Eddie Guardado for Mark Hamburger.

If there was a scout who thought enough of Mark Hamburger’s low-90s fastball at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College to turn in a recommendation prior to Draft Day in 2007, he didn’t make a strong enough case to convince his scouting director to make Hamburger one of the 1,452 players chosen in the draft.  

Even though Hamburger packed fewer than 200 pounds on his 6’4″ frame, which at least hints at projectability.  Even though the kid — who had gone 11-0, 0.65 and earned NJCAA All-Region, All-State, All-Division, and All-American honors the year before, in 2006 — was obviously signable, as his other option was reportedly a transfer to Wayne State in Nebraska, a program that has never had a player reach the big leagues.

Shortly after the native of Shoreview, Minnesota made the 15-mile drive with a buddy to the Metrodome for a Twins tryout camp in June 2007 and earned the only deal that the club gave to the 110 participants (which was probably no more than a plane ticket to Fort Myers, Florida), the 20-year-old fared well against teenaged hitters in the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, posting a 1.20 ERA in 15 innings that were logged over eight appearances.  Among the dozen hits he allowed (.203 average) were three doubles and nothing more damaging, and he walked four while fanning 12, coaxing 1.85 as many groundouts as flyouts.

Still, in the 2008 edition of Baseball America’s annual Prospect Handbook, in which the publication’s top 30 prospect lists for each team are expanded to recognize a lot more minor leaguers than that, Hamburger’s name didn’t show up among the 71 Twins players who turned up in the book, 35 of whom were pitchers.  

But chances are Hamburger didn’t feel slighted in the least, given where he’d come from and where he’d gone, getting the chance to wear a uniform that he didn’t have to pay for that said “Twins” across the front.  Even if he was in Fort Myers wearing it.

As Hamburger, who waited tables at Champps in the off-season before reporting to spring training, told Seth Stohs of the Twins-centric SethSpeaks.net over the winter: “I would rather play for the Twins . . . than any other team in the Major Leagues.”  He earned an encore after that intriguing first summer.

Held back in extended spring training this season, Hamburger was assigned to the age-appropriate, short-season Appalachian League in June.  Despite having pitched in middle relief in 2007 (he got only one save opportunity and didn’t convert it), he was entrusted by manager Ray Smith with Elizabethton’s ninth-inning job.  In 14 save opportunities for the Twins this year, Hamburger nailed down 13 saves.

His ERA has jockeyed around the four-run mark all season, but if you zero in on the walks column you see something interesting, and hard to diagnose.  

In his first nine appearances this season, spanning 16 innings, Hamburger didn’t walk anyone, striking out 19.

In his next seven appearances, spanning nine innings, he issued 13 walks, striking out 11.

In the remaining 11 games he pitched for Elizabethton, spanning 11.2 innings, Hamburger once again walked nobody, striking out 10.

A closer look at that final game, and Hamburger’s usage before it, may help you get into his head a bit.

Hamburger never got to negotiate a Draft Day deal, may never have had an agent show interest in him, probably wakes up each day thinking about that day’s game, not about how soon he’ll get promoted and not about endorsement opportunities and not about organizational politics.  But even he had to think something might have been up when he got the call on Sunday to get loose.

Going into Sunday’s game, with his club nursing a five-game Appy West division lead, Hamburger had pitched 26 times this season.  Not once had he come in with the Twins behind.

In fact, the last time he’d entered a game in which his club was losing was more than a year ago, his seventh game as a pro, on August 15, 2007.  

Princeton extended its lead over Elizabethton on Sunday to 6-3 in the fifth inning, and Smith called on his third reliever to pitch the sixth, a fourth reliever to work a quiet seventh, a fifth reliever to breeze through three hitters in the eighth.  As the Twins were hitting in the bottom of the eighth, failing to close the 6-3 deficit, Hamburger was warming up.  

There’s no telling whether he knew there was a Rangers scout among the 922 in attendance, but he had to know something was going on when he was asked to get ready to pitch the ninth inning of a game that his team was trailing by three runs.

Texas placed Eddie Guardado on the revocable waiver wire sometime in the last three to five days.  Minnesota — who had reportedly tried trading for Guardado in July but balked when the Rangers asked for Brian Duensing or Jeff Manship or Anthony Swarzak (if not Boof Bonser or the currently rehabbing Tyler Robertson), says La Velle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune — placed the prevailing waiver claim, opening a 48-and-a-half-hour window during which the Twins and Rangers could work out a trade.  

Whether Hamburger knew it or not, he was going to pitch on Sunday, whether Elizabethton was up 6-3, down 6-3, or getting run-ruled.

Hamburger made short order of the Rays, needing just nine pitches.  Setting the Rays down in order (extending a month-long walkless streak), he coaxed groundouts to his shortstop and second baseman and got his final out as a Twin by recording his 40th strikeout of the season.

The strikeout victim?  

Tim Beckham, who signed as the top pick in the nation two months ago for $6.15 million.  At age 18.  

He and Hamburger couldn’t have more disparate baseball backgrounds.

I’m not sure if Hamburger (who should have low wear on his arm given the part of the country he comes from) hit 96 on the gun — as Neal reports he did at least once — as Beckham swung through strike three, or if he got the uberprospect out on an increasingly dirty slider, but Hamburger is no longer the kid who was undrafted and signed with his hometown team out of an open tryout.  He’s now a guy who was just named the 10-team Appalachian League’s Closer of the Year and made the league’s post-season All-Star squad.  And a guy who was traded straight up for a former All-Star in a deal meant to help his former team get to the playoffs and win.

If you’re wondering what the cost would be to bring Guardado back to Texas this winter, should there be mutual interest, he stands to classify as a Type B free agent at best, meaning Texas (or whoever signs him) will not have to forfeit a draft pick to the Twins under any circumstances.  

In the meantime, Frankie Francisco gets his shot to claim the closer’s role, and Bill White comes up from Oklahoma to get key lefties out.

Amazingly, Guardado had all of one save opportunity in the three weeks since he closed out an 8-6 win over the Yankees on the day C.J. Wilson last pitched.

Could there be more on the trade front before Sunday’s deadline to freeze playoff rosters?  There are reports that Kevin Millwood, Vicente Padilla, and Frank Catalanotto have cleared waivers (and that the Yankees expressed interest in Milton Bradley — without clarification as to whether he cleared waivers or was claimed by New York — but didn’t offer enough to persuade the Rangers to give up on the opportunity to either extend Bradley or collect two draft picks for him this winter), and those are three interesting names.  

Jim Molony of MLB.com speculates that Boston, reacting to Josh Beckett’s inflamed elbow (and tingling in his pitching hand), could be interested in Millwood or Padilla, but the Rangers surely wouldn’t dump either one without a significant return.  As for Catalanotto, he stands to lose signifi
cant playing time with the arrival of Nelson Cruz and the supposedly imminent return of David Murphy.  It stands to reason that any team offering a Hamburger-level prospect, possibly less, could acquire Catalanotto.

As for Hamburger himself, it may be true that he’d rather play for the Twins than anyone else, and who can blame him?  But he’s on his way to Clinton now, where he’ll pitch in Low A for the first time, moving from one playoff opportunity to another, and getting the chance to give Texas another strike-throwing power pitcher to groom in a late relief role.  He’s not a blue-chip prospect, but he’s also not a longshot, at least not nearly to the degree that he was a year ago at this time.

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

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