September 2008

Coaching shakeup.

The final series of 2008, appropriately, reflected the whole season.  Texas won two and then lost the third, something the club did an unusual 10 times out of the season’s 40 three-games series.  In the season and the series, the Rangers produced big offense more often that not, but with maddening inconsistency on the mound.  Familiarly, Vicente Padilla and Scott Feldman stepped up, and Kevin Millwood was very hittable.  And like the final 85 percent of the season, the Rangers played really good baseball most of the way — before falling flat at the end.

The season-ending loss broke a five-game win streak and prevented the Rangers from reaching 80 wins for just the third time in the decade.  

Considering the pitching and defense issues that Texas fought through all season, the mind-boggling catalog of injuries that the club had, and (as a result) the number of rookies — many of whom were not supposed to reach the big leagues yet — that the organization had to depend on, there’s some satisfaction in finishing this close to .500 and in second place, unfamiliar Rangers territory for every player who suited up this year.

But that doesn’t mean that we should be content with 79-83, and the franchise isn’t, either.  Changes will be made, and that effort got underway just over 24 hours after Brandon Boggs struck out to close the book on 2008.

The Rangers announced yesterday afternoon that neither bench coach Art Howe nor third base coach Matt Walbeck will be back in 2009, and the pitching and bullpen coach positions are open as well.  Andy Hawkins, who served as pitching coach for the final two months, will apparently be considered for both spots, with an opportunity to return to his role as AAA pitching coach (where he’d been since 2006) as a fallback.  Bullpen coach Jim Colborn will go back to fulltime scouting, the role he was hired for in November when the Rangers named him Director of Pacific Rim Operations.

Hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and first base coach Gary Pettis will return.  

The two biggest decisions will be how to fill the pitching coach and bench coach positions on Ron Washington’s staff, and speculation has already begun in the local media.  On the pitching side, former big league pitching coaches Rick Peterson (who worked with Washington in Oakland) and Dave Wallace (who was in Houston last year, when Nolan Ryan was still with the Astros) have been suggested (though I haven’t yet seen Leo Mazzone mentioned), as have Toronto pitching coach Brad Arnsberg (whose contract is up) and Oakland bullpen coach Ron Romanick.

Brad Fischer, who worked with Washington for 11 years in Oakland, has been mentioned as a possibility for either the bench coach or bullpen coach role.  In 1996 (Fischer’s second year with the A’s), he served as the club’s bullpen coach while Washington coached first.  In 1997, when Washington slid across the field to third base, where he would coach for 10 seasons, Fischer served as Oakland’s first base coach, and bounced several times between first base and the bullpen until being dismissed after the 2007 season.  Fischer reportedly interviewed in November for the spot on the Rangers coaching staff that ultimately went to Walbeck.  He was then hired by Pittsburgh, who had him manage its short-season New York-Penn League club, the State College Spikes, this season.

Others mentioned by local reporters as candidates for the staff vacancies are Perry Hill, an infield defense specialist who coached in the Rangers organization from 1984 through 1996 (including stints on the big league staff from 1992 through 1995); Jackie Moore, who served in various positions with the Rangers three different times and has long ties to Ryan; Don Baylor, former Cubs and Rockies manager who also has close ties to Ryan; Dave Anderson, the Rangers’ Minor League Field Coordinator; and John Gibbons, former Blue Jays manager.

I’d be happy to see Jerry Narron, added to the Rangers organization in February as a consultant and special assignment scout after managing Cincinnati from mid-2005 through mid-2007, considered for either the bench coach role (which he filled for Boston in 2003 and the Reds in 2004 and the first part of 2005) or third base coach role (which he filled for six-plus seasons in Texas under Johnny Oates).  Narron, a former big league catcher like Walbeck, was reportedly considered for the Walbeck position a year ago but declined interest at the time.  If he’s interested now in a return to the dugout, so am I.  

I’m not sure if Fischer, who caught for one year in the minor leagues, has any background as a catching instructor, but considering at least half of the Rangers’ catching tandem for 2009 and going forward will be young, it seems like having a coach on the staff with that sort of experience would make some sense.

I’m not going to pretend that I have any idea why Howe and Walbeck in particular were dismissed.  While we can see a third base coach’s “wins” and “losses” on the basepaths (though typically only the outs get noticed by fans) and from time to time see a bench coach assume managing duties when the skipper gets thumbed, for the most part a big league coach makes his mark when none of us are looking, whether it’s mentoring or facilitating relationships in the clubhouse or on the team plane, working on technique on the field hours before the gates open, or participating in the game-planning — or game-calling — effort.

In the case of Walbeck, a highly decorated minor league manager whose energetic presence I was excited about when was hired a year ago, if he didn’t “mesh” with Washington, as the local beats are suggesting in the wake of the coaching staff shakeup, then I give the Rangers credit for moving on.  If Howe wasn’t getting the job done in terms of game preparation or situational advice (or infield tutoring), then I give the Rangers credit for moving on, even if Howe was one of Washington’s confidants dating back to their days together in Oakland.  If this team is going to get better, there’s no room for dysfunction, or apparent shortcomings.  

Ben Broussard was reportedly hand-picked by Washington, too.  And the Rangers ate over $3 million of his $3.85 million contract when the club determined he wasn’t going to help going forward.  If the organization thinks the team will be better with different coaches, then I’m glad there will be different coaches.

Jaramillo’s return isn’t merely a concession to the fact that he’s already under contract for 2009.  Texas once again had one of baseball’s better offenses, leading both leagues in batting average (.283) and slugging (.462) and OPS (.816) and runs (901) and extra bases (605) and total bases (2647) and doubles (376), and, just as significant, finishing second in reaching base (.354).  Never known as a team to work pitchers, only five teams drew more walks than the Rangers, and no team saw more pitches.  All kinds of benefits to doing that.

Pettis shouldn’t get as much credit as Jon Daniels for the dramatic improvement in the Rangers’ outfield defense — omitting the holdovers, the difference as defenders between the departed outfielders (Victor Diaz, Freddy Guzman, Kevin Mahar, Sammy Sosa, Brad Wilkerson) and the new outfielders (Boggs, Milton Bradley, Josh Hamilton) added to the 40-man roster last winter is staggering — but Pettis was responsible for outfield instruction and baserunning, and you certainly can’t complain about how the team performed in those areas in 2008.

The Rangers will draft 13th in June.  They can’t forfeit their first-round pick by signing someone else’s Type A free agent.

I’d be very disappointed, if I were a Mariners fan, that Washington lost its last four games and Seattle won its final three.  The result is that the Nationals (59-102) finished with a record a game and a half
worse than the Mariners’ mark (61-101) and will be entitled to draft San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg.  

Hank Blalock was co-player of the week in the American League (along with Tampa Bay’s Ben Zobrist) for the season’s final week, having hit .400 with four home runs and nine RBI in six games.

Just for the heck of it:

Boggs ($390,000) in 283 at-bats: .226/.333/.399, 17 doubles, four triples, eight home runs, 41 RBI, 44 walks, seven assists, three errors

Gary Matthews Jr. ($9 million) in 426 at-bats: .242/.319/.357, 19 doubles, three triples, eight home runs, 46 RBI, 45 walks, six assists, eight errors

The Angels will pay Matthews $10 million in 2009, $11 million in 2010, and $12 million in 2011.

Toronto officially acquired lefthander Fabio Castro from Philadelphia to complete the August Matt Stairs trade.  

Detroit righthander Armando Galarraga’s loss in relief to the White Sox yesterday sets up tonight’s one-game tiebreaker between Chicago and Minnesota, pitting White Sox lefthander John Danks on short rest against Ozzie Guillen’s favorite pitcher, Twins righthander Nick Blackburn.

Justin Morneau’s Game 163 statistics will count, giving him another chance to upstage Hamilton, as he did (or maybe didn’t) in the Home Run Derby.  A strong finish by Hamilton (six RBI in the Rangers’ final four games) gave him the American League lead with 130 RBI, one ahead of Morneau.  For now.

San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean reportedly said at a Monday press conference that righthander Matt Cain is untouchable, and while comments like that should always be taken lightly (what else is he going to say?), I suppose it will stamp out any speculation for now as to whether Cain is a pitcher that the Rangers could load up and trade for.

Local media speculation has a different immediate focus anyway, as the Rangers wasted no time in creating several new openings on their coaching staff yesterday and now get to work on finding replacements.

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

Coaching staff shakeup.

The Rangers have announced a number of changes to the coaching staff.  Only hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and first base coach Gary Pettis are assured of returning to Ron Washington’s staff in 2009.  

Bench coach Art Howe and third base coach Matt Walbeck will not be offered contracts to return, and bullpen coach Jim Colborn is returning to his original scouting role as Director of Pacific Rim Operations.

Pitching coach Andy Hawkins will be interviewed for a position on the 2009 staff — he’ll presumably be considered for both the pitching coach and bullpen coach roles — and if he isn’t offered either position, the Rangers will offer him the opportunity to reclaim the role of AAA pitching coach, which he’d held for three seasons before joining the big league staff August 1.

More in the next Newberg Report.

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

Coaching staff on the immediate agenda.

There’s a local Internet report tonight that Jon Daniels and Ron Washington will meet in Arlington tomorrow to discuss the makeup of Washington’s coaching staff, with the possibility of changes being announced right away.  The story suggests that bullpen coach Jim Colborn will likely relinquish the position to return to fulltime Pacific Rim scouting duties, and that of the remaining coaches, Matt Walbeck could be the most likely to be replaced, as “he and Washington had a difficult time gelling this season,” according to the story.

The fact that Perry Hill’s name has resurfaced this week calls Art Howe’s job security into question, as Hill’s forte is infield defense, a responsibility Howe was charged with in addition to serving as Washington’s bench coach.  

One conceivable scenario (and this is purely my own speculation, nothing that was in print) is that Hill and Brad Fischer, a longtime Washington favorite from their days together in Oakland, could be brought in to replace Howe and Walbeck, if those two are in fact not renewed.  Neither Hill nor Fischer, as far as I know, however, has third base coaching in his background — both have served as first base coaches in the big leagues, and Fischer (currently managing a Class A team in Pittsburgh’s system) has also been a bullpen coach.  If Fischer is brought in as Washington’s bench coach, it would remain to be seen who would take over at third — whether Hill would be entrusted with the job, or perhaps Gary Pettis could be asked to slide across the diamond, with Hill taking over at first.  Pettis is expected back, along with Rudy Jaramillo, the only coach under contract already for 2009.

Andy Hawkins seems to have support from both Daniels and Washington — though Nolan Ryan will surely have input on the pitching coach assignment, if not the entire staff — and I suppose it’s possible that he should be considered a candidate not only to return as pitching coach but also to shift to bullpen coach instead in certain circumstances.

In any event, we should get some clarity on all of this soon.

Main frames.

On Wednesday, I was so pumped by what I saw out of Wilfredo Boscan that I was sure I’d just witnessed the best pitching performance I’d see on this trip.

On Thursday, Wilmer Font was even more impressive, and Martin Perez was right there as well.

On Saturday, a day on which the organization schedules games at 10 a.m. so that the players can have the second half of the day off, a whole battalion of pitching prospects gathered at about 9:30 to throw sides.  Boscan and Font and Carlos Pimentel made up the first group, Perez followed with another half dozen guys, and 60 feet away stood Don Welke, and it occurred to me that it must have felt like Picasso standing in a museum featuring his own work.  The international talent that Welke and A.J. Preller and their crew have brought into this system is phenomenal, and the pipeline keeps flowing.  There’s no better time or place to appreciate that than at fall instructs.

What tends to get lost, unfairly, amid the Latin American signings and the trade acquisitions and the emergence of a guy like Derek Holland is how much upside there is in a guy acquired in the traditional manner like Michael Main.  It turns out that his effort on Saturday was, along with the daily Justin Smoak Show, the best thing I saw this week.

Scott Eyre got the morning start and was really, really good, setting the Mariners down in order in two innings of work, striking out three and not letting a ball out of the infield.  All his pitches were working.  Healthy again, he’s someone you shouldn’t write off.

Main took the ball in the third and retired Seattle in order, throwing nothing but fastballs, sitting 92-95.  He was overpowering.  He broke out the curve in the fourth and kept everything down, giving up a groundball single but nothing else.  He came out for the fifth — the only pitcher in the four games I was at who was given three full innings — and he made quick work of the Mariners, inducing a routine grounder to third and striking out the next two hitters, the final one looking.  

Typically the handful of coaches on the field will stand from their chairs along the chain link fence and shake hands with a pitcher whose work is done out here when he reaches the dugout.  When Main was done, however, every coach met Main halfway between the foul line and the dugout, shaking his hand with bigger smiles on their faces than the 19-year-old had on his.  It wasn’t until the final handshake that Main let his game face relax into a smile of his own.

He was heyday Tim Hudson.

The contrast between Main’s three innings and Johan Yan’s one was evident, but there’s a lot to like about Yan’s potential.  On what was his 20th birthday, the lanky righthander faced four hitters and retired three on the ground.

Not unexpectedly, the ball explodes out of Yan’s hand, and mechanically he doesn’t look completely out of place.  The breaking ball is very rudimentary, though, and this is going to be a process.  But if he has the aptitude to learn how to be a pitcher, there’s some upside.  The arm is electric.

Tim Murphy touched 93 with deception in his ninth-inning appearance, and showed a great pickoff move.  His own error on a bunt down the first-base line gave Seattle a 3-2 lead, but he escaped further damage with a swinging strikeout and an inning-ending 4-3-2 putout, as a Marcus Lemon throw pulled first baseman Chad Tracy off the bag but Tracy was able to turn and cut down the runner from second trying to score on the play.

Lemon led off the bottom of the ninth with a base on balls, after which Engel Beltre popped out to third and Jared Bolden fanned, but Tracy, who reports to the Arizona Fall League in about a week, ended the game in walkoff fashion with a majestic blast over the fence in left center field, giving Texas a 4-3 win and a 4-0 record with me in the stands.

(The big club improved to 4-0 during the same span, too.  Just about everyone did something notable tonight.  Hank Blalock didn’t homer again but he did chip in with the club’s record-setting double.  Josh Hamilton reclaimed the big league lead with 130 RBI.  Chris Davis has hit .311 with 40 home runs and 128 RBI between Frisco, Oklahoma, and Texas.)

Another highlight of the morning was seeing Jake Brigham throw a side, healthy.  He was really good his first two seasons before surgery wiped out 2008.

A workout or game in Surprise just wouldn’t feel right without Wayne Kirby being Wayne Kirby.

Root for a Mariners win or Nationals loss on Sunday, to ensure that the M’s don’t outdistance Washington for the first pick in the 2009 draft.  We’re better off if Seattle doesn’t end up with Stephen Strasburg.

Truthfully, the best possible outcome would be if both Seattle and Washington lose, because a Mariners loss means Oakland will have won, and if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather have the A’s drafting 12th than any higher.

Prediction: the Angels will get the Rangers’ first-round draft pick in 2010.

My therapeutic four-day stay has ended, and I’m on my way back.  The Rangers tee it up one final time with the Angels tomorrow afternoon, trying to finish the season with 80 wins (and five straight) and to deny Los Angeles its 100th.  Then it’s time to start thinking about next season, and what changes will be made to the roster, particularly the pitching staff.

Of the 29 pitchers I saw throw out here, there are five at most who I think have even an outside chance to show up in Arlington in 2009.  

But more than half of the pitchers I saw look to me like they are going to be in Arlington one day, and if not there then somewhere else in the big leagues.  The pitching talent here is deep, is legitimate, and is spread out in several waves.  The columnists in town who write a baseball piece once for every two dozen Cowboys columns won’t bother to focus on what’s happening on the minor league pitching mounds as the Rangers stay true to a plan that’s gaining momentum and gaining strength, but have faith: this thing is headed in the right direction.

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

Second.

THE NEWBERG REPORT

Make no mistake.  The Angels have no interest in coasting.  Too many teams in too many sports (as we know all too well in the Metroplex in recent years) have peaked early, let up on the brakes going into the post-season, and never recovered.  

You think John Lackey, in his final tune-up before the playoffs (he’s a lifetime 3-6, 5.54 pitcher against Boston), feels OK about having the worst of his 206 career starts?  It’s a good night when a club scores 10 times on a dozen hits (half going for extra bases) and a couple walks, with every hitter in the lineup reaching base (eight on base hits) and six of them driving in runs.

It’s an extraordinary one when they do all that in before three innings are in the books, against one of the league’s best pitchers — one who, five days earlier, punched out a career-high 12 in a scoreless two-hit, six-inning effort in Arlington.

Hank Blalock homered for the fifth straight game, tying the longest such streak in baseball this season.  Josh Hamilton and Michael Young continued to finish strong.  

Chris Davis rapped out four base hits.  Nelson Cruz singled twice and doubled . . . and walked.  He would have reached in all five trips if center fielder Reggie Willits hadn’t robbed him of a possible home run in the sixth.

Vicente Padilla (14-8, 4.74) stepped up with another quality start, facing a club against which he’s had a checkered past.

Six doubles on the night gave Texas 373 for the season, tying the 1930 St. Louis Browns and 1997 and 2004 Green Monster-aided Boston Red Sox for the most ever.  The Rangers will claim the record for themselves this weekend (they’ve gone doubleless in two straight games only twice all year), though it looked like they were going to take sole possession of the mark when Davis battered the right field wall with a seventh-inning single.

Texas would have obliterated the doubles mark if Ian Kinsler hadn’t missed the final six weeks of the season.  

All told, Texas amassed 19 hits, spanking the Angels, 12-1.  The win clinches second place in the AL West, the Rangers’ best finish since their last playoff season of 1999.  It’s not enough, but it’s progress.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Angels are very, very good, and last night’s win doesn’t amount to much in the big picture, but it’s good to see Texas continue to fight rather than lay down, and hand it to a Los Angeles club that fielded its ace and its normal starting lineup, though — like Lackey — eight of the starting hitters exited the game before the fourth inning, with the score already 10-1.

That’s three straight wins for the Rangers, which is also what the instructional league squad has put together since my arrival in Surprise.  One more game to take in this morning before I head back.  

The more I watch Justin Smoak’s actions, the more I see Mark Teixeira, with two exceptions: Smoak is not as upright a baserunner as Teixeira, and from the right side of the plate Smoak looks more like Chipper Jones to me.  

Smoak is creating video game damage offensively and is agile at first base.  He hit two more doubles yesterday, one a blast that crashed 15 feet up the center field fence 400 feet away, the other an opposite field shot that he slapped down the left field line.  He added a screaming liner to straightaway center that the center fielder caught on the dead run toward the wall, and also walked and struck out.

I sort of wish he were going to the Arizona Fall League, just to see what he could do right now with a greater challenge.

Tae Ahn’s side was interesting.  Good stuff, but lots of command issues.  

As for Robbie Ross’s side and 20-ish-pitch sim game, he reminds me of someone — I just can’t put my finger on it yet.  It’s not Scott Kazmir or Mike Hampton and certainly not Billy Wagner.  It’ll come to me.  Maybe an inch taller than Kasey Kiker, with a build more like Michael Main, Ross will pitch in a game on Monday, and I’ll miss it.  Crud.  

In recent years there’s been a spectrum of outfield prospects along which Brandon Boggs sits at one end, Jeremy Cleveland occupies the other, and Steve Murphy finds himself somewhere in the middle.  Where does Joey Butler fit?  I’m not sure yet.

You can’t even take your eyes off of Engel Beltre when he’s shagging flies in batting practice.

This was interesting: Marcus Lemon led off in yesterday’s game, and Beltre hit second.

There are a whole lot of players with more tools than Lemon, but all he’s done every time I’ve seen him is get the job done.

Lemon is probably ready to play second base every day in AA.  Bet we see Jose Vallejo (who will be added to the 40-man roster in November) assigned to Oklahoma and asked to play more than just second, not unlike German Duran in 2008.  His path to breaking in as a big leaguer is likely as a utility infielder.

Two players with better tools than you’d ever guess by looking at them outside the lines: catcher Leonel “Macumba” De Los Santos and shortstop Leury Garcia.

The best three players in yesterday’s Rangers win might have all been Indians prospects: 20-year-old lefthander Kelvin De La Cruz, 22-year-old catcher Carlos Santana, and 21-year-old Taiwanese righthander Chen-Chang Lee (signed less than two weeks ago for more than $300,000) were very impressive.  Especially Santana.

Lefthander Geuris Grullon took a Santana liner off the abdomen.  He stayed in for another few pitches before coming out.  

If you were watching Fabio Castillo, Kiker, and Blake Beavan at the right time, you’d have been blown away, but they each had to fight through some adversity.  

Castillo breezed through his second inning after two first-inning errors seemed to rattle him a bit and forced him to face seven Indians in the opening frame.  

Kiker came in to get the final out of the seventh (a 6-4 fielder’s choice) and then struck out the side in the eighth, but had some control issues in that inning, walking two straight after there were two outs and then giving up a well-struck single to right.  

Beavan worked the ninth, striking out prospect Beau Mills (who was taken four slots before Beavan in the first round of the 2007 draft) before issuing two walks.  Beavan had only two games all year in which he walked more than two.  The big righthander then settled down to strike the next batter out on three pitches and seal the win by coaxing a routine 6-3 grounder.

Speaking of Kiker and the eighth inning, I do buy the idea that that might be his eventual home, but he seems to take longer than some others to get loose.  He did yesterday, at least.

I’m sold on Corey Young.  He’s going to come quickly as a left-handed specialist.

Seventeen-year-old lefthander Martin Perez touched 94 on Thursday.

Baseball America put no Oklahoma RedHawks on its Pacific Coast League top 20 prospects list.

Jon Daniels and Ron Washington reportedly met to discuss the 2009 coaching staff.  Only hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo is under contract.  There have been multiple stories indicating that at least one position will be vacated, as bullpen coach Jim Colborn will return to his Pacific Rim scouting duties on a full-time basis.  Colborn and pitching coach Andy Hawkins had been elevated into those roles on August 1.  

Daniels and Washington both singled Hawkins out yesterday in praising the work he has done since arriving.  Hawkins, if retained, plans to incorporate more running, more live batting practice, more long toss, and more pitchers’ fielding practice for his pitching staff in spring training.

One report suggests that there’s a possi
bility that Texas could bring former Rangers coach Perry Hill back to the organization in some capacity.  He’s long been considered one of the finest infield instructors in the game.

Good grief.  We now get this gem from Randy Galloway:  “No one is re-inventing the game here.  Any good baseball man can attempt to build through a minor league system.”

I’ll resist issuing a comeback concerning general columnists.  

Former big league outfielder Chris Singleton may be the best studio analyst that ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” has ever had.

Off to the yard for one more game from Instructs, with Willie Eyre, Michael Main, and Johan Yan apparently among those slated to pitch.


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

Smoak alarms.

I was pumped when Seattle sent lefthander Bobby LaFromboise to the mound for the ninth inning in Thursday’s Rangers-Mariners instructional league game.  

Not because he’d had an impressive rookie season after the Mariners spent an eighth-round pick on him in June.

Not because that’s a great baseball name.

I was pumped because I’d seen Justin Smoak hit lots of balls hard for two days, but he’d faced only righthanders, meaning he’d hit only left-handed.  I wanted to see him step in from the right side.  

The downside to seeing LaFromboise stroll out to the mound was that Smoak had singled in the first inning, rifled an opposite-field double to the wall in the sixth (staying back on a changeup), and destroyed another changeup in the eighth, putting such a charge into it that the right fielder simply swiveled in place, watching it sail a mile over the fence as the Rangers dugout issued a unified “WHOA!!”  

Hitting for the cycle is hard to do.

It’s hard enough to hit for the cycle when the opponent is only forced to get 24 outs, which was the case yesterday, as Seattle came off the field after getting just one out in the fifth and two outs in the eighth, due to the Rangers lineup forcing Mariners pitchers to reach their pitch limits.

It’s hard enough to conceive of Smoak achieving the cycle himself, considering he not only didn’t hit a triple during his run with Clinton this summer — he had zero triples among his 246 hits in a legendary career at the University of South Carolina.

The idea that Smoak would hit his first triple since high school lost even more traction as the lefty took the ball, turning Smoak around.  The odds are surely longer for a right-handed hitter since it’s more difficult to pull a three-bagger off if you hit the ball on the left side of the field.

For Smoak to even get the chance, 18-year-old pinch-hitter Guillermo Pimentel (who served as batboy for the first eight innings) had to come through, after Engel Beltre and Marcus Lemon each popped out to start the top of the ninth.  Pimentel rapped a shot back to the box, but LaFromboise was only able to deflect it and Pimentel chugged down the line to beat out an infield single.

Up stood Smoak.  In the right-handed box.

He swung (hard) through a curve.  He swung through a change, lunging.  After watching one miss, he spoiled another curve, and then took a fastball low.  A wild LaFromboise pickoff attempt sent Pimentel to second base, and Smoak settled back in with a 2-2 count.

The big southpaw came back with another fastball, and Smoak fired it the other way, a line shot that split the center and right fielders and checked up near the fence.  Smoak, showing the same sort of closing speed that he displayed on that foul pop-up on Wednesday, was thinking three right out of the box, and he not only got it, but landed on third standing.

Since the stats don’t count, the books will still show that Smoak is tripleless since high school, but there was at least one fan in Peoria yesterday (and not many more) who can vouch for the fact that, in what amounted to a practice game, Smoak did in fact hit a ninth-inning triple that completed the cycle.

An hour earlier, I wrote on my notepad “AT-BAT OF THE CAMP” when Beltre stepped up with men on first and third and one out in the top of the fifth.  I wrote “AT-BAT OF THE CAMP” after Beltre, who had swung at the first pitch of the game (flying out to right center) in a frustrating example of non-leadoff-hitter-ness, didn’t get overly caught up in the obvious fifth-inning RBI opportunity and watched a curve go by for ball one and a low and outside fastball go by for ball two.  After fouling pitch three to left field, Beltre let another fastball go by for ball three.  He then fouled a curve back and then, with the hit-and-run on, fouled another pitch off.  It was after that sixth pitch that I wrote “AT-BAT OF THE CAMP.”  If Beltre starts to show more patience consistently, watch out.

Beltre then hit the seventh pitch of the fantastic at-bat a thousand feet.  Absolutely crushed it down the right field line, standing at the plate in admiration long enough to review all seven pitches in his mind.

Then there was the pitching.  Texas sent Wilmer Font, Carlos Pimentel, Martin Perez, Joe Wieland, and Kyle Ocampo to the hill.  Think I enjoyed that?

Font sat 91-96.  The reason Beltre was shading every hitter to the opposite field while Font worked was not a concession to any spray charts.  The big 18-year-old was overpowering.  In the first inning, he induced weak groundouts to himself and to second baseman Marcus Lemon and, after a base on balls, struck out the cleanup hitter looking.  In the second, he added another strikeout, another comebacker, and a groundout to third after a mis-hit single to right.  Font needed 31 pitches to get through his two frames, throwing 22 for strikes (half of them looking).  

When I saw Pimentel last October, he was consistently up in the zone but still unhittable.  Yesterday, when he missed, he missed low, and he unleashed a few jaw-dropping power curves in his two perfect innings of work, which he completed needing only 21 pitches despite striking out three.  The 18-year-old worked at 87-89.

Perez got through his two innings in just 24 pitches, but Seattle did square up a few times.  Smoak and slick 17-year-old Edwin Garcia turned a nifty 3-6-3 in the fifth and Leonel “Macumba” De Los Santos (who replaced Jose Felix behind the plate in the sixth) gunned down a would-be basestealer in support of Perez.  The 17-year-old brought a live fastball and a handful of really good curve balls to the mound during his stint.

Wieland works fast.  He threw a two-strike curve to the first Mariner he faced that the hitter had no chance on.  Macumba cut down another two runners trying to steal on Wieland’s watch.  

Ocampo drilled the first batter he faced but closed out the win, showing maybe the best curve of the game on a day when just about everyone Texas sent to the mound complemented a plus fastball with a really good curve.

Couple other things from Thursday.
 
Sixteen-year-old Esdras Abreu needs some work in the outfield.

There’s yet another T-shirt that the players wear during morning workouts: “Texas Rangers: Building Champions” on the front, “Winning Is a Habit” on the back.

You watch righthander Michael Main and lefthander Tim Murphy get in their work, and it’s not surprising that they were prospects as outfielders, too.  That’s no knock at all on their pitching.  Just an observation on their obvious athleticism.

Willie Eyre threw a side and looks healthy.

Mark Hamburger threw a side and looks very, very impressive. 

I don’t know whether every organization does this, but I still like the custom of the pitcher and catcher, even on a side bullpen session at 10 a.m. in fall instructional league, meeting halfway between the mound and the plate to shake hands once their work is done.

Another triple-digit day of heat.  The pair of jeans I brought (just in case) mocks me from the bottom drawer, just as much as the 45-mph speed limit signs on Bell Road do.  Useless.

Baseball America slotted Julio Borbon as the number 11 prospect in the California League this season, and placed four Frisco players in its Texas League rankings: Chris Davis (2), Elvis Andrus (5), Borbon (8), and Max Ramirez (9). Pretty sure Derek Holland lacked enough innings to qualify in the Cal League or Texas League feature.  Same with Neftali Feliz in the Texas League.

Milton Bradley reached 502 plate appearances on Wednesday, qualifying him for the league batting title (he sits at .32432,
third behind Joe Mauer’s .32950 and Dustin Pedroia’s .32511) and securing a $525,000 bonus for reaching the 500-plate appearance plateau.

More important to me is whether Bradley finishes the season as a Type A or Type B free agent.  He’s apparently right on the line.  If he’s a Type A, it may make him less attractive on the free agent market (since signing a Type A costs a team its first- or second-round pick, which Texas would get in addition to a supplemental first, while a Type B costs the signing team nothing, netting the player’s 2008 club just the supplemental first), which does three things.  First, there’s the obvious bonus in draft pick compensation if he does sign elsewhere.  Second, less market interest would theoretically bring his price tag down (dollars and years) if the Rangers are interested in bringing him back.  And third, if he doesn’t find the multi-year deal he likes, I sure don’t mind the fallback of him accepting our arbitration offer and getting a one-year deal to stay.

Texas has clinched a draft pick in the top half of the first round, which means if the club signs someone else’s Type A this winter, all it forfeits is its second-round pick.

San Francisco lefthander Jonathan Sanchez is 1-7, 7.47 in his last 10 starts.  I’m still interested, maybe even more so now.

Kansas City’s Zack Greinke?  He’s 5-3, 2.32 in his last 10 starts, with eight quality starts.

I wish I saw Ron Washington bring Josh Hamilton, Michael Young, Gerald Laird, and Hank Blalock off the field during the top of the ninth on Wednesday.  I dig that sort of stuff.

Hamilton’s autobiography, “Beyond Belief” (solid title), hits bookstands on October 14.

(If you’re thinking about preordering the book, please consider clicking the Amazon link at the top of http://www.newbergreport.com). 

Blalock, who once hit for two minor league cycles in the span of three days (a bicycle), will shoot for five straight games with home runs tonight in Anaheim.

As Smoak was rounding the bases on his eighth-inning home run, I thought to myself, “He ought to be doing this in Kissimmee, not Surprise.”  What a mistake by the Astros.  Their loss.

Speaking of Astros’ losses, Nolan Ryan reportedly arrives in town on Monday.  He’s probably seen everything that this game has to offer, but I can say that I’ve seen something that he hasn’t, and that none of us may ever see again:

A Justin Smoak cycle.

Because you’ve got to have the triple.

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

 

Heated competition.

For anyone who has spent any time on the back fields in Surprise, whether in February or March or September or October, the first thing you notice upon arriving at Rangers Fall Instructional League 2008 is that the players (and coaches), at long last, have their names on the backs of their Rangers uniforms.  

Whether or not it was a change prompted by Nolan Ryan (who hinted at it in March while noting that there were three number 19’s worth watching in camp), it’s a welcome one, not only giving those of us just visiting a chance to take everything in without having to tote a roster, but also, maybe, giving the players something just a little extra to take pride in — their name on a jersey that says “Rangers” on the opposite side.

There’s something interesting on the back side of the workout T-shirts as well.  While last year’s instructional league shirts said “The Future Is Here” on them, this year’s edition has a simple message on the back:

“Compete.”

Aside from the obvious motivational point, there’s something else about the choice of words.  

The 60 players in Arizona (53 at Instructs and seven slated to play in the Arizona Fall League) have to know that the competition to become a Texas Ranger has never been steeper, with the big league club getting younger and with the system deeper in prospects than it’s ever been.  Every ballplayer understands the odds and the realities — they know they’re constantly auditioning not only for their employer but 29 others as well — but every player, especially at the age of the kids who are working in Surprise right now, wants to get to the big leagues with the franchise that first believed in him and made his dreams of playing professionally come true.

That’s going to be more challenging than ever.

But that’s a good thing.  Meritocracy is better than patchwork, and then there’s the other significant aspect of an uptick in young talent: other teams want to make trades with you.  

I got to Peoria, complex home of the Dodgers and Mariners, an inning into yesterday’s game between Texas and Los Angeles.  On the mound was a trimmed-down Omar Poveda, who flashed a very good breaking ball and made me wonder whether the Rangers have decided to add the 20-year-old to the 40-man roster in November or to leave him off, exposing him to the Rule 5 Draft.  (Jon Daniels suggested on the radio a week or two ago that the roster decisions have all but been solidified.)  The organization’s trend since Daniels took over has been to add deserving players who are arguably within a year of reaching the big leagues.  Poveda stands to kick off the 2009 season in Frisco.  Where he ends it is largely up to him.

The most interesting thing about the lineup behind Poveda was that Marcus Lemon was playing second base. In his three-year pro career, Lemon has played nowhere defensively other than shortstop.  I’m no expert, but he’s always struck me as someone who projects better as a second baseman.  

Behind the plate on Wednesday was Doug Hogan.  Justin Smoak was at first base — and caught one second-inning foul pop-up 20 feet from Hogan . . . behind Hogan, as a matter of fact . . . impressive closing speed.  Edwin Garcia manned shortstop, and the diminutive Edward “Junior” Martinez played third.  Stationed from left field to right were Eric Fry (sporting a very Warren Newson-esque build), Jared Bolden, and Joey Butler.

Former Rangers first baseman Jason Hart coached first base.  

Zach Phillips was sharp in the third and fourth.  I’m looking forward to seeing if he can break through once he’s out of the hitter-friendly California League.

There may not be two bigger enigmas in the system than righthander Fabio Castillo and hitter Cristian Santana.  So much talent.  Will it convert?

Then there’s righthander Wilfredo Boscan, whose future I couldn’t be more confident about.  The guy looks so much like a pitcher, despite his 18 years of age and slight, 160-pound build.  If he grew up in the States, he would have been in the Robbie Ross/Joe Wieland class as a high school draft-eligible this summer, and as eager as I am to see Ross and Wieland on the mound this week, if they look as polished as Boscan does, my baseball brain is liable to self-destruct.

Boscan wasn’t dominant yesterday afternoon, and had some command issues in his second inning of work (he was missing low consistently), but he did get out of a two-on, none-out jam with a ton of poise, striking out the next hitter looking on a breaking ball away, coaxing a lazy fly to right on another breaking ball, and inducing a weak humpback liner to shortstop to kill the threat.  He’s clean mechanically, has live stuff, and is surely capable of adding good weight to his 6’2″ frame.  

The Venezuelan did enough with his numbers in 2008 (9-1, 3.12 in a dozen Spokane starts and three relief appearances [including a 2.09 ERA in innings one through five], a 70/11 K/BB, four home runs allowed in 69.1 innings, and a 1.50 G/F) against meaningfully older competition that I’m not worried about the stats side of the equation.  Yesterday I got a glimpse of the scouting side.  And I’m pumped.

By time Boscan finished, you could have brewed coffee in my bottle of water.  It was 105 degrees, with a slight hair-dryer breeze, which made me give a little more thought than I had before about what the Arizona League rookies have to fight through for three months when it’s up to 10 degrees hotter than it is out here now.  It’s hard-to-believe heat.

Castillo, who pitched the seventh, looks to me like he’s slowed his mechanics down.  A couple Dodgers squared up on him before he tuned things up, finishing the inning with a strikeout and a comebacker.

Blake Beavan started the eighth with what must have been a 10-pitch battle that ended in a walk, then gave up a sharp single, but he settled down after that, coaxing rollover groundouts to third base and second base after a sacrifice bunt.  He escaped having allowed just one run.

Lefthander Corey Young, the Rangers’ 12th-round pick out of Seton Hall in June, opened my eyes in the ninth. He’s deceptive, coming from a bit of a funky slot and hiding the ball well, and he’s got a really good-looking curve that he relied on a bunch.  Young went 1-1, 2.79 with seven saves out of the Spokane bullpen this summer, striking out 34 while issuing only 11 walks in 29 innings of work and limiting Northwest League hitters to a .185 average and just one home run.  I want to see more.

Young’s final pitch of the game was volleyed into center field, where Bolden came in to make a diving catch, after which the Rangers met at the middle of the diamond to exchange congratulations.  

Meanwhile, 900 miles away, Matt Harrison had just walked out to the middle of a diamond for game-ending slaps as well, wearing a Rangers uniform with his name on the back, having just set a franchise record for wins in season by a rookie lefthander with a crisp quality start (six innings, two runs on six hits and one walk, seven strikeouts, eight groundouts, three flyouts).

A year ago at this time, Harrison was working with Rangers instructors in Surprise, a Class AA pitcher getting ready to pitch in the Arizona Fall League.  Now, he’s a favorite to be in the big league rotation when the 2009 season begins, having won 15 games in 2008, nine coming in the major leagues.  He may never wear a jersey again in this organization that doesn’t say “Texas” or “Rangers” on the front.

It’s the type of thing for five dozen players in Surprise, some four games into a 22-game instructional league schedule and others awaiting the start of the AFL season, to compete for.


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

Hank Blalock, revisited.

Hank Blalock is 11 for 16 in the last four games.  Seven of those 11 hits have gone for extra bases, including home runs in three straight games (something he also did two weeks ago).  He’s using all fields, and looks as locked in now as he looked out of rhythm over the first four weeks of his return to action.

Six of Blalock’s 10 home runs this year have tied the game or given Texas a lead.  Half of his homers have come off lefthanders.

I don’t know what position Blalock will play in April, and I’m not even sure whose uniform he’ll be wearing, but he’s looking in this snapshot like the hitter that we thought five years ago he was going to be, and one thing is starting to feel like a lock: Texas has almost got to exercise that club option for 2009, whether the idea is to make him the first baseman next season, the third baseman, the designated hitter, or a trade chip to get a young starting pitcher.

The player we’re seeing right now is not one you’d dump onto the free agent market.

P.S. One local media outlet is reporting that Nolan Ryan indicated on Tuesday that he expects both Ron Washington and Jon Daniels back in 2009.  

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

Number one.

Coming into 2008, we were all pumped about what Baseball America had ranked as the game’s number four farm system — more on that later — with pitching rotations up and down the system that featured multiple Rangers prospects as the season got underway.

At AAA Oklahoma, Eric Hurley and Doug Mathis and A.J. Murray fronted the starting five.

At AA Frisco, there were Matt Harrison and Mike Ballard and Michael Schlact.

At High A Bakersfield, the rotation included Tommy Hunter and Omar Poveda and Zach Phillips and Beau Jones, and Kasey Kiker would soon join them from extended spring.

At Low A Clinton, Blake Beavan and Michael Main wouldn’t be part of the rotation as of Opening Day, but the LumberKings did run Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz and Evan Reed and Kennil Gomez out there to kick things off.

When the season began, neither Martin Perez nor Neil Ramirez had thrown a professional pitch.  Wilfredo Boscan hadn’t thrown one outside the Dominican Summer League.  Tim Murphy was midway through his junior season at UCLA.

Today that Spokane quartet makes up half of Baseball America’s list of the top eight prospects in the eight-team Northwest League.

BA Assistant Editor Nathan Rode said this yesterday, in connection with the rankings: “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how deep the Rangers pitching is.  It’s incredible.”

The 17-year-old Perez, a small, athletic lefthander whose electric combination of a fastball that touches 94 and a plus breaking ball (and a developing change) reminded at least one scout of fellow Venezuelan Johan Santana, was ranked by BA as the number two prospect in the league, but there was significant debate among the publication’s braintrust as to whether he actually deserved the number one spot, which instead went to Cubs third base prospect Josh Vitters, the third pick in the nation last year.  Facing a league full of 21-year-old hitters, Perez was seventh in the league in ERA (3.65), struck out 53 in 61.2 innings, and yielded only three home runs.

Perez outranked lefthander Christian Friedrich, a college pitcher whom Colorado took in the first round in June and was rumored to be high on the Rangers’ draft board had Justin Smoak not fallen to them.  Just after Friedrich at number four on the NWL’s top 20 list was Ramirez, a 19-year-old who held his older competition to a .166 average, with twice as many strikeouts (52) as hits allowed (25) in 44 innings.  BA noted that although Ramirez already works at 90-94 and touches 96 (mixing in a power curve that ranks right up there with Perez’s), there’s room for projection as his 6’3″, 185-pound frame fills out.

Boscan checked in as the number six prospect in the league (and apparently fit in the top five in an unfinished version), commanding a sinking fastball, a 12-6 curve, and a plus change that induced loads of groundballs when batters managed to make contact off the 18-year-old.  The Venezuelan led the circuit with nine wins and finished fourth in ERA (3.12) and strikeouts (70 in 69.1 innings), issuing only 11 walks in 12 starts and three relief appearances.  

At number eight, Murphy drew an Andy Pettitte comp despite making 12 of his 13 appearances out of the Spokane bullpen.  Scouts felt he had the makeup of late-inning reliever but could have enough stuff (including a low-90s fastball and a sharp 12-6 curve) to start.  The league hit just .152 off Murphy, who fanned 40 and walked 15 in 32.2 innings of work.

All four could begin the 2009 season sporting Hickory Crawdads threads, as the Rangers acknowledged yesterday that they’re moving the organization’s Low A program from Clinton back to the South Atlantic League, where they’d been affiliated with the Savannah Sand Gnats from 1998 through 2002.  The Crawdads, a North Carolina franchise, had been a Pirates affiliate since 1999.  Clinton, after six years as the Rangers’ Low A affiliate, will now become a Mariners farm club.

But for now, all four hurlers are at fall instructs in Surprise — as are third baseman Matt West (the NWL’s number 16 prospect) and righthander Carlos Pimentel (who just missed landing in the top 20) — and I will be too, in another day.  

What I’m about to see may be the third or fourth wave of pitching prospects heading toward Arlington, but don’t think for a second that it has any less force than the ones ahead of it.  And don’t assume they’re all three years away.  From last year’s group of 50 players who reported to Arizona last fall, eight made it all the way to the big leagues in 2008.

And as for that number four farm system, Baseball America Executive Editor Jim Callis hinted yesterday that the publication may be about to anoint the Texas system as baseball’s best: “[The Angels] won’t have it so easy in a couple of years because the Rangers and Athletics have put together the game’s two deepest farm systems.  I’d rank Texas ahead of Oakland because I like their depth and their balance of hitters and pitchers a little more. The Rangers have done an impressive job on all fronts recently, picking up talent via trades ([Elvis] Andrus might be the best shortstop prospect in the minors, while Feliz might have the best pure fastball), the draft (getting Smoak and [Robbie] Ross with the 11th and 57th overall picks this year was a huge coup) and the international market (Perez drew some Johan Santana comps in the short-season Northwest League this summer).”

The Rangers are going to be better soon, doing it the right way.

Check back in with you from Arizona, where I’ll be watching part of baseball’s number one farm system at work.

 

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

Go Kendry Morales.

The one non-Rangers player I’m rooting for right now is Kendry Morales, who is hitting .318/.348/.773 over the last week, with an Angels-leading three home runs and six RBI in that span, and just one strikeout in 22 at-bats.  

Yes, he’s been playing just as much right field as first base since returning to Anaheim five weeks ago, but that’s just been to get his bat into the lineup somehow, to figure out whether he belongs on the Angels’ post-season roster.  But don’t be fooled.  Morales was almost exclusively a first baseman in AAA this year (where he hit .341/.376/.543) and has been close to it over his entire career (313 games at first base professionally and 24 in the outfield).  

I’m rooting for Morales because I want Angels GM Tony Reagins to decide that, at $600,000 in 2009 (and $700,000 in 2010, unless Morales amasses enough service time next year to void his 2010 deal in favor of arbitration), a commitment to the 25-year-old makes more sense for the franchise than the six or eight years and a number comfortably into nine-figure territory for 28-year-old Mark Teixeira.

Teixeira has played as well in his two months with the Angels (.351/.446/.613) as he has at any time in his very productive six-year career.  

I would very much like for him to suit up next year and for years after that for a team that we don’t have to play 19 times a season, for a team that we’re not going to have to figure out a way to catch.  

Go Kendry Morales.

The Rays clinched a playoff spot yesterday.  That makes me happy.

I wrote last time that 31 of the 53 Rangers players who have reported to fall instructs pitch.  Make that 32.  While it’s not a wholesale transition from hitter to pitcher (as with Corey Ragsdale and Johan Yan), the Rangers are going to have Mitch Moreland get in some mound work.  

A college closer, the 23-year-old mopped up two Clinton losses late in the season (striking out three in two innings of work), but his real breakthrough came at the plate.  The 2007 17th-rounder led the Midwest League with a .936 OPS, 250 total bases, and 99 RBI in 123 games, and he hit 18 home runs, fifth-most in the league.  

The left-hander, who played first base and right field for the LumberKings this year, will probably do the same for Bakersfield in 2009, but the plan to look at him on the mound over the next three weeks (as first base is obviously going to be a blocked path, with Justin Smoak on a similar developmental track) is certainly interesting.

According to journalists, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Nelson Cruz, Brandon Boggs, Joaquin Arias, German Duran, Travis Metcalf, and Max Ramirez all have winter ball assignments lined up.  Saltalamacchia is targeting a November 15 return to the field as he rehabs his elbow strain.  He’ll play for Escogido in the Dominican Winter League.

Ron Washington reportedly wants Chris Davis to play this winter as well, and to do so at first base.

There’s obviously a big question as to where Davis will play defensively next year, something that will be sorted out this off-season as Texas decides what to do with Hank Blalock (both with his club option and, if exercised, his defensive position) and, if Blalock is no longer around, whether the club opts to go forward in 2009 with a new first baseman, or new third baseman.  

While it’s not clear where Davis will be in April, Washington’s comment suggests an inclination to return him to first base.

I really hope the Angels, with some help from the Yankees and Orioles, are inclined to go with their own young hitter at first base as well.

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

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