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.

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