Mayberry for Golson, and 40-man roster moves.

Back in 2004, Baseball America predicted that the Rangers would use their two first-round picks on LaGrange High School righthander Homer Bailey (with pick number 10) and Austin Connally High School outfielder Greg Golson (with pick number 30), two University of Texas commits.  

But Bailey was already off the board before the 10th pick, and Texas chose Thomas Diamond.  Golson was gone by time the number 30 pick came around, and the Rangers took Eric Hurley.

Had Bailey and Golson declined first-round money and honored their UT scholarships, they would have been part of a Longhorns freshman class that included Longview High School’s Chris Davis, the third-to-last pick of the entire 2004 draft.  (What Yankees 50th-round offer to sign did Davis turn down?  “PB&J,” says the Rangers first baseman.)

Scouting amateur players is more unpredictable in baseball than in any other major sport.  Just four years ago, the Longhorns’ incoming freshman class included Bailey (the seventh pick in the nation), Golson (the 21st pick), and Davis (the 1,496th pick).  

Would Bailey and Golson have been first-rounders again had they spent three years at Texas?  Maybe.  But they’re not the players today that the Reds and Phillies imagined they were getting in 2004, and Davis, who used two years at Navarro Junior College to move himself into the fifth round, isn’t the same player that the Yankees (2004), Angels (2005), or Rangers (2006) thought he’d become, either.  

One player who was a two-time first-rounder was John Mayberry Jr., whose raw tools, baseball pedigree, Stanford career, and plus makeup promised more than he has delivered as a pro.  Texas used the 19th pick in the 2005 draft on the 6’6″ outfielder, and while he’s shown glimpses of big league talent in his minor league career, he hasn’t met expectations, a description that also fits Golson, whom Philadelphia traded to Texas for Mayberry last night, the deadline to promote minor leaguers to the 40-man roster to shield them from exposure to next month’s Rule 5 Draft.

Golson was added to the Phillies’ roster in September, a couple months before Philadelphia would have had to add him or risk losing him.  Texas wasn’t prepared to do the same with Mayberry as the season entered its final month and decided that Golson fits the outfield mix better here.  The Phillies added Mayberry to their 40-man roster upon completing the trade.

Overall, because two former first-rounders are involved, the trade will probably get more attention than it would otherwise.  (This report is probably longer than it should be.)  It’s a classic change-of-scenery deal, one where both teams think they have a chance to unlock a guy who hasn’t quite put it all together.  A trade of two players who ought to benefit from playing in an organization without the buzz of disappointment.

Interestingly, new Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr.’s first trade is for a fellow Stanford product (and a fellow second-generation big leaguer, an outfielder whose father was an infielder).  Amaro starred for the Cardinal in the mid-1980s before getting to the big leagues for parts of eight seasons, getting as many as 200 at-bats only once.  He’s hoping for more out of Mayberry, a .255/.330/.472 hitter in four minor league seasons.  The right-handed power is there (82 home runs) but the consistency hasn’t been.  If it comes around, he might be Pat Burrell’s replacement — probably not in April, if in 2009 at all, but eventually.

While Mayberry was advertised as a Jermaine Dye type coming up, the comp that scouts often attached to Golson, considered the best athlete in the 2004 draft, was Victoria, Texas native Ron Gant.  Golson is considered a five-tool talent, with outstanding range and throwing ability in center field, and good instincts and plus-plus speed in the field and on the bases.

The bat has shown up in spurts — he’s a career .265/.309/.406 hitter who, for every 150 games, averages 30 doubles, eight triples, 14 home runs, and 35 stolen bases (78 percent success rate).  But he also averages 1.2 strikeouts a game, a number that must come down.  (There is progress, though: in his first taste of AA, in 2007, Golson struck out 49 times and drew two walks, giving him a season total between High A and AA of 173 strikeouts, which led the minor leagues.  Back in AA in 2008, he had a less terrifying [but still unacceptable] 130/34 ratio.)

Golson hit .282/.333/.434 for AA Reading this season — a good sign in that his numbers at that level were better across the board than they’d been in his career coming into 2008 — and spent the season’s final month with the World Champions, getting six plate appearances and several pinch-running opportunities.  The 23-year-old struck out four times, failed to get a hit, and stole a base, scoring twice.  

In a Baseball America survey of Eastern League managers and coaches after the season, Golson was tabbed as the circuit’s most exciting player, its best outfield arm, and its fastest runner.  Baseball people rave about his makeup.  The bat is suspect, but so is Mayberry’s, and Golson offers a couple things Mayberry doesn’t, namely, plus defense and the running game.

You can bet that Rangers Senior Director of Baseball Operations Don Welke is very familiar with Golson from his days in the Philadelphia front office, and Rangers area scout Randy Taylor — who presumably had Golson (and Bailey, not to mention Diamond and Davis and Teagarden) in his territory — had an extensive book on Golson as well.  Taylor also coached Mayberry as an amateur, in the Area Code Games.  

Here’s the big thing with this trade.  While Mayberry, even with a step forward, would have been blocked here (he does nothing as well as Nelson Cruz, and chances are that Josh Hamilton will be a full-time corner outfielder in the next few years), and Golson is fairly well blocked with the roster’s current makeup, Texas is creating a second key area of inventory.  The Rangers haven’t capitalized yet on their depth at catcher, but they will.  They’re building sizable depth in center field as well, with Hamilton, Marlon Byrd, David Murphy, and Julio Borbon capable of playing the position, and Engel Beltre (plus David Paisano, to a lesser extent) developing on the farm.  

It’s more strength up the middle, which could make the Rangers’ ability to close a trade for pitching a little more interesting than it was yesterday.

Yesterday I wrote, in reaction to an MLB.com article noting that the Red Sox are looking for a fourth outfielder who hits right-handed and can handle center field: “I doubt Texas would be interested in expanding a deal with Boston to include Marlon Byrd, but he sure would seem to fit what the Sox seek.”

Do we like Golson enough to now listen to offers for Byrd?  Jon Daniels acknowledged to reporters yesterday that outfield is “an area that we’ve been asked about” in trade talks.  Golson’s not any more a candidate to play big league baseball in April than Borbon is, but Byrd is in his final arbitration year and thus is very likely to be somewhere else in 2010, when he’ll rightfully seek his first multi-year deal at age 32.  If the right trade opportunity presents itself now, are the Rangers more comfortable with their overall center field picture?  

The trade of Mayberry, interestingly, didn’t ease the Rangers’ 40-man roster movement, but the designation for assignment of Kameron Loe — who is on his way to Japan — and Wes Littleton did.  Both righthanders were out of options and, at best, were going to have opportunities to compete for middle relief spots in camp.  

Loe, 27, joins the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks, getting a guaranteed $900,000 for 2009.  The Hawks have a $1 million option for 2010,
with a $200,000 buyout.  Love this opportunity for Loe, who will reportedly get the chance again to be a starter.  As a first-time arbitration-eligible, there’s a real chance that Loe would have been non-tendered, left to hunt around for a AAA job that would have paid less than 10 percent of what he’ll make in Japan.  There’s no reason he can’t go deal for the Hawks, which should be a really cool experience, and earn a chance to come back to the States and pitch in the big leagues again.

Littleton, 26, will likely be placed on waivers at some point in the next week, and if he clears, Texas will outright his contract to AAA (and since it would be his first outright assignment, he won’t be able to decline it).  Chances are good that he will clear, since teams have all maneuvered in the last few days to clear enough space for the addition of their own minor leaguers to their 40-man rosters.  Outrights aren’t a death sentence.  Texas got Byrd through waivers at the end of spring training 2007, when he was out of options and couldn’t break into the Rangers’ outfield picture.  Look at his career now.

The removal of Loe and Littleton left four open spots on the 40-man roster, and Texas filled them all, purchasing the contracts of infielder Jose Vallejo and righthanders Willie Eyre, John Bannister, and Omar Poveda.

Pedro Strop was the one player I predicted would land a spot but didn’t.  I thought Eyre and Poveda had shots but could get caught up in a numbers game.  Vallejo was a lock, and Bannister was the one whose buzz was so loud over the last two months that I couldn’t leave him off my list.

Coming off of spring 2007 Tommy John surgery, the righthander was decent in 2008, going 4-6, 4.14 with two saves for Bakersfield and 1-0, 4.56 with one save for Frisco (though the ERA was 2.77 in his second stint with the RoughRiders, after a mid-season demotion to the Blaze), with command issues you’d expect from a pitcher coming back from that sort of layoff.  But by season’s end and in the fall, he was complementing the plus curve he’s always had with a fastball getting comfortably into the mid-90s and touching 98, and that’s exactly the type of player who gets taken in Rule 5.

Bannister’s Arizona Fall League results weren’t especially good (5.00 ERA, three home runs allowed in 18 innings), but he fanned 19 in 18 innings and induced more groundouts than flyouts, as he’s always done.  He’ll go to camp with Texas, and while he’s a longshot to make the Opening Day roster, he’s absolutely a candidate to show up in Arlington sometime in 2009.

Eyre is coming back from 2007 Tommy John surgery as well.  The Rangers signed the 30-year-old to a minor league deal last October, knowing that he’d be rehabbing for the duration of the contract.  Despite a 6.49 ERA in the Arizona Fall League, his first action in nearly a year and a half, reports are that he was throwing very well, and Texas wanted to make sure to hang onto him since the club considers him in the mix for a big league bullpen spot.

Vallejo, perhaps the fastest player in the organization — possessing game-changing speed that he’s very effective with — made offensive strides in 2008 (.292/.345/.415 between Bakersfield and Frisco, with 42 steals in 46 tries and 166 hits, which was 12th most in the minor leagues) and will see time all over the infield at Oklahoma City in 2009, transitioning from a fulltime second baseman to a utility infielder candidate.

Poveda went 4-4, 4.47 in 17 Bakersfield starts this season, at age 20, with nearly 10 strikeouts and under four walks per nine innings.  He’s not ready, but Texas decided there was too much upside there to risk another team drafting and keeping him.  Starting pitching remains priority one here, and the potential of losing Poveda was too great a risk not to add him to the roster.

So Texas adds four players to the roster, but keep in mind that four others who would have been Rule 5-eligible for the first time this winter already joined the roster during the season — 2005 college draftees Taylor Teagarden, German Duran, and Doug Mathis and the 2004 high school draftee Hurley — and Davis and Tommy Hunter joined the roster one and two years early, respectively.  

With the roster now full, of course, space will have to be cleared if the Rangers sign a big league free agent or trade for more roster members than they give up.  

I suppose it can’t be ruled out that Greg Golson could himself be part of the trade activity that, going forward, is sure to be the story of the winter for this franchise.  This deal gets things started, but when the trucks are packed up to head out to Surprise, it will probably be no more than a footnote — or a means to a greater end.

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

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