Surprise report, v.6.

First things first: The footage that Rangers Podcast in Arlington’s Ted Price recorded from Erica’s Tuesday interview of Josh Hamilton is now up on YouTube.  You can view the five-minute interview at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jeh4xxPBN2s — click the HD button for better video quality.

There’s not a camp horn that sounds on the back fields, signaling a break in workouts so the players can head to the clubhouse.  On the six-and-a-half fields and the running field, things break down at different times, but depending on what’s scheduled for the afternoon, you typically see various groups finishing up between 11 a.m. and noon, heading in clusters to the east and north for the midday break, many stopping along the way to visit with the fans.

Yesterday, shortly after 11, I’d finished watching minor leaguers hit and started back toward the primary batting practice field.  The big leaguers had already gone back inside, readying themselves for the bus trip to Peoria for the 1:00 game.  Where Josh Hamilton and Ian Kinsler and Michael Young had taken B.P. just an hour earlier, the field was instead populated by a group of kids, hitting soft-toss and fielding and running while Jim Sundberg led drills and chalk talk as part of an MLB Affiliate program.  There were a few dozen kids on the field, Sundberg in uniform, and a handful of fans in the stands.

A hundred feet to the south, another former big league catcher was in uniform, standing on Field 2 with a current big league catcher.  Neither had any catcher’s gear with him.  No bat.  No baseball.  Just about nobody watching.  But there was work being done.

Scott Servais spent 11 seasons in the big leagues.  If you look for his name among the league leaders during his career with the Astros, Cubs, Giants, and Rockies, you’ll find that in 1996, his sixth season, he finished tied for fifth in National League hit-by-pitches.  He caught Curt Schilling, Doug Drabek, Darryl Kile, and Kerry Wood, and then there was 41-year-old Jerry Reuss, a 1990 teammate at AAA Tucson in the Astros system, in what would be Reuss’s final pro season and Servais’s second, after a standout college career at Creighton University that included three years as a member of Team USA.

Servais was first drafted in the second round in June 1985, a month after future first-rounder Jarrod Saltalamacchia was born.  On Wednesday, the 41-year-old shed his Director of Player Development title momentarily, getting back to instruction.  And the 23-year-old big league starter, for the time being, wasn’t with his teammates in the clubhouse, but on an otherwise desolate practice field on the fringes of a spring training complex, absorbing every word.

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It was fascinating.  They talked about game situations, about the mental aspects of the position, about things that a catcher needs to have and needs to be, in order to be the kind of field general that Servais was, and that Saltalamacchia can be. 

Don’t forget how young Saltalamacchia is.  Servais was a great college player, a high draft pick, and a fast-track prospect, reaching the big leagues in his third pro season.  But his debut came a month after his 24th birthday.  Saltalamacchia, entering his third big league season, is still 23.

More indication of how young Saltalamacchia is: Later in the day, as I was watching the upper-level minor league games on the back fields, Saltalamacchia headed over a few innings into the AAA game and promptly put on a batting helmet.  He took his place in the hole, with Jose Vallejo on deck, and K.C. Herren at the plate.

Herren, the former second-rounder who has yet to play above Class A, was born three months after Saltalamacchia.

The Servais-Saltalamacchia summit may not get any mention in print, but while Taylor Teagarden and Adam Melhuse were catching the big league game in Peoria, Saltalamacchia was getting his practice in as well.  No gear, no bat, no ball.  But there was player development going on, not in the usual sense as far as what Servais’s typical duties are, or Saltalamacchia’s, but the kind of intense work that you can spot, and appreciate, if you look hard enough in Surprise.

Andruw Jones got a heavy dose of at-bats in the AA game, taking righthander Hector Rondon deep each of his first two times up.  The 21-year-old Rondon, who went 11-6, 3.60 for High A Kinston last year, fanning 145 and issuing only 42 walks in 145 innings, walked Jones his third time up.  Michael Schlact and Kasey Kiker had their moments in the game, but I’ve seen much better out of both.  In what was the first spring game action for both, they had out-of-character command issues.

Guillermo Moscoso relieved Kiker, who was unable to finish his second inning of work, and continued to impress me.  He reminds me, in a way, of Josh Rupe when I first saw him as a Class A pitcher.  Both are athletes with deep assortments, are sneaky-fast, have some bite on the breaking ball, and work aggressively.  I mentioned it a few days ago: I really like watching Moscoso pitch.  Like Rupe, his starter’s repertoire may actually play better in relief, where he can narrow his offerings down and accentuate his better stuff. 

Mark Hamburger followed Rupe, and after his first five pitches missed the strike zone, he turned it around.  Ever watch an NBA game and just know instinctively that Erick Dampier is going to miss his first free throw but drain the second one?  As soon as Hamburger found his spot, coaxing a pop to second, he got on a roll.  The problem was that he was unable to put his third hitter away.  After starting him off with two balls, the big righthander threw seven straight strikes, five of which were spoiled.  Another ball, high, and on the full count he gave up a hit-and-run single through shortstop. 

The at-bat seemed to take something out of Hamburger, as he started the next hitter off with two balls out of the zone before surrendering a three-run home run.  To his credit, he locked things down after that, striking out the final two batters he faced.

The best pitching performance I saw, along with Moscoso’s, was the quick, efficient frame that lefthander Corey Young threw in the AAA game.  Keep in mind that the squad assignments in March are not necessarily indicative of where minor leaguers will be in April — for one thing, there are only four squads even though there are six affiliates during the season; for another, many of the players who will play for Oklahoma City are still in big league camp, which means a significant number of minor leaguers are pushed up during exhibition play — but the fact that Young, a pitcher I’ve touted in the book and in my reports since seeing him at Fall Instructs in September, was assigned to the highest of the four spring squads despite having only 29 pro innings to his credit (at the fifth of the organization’s six levels) is very interesting. 

The idea, I suspect, was to see how his stuff would play against hitters with significantly more pro experience.  The 22-year-old, taken out of Seton Hall University in last summer’s 12th round, passed the test.  Making quick work of the Indians’ AAA squad with plenty of armside run on his fastball and a tight breaking ball, Young struck out the first hitter looking, and got the next two to ground out harmlessly. 

Carlos Melo had a very tough time finishing the AA game.  His stuff is explosive, his delivery effortless — not qui
te as much as Neftali Feliz’s in either case, but noticeable nonetheless — but he was wild yesterday, and hit very hard.

Jacob Kaase is a dependable shortstop.  If I were his teammate, I’d want him involved in the play.

This may not mean enough to you now, but I caught a glimpse of Outfield/Baserunning Coordinator Wayne Kirby messing around with 17-year-old blue-chip lefthander Martin Perez as the AAA game was going on.  Kirby, one of the great personalities in the entire organization, messes around with everyone.  The cool thing in this case was that Perez was the instigator, Kirby the target. 

There’s something unique about Perez off the field.  There’s a cockiness that you want your starting pitcher to have.  It’s not an arrogance; far from it, actually, as Perez isn’t loud and doesn’t seek attention.  But he carries himself with an air that, if you squint your eyes just a little, just looks like it might belong to a guy who could develop into an ace.  Not just in terms of ability, but in terms of everything else.

I’m not sure whether I see Perez pitching to Saltalamacchia, or Teagarden, but if it’s the former who is the starting catcher on a team where his responsibilities include — maybe first and foremost — leading a young pitching staff, I know I’ll think back to what I saw on Field 2 yesterday, when nobody else was looking.

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

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