July 2008

Cruz attracting interest.

No time for a full report today, but since about half of the
100 or so of you who submitted questions for the game program column this week asked
about Nelson Cruz’s future, T.R. Sullivan of MLB.com put a blog note up last
night reporting that the Rangers “are getting interest from other teams”
in the 28-year-old outfielder.

Cruz sits at .343/.444/.689 at Oklahoma, in what’s his fifth straight
season to play for some stretch at the AAA level, and he has playable tools in right
field.  But he’s a .231/.282/.385 hitter over
442 at-bats in three big league seasons, is out of options, and can leave on
his own this winter as a six-year free agent if not added back to the 40-man
roster first.

It would take an injury to an outfielder or a decision
that Brandon Boggs would be better off playing every day in AAA (which I would
disagree with) to create playing time in Arlington for Cruz at this point.  But there’s no question that he’s playing out
of his mind this year, and he’s the type of player who will absolutely get more
chances.  Somewhere.

Cruz isn’t going to fetch much, at least on his own, but it’s
encouraging that there’s interest in him, especially this month.

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

It's not about this year.

Chris Davis has made four starts at Rangers Ballpark.

He’s homered in every one of them.

I think you can get away with not doing the math.  That’s pretty good.

Davis has shown that he’s not overwhelmed by the big league experience that, realistically, wasn’t supposed to happen yet.

Just like Brandon Boggs and German Duran and Eric Hurley and Max Ramirez and a bunch of other 2008 rookies.

Including Matt Harrison, who turned in a quality start, by definition and otherwise, in his big league debut, facing one of the best teams in the major leagues.  And getting the win.

Harrison threw strikes (a tick under 60 percent of his 97 pitches), was efficient (14 pitches an inning), was stingy (four singles, a double, and a walk in seven innings), and worked at a really good pace.  He departed with a 3-2 lead, thanks in large part to Davis’s standard round-tripper, greeted by a standing ovation of teammates in the dugout and fans in the stands.  Great camerawork by the KDFI crew, capturing the moment as Ron Washington told Harrison while Texas batted in the bottom of the seventh that he had done his job and helped this team tonight in a number of ways, after which Washington gave Harrison a hug, after which Ian Kinsler did the same, and then so did Marlon Byrd.

Matt Harrison outpitched All-Star and American League wins leader Joe Saunders.

To repeat:

It’s not about this year.  

But it is about tonight.

And tonight was a really, really good night.

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

Harrison and Ballard to start.

When the Rangers drew it up, it’s safe to assume they weren’t planning to throw their sixth, seventh, twelfth, and thirteenth starters at the Angels in a big early July series, but injuries have forced the issue.

Remarkably, this is a team that’s two games over .500 despite the fact that it has needed, and gotten, contributions from 11 rookies (including six pitchers), and that list increases by two tonight and tomorrow, as lefthanders Matt Harrison (age 22) and Mike Ballard (age 24), according to multiple reports, are slated to get the starts in the middle two games of this four-game series.  Harrison gets tonight’s start and Ballard starts tomorrow.  

Harrison, who came over from Atlanta in last summer’s Mark Teixeira trade, is 6-3, 3.43 in 15 starts between Frisco and Oklahoma this season, including a seven-inning no-hitter for the RoughRiders on May 18.  Harrison has allowed as many as four earned runs only twice all year, with 3.0 walks and 5.9 strikeouts per nine innings and a .271 opponents’ average.

Ballard, the Rangers’ 14th-round pick in 2006 as a University of Virginia senior, is 8-3, 3.97 with Frisco this season, with 3.0 walks and 6.5 strikeouts per nine innings and a .304 opponents’ average.  He’s a strike-thrower with the standard four pitches, and he’s been zoned in lately.  In his last seven starts, he’s allowed as many as four earned runs just once, going 5-0, 2.17 in that stretch.  

Eric Hurley has been placed on the disabled list (retroactive to June 30) with a left hamstring strain to make room for Harrison on the active roster.  No move will be announced until tomorrow regarding Ballard’s addition, though it could be accomplished with a Harrison option.  (Ballard will join the 40-man roster without a corresponding move, as the roster had an open spot.)

Finally, a very good thing just happened for Texas, both for this year and beyond.  Oakland has traded Rich Harden (along with reliever Chad Gaudin) to the Cubs for righthander Sean Gallagher, outfielders Matt Murton and Eric Patterson, and Class A catcher Josh Donaldson.  
Getting Harden out of Oakland accentuates the Rangers’ chances to catch the A’s for second place in the division, and frankly, as far as the long term is concerned, I’m stunned Oakland didn’t get more in return.  Gallagher, a pitcher that the Rangers reportedly wanted when Chicago was after Marlon Byrd over the winter, has some upside, but in a package for a guy like Harden, you would have thought he’d be the second piece to the trade, and in this one there’s no question that he’s the key player Oakland is getting.

I’m glad at this point that Texas never picked Gallagher or Murton up from the Cubs, so that today’s Harden trade could get done the way it did.  That’s a good development.

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

Feliz, adj.: In high spirits.

It’s not until you get late into Season One of “Lost” that the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 hold any meaning, and because of that the flight number and the seat assignments and hotel room numbers and bounty amounts and so on don’t hold any particular significance beforehand.

When Max and I parked at 6:00 tonight and walked into Frisco’s Dr Pepper Ballpark, the outside temperature reading in my car was 101 degrees.  

I didn’t know it then, but it was right out of the “Lost” playbook.

It took Neftali Feliz 19 pitches to get out of the first inning, but he did so without allowing a run.  His first two fastballs registered at 92 and 93.  He would throw 14 more fastballs in the first inning, and every one of them clocked between 95 and 98.  

And I swear: without seeing any readings, and without knowing who was pitching, you’d swear it was 91-93 coming out of Feliz’s hand.  You just can’t believe how effortless, how quiet, how hypnotizing he is mechanically.

Of the many scouts in the middle few sections behind the plate, there were two with the same franchise sitting next to each other a row in front of Max and me.  (I won’t say which club, but I painted Cookie Monster in Max’s room a few years ago wearing a uniform that says “Oreos” with a logo that looks just like the club these two scouts work for.)  Three times in the top of the first inning Oreos Scout A and Oreos Scout B turned toward each other, and exchanged wordless looks, with dropped jaws.

Six of Feliz’s final nine first-inning pitches hit 97 or 98, and when the final one blew 28-year-old, .320/.397/.547-hitting Brian Stavisky away, Oreos Scout A’s shoulders started pumping up and down, as he laughed uncontrollably.

Inning two: Feliz’s fifth pitch slapped a 99 on the scoreboard, prompting Oreos Scout B to send a text message to someone.

Feliz’s 12th pitch?  I should have realized that the temperature reading in my car was telling me something.

One hundred and one miles per hour.

That is, 100 on the outfield scoreboard (actually, “00″) — but 101 on the presumably more reliable scouting guns.

In the fourth inning, Feliz hit 101 according to the scoreboard.  Oreos Scout A turned completely around and, once he had the attention of some other organization’s scout about four rows back, shouted, “Hey, what’s that shiny stuff you got on your chin?”

The other scout smiled, not even checking to see if he’d actually drooled.

Once he finished that fourth frame, Feliz had thrown a reasonable 54 pitches (13.5 per inning), and had thrown 38 of them (an outstanding 70 percent) for strikes.  Forget his 20 years of age and the fact that it was his first appearance above Low Class A and the odds that the 6,000 fans he pitched in front of were probably twice as many as he’d ever pitched in front of before.  And forget the mad velocity.  That was sparkling efficiency.

In those four innings, Feliz allowed no runs and walked no batters, scattering three hits and punching out four hitters.

There were some warts on the night.  Feliz did an awful job holding runners, four of whom stole bases easily.  He lost command of the strike zone in the fifth, giving up two doubles, a two-run single (to Chris Pettit, who came into the game as an .077 AA hitter), and a walk, throwing seven straight balls at one point.  He allowed three runs in the inning and, having finished the frame with another Stavisky strikeout (97, 95, and 97), entrusted a 4-3 lead to the Riders bullpen that didn’t stand up.

The plus plus plus velocity is probably going to get hit hard by polished professional hitters unless his off-speed offerings improve.  But there’s a lot of time for Feliz to develop his arsenal, and the fact that he’s throwing such high-octane pitches for strikes so regularly is really, really encouraging.

Max (who is closer in age to Feliz than I am) and I had to call it a night shortly after Feliz did, and while Feliz hit a bump in the fifth and was eventually deprived of a win in his first AA appearance, there was a ton to be blown away by, whether you were Brian Stavisky, three-year-old Max Newberg, or his Dad.  

As I near the finish of “Lost” Season Two, I’m completely sucked in and can’t wait to see what’s in store for me in Seasons Three and Four, and after that.  I don’t know where the series is headed, and certainly don’t know where it’s going to end up, but the fun of it is that I’m dying to find out, digging it every step of the way with the type of anticipation that makes me feel like a kid again.

That’s exactly how I feel about Neftali Feliz.

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

All-Star update.

The Rangers will be represented by four players in the All-Star Game: Josh Hamilton — the only one voted in as a starter — and Ian Kinsler, Michael Young, and Milton Bradley, each of whom led the player vote.  Notably, it’s the first time the Rangers will have four position players go.

The significant thing about the player vote with regard to Kinsler, Young, and Bradley is that they actually received more votes from their peers than the players who will start received.  Kinsler earned 389 player votes, Dustin Pedroia 215; Young 470, Derek Jeter 463; Bradley 481, nobody else listed.

Stated another way, if the players voted for the lineups rather than the fans, Texas would have four players in the starting nine.

Manager Terry Francona has already said that Bradley will start at DH in place of the injured David Ortiz.  

It’s the first All-Star Game for all but Young, who will make his fifth straight trip.  

Hamilton outdistanced Manny Ramirez late to end up with the lead in the outfielders’ vote, and only Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter received more votes than Hamilton among American League players.

As for Kinsler, he finished a very slim 34,243 votes behind Pedroia.  Kinsler received 98.6 percent as many fan votes as Pedroia.  

Rangers medical director and head trainer Jamie Reed will go to the All-Star Game as well.  It will be his second appearance.

Ian Kinsler.

If George King had it right in his New York Post story — published online last night and since pulled off the Web by the Post, presumably since the MLB announcement doesn’t happen until 1:00 our time this afternoon — then Ian Kinsler will have fallen short of overtaking Dustin Pedroia in the fan vote for the starting second baseman spot on the American League All-Star Team.  

The same Pedroia with whom Kinsler jockeyed between the shortstop and second base spots as Arizona State teammates in 2002 before Kinsler transferred to Missouri for his junior year.

The same Pedroia who was Boston’s second-round pick a year after Kinsler was the Rangers’ 17th-round pick.

The same Pedroia whom Kinsler is out-hitting (.328 to .313, and 118 hits to 114)), out-slugging (.544 to .462), out-reaching (.387 to .357), out-OPS-ing (.932 to .819), out-producing (53 RBI to 39, 196 total bases to 168), outscoring (77 to 60), out-homering (14 to 9), out-doubling (28 to 25), out-tripling (4 to 1), outwalking (33 to 22), and outswiping (23 to 9).  Kinsler’s 5.79 range factor is tops among AL second basemen.  Pedroia’s 4.69 is next to last among those who have played at least 60 games at second.

Fans either keyed in on the strikeout totals (Kinsler has 48, Pedroia 32) or error totals (16 to 5 — but in 96 more chances), or voted for laundry.  The gap narrowed considerably (Kinsler was 300,000 votes behind Pedroia four weeks ago, and just 166,000 back two weeks ago), but if King is right, Pedroia has held Kinsler off from the first-inning assignment.

For what it’s worth, ESPN asked 32 baseball analysts what the starting lineups should be for the July 15 All-Star Game, and four Rangers were among the starting nine for the American League: Kinsler (getting 28 of the 32 votes), Josh Hamilton (all 32), Michael Young (21), and Milton Bradley (25, as DH).  Edinson Volquez (17 votes) and Ryan Ludwick (15) came out of the survey as starters for the National League.

Kinsler is the first Rangers leadoff hitter in a long time who looks every time like he, rather than the pitcher, is in control of the at-bat.  In a season that has featured, at one time or another, Hamilton and Bradley earning recognition as perhaps the best player in the league, Kinsler — leading the league in batting average, total bases, and runs scored — now belongs in the discussion.

I wrote this during spring training:

“Yesterday I saw Kinsler take batting practice for the third or fourth time since getting out here, and it struck me that the kid who hit .400 in Clinton and slugged .500 as a minor leaguer nonetheless has to be one of Rudy Jaramillo’s proudest sculptures.  Kinsler has come a long way from the dead pull hitter he was on the farm to a potential star who has learned to quiet those lightning-quick hands enough to create a legitimate spray chart.  In batting practice, he’s showing an ability to hit the ball to right center with tremendous authority, and I think we’re about to see a player about whom we should be thinking not about 30-30 but about 30-30-.300, a leadoff hitter whose power may make him even more dangerous than Craig Biggio.”

He’s now on pace for a .328-26-42 season.  

He’s better than Pedroia.

And he might be better than Biggio.

I also wrote this during spring training:

“[B]etween Kinsler’s ability to pile up doubles and get into scoring position with his feet if he merely singles or walks, and Hamilton’s and Michael Young’s ability to do all kinds of things with the bat behind him, it’s probably not a bad bet to expect a healthy Kinsler could threaten to score at least 115 times, which would give him one of the top 10 run-scoring seasons in franchise history.”

He’s going to have more than 115 before August is over.  Kinsler’s 77 runs are the most ever by a Ranger before the All-Star Break, and his 141-run pace would blow away Alex Rodriguez’s franchise-record 133 runs scored in 2001.  

Jarrod Saltalamacchia had to leave last night’s game during a sixth-inning at-bat in which he tweaked his right groin while swinging.  He’s day to day.  

There was some in-game speculation (by media and fans) that Oklahoma catcher Taylor Teagarden might be on the verge of his big league debut since the only healthy catcher on the active roster is Max Ramirez, but I’d suggest that this might be a better spot under the circumstances for RedHawks soldier Kevin Richardson, a consummate professional who could get some well-deserved big league service (Adam Fox in 2007, Jeff Pickler in 2003) if not some playing time, and would allow Texas to reclaim the 40-man roster spot once Saltalamacchia is pronounced 100 percent (or Gerald Laird returns) by designating the 27-year-old Richardson for assignment.  Just a thought.

Righthander Joaquin Benoit’s shoulder, which he acknowledges hasn’t been healthy all season, forced him to the disabled list.  Righthander Eric Hurley’s left hamstring soreness already cost him yesterday’s start and puts his delayed Tuesday start against the Angels in jeopardy, though he thinks he’ll be ready to go, while righthander Vicente Padilla’s neck strain and bruised thumb make his Wednesday start against he Angels a bit more questionable.  According to several local reports, Oklahoma lefthander Matt Harrison could be recalled to make his big league debut in Padilla’s slot if the veteran can’t go.

Righthander Doug Mathis, whose shoulder inflammation resulted in a disabled list assignment on June 20, is long-tossing.  Lefthander A.J. Murray, on the disabled list since June 4 with a shoulder strain, isn’t throwing yet.

Righthander Brandon McCarthy threw 45 pitches off a mound in Surprise on Tuesday and then a 55-pitch session on Friday.  He’ll pitch in a simulated game on Tuesday, and if there are no setbacks he could go out on a rehab assignment.

I mentioned on June 20 that Oakland had designated righthander Kiko Calero for assignment, and that I was interested.  Texas has signed the 33-year-old and assigned him to Oklahoma.  

Calero has a lifetime ERA of 3.56, 255 strikeouts and just 86 unintentional walks in 242.2 innings, and an opponents’ line of .225/.301/.356.  He’s had one bad season since reaching the big leagues in 2002, and that was last year before he was finally sidelined with a torn rotator cuff.  He’s got the kind of arm and track record that, if he continued to prove he was healthy (he gave up three hits and struck out seven hitters in 4.2 innings before Oakland designated him for assignment two and a half weeks ago), would generate some trade deadline interest.

That’s not to suggest Texas might look to trade Calero, who I think could certainly help firm up the seventh inning here if he’s right.  The point is that he could turn out to be the pitcher that we won’t have to trade a guy like Michael Schlact or Kea Kometani to go get.

Frisco righthander Thomas Diamond is slated for minor surgery to remove a bone spur in his ankle, a procedure that is expected to cost him just three weeks of playing time.  

First baseman Chris Shelton, after clearing waivers, accepted his outright assignment to Oklahoma.

Ron Washington says the club has not considered moving Hank Blalock back to third base once he’s healthy, nor has it considered moving Chris Davis back to third.

Did you see the majestic foul ball Davis smoked to right last night?  Orioles announcer Gary Thorne apparently said it’s furthest he’s ever seen hit at Camden Yards.

Hamilton is on pace for 153 RBI.  Who was the last major league left-handed hitter to drive in at least 150 runs?  Think about it for another few paragraphs.

Baseball America’s mid-season minor league All-Star team features Davis at first base and Max Ramirez (“You won’t find a bett
er offensive performance in the minors”) at designated hitter.  Righthander Neftali Feliz, whose Frisco debut is tomorrow night, was an honorable mention rotation selection.

David Murphy finished ninth in BA’s first-half ranking of baseball’s rookies, fifth among AL players.

This is the best C.J. Wilson has looked since August.  Jay Payton had absolutely no chance on the game’s final pitch after seeing 95 and 84 on those first two.  He got sequenced in a bad, bad way.

Righthander Warner Madrigal’s second big league outing, following up on his first, forgettable one: flyout, groundout, flyout, flyout, flyout, groundout, strikeout swinging.  Impressive.   

Oklahoma outfielder Nelson Cruz (.349/.450/.701, 26 home runs, 51 walks, and 73 RBI in 78 games) is the RedHawks’ lone selection to the July 16 AAA All-Star Game.

Frisco center fielder Julio Borbon hit his first AA homer and first AA double yesterday, and they came off of Cardinals prospect Jess Todd, off of whom the Texas League is hitting .190 (after the Florida State League hit .184).  The Kilgore native has a 1.68 ERA in his two 2008 stops.

Between Bakersfield and Frisco, Borbon (.303/.342/.398) has 39 stolen bases in 46 tries, and just 33 strikeouts in 314 at-bats.

Great note from Scott Lucas, updated: Frisco shortstop Elvis Andrus is hitting .341/.421/.427 in 21 games since returning from a broken finger on June 11.  He was hitting .268/.322/316 though 45 games at the time of the late May injury.

Texas brought lefthander Derek Lee, age 33, back to the organization, and last night he breezed through six shutout innings for the RoughRiders, giving up two singles and no walks while fanning three.  He’d been pitching in Mexico, first for Sultanes de Monterrey (8-3, 3.45) and then for Petroleros de Minatitlan (0-1, 3.72) before the Rangers brought him back for a fourth straight season in the system.  

Another Lucas note: Frisco now boasts the Texas League’s youngest pitcher (Feliz) and its oldest (Lee).

Righthander Michael Main goes from the Arizona League to Clinton to replace Feliz in the LumberKings’ rotation.

First baseman Ian Gac (.342/.357/.474) and second baseman Renny Osuna (.444/.500/.500) have handled things just fine since their promotions to Bakersfield a couple weeks ago.  Gac has gone hitless once in 10 games, Osuna once in nine games.

Clinton center fielder Engel Beltre (.281/.302/.402) has 16 hits in his last eight games.  The power still hasn’t arrived for the 18-year-old, but more importantly he has to start doing a better job working pitchers.  Between May 16 and June 29, Beltre drew one walk.  He has as many triples (seven) as bases on balls this season.

Spokane outfielder Joey Butler, the Rangers’ 15th-round pick out of the University of New Orleans (Diamond’s alma mater), is hitting .453/.547/.660 in his first 53 at-bats, going hitless in just one of 15 games.  The right-handed hitter leads the Northwest League in hitting and reaching base.

The last left-handed hitter to drive in 150 big league runs, as Hamilton is on pace to do?  

Ted Williams.  In 1949.

Hamilton will receive the 2008 ESPY Award for Best Comeback.

The Rangers have put together another charity cruise, which will sail on November 9.  Among those on the five-night Norwegian Cruise Lines voyage, which will have stops in Grand Cayman and Cozumel, will be Jim Sundberg, Mike Hargrove, Fergie Jenkins, Jeff Russell, and two current Rangers players.  The first 25 to pay in full will receive an autographed Nolan Ryan baseball, and a portion of all fares will be donated charitably to the Texas Rangers Baseball Foundation.  You can go to texasrangers.com/cruise or call 1-877-488-7285 for more details or to book your trip.
 
In unrelated moves, the Yankees designated catcher Chris Stewart for assignment and re-signed first baseman Ben Broussard to a minor league contract.  Baltimore designated righthander Ryan Bukvich for assignment.

The Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League sold the contract of lefthander Eric Cyr to the Dodgers.  The Calgary Vipers of the independent Golden Baseball League traded first baseman Jose Morban to the Edmonton Cracker Cats for a player to be named.

The start of this afternoon’s game is in a little jeopardy due to Baltimore rains, but I’m hoping they at least get things underway by 1:00 our time, because I’d prefer that Ian Kinsler not be around a TV when it’s announced that he’s been jobbed in the vote for the American League starting lineup for the All-Star Game.

Then again, it might propel him to go out and tack on another three extra-base hits and help lead Texas to its third straight series win, and fifth out of six.

 

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

Feliz to Frisco.

It’s commonly said that the biggest jump in the minor leagues is to Class AA.  And that’s assuming the jumping point is High A.

According to the Dallas Morning News, 20-year-old righthander Neftali Feliz is being challenged in a way that Ian Kinsler was challenged four summers ago, as the organization is asking him to make the biggest jump in the minor leagues from two levels down.  He’s on his way from Clinton, Iowa to Frisco, Texas.

This ought not to be a cameo appearance (Omar Poveda in 2006, Evan Reed earlier this season).  Feliz leaves the Midwest League with a 6-3, 2.52 record in 17 starts, 106 strikeouts and 28 walks in 82 innings, a 1.64 G/F rate, two home runs allowed, a .193/.277/.281 opponents’ line, and that “flat-out, God-given gasoline” that scouts described his stuff as before he was traded from Atlanta to Texas last July in the Mark Teixeira deal.  And lest you think he’s been getting by against Low A hitters strictly on the strength of his upper-90s velocity, the fact that left-handed hitters (.174/.262/.242, no home runs in 149 at-bats) have had a measurably tougher time against Feliz than righties (.213/.294/.324, two home runs in 136 at-bats) demonstrates that his change-up is better than just good, and makes that effortless fastball even gasolinier.

This is a big jump.  Kinsler went from a .402/.465/.692 21-year-old hitter in Clinton to “just” a .300/.400/.480 22-year-old hitter in Frisco in 2004.  The competition that Feliz is about to face is substantially better than what he’s gone up against, but even if he’s not as dominating as a RoughRider as he was as a LumberKing, that’s not the measure.  The Rangers think he’s ready for this challenge, and the way this organization’s player development machine is firing right now, the fact that they think he’s ready is all I need to know.

Feliz says so long to the Midwest League as its strikeout leader.  I’m fired up to see how he’ll introduce himself to the Texas League.

Opus.

There’s been a lot of attention devoted to the wave of Rangers prospects who have arrived in the big leagues this season ahead of schedule and contributed, and deservedly so.  Plenty of focus has been trained on the crop of first-rounders, trade acquisitions, and international signings who arrived in the summer of 2007, and those players have undoubtedly earned that.

But if you were to pick the player out of the system who is the most improperly overlooked, at this point I don’t think it’s even a close call.

The Rangers have named their minor league players and pitcher of the month for June.  Chris Davis and Nelson Cruz shared the player honor.  The pitcher went 2-0, 1.63 in five starts, striking out a batter per inning, walking a third as many, and holding opponents to a .185 batting average.

From time to time, a player of the month award reflects a breakthrough stretch for a prospect, but this pitcher is now 7-0, 2.57 for the year, and has a career mark of 11-5, 2.85 in 30 starts and a couple relief appearances, with 167 strikeouts in 154.2 innings, just 50 walks, and an anemic opponents’ line of .228/.297/.343.  

The two key differences between the 2006 25th-rounder’s debut season in 2007 and what he’s doing in 2008?  A 6’2″ lefthander, he’s amped his velocity up a couple ticks to the mid-90s, while transforming himself from a flyball pitcher (0.68 G/F) to a groundball pitcher (1.30 G/F).

I’m saying this well before getting overbaked outside today: If 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.

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

In Their Footsteps: The third baseman

In his eight seasons with Texas, Buddy Bell hit .293/.351/.431, with 15 home runs, 84 RBI, and four stolen bases for every 162 games played.  On the surface, the third baseman’s numbers don’t jump off the page.  They’re slightly short of Ramon Vazquez’s 2008 productivity.

But a full appreciation of what Bell gave this franchise requires a look beneath the surface.  At the moment, third base may be the leanest position in the Rangers’ minor league system, but among the organization’s crop is a player who, like Bell, calls for a deeper look to understand what he might become.

When Bell arrived in Texas following the 1978 season, the franchise had had only two players in its seven years who went to as many as two All-Star Games, catcher Jim Sundberg and shortstop Toby Harrah, the player the Rangers traded to get Bell.  Bell had been to one All-Star Game himself, when at age 21 he went as a second-year big leaguer and tripled in a pinch-hitting appearance.  He didn’t return to the Mid-Summer Classic in his remaining five seasons with Cleveland, but things changed when he got to Texas.

Bell wasn’t an All-Star in 1979, but starting in 1980, he was selected four times in five years.  He did win a Gold Glove in 1979, and would win one in each of the following five seasons as well.  (Oddly enough, Bell not only won a Gold Glove every full season he played with Texas – he never won one in any of his other 12 big league seasons.)  A steady offensive player, Bell was a spectacular defender, with good hands, a strong arm, and a flair for the dramatic play.

With a personality as unassuming as his numbers, Bell was a fan favorite in Texas but might have had the quietest 2,500-hit career of any player to reach that threshold, having never played on a playoff team and, in fact, playing most of his 18 seasons for bad teams in relatively small markets.  His stature in the game was unassailable, though, as evidenced by his receipt in 1988 of the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, given annually to the player who best exemplifies Gehrig’s character and integrity both on and off the field. 

The way I remember Bell, one of my favorite players as a kid, I would have sworn his numbers were a lot more impressive.  Yet he had only one season with 20 home runs, one season with 100 RBI, two seasons with a .300 average, and one season with 200 hits.  The numbers didn’t tell nearly the whole story.

The Rangers have a third baseman on the farm right now who, in his fourth pro season, is still in Class A and has an unimposing career line of .251/.357/.403.  But a look beneath the surface hints that Johnny Whittleman could still emerge as the organization’s best bet to eventually settle in as an everyday third baseman in the Major Leagues. 

The Rangers’ second-round pick in 2005 out of Kingwood High School near Houston, Whittleman is a premier athlete with tremendous makeup and baseball instincts whose picturesque left-handed swing has yet to produce with the kind of consistency that he’ll need in order to get to the big leagues.  But there are two things that Whittleman does very well – lay off bad pitches and rack up doubles – that promise better things ahead.

In 2007, despite a rough second half (he hit .343 over the season’s first two months but just .214 the rest of the way), Whittleman had the eighth-highest walk total in the minor leagues, drawing a base on balls once for every 5.1 Clinton and Bakersfield at-bats.  Midwest League managers ranked his strike zone judgment as the best in the league.  In 2008, he has walked once every 5.4 Bakersfield at-bats, and he is one walk short of the California League lead.  It’s surely been frustrating for Whittleman that he hasn’t hit for a better average and more power so far as a pro, but if so he hasn’t let it affect his patience at the plate.  He understands the strike zone and sees a ton of pitches, which bodes well for his development as a producer at the plate. 

It’s been said that minor league doubles often turn into big league home runs, and Whittleman has hit for doubles with increasing frequency every year since being drafted.  In 2006, his first full pro season, he doubled once every 22.2 at-bats.  In 2007, he doubled once every 12.9 at-bats.  This year, he has doubled once every 12 at-bats and has the third-highest total in the California League.  

Whittleman has hit only six home runs thus far in 2008, going deep only half as often as he did last year, but there’s no doubt that the power is there.  He homered 17 times in 2007 and added a bomb in last summer’s Futures Game off of blue-chip prospect Deolis Guerra, ranked by scouts as the number two pitching prospect in the game and since shipped by the Mets to the Twins as a key to the Johan Santana trade.  

In each of Whittleman’s four seasons in the Rangers system, he has seen his numbers drop off late in the year.  Finding a way to sustain his offense will be critical to his chances to play at the highest level.  Given Whittleman’s work ethic, the odds are good that he’ll get it figured out.

Prospects aren’t granted major league careers because of their character and their leadership, but those things certainly help them get to the big leagues, and stay there.  Buddy Bell’s place in Rangers history was as much about how he played the game as it was about the numbers he put up in his eight seasons with the franchise.  

Johnny Whittleman’s numbers need to improve, without question, but there are statistical indications that he might break out before long.  And his intangibles are the type that, like Bell, he could develop into a player who gives his team and the people who fill the stands far more than runs batted in and the arm strength to routinely start a 5-4-3.

 

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.

Measured abandon.

Said Johnny Damon, minutes after C.J. Wilson shattered his bat with a 96-mph fastball on the hands to end last night’s game:  “The sense of urgency is now.  We’re facing some pretty good teams.  The Rangers, we know they can swing the bat and now we’re finding out we can’t hit their pitchers.”

A thought on Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who has had his ups and downs defensively on this trip.  The media is focusing on his throwing, and that shouldn’t be discounted, but doesn’t it need to be pointed out that he just caught a 2-1 win and a 3-2 win in Yankee Stadium?  

Said 16-year-old Dominican righthander Michel Inoa, who will reportedly sign with Oakland today for a bonus of $4.25 million: “After careful thought, my parents and I decided that Oakland has a better pitcher development program, and that will be more important for my career in the long haul.”  Make what you want out of that comment, as well as the apparent facts that A’s general manager Billy Beane (several times) and owner Lewis Wolff traveled to the Dominican to see Inoa – fishy – but it’s worth noting that, according to ESPN, the Rangers offered Inoa $5.2 million and the Reds offered him $5 million.  The Yankees ducked out with an offer under $3 million.

Prior to this, the largest signing bonus ever paid to a Latin American free agent not from Cuba was $2.44 million, paid by the Yankees in 1999 to outfielder Wily Mo Pena (who is represented by Adam Katz, the agent for Inoa).

Baseball America reported three days ago that the Rangers and Reds “were told in recent weeks that the deal was done” – despite the fact that signing period for international free agents doesn’t open until today.  

Sports Illustrated’s mid-season awards: Josh Hamilton is the runner-up for AL MVP (Ian Kinsler is sixth, Milton Bradley seventh).  Edinson Volquez is the runner-up for NL Cy Young.  Justin Duchscherer is the runner-up for AL Cy Young.

David Murphy isn’t in the top three for AL Rookie of the Year.

According to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, Vicente Padilla (another Katz client) is drawing interest from the Yankees, Mets, and Brewers, but Texas will not move the righthander unless it’s for quality young pitching.

Interesting: Apparently Clinton righthander Neftali Feliz was originally tabbed to appear in the Futures Game, but was pulled by MLB because the league felt that Texas already had too many players in the game and there’s an effort to make sure each franchise is represented.  Chris Davis, Max Ramirez, Elvis Andrus, and Taylor Teagarden were selected, giving Texas the most players in the game (along with the A’s and Phillies).  

I suspect that if Ramirez is pulled from the World roster by virtue of remaining on the big league roster as of the July 13 event, the league will find a catcher to replace him, which doesn’t help Feliz’s cause, but maybe another organization’s pitcher will be dropped due to big league status or injury, and Feliz can rightfully take his place in New York on the 13th.  

Speaking of rightfully take his place in New York, today is the final day to vote (up to 25 times each) for the All-Star Game starters.  I would encourage you to head to http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/all_star/y2008/ballot_reg.html right away and vote with the same measured abandon that your second baseman is playing with.

kinslerslide.jpg

Looking forward to Ian Kinsler stepping in against Sidney Ponson to kick off tonight’s game, as Texas goes for the sweep.

Kinsler belongs back on the field in Yankee Stadium in two weeks.

In the first inning.

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

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