September 2009

Tanner Scheppers and the pipeline.

While there are still a couple weeks to go, chances are the Angels, Dodgers, and Rockies will be three of the league’s eight playoff teams this season.  Part of the reason in each case was a strong farm system that fed things, through both graduations to the big club and trades of prospects for veterans.  But if you believe Baseball America, the window for those teams may not necessarily stay open forever.

BA ranked the Dodgers’ minor league talent as second best in baseball going into the 2004, 2005, and 2006 seasons.  Sixth going into 2007, and sixth again going into 2008.  But BA had them 23rd coming into this season, noting: “Decimated by trades, the Dodgers are about to hit a rut after a stunning run of impact talent through its system that produced the likes of Russell Martin, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw.  The next wave, led by Andrew Lambo and James McDonald, doesn’t look as fruitful.”

BA ranked Colorado’s minor league talent as second best in baseball going into the 2007 season.  Seventh going into 2008.  And 20th coming into this season, as the publication noted that “[t]he Rockies got no breaks [in 2008] in the majors or in the minors,” including a numbers of setbacks on the farm.

The Angels were third in BA’s talent rankings in 2004, first in 2005, and fourth in 2006 and 2007.  But they were 10th in 2008, and then 25th coming into 2009: “The Angels have dominated the American League West in recent seasons, but that could change soon.  Oakland and Texas have two of the game’s best farm systems, while Los Angeles has given away more draft picks in the last five years than any club.  It shows in the system’s talent dropoff.”

And then there’s Arizona, which was number one going into 2006 and third going into 2007, before falling to 15th going into 2008 and then 26th coming into what will probably be a 90-loss 2009 season.  Said BA about the club’s fall: “The Diamondbacks have created a roadmap of how to tumble from the top ranking to near the bottom in near record time.  Arizona has drafted conservatively, leading to a lack of power arms and bats, and traded prospects aggressively to supplement a young, talented big league team.”

At the Rangers’ press conference yesterday announcing the signing of righthander Tanner Scheppers, Jon Daniels talked about the crucial importance of keeping the pipeline of minor league talent full.  He didn’t refer to Arizona by name, but that’s an organization that has been extremely aggressive at the big league level – making trades for Dan Haren and Adam Dunn and possibly finishing as the runner-up to Atlanta in its effort to acquire Mark Teixeira from Texas – without doing a very good job of replenishing the top end of its farm system.

Daniels is frequently asked about having what BA judged last winter to be the game’s top farm system, and he routinely responds that it’s a positive to be recognized for all the hard work the scouts and instructors have put in, a validation of sorts, but he’s quick to point out that it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t convert to post-season success on the big league level.  

And Daniels isn’t interested in a quick flash into the post-season that’s followed by years of retrenching.  There’s an emphasis on keeping the pipeline full, and avoiding taking even a half-step back.  Trading for Danny Gutierrez when the opportunity arises.  Signing Jurickson Profar and Luis Sardinas.  Drafting aggressively – taking risk-reward chances on players like Matt Purke, and Scheppers.

Scouting director Ron Hopkins said yesterday that while he was thrilled that Scheppers was available at pick number 44 in June’s draft, he wasn’t surprised that he fell to the Rangers.  There was the shoulder issue in Scheppers’s past, some uncertainty among teams as to the soundness of the shoulder going forward, and the fact that he’d refused to sign a year earlier when Pittsburgh used the second pick in the second round on him, choosing instead to leave Fresno State for the independent St. Paul Saints.  

But the Rangers, who were at every one of his four Saints starts this spring plus another handful of bullpen sessions (in which the 22-year-old “threw free and easy – and hard – every time,” said Hopkins), were able to convince Scheppers and his advisors to submit to a full pre-draft physical, including an MRI, something that Daniels acknowledged yesterday is extremely unusual for an amateur with past health issues, and the club was comfortable that Scheppers was as unique and impressive a talent as he was thought to be a year earlier, when he’d fallen to the Pirates in the second round only because of the shoulder issue.  

In fact, Hopkins noted, maybe even more impressive after his year in the Northern League.  While Scheppers dazzled scouts with a mid-90s fastball and power curve in 2008, he’d added a slider and change in 2009, taking that deeper arsenal into action against independent league hitters, many of whom had experience at the upper minor league levels, if not the big leagues.  Said Hopkins, Scheppers started to change speeds and move the ball around more while with St. Paul, and was still sitting 95-96 – and touching 98.  Going into this draft, BA judged his fastball to be second only to Stephen Strasburg’s.

I remember on Draft Day worried that the Angels would pop Scheppers.  No club had more draft power.  They had five of the first 48 picks (reminiscent of the Rangers’ 2007 draft strength) – four of which came up before Texas’s second pick at number 44 (compensation for the loss of Milton Bradley to the Cubs).  I asked Hopkins about that yesterday, and he said he figured the Angels would go heavy on hitters early on (they took high school outfielders twice in the first round), but that we thought there was a chance that the Angels – who also had Scheppers in for a predraft physical (with Dr. Lewis Yocum) that he cleared – would call the 6’4″ righthander’s name at 40 or 42, when they took a high school righthander and a college lefty.

The part of what he said that stuck with me was that the Angels were so pitching-heavy on the farm that we thought they were less of a risk to take Scheppers ahead of our slot at 44.  Their pipeline wasn’t full.  

But the Rangers’, relatively speaking, was, and they jumped on Scheppers.  His drop into the back end of the supplemental first round is evidence of the risk other teams chose to avoid: BA had Scheppers (9th overall) ahead of Purke (10th) in its pre-draft player rankings.  So did Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, who had Scheppers 6th and Purke 10th.  As did John Sickels (Scheppers 9th, Purke 10th).

And then there was ESPN and Scouts Inc.’s Keith Law, who had Scheppers at number four overall, and Purke number 12.  Law suggested on Draft Day that, assuming Scheppers was healthy, “I’d pay him and try to get him to the majors by August.”

They all had Scheppers ranked ahead of Purke.  Regardless of how Texas had them ranked, Hopkins was confident that Scheppers, because of all the secondary factors, might be there at 44, and he was.  He signed with Texas – after a second physical – for a reported $1.2 or $1.25 million, a figure that’s nearly $500,000 over slot and higher than any other supplemental first-rounder got.  He didn’t get a major league contract, but an invite to big league camp is a strong possibility.

Scheppers will report immediately to the Rangers’ Fall Instructional League program in Surprise (he actually stopped in Surprise on Wednesday, the day camp opened, before coming to Arlington for yesterday’s announcement), and will then be part of the Rangers’ delegation to the Arizona Fall League next month.  Teams gets one allotted rotation spot in the AFL, which Gutierrez will fill for Texas.  Scheppers will work in relief, but Texa
s plans to prepare him in spring training to join a minor league rotation in April.  

As for the 2008 shoulder injury (a muscular issue was misdiagnosed last year as a stress fracture)?  “My arm’s never felt better,” an excited, confident, but humble Scheppers said during his presser.

When Baseball America and others rank farm systems this winter, they won’t consider Elvis Andrus, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, or Taylor Teagarden, all of whom have exhausted rookie eligibility in 2009.  But the Rangers will probably still fall somewhere in the top 5 range.

The minor league season for the Rangers system ended on Wednesday with Bakersfield’s round two elimination – huge thanks once again to the indefatigable Scott Lucas for keeping us informed daily on every minor league game and every development in the system all year – but from a player development standpoint, there’s no break on the calendar.  The Blaze’s final playoff game came on the same day that Fall Instructs kicked off.

And a day before Tanner Scheppers was officially added to the pipeline and the top tier of this system’s depth in prospects.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

Scheppers signs.

The Rangers
have signed supplemental first-round pick Tanner Scheppers, a hard-throwing
righthander who some in the prospect media suggested at draft time was a more
highly rated prospect than first-rounder Matt Purke.  Though terms have not been disclosed, the
deal is reportedly for more than $1 million, and it is not a major league contract.  Scheppers, a Fresno State
product who was not subject to the August 17 signing deadline since he pitched
in the independent leagues this spring (voiding his amateur eligibility), will attend
the Rangers’ fall instructional league program, which kicked off earlier this
week.

 

This is big
news.

Life support.

I regularly get the question asking either how I find time to write the Newberg Report or why I do it, sometimes accompanied by a pop diagnosis of clinical insanity.  

My response is generally the same: The profession I’ve chosen, the practice of law (and particularly litigation), is adversarial in nature, and the way I’m wired, if I didn’t have a substantial outlet to take the edge off what I do during the day, I don’t think I’d be a very likable person to be around when I’m away from the office.  

All the time and energy I throw into writing about baseball is, I think, pretty healthy for me.  It reduces my stress level, or maybe a better way to say it is that it distracts me from certain stress points that I can leave at work.

I count on sports as a distraction.  Do the games get stressful?  Sure.  But only momentarily.

Especially in baseball, where there’s usually another game to turn your attention to the next day.

But man, I’ve battled over the last few days.

I’m upset about how we play against bad teams.

I’m annoyed by Adam Kennedy.  He’s no Frosty Rivera, no Flip Boone, but he’s irritating.

I’m frustrated that this epic, uninspired crash has come while the Angels have lost three straight.

I’m aware of my over-angst after yet another Ian Kinsler pop-up or another lousy Kevin Millwood start or another crummy Nelson Cruz defensive route or a bad loss.  I know it’s not healthy.

I’m cognizant of a sense that maybe I care too much.  (Though I’m quick to dismiss the notion.)

I know I give too much time to those few emailers whose dependency on the team (which they profess to care about) to fuel the negativity that appears to drive them confuses me.

And, yes, I’m demoralized by the depressing, swaggerless lack of energy in the ballpark the last few nights – on the field and in the seats.

I understand that early-week school nights are difficult.  That the weather has been ridiculous (Saturday was the rainiest September 12 in the Metroplex since rainfall measurements were first kept 109 years ago . . . and in the 14 years of data I was able to track down, this has been the rainiest Arlington September on record, and we were only halfway through the month when I checked).  That the Seattle series was a huge letdown.

But I was in the park three of the last five nights, and the lethargy has been overwhelming.  Or underwhelming.  Whatever.

Understandable, maybe.  Still disappointing.  

Are the sparse, lifeless crowds to blame for an offense that has scored one time in the last 37 innings (against Jason Vargas, Felix Hernandez, Mark Lowe, David Aardsma, Brett Tomko, Edgar Gonzalez, Craig Breslow, Brad Ziegler, Jerry Blevins, Michael Wuertz, Andrew Bailey, and Trevor Cahill), facing teams playing out the string – the lowest run total in a four-game span in Rangers history?

Of course not.

But an empty stadium, with the club in a race, kicks me right in the malaise.

Still, it’s not as depressing as watching a club that’s been full of character and resilience and focus and fight all year show absolutely none of it over this last week.

I’ve made the drive to Rangers Ballpark more times in 2009 than I’ve ever made it.  I’m not done.  There are six more regular season home games to go, and I’ll be at two of them, at least.

As hard as I have to work right now to do it, I refuse to let these very difficult last few days spoil what has been a sensational season.

I’m going to keep counting on baseball.  Can’t turn my back on this season yet, not with everything it’s already given me.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport

Where are they now?

As of Opening Day, Kevin Millwood was the Rangers’ number one starter.  Brandon McCarthy was number three.  

Scott Feldman was in the bullpen.  And not just in the bullpen.  The depths of the bullpen.  Four other relievers got into action before Feldman made his 2009 debut, a sixth-inning entry in the season’s third game, with Texas ahead at the time, 11-3.  The only Rangers pitchers on the Opening Day staff who had yet to appear were Warner Madrigal and Josh Rupe.

Tommy Hunter pitched in relief in Frisco’s season opener, entering in the third inning and lasting 2.2 frames, giving up five Springfield runs.

Derek Holland started Oklahoma City’s fourth game of the season, yielding four Nashville runs over four innings.

Amazingly, of the five, McCarthy is closest now to what he was then.  It’s been an uneven season for the 26-year-old, but if you were to measure who has come the furthest since the beginning of April – or fallen the furthest – there’s nobody in the current playoff-contending rotation who has hit his April slot nearly as closely as the mercurial McCarthy.  Right?

Tommy Hunter is really, really impressive.

And I don’t want to jinx things, but I’m going to hold out hope that Derek Holland just now, in the top of the third, had his Matt-Harrison-April-27th inning.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

Stuff.

Three games in 19 hours, followed by 76 hours of no baseball, and then, weather permitting, three more games over 23 hours or so.  Craziness.

Josh Hamilton was in California yesterday to see Dr. Robert Watkins, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in back injuries, because of the pinched nerve in his lower back.  Hamilton had a third nerve root injection administered and could remain out until Friday’s opener with the Angels, if not longer.  

That was the targeted return date for Michael Young as well, and there seems to be more optimism that he’ll be back on schedule.

Lefthander Matt Harrison threw 30 pitches yesterday, without pain or numbness, and will throw again tomorrow, but he won’t return this season.

Bakersfield lost the opener of its best-of-three playoff series against Modesto but won the next two, advancing to Round Two of the California League playoffs against San Jose.  Scott will have more in his daily recaps.

Team USA first baseman Justin Smoak the last two days in World Cup competition: 5 for 9, with two walks, and all of his hits for extra bases, including three home runs – two from the right side and one from the left.  He tweaked his wrist on a collision with a Germany baserunner yesterday and sat out this morning’s 8-0 win over China.

A good article on Neftali Feliz: http://www.dallasobserver.com/2009-09-10/news/neftali-feliz-is-a-fireballin-pitching-phenom-who-has-brought-the-surprising-texas-rangers-christmas-in-september/

A less enjoyable article on the Rangers’ April Fools’ Day 1982 trade for Lee Mazzilli: http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090910&content_id=6899360&vkey=news_nym&fext=.jsp&c_id=nym&partnerId=rss_nym

The Rangers named Bakersfield righthander Tanner Roark the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Month for August, Frisco first baseman Chad Tracy the Minor League Player of the Month, and Arizona League shortstop Edwin Garcia the Minor League Defender of the Month.

Baseball America’s season-ending Hot Sheet (“20 prospects who we felt stood out from the crowd this season . . . a combination of prospect status and performance”) included Frisco lefthander Martin Perez at number 17.  Said BA about the 18-year-old Perez’s four-month run with Hickory: “With a low- to mid-90s fastball that touches 96 mph and a plus curveball, Perez made most [South Atlantic League] hitters look like they were the inexperienced ones.”

A note from a reader that I thought was worth sharing: Tampa Bay is now 18.5 games out of first in the AL East, and 9.5 games back in the Wild Card chase.  The Rays, who exploded onto the scene last year with pitching and defense and a young team certain to get better, are basically done for the year.

Remember that.  There are no guarantees.  

As the reader put it: “Just because the Rangers are young and next year was suppose to be ‘the year,’ we should not underappreciate what is happening now.  Winning is hard even for good teams.  Enjoy this September because it may not come around again for a while . . . .”

I’m going to be there tonight, and three times in five days.  No more rain.  

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

Revisiting Greinke.

I was not interested in an off-day.  That was irritating.

I gave Steelers-Titans the chance to fill the void, but all it did was remind me that What We Play For was taking the day off.

I stared at the Venezuela 13, USA 9 World Cup box score, ignoring the final score and fixing my gaze on the Justin Smoak line – 4 for 6, two home runs, two doubles, five RBI, two runs – but that helped for a minute or two, at best.

To distract myself last night, I tried not to think about this weekend set of three against the Mariners and instead turned my attention back to a topic that I hatched last summer: The idea of making Zack Greinke a Texas Ranger.

Piecing together a few things, chronologically:

June 20, 2008 Newberg Report:

Which team says no: Saltalamacchia, Eric Hurley, John Mayberry Jr., and Warner Madrigal to Kansas City for Zack Greinke (who was then 6-4, 3.33 for the season, and 27-39, 4.40 for his career)?

August 27, 2008 Newberg Report:

Saltalamacchia…[Matt] Harrison or Hurley…Mayberry or [Nelson] Cruz…Joaquin Arias…and Zach Phillips or Carlos Pimentel or Miguel De Los Santos or Geuris Grullon or Julio Santana or Matt Nevarez…for Greinke and Ramon Ramirez.  Are we talking?

October 6, 2008 Newberg Report:

Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com, in a note regarding the decision facing the Royals on whether to trade righthander Zack Greinke, reports that Texas “made a big offer for him before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.”  According to Rosenthal, Kansas City says it won’t move Greinke unless overwhelmed.

January 27, 2009 Newberg Report, the day after Greinke signed a new multi-year deal with Kansas City:

The first two years of Zack Greinke’s four-year, $38 million extension with the Royals apparently contain “very minor” no-trade protection, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports.  As for 2011 and 2012, when the righthander is set to make $13.5 million annually, the no-trade clause apparently goes away, and one league executive told Rosenthal: “He’s going to get traded in one of the thirteen-and-a-halfs, unless he wins a Cy Young Award before then.  And he could.”

August 31, 2009:

Kansas City exercises general manager Dayton Moore’s option for 2011 and extends his contract through 2014.

September 5, 2009:

Greinke allows no Angels earned runs (one unearned) over eight innings, lowering his season ERA to 2.22.  But he gets no decision as Los Angeles beats the Royals, 2-1.  Greinke’s win-loss record remains 13-8.  The rest of the Royals staff: 42-77 – a win percentage that would extrapolate to a 57-105 season.

September 6, 2009:

MLB.com’s Victor Rojas on Twitter: “royals have lack of mlb talent/depth & some bad contracts too – it’s time to seriously consider trading greinke for gaggle of players”

No sense in rehashing Greinke’s worth.  I’ve spent enough time on that the last 15 months.  At age 25 he’s younger than Brandon McCarthy and Doug Mathis, the same age as Guillermo Moscoso and Luis Mendoza, and for me he’s as great a technician as any starting pitcher in the American League.  

And now Moore has job security.  Lots of it.

So would he follow Rojas’s suggested blueprint, one not unlike the plan in Texas that started with the 2007 trade of Mark Teixeira, and move Greinke for a slew of players with whom he can accelerate things for the Royals, who have proven this season that they can hold down the AL Central cellar comfortably and hurtle toward 100 losses even with a Cy Young-caliber season out of Greinke?  

It would stand to reason that Moore’s contract extension, which will keep him on Kansas City’s payroll two years after Greinke is almost certainly going to be on someone else’s, makes a winter Greinke trade at least a little more likely than it might have been a month ago, even if it’s still a longshot.

What would it take?  No less than it would have taken to get Roy Halladay.  

The strength of the Royals’ horizon is on the infield corners (where Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer figure in, with one likely settling in at DH and another, perhaps Moustakas, moving to a corner outfield spot) and in the rotation, where behind Greinke are, among others, Luke Hochevar, prospects Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, and Chris Dwyer and, assuming he signs, Aaron Crow.  Kansas City desperately needs help up the middle, which is what Texas keyed on in part with the Teixeira trade – picking off players developed in the Atlanta system while Moore was the Braves’ director of player personnel and then assistant general manager.

Moore wouldn’t need to rely on Royals area scout Rick Schroeder to recommend Derek Holland, a player Schroeder was partly responsible for Texas drafting when he held a similar position with the Rangers.  Holland and Neftali Feliz will be the first players Moore would ask Texas for.  Among Schroeder’s other draft recommendations from his Rangers days were Frisco reliever Brennan Garr and Frisco infielder Renny Osuna, but neither would figure into a blockbuster deal (unless tacked on, as lefthander Julian Cordero was when Texas added the Class southpaw to the Francisco Cordero-Laynce Nix-Kevin Mench package to get Carlos Lee and Nelson Cruz in 2006).

Royals manager Trey Hillman’s time as Rangers director of player development and Royals minor league skipper Darryl Kennedy’s time managing on the Texas farm were long enough ago that none of the players they had here would fit the profile of what Kansas City would be looking to add.

But that’s an elementary way of looking at things, anyway.  In today’s game, teams’ scouting coverage is such that organizations have a book on just about every player in every system.  Yes, from time to time there’s a Dr. Keith Meister-Darren O’Day history that can add a layer to the evaluation process, but deals don’t turn on past connections.

Plus, with Kansas City sharing Surprise with Texas, and fielding AA and AAA teams that compete in the same leagues as Rangers affiliates, the Royals obviously have a convenient perch from which to keep tabs on young Rangers players.  The Royals have recently picked up Tug Hulett, Travis Metcalf, John Bannister, Manny Pina, and Tim Smith from Texas, for instance.

But that doesn’t mean Moore may not have a soft spot for a player like Saltalamacchia or Harrison, both of whose pro careers he was in charge of getting underway back in 2003.  Shame they’re both going to end the 2009 season at less than full health.

So here we go:

Let’s say Texas had to give up (1) Kansas City’s choice of righthander Tommy Hunter or lefthander Martin Perez; (2) righthander Wilmer Font; (3-4) Kansas City’s choice of either outfielder Julio Borbon and hitter Max Ramirez – or outfielders Nelson Cruz and Engel Beltre; and (5) shortstop Leury Garcia to get Greinke and, say, reliever Juan Cruz (owed $3.25 million in 2010 and a $500,000 buyout in 2011).  Tack on (6) Garr as well.

You in?  Which team walks away?

We now return to our regularly scheduled Pennant Race, already in progress.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

What we play for.

I was thinking last night about all the numbers I was going to dig into and talk about this morning.  

The decimated lineup’s sudden offensive surge.  

MUTRIHOF’s staggering numbers on the road, and overall.

The club’s eye-opening shutout total.

Marlon Byrd.

C.J. Wilson on the road, or on day two, or against batter one.

Texas, 19 games over .500 for the first time since 1999 – which was the last time we played more than 162.

Ian Kinsler’s slash line since returning from injury.

Pudge Rodriguez’s OPS (and Matt Nevarez’s ERA and K/BB).

Kevin Millwood, month to month.

Elvis Andrus, on the other hand, trending up as he nears uncharted territory.

Even a mention of Florida receiver and Rangers farmhand Riley Cooper’s five catches for 105 yards on Saturday.

But Danys Baez and Ian Snell took a little wind out of my sails.  

Which reminded me that, in spite of the fact that following this organization has long lent itself more to a focus on statistics than on game outcomes late in the year, that’s sort of a foolish exercise in September 2009.  In some Rangers seasons – really, most of them in recent memory – this would be the time of year when we’d have to resort to talking about the record for team doubles, or the number of players used, or a player’s consecutive 200-hit seasons.  

But focusing on the numbers now would only be a distraction from recognizing how the offense may suddenly be squaring up as a group as well as it has all year.  How the defense continues to make plays we’re not used to seeing it make.  How much character and resilience this team has shown all year, shrugging off pennant race inexperience and injuries to key players and any number of losses that the mainstream media has hastily labeled as the “catastrophic moment” that has never arrived.

The taglines from 1000 Ballpark Way have changed, appropriately, from “Built for fun” to “It’s September.  This is what we play for.”  This season isn’t about hit streaks or save totals or – despite emails I received yesterday afternoon from about 20 of you – who deserves the Cy Young Award.

It’s about the games, something that we’ve always known in April, that we’ve occasionally been lucky enough to preserve into August, but that we have very little experience with in September.  

I’m as guilty as anyone of putting Neftali Feliz’s numbers in a frame, for example.  But you can’t fully appreciate what he’s been able to accomplish unless you watch him work and see how he’s doing it, and maybe there’s a lesson there.  

The only numbers really worth our focus right now are 2.0 and 4.5, and you get the sense that the team isn’t even letting those numbers distract them.  It’s about today’s opposing pitcher, and opposing lineup.  No sense worrying about what the Red Sox are doing, or the Angels – other than on September 18, 19, 20, 28, 29, 30, and October 1, when Los Angeles will be in the opposite dugout.  But even those are dates the Rangers’ players will concern themselves with on September 18, 19, 20, 28, 29, 30, and October 1, and not before.  There are games to be played in the meantime, and that’s all the players seem to be putting on their plate, one at a time.  

The key numbers on any given day?  Simple: Score more than we give up.

A year ago, this report might have been three or four times longer.  I just don’t feel like it’s worth the time right now to dive too deep into the numbers, preferring instead to curse Baez and Snell, pout a little over the lack of a Rangers game on today’s schedule, and think about whether Millwood – in spite of his diminishing effectiveness – can step it up against Luke French in Rangers Ballpark tomorrow night, adding more texture to this remarkable baseball season and reminding us just what it is that we play for.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

Defensive measures.

By the end of the day, the Rangers could be one game out in the Wild Card chase, 3.5 games out in the West.

Or they could be four behind Boston, and 6.5 in back of the Angels.

They’re all big now, but a September doubleheader is something different altogether.

A tuck-away note, as Texas made personnel adjustments at half of the club’s defensive positions going into this season: The Rangers’ club record for fewest unearned runs allowed in a season is 50.  They accomplished it twice, in 1996 and 1999, both playoff seasons.

With under four weeks to play, Texas has allowed 30 unearned runs this year.  Only Philadelphia (29) has permitted fewer.

Last year: 107 unearned, the most in franchise history, and the worst in baseball in 2008, by a lot.  Next most: 82 (Nationals).

The reference to 1996 and 1999 isn’t to suggest that those deficits in the division and Wild Card races are meaningless and to be dismissed.  But defense, more so than pitching and offensive production, tends to show up with some consistency from year to year in a given player or set of players, and the vastly improved defense on this club (evidenced not only by fewer unearned runs but also by more plays made), while not as celebrated as some other aspects, is an important reason to feel very good about where this thing is headed over the next few years.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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Twitter  @newbergreport

Feldman and Feliz: Good night.

Texas 5, Baltimore 1.

Chicago 12, Boston 2.

Detroit 4, Tampa Bay 3.

Los Angeles 2, Kansas City 1 (thanks to He Whom I Cannot Watch Pitch, John Bale’s ankle mechanics, Roman “Spastic” Colon, and super-turbo-zero Yuniesky Betancourt).

Wild Card deficit: 2.0 games.

Division deficit: 3.5 games, with seven left against the Angels, against whom Texas has won 9 of 12.  The first of those head-to-head matches immediately follows four on the road for Los Angeles, one in New York and three in Boston. 

Those three Angels-Red Sox games (September 15-17) are going to be fascinating to keep tabs on, as the Rangers host Oakland the first two nights and have their final day off on the third.  Take care of business against the A’s, and we automatically gain ground on one of the two teams we’re chasing.

Texas is 18 games over .500 for the first time since there was a week to go in the 2004 season.  The Rangers can’t afford to play .500 ball from here on out, but even if they do, that’s 90 wins.

At least 15 of which will have been credited to Scott Feldman.  The only Rangers pitchers to win that many since Kenny Rogers’s 18 in 2004 were Kevin Millwood (16) and Vicente Padilla (15) in 2006.  Millwood made 34 starts that season, Padilla 33, while Feldman has made only 25 this year, and their ERA’s (4.52 and 4.50) were nearly a run higher than Feldman’s (3.62 – and 3.24 as a starter).

As silly as Neftali Feliz’s numbers are, watching him work is even crazier.  How the Pacific Coast League managed to score 30 earned runs in his 77.1 innings, I’ll never understand.

But as for the numbers, digest this: Feliz walked 3.5 batters per nine innings in AAA, an acceptable number.  In the bigs, it’s 0.4 per nine (one walk in 22 innings).

Feliz set 8.7 AAA batters down on strikes per nine innings.  More than acceptable.  In the bigs: 11.5 per nine.

Feliz’s AAA WHIP: a reasonable 1.28.  In the bigs: 0.27.

Feliz threw 63 percent of his AAA pitches for strikes.  Big leagues: 67 percent.

Feliz’s AAA slash line: .240/.318/.347.  Big leagues: .070/.096/.113.

One of the great things about Feliz’s ability to close tonight’s win out by himself reveals itself when you do some digging into C.J. Wilson’s season.

Wilson pitching on no days’ rest in 2009 (16 appearances): 10.80 ERA, 5.4 walks per nine innings, slash line of .344/.417/.531.

On one day of rest (20 appearances) : 2.37 ERA,  6.2 walks per nine, .147/.310/.235.

Two days’ rest (12 appearances): 0.66 ERA, 3.3 walks per nine, .250/.333/.354.

Three or more days’ rest (12 appearances): 0.00 ERA, 0.6 walks per nine, .170/.185/.189 (one walk and one extra-base hit in 54 plate appearances).

While we’re at it, Frankie Francisco on no days’ rest (11 appearances): 11.00 ERA, 5.0 walks per nine, .359/.432/.692.

One day of rest (12 appearances): 2.77 ERA, 2.77 walks per nine, .224/.296/.367.

Two or more days’ rest (18 appearances): 0.00 ERA, 1.02 walks per nine, .129/.156/.339.

(Both Wilson and Francisco have a hitless inning of Game Two work when pitching both ends of a doubleheader.)

There’s also Wilson’s staggering home-away split (0.76 ERA, 2.8 walks per nine, .158/.252/.208 in Arlington; 6.41 ERA, 5.74 walks per nine, .296/.386/.452 on the road), but you certainly can’t shut him down in road series. 

(And the first batter Wilson faces is hitting .327/.450/.429.  Everyone else: .199/.280/.301.  How about that?)

Back to the main point: both Wilson and Francisco are a lot better when they get a day off between appearances – and virtually untouchable when they get two days off, or more.  Something to keep in mind, and an extra reason to appreciate Feliz’s ability to finish the Orioles off alone tonight.

Nobody turns the 3U-6 double play better than Chris Davis did tonight.  Nobody.

What do righthanders Luis Mendoza and Omar Poveda, catcher Max Ramirez, infielder Joaquin Arias, outfielder Greg Golson, and Andruw Jones have in common? 

They’re the only six members of the Rangers’ 40-man roster not active right now.

That’s a crowded dugout these days, and what appears to be a really loose one, great to see considering Michael Young and Josh Hamilton are out of action (though Hamilton could be back this weekend).  It wouldn’t be surprising to see this pennant race-inexperienced club give the appearance of pressing right now, all things considered, but they sure don’t seem to be.

Feldman is clearly this team’s best starter right now, but Millwood still carries the responsibility of being the number one.  Time for Millwood (4-1 in five career starts at Camden Yards) to keep this good roll going on Saturday, to help this team continue to care of business. 

===========================================================

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(c) Jamey Newberg
http://www.newbergreport.com
Twitter  @newbergreport
 

Pina and Smith for Gutierrez.

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From my Draft Day report:

 

“But an added benefit
of the tremendous health that the Texas
minor league system enjoys is that risks like [drafting Tanner] Scheppers make
more sense to take.  If he doesn’t work out, it certainly won’t cripple
the system.” 

 

It’s a different set of circumstances, and less flashy, but
the Rangers’ Thursday acquisition of Class A righthander Danny Gutierrez from
Kansas City falls perhaps in the same category. 
Texas traded two players who are arguably better bets than Gutierrez to
fulfill their potential, but by all accounts the pitcher they got in return,
while a riskier proposition, has measurably greater upside.

 

Tim Smith (.300 at Clinton last year, .333 at Bakersfield
this spring, .309 at Frisco this summer) has proven that he has a hit tool that
ought to play at higher levels.  But the
rest of his tools project as solid-average. 
If everything were to fall into place, think Rusty Greer or Frank
Catalanotto with higher strikeout totals. 
But he could also be Vincent Sinisi. 
A prospect, to be sure, but with limitations.

 

Manny Pina was the Rangers’ minor league player of the month
in April, hitting .481/.518/.731 for Frisco as he posted the highest batting
average in the minors for the month.  It
was a stunning offensive breakthrough for the defensively advanced catcher, who
came into the season as a career .248/.306/.322 hitter in four pro
seasons.  But he regressed offensively
after that, hitting .216/.274/.327 the rest of the way.  He’s a prospect because of his
catch-and-throw skills.  But his
limitations – both with the bat and in his development as a game-caller – are evident
as well.

 

Given the crowd that Texas has in the outfield – Josh Hamilton,
Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and Julio Borbon are all under team control through at
least 2012, and if Texas signs Marlon Byrd this winter, something there appears
to be mutual interest in, he will be under control that long as well – and Smith’s
skill set, his upside as a Ranger was probably going to be as a bat off the
bench, a National League type of player without the defensive versatility to figure
in here as much more than a shuttle player. 
While Smith might project to hit for better average than Brandon Boggs
(one option left in 2010), Greg Golson (two options), or Craig Gentry (three
options), those three are stronger defenders and run better, and that’s what
you want from your backup outfielders.  Engel
Beltre and Mitch Moreland are on the way with higher ceilings than Smith, and
David Paisano leads a pack of lower-level prospects who could enter the picture
before long.

 

And given the club’s catcher situation, Pina’s future here -
if not as a big leaguer regardless of franchise – was going to be as a once-a-week
backup, and not for another couple years at least.  The way his 2009 season went, Texas was
probably not going to add him to the 40-man roster this winter, which will be his
first as a Rule 5-eligible (though Kansas City will presumably put him on the roster
in November to protect its investment).  It’s
too soon to say that Leonel De Los Santos or Tomas Telis or Jose Felix had
supplanted Pina as the franchise’s top catcher prospect, but there is depth in
this system, and even if Pina remained at the top of the depth chart, this is a
club with five catchers on the 40-man roster at the moment.

 

Coming into the 2009 season, I had Pina ranked as the
Rangers’ number 39 prospect, and Smith number 52.  Yesterday, in my
latest MLB.com column ranking the Rangers’ top prospects
, I had Smith ranked
number 16 in the system (though, to be fair, I cheat a bit by ruling out anyone
in the big leagues so I can feature more minor leaguers in the column – at season’s
end, based on big league service, players like Neftali Feliz and Julio Borbon
and Guillermo Moscoso and Pedro Strop will again show up on prospect rankings)
and didn’t have Pina in my top 40.  Texas,
because of its depth, is likely to survive their loss, even if they reach their
potential.

 

Gutierrez’s potential is why Texas made this deal.  While neither Pina nor Smith made Baseball America‘s list of the Rangers’ top
30 prospects over the winter, BA had
Gutierrez as Kansas City’s number seven prospect, and Baseball Prospectus’s
Kevin Goldstein had him at number six.  Despite
an early-season elbow injury in 2008 (possibly dating back to an elbow fracture
he sustained as a high school sophomore), the righthander saw his velocity jump
from 88-92 to 90-95 with movement that summer, complemented by a power curve (cited
by BA, along with his control, as the
Royals system’s best) and developing change.  According to BP, by the end of 2008 (a 4-4, 2.70 season for Low A Burlington
[104 strikeouts and 25 walks in 90 innings] that he capped with 17 strikeouts and
two walks in 12 Midwest League playoff innings, yielding two runs), “the Royals
felt he was by far the best pitcher
they had at any minor league level.”

 

So what happened in 2009?

 

Nobody is really saying.  According to BP co-founder and Royals fanatic
Rany Jazayerli in a blog piece he wrote just three weeks ago, Gutierrez “had a
fight with the organization over his rehab process” following another arm issue,
this time shoulder inflammation, that delayed the start of his 2009 season.  (Jazayerli, a dermatologist, added: “One way
to look at this is that Gutierrez has some growing up to do.  Then again, given my opinion of the Royals’
training staff, it’s hard to be too upset with the kid.”)  The 22-year-old reportedly did at least some
of his early season rehab work with the Boras Corporation (which he’d switched
to as his agency) rather than with the Royals.

 

There are rumors of other off-field issues that have gotten
no mainstream media play that I could find, and that are all over the map if
you spend time sifting through blogs whose credibility I can’t vouch for.  The conclusion I cautiously draw from them,
with some amount of uncertainty, is that the reason Gutierrez has logged only
27.1 innings in 2009 may not be strictly physical, and without which the Royals
probably don’t begin to entertain trading him.

 

Call it a change of scenery. 
A slap in the face.  A second
chance.  However you characterize it, the
fact that Gutierrez was traded for what certainly seems to be less than 100
cents on the dollar might just result in a chip on his shoulder, a boost in
motivation, that centers his career in exactly the right direction.  The Rangers’ prospect depth allowed them to bet
that he’ll do just that, in his second organization.

 

Whatever the reason, or reasons, Gutierrez didn’t show up
with a minor league club this year until July 28, and his ramp-up has been
methodical: one inning, then two, two again, three, four, 4.2, 4.2 a second
time, and, a week ago today, six innings of work.  His first four appearances came out of the High
A Wilmington bullpen: eight scoreless innings, three hits, one walk, 10 strikeouts.  His next four outings were Blue Rocks starts:
four no-hit innings on August 12 (one walk, three strikeouts), a poor
4.2-inning effort on August 18 (five runs on five hits and a walk, four
strikeouts), 4.2 scoreless frames on August 23 (three hits, two walks, four strikeouts),
and six zeroes last Friday (six hits, two walks, four strikeouts). 

 

All told, he’s held the Carolina League to an anemic
.173/.229/.204 slash line, fanning 25 and issuing seven walks in those 27.1
innings of work.  And I love this: after
left-handed hitters (.261/.360/.377) soundly outproduced righties (.235/.274/.360)
against Gutierrez in 2008, he reversed things in 2009, crushing lefties at a
.128/.226/.170 rate (righties: .216/.231/.235), suggesting his changeup has
made significant progress, or perhaps that he’s developed significant cut action
on his fastball.

 

Standing just 6’1″, the Los Angeles native doesn’t have a
prototype, projectable pitcher’s build, which may help explain why he fell to
the 33rd round in 2005 (signing as a draft-and-follow in the spring
of 2006),

 

Like Smith (and unlike Pina), Gutierrez is a year away from
40-man roster consideration (joining a class that includes, among others,
Wilmer Font, Wilfredo Boscan, Beltre, Moreland, Kasey Kiker, Carlos Pimentel, Kennil
Gomez, Miguel De Los Santos, Marcus Lemon, and Leonel De Los Santos).  Presumably he’ll join Bakersfield as the Blaze
motors toward the post-season. 

 

As for the off-season, he was already delegated by the
Royals to pitch for the Arizona Fall League’s Surprise Rafters next month, which
he still might do, as the Rangers feed players to that same AFL club.  Texas has a designated pitching spot it can
still fill – and might have two, if Thomas Diamond ends up with another
organization within the week, following his September 1 designation for
assignment.  Gutierrez could use some innings,
and Texas will probably see to it that he gets them in the AFL.

 

Diamond is a classic example of how routinely a blue-chip pitching
prospect’s fortunes can change.  More
than any other position in sports, for various reasons the development of frontline
pitching can be maddeningly unpredictable, and because of that you can never have
enough arms with upside. 

 

Trading two position players whose ceilings, at least with
this franchise, were probably as bench players in exchange for a young pitcher
with the chance be an impact arm is something you do every chance you get, and
though there’s possibly added risk with this particular pitcher (without which
he probably would have never been available), Texas has deepened its farm
system so effectively that it’s a risk it can afford to take, with an exciting potential
reward tied to Gutierrez’s right arm.

 

 

===========================================================

 

To join the free Newberg Report mailing list so you can get
e-mail deliveries of every edition of the newsletter, daily minor league game recaps,
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(c) Jamey Newberg

http://www.newbergreport.com

Twitter 
@newbergreport

 

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