December 2009

Bottom-of-the-roster talk.

Reports on imminent acquisition activity around the league have slowed to a relative crawl with the holidays – suggesting that either front offices or those who typically report on the Hot Stove have taken their foot off the gas a bit until the New Year – but while two key Rangers roles (right-handed middle-of-order bat and rotation addition) seem poised for eventual movement once the market continues to shake out, two spots at the bottom of the 40-man roster, which currently accommodates 39 players, may be worthy of a bit of attention.

With two days left in the Mexican Pacific League regular season, Obregon righthander Luis Mendoza leads the eight-team circuit in strikeouts (82; nobody else in the league has more than 54), strikeout rate (8.17 per nine innings; next best is 5.70), and opponents’ batting average by a starter (.249), and is second in ERA (2.89), WHIP (1.229), and wins (seven).  

Mendoza is pitching into the seventh inning on average.  He’s walking under three batters per nine innings.  And he continues to generate ground balls at a sparkling rate (2.10 groundouts for every flyout).

We’ve talked regularly about how big (and relatively uncommon) it is to combine a high strikeout rate and a high groundball rate.  Is Mendoza, at age 26 the prototypical 4-A, possibly turning a corner?

Here’s the thing: Mendoza is out of options.  With his repertoire, and certainly the winter he’s having, chances are he wouldn’t clear waivers in March.  And even if he were to clear, he’s been outrighted before (by Boston in 2005), which means he’d have the right to decline a Rangers outright and take immediate free agency.  

By virtue of his options/outright status and his difficulty getting big leaguers out the last two years, if Mendoza is not the last of the 23 pitchers currently on the 40-man roster, he’s close to it.  Same goes for the roster security of infielder Joaquin Arias, who is also out of options and has the type of skill set that would probably lead at least one club to put in a waiver claim if he fails to make the Rangers’ Opening Day roster.

Arias has had a solid Dominican Winter League season, hitting .296/.345/.327 in the regular season for Escogido with six stolen bases in eight attempts and more walks (seven) than strikeouts (five), and more notably playing shortstop for the most part (his last 24 starts have been at shortstop, after alternating between second base and shortstop during his first week of play).  If the shoulder is back, Arias’s candidacy for the Rangers’ utility infield spot becomes more legitimate.

Three weeks ago, there was a report out of Arizona that Texas had expressed interest in veteran utility infielder Augie Ojeda but that the Diamondbacks were hesitant to impair their middle infield depth.  Now comes a report from MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert that Arizona has an offer on the table to free agent infielder Kelly Johnson, the addition of whom would relegate Tony Abreu to a bench role and make Ojeda expendable.  Worth keeping an eye on, maybe.

A couple other things:

Mark DeRosa has agreed to terms with the Giants on a two-year, $12 million contract, and that’s a lot better as far as I’m concerned than if he’d signed with the Yankees – not only because I didn’t want to see DeRosa in pinstripes, but also because it makes it more likely that New York turns to Jermaine Dye.  Wouldn’t mind seeing that happen.

Baseball Prospectus writer Russell A. Carleton points out that Rangers hitters were last in the big leagues in 2009 at making contact, hitting the ball on only 77.1 percent of their swings.  The second-worst, third-worst, fourth-worst, fifth-worst, and sixth-worst clubs were National League teams, for an obvious reason, which accentuates the embarrassing point that all 16 NL teams, whose percentage of pitcher plate appearances was 15 times greater than their AL counterparts, swung and missed at a lesser rate than the Rangers.

This sorta surprised me: Dye (82.0 percent) and Guerrero (81.0 percent) fared better in 2009 than Michael Young (80.6 percent) or Marlon Byrd (79.8 percent).  (The top two Texas regulars were Ian Kinsler [87.7 percent] and Elvis Andrus [87.3 percent].)  

Back to the top.  Mendoza’s dominant winter and the utility infield situation aren’t front page developments – and won’t be even when things fully shake out – but they are developments nonetheless, which made me think this morning about two points I wanted to make:

1.    Last year at this time, Texas had not yet come to terms with Ben Sheets or signed Omar Vizquel or Eddie Guardado (or Jason Jennings or Andruw Jones or Kris Benson, each of whom was at least envisioned to hold down a key role) or claimed Darren O’Day off waivers.  The winter work is far from over.

2.    51 sleeps.

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

Winter advisory.

 

Max_Erica-SnowlanRyan_2.jpg
 

In lieu of a Friday haiku, Max and Snowlan Ryan and Erica issue this winter advisory:

“Snowdibbe McDowell, Buck Snowalter, Snowby Harrah, Emerson Frosty, Kameron Snow, Doug Dascenzsnow, Akinori Snowtsuka (Snowsshaa!!), Snowgelio Moret, Pete Snow’Brien, Alfonsnow Snowriano, snow monkeys, and Ian Gac love the 2010 Bound Edition of the Newberg Report!
Get snow-Bound today!!”

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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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

Rangers shine in Manuel transmission.

Among the annual exercises undertaken by Baseball America this time of the year is the ranking of the game’s top 100 prospects, a three-headed effort by co-editors-in-chief Will Lingo and John Manuel and executive editor Jim Callis, each of whom submits a personal top 50 list that gets published in the BA Prospect Handbook, which has apparently been finalized and sent off to the printer for production.  Tonight Manuel has revealed the first 20 of his own top 50 prospects list.

Of Manuel’s top 20 prospects in baseball, 13 players are the lone representatives of their organizations.

Two are Rays (OF Desmond Jennings [number 4] and RHP Jeremy Hellickson [number 15]).  Two are Giants (C Buster Posey [number 9] and LHP Madison Bumgarner [number 10]).  

Three are Rangers:

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8. Neftali Feliz, rhp, Rangers

WHY HE’S HERE: Feliz has one of baseball’s quickest, most electric arms, and showed it off when he first was called up to the major leagues last August.

WHAT HE’LL BE: The big question with Feliz is his ultimate role.  Before tiring down the stretch last year, Feliz showed he could be an impact relief arm, and his feel for his secondary stuff comes and goes.  The Rangers see that easy upper-90s gas, though, and see a starter.

WHEN HE ARRIVES: Feliz is expected to break camp in 2010 in Texas’ rotation.  It might take a while for him to truly arrive as a starter, as was the case for flamethrowers such as Edwin Jackson and A.J. Burnett.

12. Justin Smoak, 1b, Rangers

WHY HE’S HERE: A switch-hitter from the South, Smoak looks a bit like Chipper Jones at the plate with his stance and mannerisms.  He has a chance to hit like Jones, too, with consistency, polish and power.

WHAT HE’LL BE: Smoak doesn’t quite have Mark Teixeira’s explosive power, but he’s a similar-caliber hitter and defender.  He just needs to add a bit of polish and figure out how to turn on inside pitches.

WHEN HE ARRIVES: With Hank Blalock out of the picture, the first-base job is open in Texas.  While Smoak has competition (especially if the Rangers add Mike Lowell from the Red Sox to play first), he should become the full-time first sacker by 2011.

20. Martin Perez, lhp, Rangers

WHY HE’S HERE: The third Ranger on the list, Perez has a delivery and repertoire that draw comparisons to Johan Santana.  That may not be fair to Perez, but as an 18-year-old, he was the best pitcher in the South Atlantic League, and his compact delivery is a near-duplicate of Santana’s.

WHAT HE’LL BE: Well, have we mentioned Santana?  There’s just a long way for Perez to go from A-ball to the majors, and his workload has been handled very carefully so far.

WHEN HE ARRIVES: Let’s give Perez a couple of years to let his low-90s fastball that touches 96, plus changeup and plus curveball time to incubate.  He should be on this list at least two more times.

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Happy Holidays, Rangers fans.

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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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

The party.

I’m not easily awed.  

In the nearly 12 years of this project, there haven’t been too many moments that knocked me speechless.  But last night was one of them.

I’m still stunned at how many of you packed the room (well, rooms) at Sherlock’s for the book release party.  I’d sit here and thank everyone again, but since I think everyone who’s ever heard of the Newberg Report was there when I did so last night, what’s the point?

But I do want to give repeat thanks to Steve, Rosco, Jason, Amber, and April for making Sherlock’s the perfect place for our gathering once again, and to Eleanor and Toni and Devin and Norma for working so hard to make the party great.  There are many others.

We’re seriously thinking about having a second party, probably at the Sherlock’s in Dallas (near Northpark Mall) sometime in January.  We’ll work on a new player lineup for the next one, for those of you who might want to come again.  Stay tuned.

When I asked Rusty Greer, Ian and Tess Kinsler, Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, and Chris Davis a month ago if they could join us last night, without exception they responded not with an “I’ll get back to you” or “Check back with me if you can’t find someone else.”  In every case it was “What time do you need me there?”

I told them 6:00 until 9:00.  But it took until 9:30 to get through the entire autograph line (the manager was thrilled with last year’s crowd of a little bit over 400 Rangers fans – last night we approached 600).  

And then we Q&A’d until 10:00.

Those four tall boxes built to hold Toys for Tots donations weren’t enough.  The Marines on hand had to empty the boxes in their vans more than once to make sure there was always something for you all to put your toys in.  Awesome.

Speaking of boxes, I said half-jokingly on Twitter yesterday that I was lugging 500 copies of the 2010 Bound Edition to the party and was hoping to come home with only about one-fifth of those.

Turns out I did.  

Tack on the 400 copies that shipped out earlier this week, and we’re off to our best start ever with book sales.  

A number of you vowed to pass along photos from the party.  We’ll get those put up on one page once they start to come in, and I know there will be a blogged writeup or two.  I’ll share the links to those as well.

I had a great time last night.  Thank you all.

                                    *    *    *

                       Owners from Pittsburgh
                       There’s precedent for those here
                       To contend yearly

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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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

Chuck Greenberg talks.

Some Chuck Greenberg remarks you might enjoy:

“The goal is simple: Win.  Win the division, get through the LCS, get to the World Series and win.  Our intention is to make smart decisions that achieve those goals.  You can’t just throw money out there at things.  But you also can’t win without having the resources to add pieces when you need to.  If there are additional moves that need to be made, we want to be smart about it but we’ll make the moves.  We want to win a championship.”

“If we have a chance to improve the ballclub during the season leading up to the trade deadline, we will be able to make those moves.  Money will not stop us from doing it.”

“In this area, there is a tremendous amount of pent-up enthusiasm for the Rangers that is just waiting to explode.  They may not have a history of World Series championships, but there is a great deal of hope and passion.  With a little help and tender love and care, it can be pushed over the top, and hopefully our group can push it over the top.”

“With all the things the Rangers have done the last few years on the baseball side, the club is poised to have a great future. . . . Hopefully our group can build off that foundation that is already in place.”

“I think it could be one of the great success stories in professional baseball and all of sports.  It’s the perfect opportunity.  The vitality and the quality of life in the DFW area and surrounding communities are tremendous.  It’s a wonderful place to live and do business.”

“To have the judgment and wisdom and personal touch of Nolan Ryan, and the tremendous group that JD has assembled, I think the Rangers on the baseball side are the envy of every franchise in baseball in terms of talent.”

“If they had a Mount Rushmore of baseball in Texas, [Nolan would] be the first face chiseled out. . . . If he had affiliated with any other group, I would have dropped out immediately.  There are 29 other teams out there.  But the Rangers and Ryan belong together.”

“My role is to have great people in positions of authority and to create an environment that enables them and encourages them to be their best, then to let them do their job.  I think on the baseball side, this team is the envy of the baseball world right now.  I won’t inject myself in a way that would interfere with anything.”

“There are certain things I’d like to do give [Rangers Ballpark] a little bit of a facelift.  I think the Ballpark as it is is terrific, but there are things we can do to make it the absolute best.  The absence of a giant video board, with the advent of those amenities in other facilities is one aspect I would really like to look into.  Those things can really help.  That’s something that really jumps to mind.”

“Our job is to make Texas Rangers baseball a compelling, memorable experience.  It starts with having a great team on the field that relates to the community off the field.  We want an organization that is connected to the fans and that is completely obsessed to do everything possible to service our fans’ needs and do everything they want.”

“My colleagues and I have a very similar approach.  We take what we do very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously at all.  We’re going to do whatever it takes to make this work for fans.”

“In this organization, there will be no walls between us and the fans.  One of our most important skills is to be good listeners, and we’re going to do a lot of listening during the season.  We’re going to be adjusting on the fly in 2010, but we’re going to be flying out of the gate in the fall of 2010 going into the offseason and the next season.  Whatever it takes, we will do it.”

Ready for a Michael Young comment about his new teammate, Rich Harden?

“I think he has the best stuff in the league.  I didn’t say some of the best stuff.  I mean the best stuff I’ve seen.  I think the biggest compliment a hitter can give a pitcher is that he can get you out with a fastball at 90 or 91, just like he can at 97.  That’s Rich.  His fastball has so much life that he can beat you even when the velocity isn’t there. . . . He’s got great ability.”

According to Steven Henson of Yahoo! Sports, Dennis Gilbert, who at one time was considered the frontrunner for the ownership transfer, “wasn’t thrilled” by the signing of Harden or the trade of Kevin Millwood.

Even if the rumored deal with the Red Sox to bring Mike Lowell is completed (apparently pending a Lowell physical, which is supposed to take place sometime this week in Arlington), there are reports that Texas might still be interested in free agents Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome, or Jermaine Dye.

Right-handed-hitting corner infielder Garrett Atkins, considered by some a possible fallback to Lowell given his lengthy history with Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle, is reportedly signing with Baltimore.

The Rangers are reported to be among the dozen or more clubs interested in right-handed reliever Mike Capps, non-tendered Saturday by the Pirates.

The Cubs, though they haven’t yet been able to trade Milton Bradley, are reportedly stepping up efforts to sign Marlon Byrd now that Mike Cameron has signed with Boston.

ESPN’s Jorge Arangure reports that Texas was among the 14 teams on hand for 21-year-old Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman’s 10-minute throwing session in Houston on Tuesday.

Righthander Josh Johnson’s agent, Matt Sosnick, told Joe Capozzi of the Palm Beach Post that he expects Florida to trade Johnson before the 2011 season starts.  Marlins general manager Michael Hill has already told reporters that he will not trade Johnson before the 2010 season.

Daniels shot down (1) the local reports that emanated from the Winter Meetings suggesting Texas offered Neftali Feliz and Justin Smoak to Florida for Johnson (“this rumor is completely inaccurate”) and (2) George King’s recent New York Post assertion that Texas has been shopping Josh Hamilton, saying that the Rangers “haven’t had a single [trade] conversation about Josh this winter.”

Daniels added that righthander Tanner Scheppers is penciled in for a season-opening assignment to Frisco, though things could change that plan in camp.

Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus wrote a feature called “The Top 20 of the New Decade,” and though no Rangers made his list of the top 20 players of the next 10 years, Elvis Andrus and Feliz made the “just missed” list, as did LSU righthander Anthony Ranaudo, whom the Rangers drafted in the 11th round in 2007 out of a New Jersey high school but couldn’t persuade not to honor his LSU commitment.  

The great MLB Network is in the midst of a two-month series called “30 Clubs 30 Recaps,” in which it covers a different team each episode and discusses what they need to do to succeed in 2010.  The Rangers segment airs December 22 during the “Hot Stove Live” program from 5:00 until 6:00 p.m. Central.

Philadelphia named Mark Parent manager for Low A Lakewood and Donnie Sadler hitting coach for the organization’s rookie-level Gulf Coast League entry.  Arizona named Gil Heredia pitching coach for the rookie-level Missoula Osprey.

A couple notes for tonight’s Book Release Party:

Please fill out the purchase form before arriving – we will have two separate lines at the book table, one for those of you who have pre-paid and another for those who are paying for the books at the party.  Pre-paying will save you some time as far as getting into the autograph line is concerned.

If you are paying tonight, we won’t be set up to take credit cards – just checks or cash.  (The 2010 Bound Edition makes a great holiday gift, I’m told.)

Final details:

WHEN: 6:00-9:00 pm tonight (though you can arrive at 5:00 and probably even earlier)

WHERE: Sherlock’s Baker Street Pub & Grill, 254 Lincoln Square Center in Arlington (few blocks west of the Ballpark, just south of I-30 and west of Collins; ample parking, and a huge party room that we have sole access to) — phone number is 817-226-2300; non-smoking, kids welcome!

GUESTS: Rusty Greer, Ian & Tess Kinsler, Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, and Chris Davis

FOOD: http://www.sherlockspubco.com/Images/Final_Food_Menu.pdf (the party is during Sherlock’s Happy Hour, by the way)

ADMISSION: Free – but the “cost” for getting autographs from our guests is the purchase of a 2010 Bound Edition, which you can pay for now (via PayPal) or at the event.  (The guys will sign your baseballs, bats, cards, etc., too — but you have to have the book to get autographs.)  Limit three autographs per player.

BOOK ORDERING DETAILS:
http://www.newbergreport.com/buythebook.asp (there will be copies for sale at the event; if you prepay or have already done so, I’ll have your order prepackaged for you to pick up when you arrive)

Q&A: Will follow the autograph session.

TOYS: Representatives from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve will also be at the gathering to collect new, unwrapped toys for the Rangers/Toys for Tots program – which the Kinslers are the team spokespeople for.  It’s not required that you bring toys, but I encourage you to do it.  Please consider supporting the effort to help needy children in North Texas experience the joy of the holidays.

Our private party will be non-smoking.  Kids definitely welcome.

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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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

Thinking about the sale of the Rangers.

When we open the boxes of the 2010 Bound Edition at tomorrow night’s party at Sherlock’s, a couple hundred pages in there will be a May 25, 2009 report that started this way:

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Word broke yesterday that Tom Hicks is open to selling a majority stake in the Rangers.  I don’t have much to say about that other than (1) I hope Nolan Ryan chooses to be a big player in this (it’s clear that Hicks wants him to be) and (2) it’s crucial that, whatever transition takes place, the baseball operations crew is allowed to stay on the course that it laid out two years ago and has this franchise poised to be where we all want it be.  

Hicks gets far too much criticism from the mainstream media, who choose not to recognize the guts and foresight it took to make Jon Daniels, who at the time had less than five years in baseball, his general manager, and the patience and lack of ego it took to authorize the plan that Daniels presented to him in May 2007 to trade Mark Teixeira and shift focus and resources to scouting and player development and a wholesale effort to load up on young talent through the draft and international market and trades, a philosophy that’s a lot less flashy and far more gradual than many owners would have signed off on.  

Baseball America’s Jim Callis in an ESPN chat session yesterday:

Q: Bedard trade for Orioles . . . best trade in baseball in 10 years?

Callis:  Check out the Mark Teixeira trade to the Braves.

The Herschel Walker trade wasn’t the Herschel Walker Trade until the Cowboys turned the Minnesota draft picks into Emmitt Smith and Darren Woodson and Russell Maryland and Kevin Smith and three Lombardi Trophies.  The Teixeira trade is no Herschel Walker Trade – yet.  But there’s no question that without it, this franchise wouldn’t be in nearly as good a position as everyone agrees that it is.  Hicks should get some credit for believing in, and consenting to, the plan that Jon Daniels and his crew proposed and have now been executing for two very good years.

Don’t count on the general columnists recognizing Hicks’s role in that, however.

Or acknowledging in print the millions of Hicks dollars that may not have gone to player payroll (a favorite topic of the media, rarely mentioning Ben Sheets or Torii Hunter or Daisuke Matsuzaka or Barry Zito or Carlos Delgado as free agent acquisitions he has consistently greenlighted even though they’d have busted the budget) but did go to annual decisions to pay out of slot to pave the way for the drafting and signing of the right high school and college players (Teixeira, Derek Holland, Justin Smoak, Taylor Teagarden, Julio Borbon, Jake Brigham, Neil Ramirez, Marcus Lemon, Robbie Ross, Clark Murphy, Johnny Whittleman, Kyle Ocampo, Matt Thompson, and others), to outspend the competition in Latin America (examples: Martin Perez, Fabio Castillo, Cristian Santana, and Richard Alvarez, plus the aggregate of a Preller/Welke/Batista class like 2006’s Wilmer Font/Wilfredo Boscan/Kennil Gomez/Carlos Pimentel/Geuris Grullon/Macumba haul), to pay top dollar to make sure we had the hitting coach and pitching coach we’d zeroed in on, and to hire Nolan Ryan.

The Ryan hiring was, of course, an inspired one that has paid off in many ways and will continue to do so, and though the media has been wholly supportive of Ryan’s arrival and impact, rarely is Hicks credited for bringing him in at what had to be a significant financial investment.

Hicks wants to win, and though some with newspaper space will continue to disparage the team payroll (for a roster that today maintains the best record in the American League) and ignore all else, if Hicks wasn’t interested in spending to win, would we have Holland and Smoak and Perez and Mike Maddux . . . and Ryan?

What I’m hoping for, if Hicks does indeed sell controlling interest in the Rangers, is continuity.  I would have faith in a Ryan-led ownership to insist on that and to make it happen.  So might someone coming in from the outside, but if that’s where this is headed, I sure hope that stability is a priority for whoever that might be.  

I guarantee you that the Angels and A’s and Mariners would be thrilled to see someone come in here and push massive changes.

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I’ve written very little this winter about the impending sale of the franchise.  None of us really knew what was going on with the bidding process – media reports at various times this month had each of the three finalists as the likely winner – and even if we could trust the journalistic handicapping, we didn’t and don’t know any more about what Chuck Greenberg or Jim Crane or Dennis Gilbert would be like as an MLB owner as we knew what a Tom Hicks or Jerry Jones or Mark Cuban ownership would be like when they bought local franchises.

I won’t pretend now that I know what a Greenberg-Ryan group ownership will mean in terms of changes to the operations or the structure or the baseball or business philosophy of this franchise, but I do know that, this morning, this feels like a very good choice.  

And I hope, if it bears out that way, that even the snarkiest of local columnists will credit Hicks for making the right choice.

For what it’s worth, a local report suggests that the earliest that the transition could be finalized and approved by the league will be at the mid-January owners’ meetings, but that spring training might be more realistic.  That means a significant payroll infusion, if there is to be one, is less likely to happen in the off-season than in July.

But there is forward momentum to report now, an energy that promises to revitalize things for a club on the doorstep of some very good times, yet not likely to bring with it any wholesale changes in the aspects of this organization that are healthier now than they’ve been at any other time in the 37 years of Rangers baseball.  

That’s good.

See you all tomorrow night.

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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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

Surgery possible for Lowell?

Couple quick things today:

Peter Gammons reports via Twitter (@pgammo) that Mike Lowell might need thumb surgery.  He’s expected, according to Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports, to undergo a physical in Texas sometime this week.

Toronto signed catcher John Buck over the weekend (one year, $2 million).  In addition to the free agent catchers who remain on the market, Tampa Bay catcher Dioner Navarro could be a trade target for Texas.  He re-signed last week with the Rays (who also have Kelly Shoppach), a one-year deal for $2.1 million.

Jon Daniels will do a live chat with fans at 10:30 a.m. this morning at ESPN Dallas.  You can head there now and submit questions in advance.

Righthander Luis Mendoza continues to establish himself as whatever the equivalent is to a “4-A” for a player who dominates in the winter but struggles to put it all together in the big leagues.  The Dominican Winter League strikeout leader (70 in 78.1 innings) is 6-3, 2.76 in a dozen Yaquis de Obregon starts, holding opponents to a .243 batting average, walking only 22, and inducing 2.02 as many groundouts as flyouts.  The 26-year-old is out of options.

Six-year minor league free agents who have signed elsewhere this winter: lefthander A.J. Murray (Milwaukee), first baseman Mauro Gomez (Atlanta), and outfielder Ramon Nivar (staying with the Dodgers).  First baseman Ian Gac might have signed with the White Sox.

Righthander Colby Lewis has announced his intention to return to the States after two dominant seasons (26-17, 2.83) in Japan.  Pitching for the Hiroshima Carp, Lewis (now 30) has led the league in strikeouts two straight years while issuing just a tenth as many walks.   

Another area where the Rangers stand out.

Baseball Prospectus’s Will Carroll, the national media’s foremost expert on baseball injuries and sports medicine, emailed me after reading Friday morning’s Newberg Report, and had this to say:

“Did you really just go 1000 words on Rich Harden without using the word ‘Meister’ to explain why Texas can do this and other teams couldn’t/wouldn’t?  Meister’s starting to develop the reputation as ‘the next James Andrews.'”

Later that day, Carroll threw this out there via Twitter:

“Any injured pitcher should consider White Sox, Cards, Rangers, Brewers — med staffs and pitching coaches give them better chance.”
 

There are several areas for which the Rangers get praised for sitting on the cutting edge, primarily in scouting and player development, but the medical and training programs here are also recognized in the industry as state of the art, and that’s a huge thing when it comes to attracting pitchers here, particularly ones with past arm health issues.  You take Carroll’s comments and it gives more texture to Harden’s own remarks:

“I really feel this is a good fit for me.  Everybody I’ve heard from has said this is a good organization.  I feel like it’s a good spot for me to go out there and make all my starts and pitch 200 innings.”

And:

“I want to have a great season here and be here for more than one year.”

Harden’s 2011 option is almost surely not going to come into play, but that’s not only a pitcher whose career could end up like Ben McDonald’s or Mark Prior’s but also one who acknowledges it head-on, and when I read what Carroll had to say, I started to think that the Meister-Maddux-Reed-Harmon-Vazquez team might turn out to be a reason that Harden may really want to be here past 2010, and that those weren’t just empty words that get said the day a player signs with a new team.

An interesting note from Harden’s history: After splitting 2002, his first full pro season, between High A Visalia (4-3, 2.93) and AA Midland (8-3, 2.95), racking up 11 strikeouts per nine innings and holding opponents to a .210 batting average, Harden was reassigned to Midland for some reason to start the 2003 season.  That assignment was brief.  The RockHounds opened in Round Rock on April 3 and Harden got the Opening Day nod.

He fired six perfect innings, punching out nine.

Series in the minor leagues often last nearly a week, to keep travel costs down.  Midland stayed in Round Rock for six days, meaning Harden’s turn would come around a second time before the RockHounds left town.

On April 8, Harden fired seven perfect innings, setting eight Express hitters down on strikes.

He wouldn’t make it back to West Texas for the RockHounds’ home opener, earning a promotion to AAA Sacramento, an assignment that would last 16 games (9-4, 3.15) before Harden would move on to Oakland in mid-July.

The Round Rock manager who watched Harden face 39 of his hitters over two games, not letting one of them reach base and piling up 17 strikeouts?

Rangers bench coach Jackie Moore.

(And it’s probably safe to assume that Express owner Nolan Ryan was on hand at least for the first Harden effort, since it was Opening Day.)

Harden with the Cubs (2008-2009): 4.33 ERA in day games, 2.44 ERA at night.  Batters didn’t fare particularly well against Harden during the day: .235/.328/.439.  But they were carved up at night: .185/.279/.293.

Texas plays far more night games than the Cubs.

Texas non-tendered nobody yesterday, but around the league there were some interesting names thrust onto the free agent market: righthanders Chien-Ming Wang, Matt Capps, Mike MacDougal, Jose Arredondo (scheduled for Tommy John surgery), Seth McClung, and Adam Miller; lefthander Scott Olsen; catcher John Buck (who played for Moore at Round Rock and probably rises to the pole position as Texas continues to look for veteran catcher insurance); corner infielders Ryan Garko, Garrett Atkins, and Jonny Gomes; utility infielder-outfielder Alfredo Amezaga; and DH Jack Cust.  Another couple notable players who seem not to fit the Rangers’ needs are second baseman Kelly Johnson and left-handed-hitting outfielder Ryan Church.

Carroll thinks Wang would be a “great fit” in Texas “because of its medical team and his sinkerball.”

According to Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe, the Rangers are satisfied with the condition of Mike Lowell’s surgically repaired right hip, but continue to look at the medicals on his right thumb, which hampered him late in the season.  Interestingly, Red Sox assistant general manager Ben Cherington, noting that there remain things for the clubs to go over, said on Saturday regarding the rumored trade of Lowell (and $9 million) for Max Ramirez: “It would not be a complete surprise if it didn’t happen.”

Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein on lefthander Ben Snyder, whom the Rangers had Baltimore take for them with the third overall pick in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft to complete the Kevin Millwood trade:

In discussions with a scout (who’s not with the Orioles, Giants, or Rangers) last week about the list, Snyder was his number one target, as he already has one definite big-league skill.  A beefy lefty with good fastball and an even better breaker, Snyder is absolute murder [on] lefties, limiting them to a .146/.198/.197 mark during the regular season.  He would have been my Giants sleeper for their Top 11, now he just might be the Rangers’ version.  This is my number-one choice to stay with his new team.  Odds to Stick: 2-1.

Texas lost nobody in the major league phase of the Draft and just one player in the minor league phase: 28-year-old reliever Beau Vaughan, who had been acquired from Boston a year ago for Wes Littleton.  Oakland drafted Vaughan.

The Rangers added three players in the minor league phase: lefthander Winston Marquez (Minnesota), catcher Andrew Jenkins (Florida), and outfielder James Tomlin (Dodgers).  Marquez, just 22, has big stuff but has had trouble staying healthy.

The Mets drafted righthander Johnny Lujan from the White Sox in the minor league phase.

Tom Verducci thinks Philadelphia is emerging as the favorite to acquire Roy Halladay.  Excellent.

In less flashy Phillies news, the club signed lefthander Bill White to a minor league deal with a big league invite.

Righthander Tanner Scheppers made the Arizona Fall League’s All-Prospect Team, notable in that only four pitchers from the entire league were so honored.

Josh Lewin will be back in the Rangers TV booth, having agreed to a one-year deal with an option for 2011.  He’ll be permitted to miss no more than three September games to do NFL work.  

We’ll record the next episode of Rangers Podcast in Arlington tomorrow night, and we’re planning to take questions.  Submit yours now by sending them to rangerspodcast@gmail.com.  

I’ve got a computer that’s about to die, and I need a new one.  Any suggestions?  Needs to be a desktop PC.  I don’t need a monitor.  A fast processor is key.  At least 320 GB of hard drive space, 64-bit.  Would rather not spend a ton, but needs to be reliable.  Let me know if you have some advice.  Thanks.

Finally, up-to-date details on Thursday’s Book Release Party for the 2010 Bound Edition:

WHEN: 6:00-9:00 pm, Thursday, December 17, 2009 (though you can arrive at 5:00 and probably even earlier)

WHERE: Sherlock’s Baker Street Pub & Grill, 254 Lincoln Square Center in Arlington (few blocks west of the Ballpark, just south of I-30 and west of Collins; ample parking, and a huge party room that we have sole access to) — phone number is 817-226-2300

GUESTS: Rusty Greer, Ian & Tess Kinsler, Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, and Chris Davis

FOOD: http://www.sherlockspubco.com/Images/Final_Food_Menu.pdf (the party is during Sherlock’s Happy Hour, by the way)

ADMISSION: Free – but the “cost” for getting autographs from our guests is the purchase of a 2010 Bound Edition, which you can pay for now (via PayPal) or at the event.  (The guys will sign your baseballs, bats, cards, etc., too — but you have to have the book to get autographs.)  Limit three autographs per player.

BOOK ORDERING DETAILS: http://www.newbergreport.com/buythebook.asp (there will be copies for sale at the event; if you prepay or have already done so, I’ll have your order prepackaged for you to pick up when you arrive)

Q&A: Will follow the autograph session.

TOYS: Representatives from the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve will also be at the gathering to collect new, unwrapped toys for the Rangers/Toys for Tots program – which the Kinslers are the team spokespeople for.  Please consider supporting the effort to help needy children in North Texas experience the joy of the holidays.

Our private party will be non-smoking.  Kids definitely welcome.

Let me know if you have questions (or computer advice).

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

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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

Millwood out; Harden, Ray, Snyder in

I still remember standing outside my mother-in-law’s home in Seabrook, Texas, the day after Christmas 2005, watching our five- and one-year-old play in the snow – one of the first our kids had seen, and I think also the first snow in the Houston area in something like 30 years – when I got the call on my cell phone that prompted me to run upstairs and hammer out this Newberg Report News Flash:

I want to take this opportunity to say Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and best wishes for a happy, healthy, and prosperous 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and a vesting option for 2010.

Kevin Millwood has agreed to terms with the Texas Rangers.

Reeling from the four-year Chan Ho Park disaster that had been euthanized five months earlier, I was desperate for Kevin Millwood to come in here and be a true ace for this club, something he probably wasn’t cut out to be, if only in terms of stuff and ability to dominate.  Tenacity, yes.  Example-setter, no doubt.  Leader and tremendous teammate, you bet.  “A presence in the clubhouse, on the field, in the community,” said Jon Daniels in a press briefing yesterday, “an all-world human being.”  

An ace?  Only in comparison to Park.

I was seduced by a couple 18-win seasons Millwood had under his belt (ignoring the seven, the two nines, and the 10), and by the ERA title he’d just won in his first run at American League hitters.

Millwood was solid here.  He answered the bell.  Never backed down.  Led this staff.  But there’s a difference between being a team’s number one starter and being a Number One.

Put it this way: Millwood had a very good season in 2005.  Though he won only nine Cleveland games (losing 11), he led the American League with a 2.86 ERA.  At age 30, and in that market, he’d probably warranted the five-year, $60 million contract that Texas agreed to pay him, beating Boston out to land the righthander.

But that same 2005 season, Rich Harden was more dominant.  At age 23.  In what was his second full season in the big leagues, he went 10-5, 2.53 in his 19 starts and three relief appearances, and was less hittable than Millwood, less homer-prone, nearly as stingy with free passes, and more likely to strike out a batter.

Both Millwood and Harden averaged just over 6.1 innings per start that year.  Since then, Millwood hasn’t matched his hits per nine or strikeout rate (all of which were inferior to Harden’s to begin with), while Harden’s hittability has fluctuated around the same rate and his strikeout rate has been higher every year since.

Millwood’s ERA title and sixth-place Cy Young finish merited the big contract.  But it was Harden who was the budding Number One.

The 2009 season started so well for Millwood, who through June 26 had gone 8-5, 2.64 over 16 starts, holding opponents to a .237/.306/.390 slash line and helping keep Texas in first place 52 straight days.  

But over Millwood’s next 12 starts, he went 4-8, 6.29.  Opponents hit .303/.380/.512.  At the end of that two-and-a-half-month stretch, the Rangers were 5.5 games back in the West.  Yes, the offense had run into a wall, but had Millwood managed to reverse his win-loss record over those 10 weeks, Texas would have still been squarely in the race.

Millwood made three starts after that awful stretch, locking in his 2010 contract with the first.  He won all three games, giving up four earned runs in 23 innings (1.57 ERA) and serving at least some notice that that staff leader was still in there somewhere, even if he was no longer as reliable as Scott Feldman.  

That three-game effort was Simon and Garfunkel performing “Sound of Silence,” “The Boxer,” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water” a month ago at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert.  It was brilliant, powerful, adrenalizing.  But nostalgic.  

This team might be ready to win in 2010.  We’d all like to think that to be the case.  I’m pretty sure most of us believe that even if 2010 isn’t the year, we’re on the doorstep of a run of contending seasons.  Was Millwood going to contribute to that?  Conceivably in 2010, when he’ll pitch at age 35.  Almost surely not beyond that.

But back to 2010.  What can be expected?  Even with his very good first half and burst of effectiveness at season’s end, Millwood struck batters out in 2009 at the lowest rate of his career.  His strikeout-to-walk rate was a career worst.  His flyball rate and home run rate were the highest since his first year as an arbitration-eligible (2001).  What’s he going to be going forward?

A $12 million pitcher?

Or even a $9 million pitcher, which is what he’ll be for Baltimore with the Rangers’ $3 million subsidy?

The only way Harden will earn as much as the Orioles alone will pay Millwood in 2010 (let alone what Millwood will earn all told) is if he hits every incentive.  Harden’s 2010 base is only $6.5 million.  Another $2.5 million in workload bonuses (half a million each for reaching 155, 165, 175, 185, and 195 innings) could lift the deal to the $9 million Baltimore will pay Millwood regardless of how he performs, or how often.  

In exchange for Millwood, Texas comes away with Harden, plus 27-year-old former closer Chris Ray (entering his second season after Tommy John surgery, which often stages a big spike in performance), plus Rule 5 draftee Ben Snyder (a candidate to win a job as a left-on-left bullpen specialist).  

Even counting the $3 million the Rangers are sending to Baltimore to help pay Millwood, the Harden-Ray-Snyder trio will cost Texas less than it would have cost to keep Millwood.  

Imagine what Jon Daniels and his industrious, resourceful crew could have accomplished this week without a charge to keep payroll level.  

Yes, there’s the matter of Harden’s chronic injury issues.  But as has been pointed out several times the last couple days, he’s made as many starts the last two years (51) as John Lackey, who could be on the verge of a $100 million contract from someone.  And when he’s on the mound, he’s legit.  

No starting pitcher in baseball had a better strikeout rate than Harden’s 10.9 per nine innings in 2009, or than his 11.0 per nine in 2008.  Not Tim Lincecum.  Not Justin Verlander.  Not Zack Greinke, not Jon Lester.  Harden has been the best in baseball each of the last two years.  His 9.4 strikeouts per nine innings for his seven-year career is the game’s best among pitchers with at least 125 starts.  His .220 opponents’ average over that span is second only to Johan Santana’s .219.

Not only was Harden’s contact rate (total percentage of contact made when swinging) of 67.3 percent baseball’s best in 2009 – and his rate of 69.6 percent in 2008 also best in the game – but no other starting pitcher has had a season below 70 percent since Francisco Liriano’s 2006 season with Minnesota.  

And Harden achieved that mark in 2009 even though his fastball velocity hovered around 90 at times, rather than 95-97 where it often sits.  His command of a splitter and change are good enough that even a dip in velocity doesn’t prevent him from missing bats better than any starter in baseball.  (He’s also one of only 40 pitchers in the last 120 years to have a nine-pitch, three-strikeout inning.)  

No Texas Rangers starting pitcher has had stuff like Rich Harden since Kevin Brown.  It’s Ace stuff.  The kind you throw out there in Game One of a best-of-seven.

Harden, who turned 28 after the season, is 50-29, 3.39 in his seven big league seasons, owning the eighth-lowest ERA among all big league pitchers with at least 125 starts in that span.  He went 9-9, 4.09 in 26 starts last year
, with increased home run numbers.  Underwhelming?  Disappointing?  On the surface, probably.  But he struck out 171 batters in 141 innings, and had an opponents’ slash line of .234/.327/.407.  In his first three 2009 starts, he fanned 26 batters in 15 innings – no pitcher since 1900 had ever logged that many strikeouts in so few innings over a three-start span in a single season.  Still, it wasn’t a brilliant season in the overall results, and maybe if it had been we’d be talking today about the Yankees or Red Sox – both of whom were reportedly finalists for him in Indianapolis this week – giving him a massive four-year deal that Texas couldn’t have competed with.

In what ballpark does Harden have his worst career numbers?  Among the parks where he’s pitched more than a couple times, it’s Rangers Ballpark (7.66 ERA, .330/.417/.404 slash line).  If you want to fill your glass half full with me, maybe assume it was the Texas lineup that he had trouble with, not the yard itself.  And for what it’s worth, he’s fared well in Anaheim and really, really well in Seattle, and of course in Oakland.

A teammate of Ian Kinsler at Central Arizona Community College in 2001, Harden signed with Oakland as a draft-and-follow that May (having been chosen in the 17th round in 2000) and reached the big leagues just over two years later, exploding on the league with four straight quality starts (3-0, 1.33).  His six seasons with the A’s (the first four of which Ron Washington was on the coaching staff) were marred by frequent injuries and disabled list stints: a shoulder strain and oblique strain in 2005, a back strain and elbow sprain in 2006, and shoulder strains in 2007 and early 2008.  His run with the Cubs the last year and a half were relatively healthy, spoiled only by a four-week stay on the DL last spring with a lower back strain.

Of course, without the significant medical history, Harden (who has never logged 190 innings and hasn’t reached 150 innings since 2004, calling into question how reachable those incentive levels are going to be) is never available on a one-year deal with an option.  

This business of the $11.5 million mutual option in 2011 is interesting.  If Harden has a career year, he’ll opt out (and take the $1 million buyout).  If he struggles or can’t stay healthy, Texas will opt out.  Under what scenario do both sides allow the option to kick in?  Maybe if his 2010 season isn’t quite the type that he thinks would fetch $11.5 million on the open market but the Rangers want him back anyway.  Realistically, that second year isn’t going to come into play.  But should Harden pitch well enough this year to get a big contract from someone next winter, Texas will still be able to offer him arbitration and net a first-round pick as compensation.

There’s certainly a much better chance of that than with Millwood (whom Texas would almost certainly never offer arbitration to).

For what it’s worth, Harden was a Type B free agent this winter and wouldn’t have cost Texas a draft pick even if the Cubs had offered him arbitration – which they didn’t.  Had they offered it, they would have received a supplemental first-round pick once he signed elsewhere.

Harden’s medicals may have scared off teams such as St. Louis, but he passed a Rangers physical yesterday and will be introduced at a press conference this morning.  There will always be a health cloud over Harden, but ESPN’s Keith Law made what I thought was a solid point on that subject: “[I]f the Rangers can make sure they have a backup starter available for his inevitable month stay on the DL, they’ve got value.  If you think about it, adding 20-25 good starts to that rotation could very well help push them closer to the top of the division.”  The Rangers have starter depth, unquestionably.

I’d be upset if the Angels or Mariners landed Harden.  And that’s usually my test.

As for Ray, I’m not going to go into too much depth, but suffice it to say that he’s probably a good risk to be a lot better in 2010 than he was in 2009 (0-4, 7.27), which was his first full season back on a mound since August 2007 Tommy John surgery, because that’s what the empirical evidence on TJ cases says.  Not long ago, he was one of the bright young closers in the league, racking up 33 saves in 28 tries for Baltimore in 2006 (2.73 ERA, .193/.275/.352 slash line), which was just his third full pro season after being drafted out of the College of William and Mary.  Over his first two seasons (2005-06), the league hit just .205 off of him, the sixth-lowest opposing batting average among all big league pitchers with at least 100 appearances.

A max-effort righthander with a heavy mid-90s fastball and hard slider, Ray was unable to harness his stuff on his return from surgery, but that’s not atypical.  Command almost always lags health by as much as a year after Tommy John, and he showed signs late last year of rounding into form.  Through June 28, his ERA was 10.24 and opponents hit .379/.450/.586.  Thereafter – before struggling over his final 1.2 innings of work – his ERA was 3.22 and opponents hit .291/.344/.465.

Though the 27-year-old debuted in the big leagues in 2005, I believe he still has two options, and so unlike a pitcher like Luis Mendoza or Clay Rapada or the Rule 5 pick Snyder, Ray isn’t a “use it or [potentially] lose it” case.  There’s plenty of upside here, and particularly given the plan to provide Neftali Feliz and C.J. Wilson opportunities to win rotation jobs, adding another high-ceiling arm like Ray builds the staff’s depth and flexibility even further.

Snyder, left off the 40-man roster last month by San Francisco, was the player Texas had the Orioles choose with the third pick in yesterday’s Rule 5 Draft.  The 24-year-old, in his third full pro season out of Ball State (taken in the fourth round in 2006, two spots before the Rangers selected Marcus Lemon), was transitioned from starter to reliever by the Giants in 2009, and the move paid off.  Snyder posted a 2.04 ERA out of the AA Connecticut bullpen, holding Eastern League hitters to a .210 average while fanning 70 in 70.2 innings.  Commanding an average fastball and a deadly slider, Snyder destroyed left-handed AA hitters, limiting them to an anemic .146/.198/.197 slash line and just one home run in 157 at-bats, and posting a 5.7 K/BB rate.

Scott Lucas dug up the interesting note that in 2008, Snyder made four of his 14 High A San Jose starts against Bakersfield, and in those games he went 2-0, 0.70, holding the Blaze scoreless three times and fanning 19 while issuing seven walks in 25.2 innings.  

Will Snyder make the team out of camp?  He’ll have a shot, likely competing for one of two spots with Rapada and whichever lefties among Wilson, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison don’t win spots in the rotation – and maybe a veteran southpaw like Darren Oliver or Arthur Rhodes.  Will Zach Phillips and Michael Kirkman and possibly even Kasey Kiker and Michael Ballard have a chance to win a job?  Not much of one, since several like Snyder can’t be sent to the minor leagues without clearing waivers first.  They’ll get their opportunities, but probably not in April.

Ray may struggle in camp and start the season in Oklahoma City.  Snyder may fail to prove his readiness and find himself back with the Giants before the end of March.  But they may also trot out of the home dugout on April 5, lining up along the first base line in Rangers uniforms, introduced in front of a sellout Arlington crowd.

Whether Ray and Snyder are there to take their places on the baseline for those introductions, chances are good that Rich Harden might be 300 feet to the south, loosening up in the home bullpen as he prepares to take on the Blue Jays, not only as the Rangers’ number one starter but, for the first time since
Rangers Ballpark’s inaugural 1994 season, as a true Rangers Number One.

                    Texas got things done
                    At Meetings; first and foremost
                    Was staff Hardening.

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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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

Gassed.

When news broke on Wednesday that Texas and Baltimore were zeroing in on a trade that would move Kevin Millwood for Chris Ray, I got emails from nearly 100 of you, more than half of which delivered a message fitting into one of these categories:

1.    How could we trade our ace for a middle reliever?
2.    How does it make sense to trade our one established starter if 2010 is supposed to be “the year”??
3.    This is nothing but a salary dump!  Rarr!

In nearly every instance, partly because I don’t have much time during the day to respond to non-work emails, I replied by saying, simply: “Let’s wait and see what we do with the saved money.”

Didn’t have to wait long.

Wednesday was the busiest day of the Winter Meetings for Texas, and a busy day for me at the office, and so you’ll have to forgive me if today’s report – on the Millwood-Ray trade and the imminent signing of Rich Harden and reportedly imminent trade of Max Ramirez for Mike Lowell – doesn’t go all nine.  I know it’s the stretch run, but I’m a little gassed.

In fact, you know what?  I’m scratched today.

Tomorrow I’ll get to the heavy slate of moves, and in the meantime I’ll throw you a flash with news of the player Texas has Baltimore select with the third overall pick in this morning’s Rule 5 Draft, which, as always, closes the Meetings.

Thanks for your patience.

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

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, and frequent Newberg Report News Flashes, go to http://www.newbergreport.com and click the “Mailing List” link on the top menu bar.

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

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