The rise of Michael Kirkman.

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Even spotted for the
most part against lefthanders, Jorge Cantu hasn’t done a thing since coming
over to Texas, hitting an RBI-less .211/.262/.263 in 57 Rangers at-bats – and just
.167/.242/.200 against lefties, with eight strikeouts in 30 at-bats.  Southpaws have forced Cantu to hit into
almost as many double plays (three) as he has hits against them (five), which
doesn’t include the game-ending twin-killing that ended yesterday’s game since
that one came off a righthander. 

 

The Rangers, as pointed out by Anthony Andro of the Fort Worth
Star-Telegram
, are 3-8 in their last 11 games started by opposing lefthanders.  That’s not all Cantu’s fault, but he’s not
helping.  The Rangers are going to run
into some among C.C. Sabathia, Andy Pettitte, David Price, Francisco Liriano,
and Brian Duensing in October, not to mention Brian Fuentes, Boone Logan, Randy
Choate, and maybe Jake McGee.  Right now I
can’t imagine feeling better about Cantu than I would about Mitch Moreland stepping
in against any of them. 

 

Not that Moreland (.200/.250/.267) has blown lefties up
himself.  I just have no confidence in
Cantu. 

 

I didn’t mind the trade to get him at the time, nor the one
to get Cristian Guzman, because I’m good with the people running this team to be
aggressive instead of guarded and because the organization was dealing from strength
in giving up Evan Reed and Omar Poveda and Ryan Tatukso and Tanner Roark to get
them.  But I’m up for some added
aggressive and wouldn’t be upset to see the club pick up another right-handed
first baseman today or tomorrow, just to give someone else a look with October
in mind.  Getting Ian Kinsler and Nelson
Cruz back will help against lefthanders, but there’s a defined role for a
right-handed bat that can play first base on this roster, and I’d be all for an
upgrade over Cantu.

 

If we’re to get that bat, no matter who it is, it might take
another prospect or two, but it won’t involve Michael Kirkman.

 

I say that not because the only team you could trade Kirkman
to in the next couple days would be Baltimore.

 

I say that not because Kirkman can’t be a player to be named
later since he’s in the big leagues.

 

I say that because, plain and simple, he’s not going
anywhere.  For now.

 

But this winter, if Cliff Lee signs elsewhere and Texas
decides to load up and trade for a veteran starter to head the rotation, you
can make up a list of the players other clubs will ask about – Martin Perez,
Tanner Scheppers, Alexi Ogando, Tommy Hunter, Derek Holland, Robbie Erlin . . .
Julio Borbon, David Murphy, Moreland, Engel Beltre, Chris Davis, Jurickson
Profar – and Kirkman fits on it.  In the
top half.

 

Texas drafted Kirkman in the fifth round 2005, on the
recommendation of second-year area scout Guy DeMutis, son-in-law of John Hart,
who was presiding over what would be his final draft as Rangers GM.  A quiet, humble kid out of Lake City,
Florida, the 18-year-old Kirkman had drawn interest in high school from Florida
State, Florida, Mississippi State, Miami, the University of Central Florida,
South Florida, Virginia, and Boston College before settling instead on a
commitment to his hometown community college. 
But he took slot money ($163,000) to sign with the Rangers even though
Baseball America,
for one, had projected him to go in the third round (ranked in Florida behind
Andrew McCutchen and Ryan Braun and Chris Volstad but ahead of Jordan Schafer
and Yunel Escobar and Josh Bell, not to mention Shane Funk, whom Texas drafted
in round four), which would have called for at least double that amount.

 

Since that time, as perfectly
chronicled last week by Mike Hindman
, Kirkman’s story has been as compelling
as any in the Rangers system, swinging from promising to baseball-tragic to resurgent
to dominant, all of it almost implausible, and he sits right now as a favorite to
suit up in the playoffs for Texas. 

 

After a dazzling debut summer that began with a five-start
ERA of 6.06, followed by a five-start run at 2.50 and finally a four-start
finish at 2.00 (58 strikeouts and 19 walks in 52.1 innings all told, zero home
runs, a top six league finish in both ERA and strikeouts), an evil loss of
command (impacted, doubtlessly, by elbow and hamstring injuries) crippled his
2006 and 2007 seasons (88 walks, 22 wild pitches, and eight hit batsmen in 74.2
innings) and, almost surprisingly, didn’t cause the organization or the young
man to move on.  Texas had released Funk in
spring training 2007, less than two years into his pro career.  The club showed far more patience with
Kirkman.

 

In 2008, Kirkman restored his confidence and his ability to
locate, in some order, posting a 3.84 ERA in 16 starts and a relief appearance between
Short-Season A Spokane and Low A Clinton, the latter of which was where his
problems had begun in 2006.  He walked 25
batters in 84.1 innings, fanning 67.  The
strikeout total was encouraging.  But the
walk numbers – fewer than three per nine innings – were eye-opening,
considering where Kirkman had been the previous two years.

 

What happened in 2009 was remarkable.  Led by minor league rehab pitching coordinator
Keith Comstock – a former big league lefthander and fifth-round pick himself -
under the oversight of pitching coordinator Danny Clark, the organization brought
back some of the old elements in Kirkman’s delivery and reintroduced the slider
to his arsenal after ditching it before, and he exploded.  Starting the season in the hitter-friendly
California League, Kirkman made seven starts and one relief appearance for Bakersfield,
never allowing more than three earned runs and sitting as the 10-team circuit’s
ERA leader (2.06) and strikeout leader (54 in 48 innings, with only 18 walks) late
in May, when Texas promoted him to Frisco.

 

In 18 RoughRider starts, Kirkman went 5-7, 4.19, but he got
markedly better as the summer wore on, firing quality starts six of his final
seven times out (2-2, 2.51) and sitting 91-94, several miles per hour higher
than he’d worked at the year before.  When
it came time to add players to the 40-man roster in November, Kirkman was unquestionably
the Rangers’ easiest call. 
BA
ranked him as the Rangers’ number 16 prospect over the winter.  (I had him at number 15.)

 

Assigned to Oklahoma City to start the season, Kirkman was
extraordinarily consistent, going 12-3, 3.00 in 22 starts without a monthly ERA
over 3.75.  Moved into the RedHawks’
bullpen three weeks ago in an obvious effort to get him ready for big league
work in that role, he pitched twice in relief before getting the call to the
big leagues on August 20, in what was by all appearances going to be a short
stay – giving the bullpen an extra arm between Holland’s August 18 start and what
would be Rich Harden’s return from the disabled list on August 23.

 

But Scott Feldman’s knee acted up on August 21, and Kirkman replaced
him that afternoon, facing four Orioles and getting all of them out, three on
strikes.  When Feldman landed on the
disabled list two days later, Kirkman’s stay was extended, and he’s been
brilliant. 

 

In four games pitched, he’s scattered three singles (.136
opponents’ average) and two walks in 6.1 scoreless innings, punching out
seven.  Four inherited runners have each failed
to score.  Among the hitters he’s retired:
Luke Scott, Ty Wigginton, Adam Jones, Jim Thome, Delmon Young, Jason Kubel,
Michael Cuddyer (twice), Denard Span (twice), and Orlando Hudson (twice).  Joe Mauer has two of the three hits off
Kirkman, though one was an infield single, and he did get Mauer to ground out
once.  Jack Cust has the other hit.

 

That’s right: While Kirkman was never viewed developmentally
as a left-on-left specialist in the making (like Ben Snyder, for instance), he’s
shown, at least in an extremely small sample size (but also in AAA), that his
varied repertoire can be effective against righthanders, who are 0 for 11 in the
big leagues.  He’s a starting pitcher
prospect who’s getting a look in relief because that’s where he can help right
now, and possibly in October.

 

There have been 486 pitchers who have appeared in a Pacific
Coast League game this season.  None has
more strikeouts than Kirkman’s 130 (in 131 innings) – even though he’s been out
of the league for a week and a half.  Only
two have lower ERA’s.  

 

While scouts all over baseball surely had a book on Kirkman during
his time at Oklahoma City (league coaches recently ranked his slider the best breaking
pitch in the 16-team league in a
BA survey), the evaluations
might be getting new cover sheets after what’s he’s shown against the likes of
Thome and Span and Scott and Young, each of whom the 23-year-old has set down
on strikes.  Scouts can learn plenty when
you’re doing it in AAA against Ruben Gotay and Kila Ha’aihue and Brock Bond,
but there’s an extra layer in the recommendation when you flash even a small
sample of the fearlessness Kirkman has shown in his first shot against veteran
hitters, in big spots, in important games.

 

There have been stories written this last week suggesting Kirkman
has passed Holland in the pecking order here. 
Not sure that’s fair to either of them. 
And this isn’t Davis/Justin Smoak, or Jarrod Saltalamacchia/Taylor Teagarden,
or Troy Aikman/Steve Walsh.  There’s room
for both Kirkman and Holland, and different ways for each to factor in. 

 

When the Rangers looked into Wigginton or Mike Lowell or
Troy Glaus or Xavier Nady or Wes Helms over the last two months, and when they
picked up Cantu, Jon Daniels was probably asked about Kirkman (the Marlins were
“believed to be looking for [a] young [lefthander]” for Cantu, according to Ken
Rosenthal of Fox Sports), but even if someone like Glaus or Lowell is on the
table today and tomorrow, Kirkman is procedurally unavailable and wouldn’t be
up for discussion anyway.

 

It may be tougher for Texas to keep his name out of the mix this
winter, though, if trying to revive talks about Josh Johnson or Zack Greinke or
Ricky Nolasco, for instance. 

 

But that’s a wildly different situation from the one that
involved adding Cantu and Guzman and Bengie Molina last month.  It would make sense that the Marlins and
Nationals and Giants – and probably the Mariners, too, in the Cliff Lee talks -
asked Texas at some point about Kirkman, a AAA arm with an imperfect past on a crowded
40-man roster in a system boasting what most believe are bluer chips.  A lefthander who looked in 2007 like he might
have been done as a baseball player, just as Blake Beavan and Michael Main were
being drafted in the first round with limitless ceilings and enthusiastic talk
of timetables.

 

I’m all for the Rangers’ aggressive contenders’ approach (it’s
clear now that Manny Ramirez would be a Ranger today or tomorrow if Chicago
hadn’t placed a claim, as the Dodgers apparently are going to let the White Sox
take his contract without insisting on players in return), but I’m also
confident by virtue of the fact that Kirkman’s still here that the club is just
as aggressive now when it comes to hanging onto certain prospects.

 

And that when there’s one like Michael Kirkman who has
pushed his ceiling a little bit higher every year for the last three, getting
better with the competition, he’s not going to be flipped for a bench bat, even
when it might have made the playoff push conceivably stronger, because one way
or another he’s the kind of arm the Rangers might be able to turn soon into a
frontline big league starting pitcher.

 

 

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(c) Jamey Newberg

http://www.newbergreport.com

Twitter 
@newbergreport

 

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