceville, which has sent infielder Zealous Wheeler and four other players directly to the minor leagues, one of whom has gone so far as to reach AA.  

You settle into your seat in James C. Bailey Stadium, where the attendance is probably no greater than the number of players in uniform.

Even on a day that Derek Holland pitched.

You see enough of Holland, who goes 8-2, 2.69 as a Lions freshman, striking out 80 community college hitters (and walking 32) in 77 community college innings, that you flag his name when submitting your reports to central crosschecker Mike Grouse.  You make a good enough case that Grouse pounds his fists on the table when submitting his own reports to national crosschecker Kip ****, who buys in enough that Holland lands on Ron Hopkins’s 2006 draft board.

But not near the top.

In the 24th round, Texas chose a lefthander (Robert “Lance” McClain) from Walters State Community College.  In the 25th round, it was time to cross off the list the name of that lefthander from Wallace State Community College: 19-year-old Derek Holland.  

If Holland was relatively anonymous at the time, he wouldn’t be for long.  Texas didn’t come to terms with Holland that summer and may never have intended to, instead opting to monitor him the next spring as a draft-and-follow, a process that was extinguished after that 2006 draft.  But in November, Holland committed to transfer to Arizona State for his junior season — that is, if he didn’t sign with the Rangers by the end of May 2007, and then didn’t sign with whichever team drafted him as a Wallace State sophomore on June 7.

You’re Schroeder, or Wood, and along with Grouse and **** and Jon Daniels you keep tabs on Holland as a Lions sophomore, watching him go 9-2, 1.82 in 13 starts, three of which were complete game shutouts, with 84 strikeouts and just 11 walks in 74.1 innings.  Holland held the league to a .194 average as a freshman.  The league managed to hit .200 off him as a sophomore.

You see Holland allow one earned run in 24 innings over his final four starts (against juggernauts Meridian Community College, Marion Military Institute, Gadsden State, and Calhoun), recording wins each time.  It’s now mid-May, and your sense, and that of the organization, is that your 2006 25th-rounder will probably figure in somewhere between the fourth and seventh rounds in a couple weeks, if you can’t sign him.

But negotiations go well, so well in fact that Holland came to terms on May 20, 2007, 10 days before the deadline for draft-and-follows to sign.

Texas agreed to pay the Wallace State-Hanceville lefthander $200,000 to sign.  Roughly fourth- or fifth-round money.  He was effectively taken off 30 draft boards, as well as off of Arizona State’s 2008 roster, and sent to Spokane, Washington.

As your attention turned toward the 2008 draft crop, you peeked back every once in a while to see what Holland managed to do in his rookie summer.  In 14 Northwest League starts and two relief appearances, he went 4-5, 3.22, scattering 57 hits (.224 OBA) and 21 walks in 67 innings while punching out an impressive 83 with a lively fastball that sat at 89-93, complemented by a good slider and change.  

He was even better at Fall Instructs.

And even better in spring training.

And even better in Clinton this spring.

And even better, so far, in Bakersfield.

He went 7-0, 2.40 in 17 LumberKing starts, with 91 strikeouts and 29 walks in 93.2 innings, holding the Midwest League to a .228 average.  

In two Blaze starts, Holland is 2-0, 1.93, surrendering just seven hits (.149 opponents’ average) and two walks in 14 innings, fanning 14.  Last night’s effort?  Eight shutout innings, nine strikeouts.  No walks, two hits.

More velocity than in 2007 (he now touches 95).  A better groundout-per-flyout rate than in 2007.

I suggested on July 4 (after his penultimate LumberKings effort) that “[i]f one were to rank Rangers minor leaguers on untouchability, 21-year-old Clinton lefthander Derek Holland may have quietly put himself in the top ten — if not the top five.”

It seems pretty clear now that he fits, despite the unprecedented depth that this farm system now boasts, somewhere on such a list of five.

And to think that if the Rangers failed to sign Holland and he took his game to Arizona State, he would have been in the 2008 draft.  

And, even without the benefit of the pitching instruction of Rick Adair and Danny Clark (and Carlos Pulido and Dave Chavarria and others), I bet that, as a Sun Devil junior, Holland would have put himself in position to go higher than the fourth-to-seventh round.

He’d no longer be in your scouting territory, but you’d be wondering what could have been had we signed him.

If Holland had gone to ASU and went in the top couple rounds, chances are decent that he’d still be negotiating right now, rather than mowing hitters down in High A.

Farewell, draft-and-follow process, rest in peace.  Thanks for the last hurrah.

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

Seeking relief.

Surveying the landscape of potential bullpen additions the Rangers could make this month, I think I know who my number one candidate is.

He won’t cost us John Mayberry Jr.

He won’t cost us Johnny Whittleman and Evan Reed.

He won’t cost us Michael Schlact and Marcus Lemon, and he won’t cost us Derek Holland.

He’d cost us a transfer of Jason Jennings from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day disabled list.

I’m not sure there’s a potential trade out there that would work for me any more than getting 33-year-old Kiko Calero up here.  

In four appearances since signing, the Oklahoma reliever has a 3.00 ERA, but all the damage came in his first appearance back on July 6 — when he hadn’t pitched in 18 days.

In his last three RedHawks appearances, Calero (whose lifetime big league track record includes a 3.56 ERA with 255 strikeouts and 96 walks in 242.2 innings) has been perfect, facing five hitters and getting six outs (a caught-stealing accounting for the turbo-efficiency).  In two hitless and walkless innings, Calero has fanned four.

He’s coming back from a rotator cuff injury diagnosed a year ago.  But every reliever on the market right now will have warts, whether it’s health or effectiveness or a bad contract.  And he seems to be pitching healthy.  And effectively.

I’ll take Calero, and keep the prospects.

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

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.

In Their Footsteps: The first baseman

It wasn’t uncommon for Chris Davis to make the 150-mile trip to Rangers Ballpark during his junior and senior years at Longview High School, which happened to be Mark Teixeira’s first two seasons in the big leagues.  Though Davis was a shortstop and pitcher for the Lobos, the first baseman Teixeira caught the teenager’s eye, particularly at the plate.  

“I just remember how cool it was that they played the theme from ‘The Natural’ whenever he hit a home run,” Davis recalls.  “And I think he homered every time I was out there.”

Davis hears the theme from “The Natural” a whole lot these days, too.  The 22-year-old, now a first baseman himself, homered in each of his first four starts in Rangers Ballpark.

The parallels between Teixeira and Davis are obvious.  The Rangers drafted Teixeira, a 6’3″, 220-pound power hitter, out of college.  He played his first pro season at third base, before moving across the diamond as he broke into the big leagues as a first baseman.  

Similarly, Texas drafted the 6’3″, 220-pound Davis out of college.  After a debut summer at first base and the outfield, he played his first full pro season at third base, moving this year to first base and arriving in Arlington at that position.

Their pedigrees weren’t the same, however.  Texas drafted Teixeira with the fifth overall pick in 2001 — three years after Boston failed to sign him as a high school pick — and paid him $9.5 million to turn pro.  The Rangers drafted Davis in the fifth round in 2006 — two years after the Yankees failed to sign him as a high school pick — and signed him for $172,500.  There was certainly a different set of expectations for the two, as Teixeira, even before he signed, was viewed as this franchise’s next star player, while Davis was virtually anonymous outside Longview and Corsicana (where he starred for Navarro Junior College), and did nothing to change that after hitting .179 for Spokane in his first month as a pro.

But Davis quickly erased memory of his slow start.  In the 2006 season’s remaining six weeks, he caught fire and finished in the Northwest League’s top five in most key offensive categories, hitting .277/.343/.534 with 18 doubles and 15 homers in 253 at-bats.  He not only made the league’s All-Star Team but was recognized by Baseball America as the first baseman on its Short-Season Class A All-Star Team and as the player who had the best pro debut of any first baseman drafted in 2006 and of any junior college player drafted in 2006.  

But what Davis did in 2007, his first full pro season, looked far less like his 2006 debut than like Teixeira’s debut season in 2002.  Despite playing on an injured foot for four of the season’s five months, Davis was among the most dangerous hitters in the minor leagues.  Splitting the season between High A Bakersfield and AA Frisco, he hit 36 home runs and drove in 118 runs, both of which were second in all of minor league baseball, and tied an all-time California League record by hitting safely in 35 straight games.

When Davis was promoted to Frisco at the end of July 2007, he continued to hit for eye-opening power but made a phenomenal improvement in two other key areas.  After striking out once every 3.1 at-bats and walking once every 17.5 at-bats for the Blaze, he cut his strikeouts to once every 4.0 at-bats with the RoughRiders and jumped his walk rate to once every 8.4 at-bats.  

Texas made the decision in the off-season to move Davis back to first base — something the club did with Teixeira in his big league rookie season of 2003 — and the organization’s excitement, not only about Davis’s potential but about how close he apparently was, became evident when Texas brought Ben Broussard in on a one-year deal at first base.  There was no effort to commit multiple years to a veteran first baseman, no effort to do anything that would present an impediment to Davis’s arrival.

As Broussard got off to a miserable start, Davis tortured Texas League pitching this spring, hitting .333/.376/.618 with a league-leading 13 home runs and 42 RBI (second-most) in 46 games before earning a promotion to AAA Oklahoma in late May.  He would last there for just a month.

Davis hit .333/.402/.685 in 111 RedHawk at-bats, with 10 home runs and 31 RBI in 31 games.  Teixeira never played in Class AAA, but it’s hard to imagine he would have done any more damage than Davis did in his unconscious month in the Pacific Coast League, which ended with a June 26 promotion to Texas.

The progress Davis had made offensively has been impressive.  He was a .290/.341/.557 Class A hitter, with a home run every 16.4 at-bats, a strikeout every 3.4 at-bats, and a walk every 14.2 at-bats. 

He was a .319/.374/.644 Class AA hitter, with a home run every 11.8 at-bats, a strikeout every 4.2 at-bats, and a walk every 11.4 at-bats.

He was a .333/.402/.685 Class AAA hitter, with a home run every 11.1 at-bats, a strikeout every 3.8 at-bats, and a walk every 8.5 at-bats.

As a major league hitter, two years removed from playing junior college baseball, Davis is hitting .259/.328/.655.  In 58 at-bats, he has as many home runs (six) as the Rangers’ five other first basemen have had in 283 combined at-bats.

Davis’s propensity for getting better is a testament to his ability to adapt.  “Chris has been very open to making adjustments since he signed with us,” says Rangers Director of Player Development Scott Servais.  “He picks and chooses what he uses, but he trusts.  He’s a special talent, he has aptitude, and he enjoys the game.” 
 
The adjustments have come quickly in Arlington.  Davis hit his sixth home run in his 15th Rangers game.  It wasn’t until game number 44 that Teixeira (whose 153 Texas homers are one short of the franchise record for any Rangers draftee) hit his sixth.

Teixeira and Davis also share agent Scott Boras, whose involvement might have been a factor in why the former is no longer this club’s first baseman and the latter is.  

But there’s no sense in wondering what might happen five years from now with Davis.  His arrival in the ballpark where he once paid to see Teixeira play came more quickly than anyone could have anticipated, and today there’s some kid driving in from Longview or Corsicana or Wichita Falls and getting the chance to see this franchise’s next great first baseman get his career underway in Rangers Ballpark, cueing “The Natural” with regularity.

 

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.

Dialed in.

Guess who’s hitting a robust .314/.391/.494 in the month of July?  

The Rangers’ offense.

And they’ve done that against the Yankees, Orioles, Angels, and White Sox, at that.  

Hope the Break won’t turn out to cool this thing off.

For those of you who missed Mike Hindman and me sitting in with Ben & Skin on the Ticket this afternoon and would like to hear the 30 minutes or so of Rangers talk we threw down, you can listen here (courtesy of the industrious Joey Matschulat of the great “Baseball Time in Arlington” blog):

http://boomp3.com/listen/bz4h3arhz_7/mike-and-jamey-on-the-ticket-7-16-08

If you have any feedback on the show, let me know and I’ll pass it on to Ben & Skin.  Thanks.


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

He's ours.

March 16,
2008:

 

Maybe
the most ridiculous thing about a Josh Hamilton Batting Practice Display is that
since so many of his missiles explode like a perfectly struck tee shot, every
once in a while he’ll bump one off the end of the bat, and your eyes shift to
the outfielder in whose direction the ball is traveling (it could be any one of
them, from left center field to straightway right), and as you wait for him to
trot in to haul the lazy fly in, or at worst camp under it in place to make the
catch, instead you see the outfielder jog back toward the fence, basically a
courtesy gesture as the mis-hit ball carries over the wall to keep the last
several Hamilton shots company.

And
then there are the pitches that Hamilton squares up on, the ones that cause
you, involuntarily, to issue a “Whoaaaaa” in unison with your
three-and-a-half-year-old son, with the same reaction of equal parts awe,
adrenaline, and disbelief.  The ones on which the outfielders stand as
motionless and unneeded as they do on the requisite bunts that the Rangers’
penciled number two hitter drops (and drops well) at the start of his
rounds.

David
Murphy (as I’d hoped) and Marlon Byrd, hitting in sequence with Hamilton, had
the misfortune of having what were absolutely impressive BP sessions of their
own look unjustly pedestrian in comparison to their teammate’s, like watching
Terrence Newman and Terrell Owens run a 40 alongside Deion
Sanders.

The
Hamilton swing
is so devoid of effort, it makes no sense.  You’ve seen the scout’s comment
about the “flat-out, God-given gasoline” that comes effortlessly out of Neftali
Feliz’s arm.  Josh Hamilton endows his baseball bat with a flat-out, God-given
thunderstorm.  A nearly silent thunderstorm,
somehow.

 

The players fringing the
diamond tonight, each of them Major League All-Stars themselves, had the same
speechless, wide-eyed, almost giddy expressions on their faces that Max and I
had on the couch watching that spectacle.  Before Josh Hamilton’s first round
was done, the players were all on their feet, just like the 50,000 Yankee
Stadium fans who, in the space of 10 minutes, had adopted him as their own. 

The best moment for me
was not the 502 off the Bank of America sign in right center, or the 504, or the
518.  Not the 13 straight.  Not the blast that tied Bobby Abreu for the greatest
first round in Derby history, and not the one that broke the
record.  Not the blast that Milton Bradley and Ian Kinsler and Michael Young
were having, though that was pretty cool. 

The best moment, I
thought, was after home run number 17, when Hamilton stepped out of the box to catch his
breath, and did what we all wanted him to do.  He stopped.  Slowly turned around
and looked to the crowd, which somewhere included his family.  And then to
another part of the crowd.  And another.  Smiling, soaking that moment in, the
one he’d dreamed almost prophetically about, as awestruck as those 50,000 who
were on their feet, looking back at him and chanting his name.  “I got chills,”
Hamilton would
say afterwards.  “I got chills.”

Take note, Rangers
fans.

hamiltonderby1.jpg

 

As one of you texted me
as it was all unfolding:

He’s ours.

 

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

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