March 2011

The Mason Tobin odyssey.

How long ago was April 15, 2009? The Rangers beat the Orioles that night, 19-6, behind the pitching of Kris Benson, Willie Eyre, and Josh Rupe and a lineup that featured Andruw Jones hitting fourth and Hank Blalock hitting fifth.

It was the last day Mason Tobin threw a professional pitch that counted.

And it came in Class A.

On the scale of Rule 5 relievers, there are more Fabio Castro’s than Darren O’Day’s, and far more Chris Mabeus’s than Joakim Soria’s. It’s an achievement for Tobin that he’s made the Texas pitching staff, not only for the 23-year-old but also for Director of Pro Scouting Josh Boyd and pro scouts Keith Boeck, John Booher, Greg Smith. He’s a pitcher who didn’t pitch in 2010, and got in only 2.2 innings of work at the start of the 2009 season before an elbow injury led to Tommy John surgery. And that came after a 2008 season, his first full year out of junior college, when triceps and shoulder injuries limited him to only 37.1 innings (which were nonetheless enough for Baseball America to slot him as the Angels’ number 10 prospect).

This is a kid who simply hasn’t pitched much. Rich Harden contributed almost as many innings last year (92.0) as Tobin has thrown in the minor leagues since being drafted four years ago (96.1).

Look at it another way. Tobin had appeared in only 25 minor league games over four years when Texas paid the Cubs a bounty to use the eighth overall pick in December’s Rule 5 Draft and select him for the Rangers (who weren’t willing to take the chance that he might have lasted until the 23rd slot) from the Angels’ unprotected list. Not once has he ever faced a Rangers affiliate, which in this age of blanket scouting isn’t all that significant other than from the standpoint that there wasn’t even a game or two mixed in where he made a lasting impression on a handful of Rangers coaches and players faced with the task of beating him. To the extent that a Rule 5 pick making the club so qualifies, this has been a scouting success.

Before Boyd joined the Rangers he scouted the Pacific Northwest for the Padres from 2005 through 2007 and you can bet he’d developed a decent book on Tobin, who was chosen by Atlanta as a draft-and-follow out of a Washington State high school in 2005 (15th round) and again out of Western Nevada Community College in 2006 (45th round), and then by the Angels out of the Everett Community College program in Washington in 2007 (16th round).

(Incidentally, Tobin will be the second 45th-rounder in 2006 to appear in the big leagues, after the Rangers’ pick in that round: lefthander Danny Ray Herrera, who was sent to Cincinnati with Edinson Volquez in the Josh Hamilton deal. He’ll also be the second 16th-rounder in 2007 to get to the Majors, after Cubs reliever Brian Schlitter (chosen by the Phillies) – unless the Rangers’ selection in that round, righthander Josh Lueke, appears for Seattle first.)

It’s best not to get ahead of ourselves. Castro was the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft preceding the 2006 season and made the Rangers’ staff but pitched his way out of the club’s plans before the All-Star Break, getting shipped that June to the Phillies, who relied him a good amount that summer but very little in 2007 and not at all in 2008 before they traded him to Toronto for Matt Stairs. Just because Tobin has made the staff doesn’t mean he’ll last the season. He’ll be asked to be relatively effective in what promises (at least early on) to be erratic usage patterns, prescribed not only by his inexperience but also by virtue of the fact that he’s pitched so little that the Rangers are going to have to monitor his workload carefully. Don’t be surprised if there is a disabled list stay or two during the year due to “arm fatigue.”

And remember, this is a club that unseated its closer less than a week into the season last year, a team whose Opening Day catcher made one 2010 start and who switched out young first basemen less than three weeks in (Chris Davis out, Justin Smoak in). The Rangers plan to win in 2011, and every roster spot is going to be counted on to produce. Tobin has cleared a very big hurdle, but he’ll have to prove himself all year long to stick around. Rule 5 doesn’t let a team send a player to the minor leagues for a full season. Conversely, Jon Daniels, given where the club is, won’t force Ron Washington to play with a 24-man roster just to hide a player all year if he’s not contributing.

There’s only so much you can learn about a player in spring training, particularly a pitcher, given the limited number of innings to distribute. Tobin was solid in eight “A” game appearances spanning 9.2 innings, posting a 1.86 ERA (though his two earned runs were accompanied by four more unearned runs) and surrendering only six hits (but six walks) while fanning nine. He wasn’t taken deep (unless you include a Mike Moustakas “B” game laser), induced three times more groundouts than flyouts, and was economical, needing just over 11 pitches per inning.

This is a pitcher whose fastball, pre-injury, sat low-90s with heavy sink and touched 97, who flashed a hard slider and dirty change. Who, in six weeks in front of Mike Maddux, had his new pitching coach praising his “gamesmanship.” Who isn’t a finished product but has shown enough over the last month and a half to earn the Rangers’ trust in the short term.

Texas drafted righthanders Neil Ramirez (who was one of the buzz guys on the back fields this camp) and Michael Main (who helped net Bengie Molina) as compensation when the Angels gave five years and $50 million to Gary Matthews Jr. in 2006. The Rangers pounced on Warner Madrigal when Los Angeles got sloppy procedurally in 2007. In 2009, the Angels would have had the opportunity to reacquire O’Day, whom they’d left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, if the Mets had gotten him through waivers in April – the Rangers prevented that from happening with a waiver claim.

Last year, Texas signed free agents Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver away from Los Angeles. The Angels were thought to be the frontrunners for Adrian Beltre this winter before Texas swooped in, and reportedly refused regularly to trade Mike Napoli to the Rangers, only to see Toronto flip him to Texas after a four-day career as a Blue Jay in January.

Not every one of those moves have worked out for the Rangers at the Angels’ expense, but most of them have, and at the moment, at least, Tobin qualifies as a scouting win for Texas and a mistake by Los Angeles. The Angels added only one minor leaguer (outfielder Jeremy Moore) to their 40-man roster in November, probably in part because they wanted to keep the roster wide open as they went into a winter when multiple national writers felt they were poised to sign not only Beltre but also Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano. Had they put Tobin on their roster, he’d have gone to camp, probably gotten eight or nine innings in, and satisfied club officials that he was once again healthy, worthy of an assignment to AA Arkansas or AAA Salt Lake and a spot squarely back on their map.

Instead, Tobin’s week includes plane trips from Surprise, Arizona to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Round Rock, Texas to Arlington, where he’ll take a seat tomorrow at the Welcome Home Luncheon, surrounded by a World Series roster of teammates, just as he will be on Friday afternoon when he jogs out to the first base line, introduced by Chuck Morgan before a sellout crowd rather than finding an efficiency to rent in Arkansas or Utah.

Standing near him along the chalk will be O’Day, whose pitching profile and whose road to and from Rule 5 have been quite different from Tobin’s, but who will pull up a chair next to him in the bullpen as a tangible reminder that this can turn out real well, for him and for the team, even if the Angels felt he was less worthy of a spot on a 40-man roster than Texas believes he is of a spot on the 25.

Bush makes the staff.

It’s likely that we don’t see the Rangers’ Opening Day roster finalized until Thursday, but this much we know: Dave Bush will be on the pitching staff.  The veteran righthander had an out clause in the minor league contract he signed in January that permitted him to take free agency and seek employment with another club if he wasn’t on the 40-man roster yesterday. 
Relegated earlier this month to back field innings as more likely big league candidates got stretched out in “A” games, Bush’s opportunities took on added importance as various pitchers ahead of him in the pecking order endangered their own chances by pitching ineffectively, or not at all.
The Rangers told Bush Sunday that they will put him on the roster this week, likely assigning him the long relief role.  His contract reportedly has a $1 million base with another $1 million in workload incentives.
Texas plays in Scottsdale today, in Myrtle Beach tomorrow (with Alexi Ogando getting the start against the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers), and in Round Rock on Wednesday before returning to Arlington in preparation for Friday’s opener against Boston.

My teachable moment.

From Thursday morning’s report:
Yes, there’s still the business of figuring out what Neftali Feliz is going to be asked to do this year – tune in tonight at 8:05 (TXA21) for what ought to be his final appearance before club officials sit down and decide once and for all whether he’s now a starting pitcher or the club’s returning closer, at least for 2011 – and the center field situation still holds as much intrigue as the final few spots on the pitching staff (Pedro Strop pitches in the night game too; I’m almost as interested in his work than Feliz’s), but for the most part this is a roster that’s pretty much set and remarkably healthy . . . . 
So stupid, and I should know better.  I can’t blame it on lack of experience, or on the Arizona bake, which I left behind a week ago, or on fatigue or P90X or a bad bento box.  This one’s on me.
Humbled by some of the unpleasant events of the three Rangers games that have been played since my Thursday morning blunder, and with all the contrition I can summon up, I beg both your forgiveness and the pardon of the sports gods from further reprimand, recognizing this as my teachable moment for having cavalierly used the words “remarkably healthy” with what was then still more than a week and a full eight baseball games to go before April Fool’s Day, a day that can’t get here quickly enough.
(But not so quickly that a 41-year-old reliever’s case of throwing wrist tendinitis doesn’t have time to get itself worked out.  Because I’ve already got enough bearing down on my conscience.)

I have a wait problem.

All off-season we crave that glorious day when pitchers and catchers report, for Rangers fans maybe never more so than this winter.
Then a week passes, those first full-squad workouts earn news-cycle mention, and, having had all the “best condition of his life” and “knows he has something to prove” and “ready to take the next step” stories that we can take, we crave baseball games.  An intrasquad will do, even a couple Royals tilts.  Live BP is cool, but when they roll out the umpires and flip on the scoreboard switch and fire up the grills, then we’re really talking.
Then another couple weeks go by, and we’re tired of box scores weighed down by 40 or 50 player lines.  What we need is that video bite of the eighteen-wheelers loading up to leave Arizona.  As much as we want Ian Kinsler to start playing the games that count so he doesn’t waste this groove he’s in, we want to erase that .184/.281/.245 next to Nelson Cruz’s name and let him start from scratch.  Enough ramp-up work.  Let’s get onto the business of defending an American League title.
Yes, there’s still the business of figuring out what Neftali Feliz is going to be asked to do this year – tune in tonight at 8:05 (TXA21) for what ought to be his final appearance before club officials sit down and decide once and for all whether he’s now a starting pitcher or the club’s returning closer, at least for 2011 – and the center field situation still holds as much intrigue as the final few spots on the pitching staff (Pedro Strop pitches in the night game too; I’m almost as interested in his work than Feliz’s), but for the most part this is a roster that’s pretty much set and remarkably healthy, ready for a stop in Myrtle Beach and another in Round Rock before getting back to Texas for half a dozen games to start the season, a stretch that positioned to begin with C.J. Wilson against Jon Lester and finish with Wilson facing off against Felix Hernandez.  
The Rangers have a 10-13 record, and aside from the meaninglessness of camp records when you consider how many players who won’t contribute much in 2011 factor into those games, recognize that the best and worst Cactus League records in 2010 belonged to San Francisco (23-12) and Texas (10-19), neither of which gave anyone any more or less reason to believe that those two teams would be the final two standing seven months later.
The fact that a scout told Peter Gammons that Chris Davis (.400/.417/.822) is “the next Carlos Pena” is interesting, but he still doesn’t have a place on this roster.  Granted, he has nothing left to prove in AAA, but the one remaining option makes an assignment to Round Rock the safer bet.  Not a lock, but a likelihood.
And even if, by some series of events, Davis earns a roster spot and is afforded some semblance of regular work, should we be any more confident that he’s a different guy now than Oakland has the right to be about Brandon McCarthy (20.2 spring innings, zero walks, 14 strikeouts)?
The Davis question, the Feliz question, and the Julio Borbon question exemplify what even the two World Series teams grapple with each winter as they reload and attempt to make sure that the ground gained in the last season isn’t given right back.  Most teams go into spring training believing they can be better than they were the year before – whether they’re the Rangers or Red Sox, the Nationals or Royals – and typically hold onto those positive vibes as camp breaks.  But that doesn’t mean, at least as far as I’m concerned, that you can assertively call a team like this one a 96-win club, an 84-win club, or something identifiably in between.  There are too many uncertainties.
Is Contract Year C.J. going to amp his game up another notch?  Or could last season’s 228.1 innings – nearly as many as the previous four years combined (232.2) – catch up with him?  Will DH/1B duties move Michael Young’s production needle, and if so in which direction?  Center field – if Borbon can’t hold it down, is Josh Hamilton a full-timer again, or does the club entrust a meaningful amount of starts to David Murphy . . . or Craig Gentry or Endy Chavez?  Can we depend on Darren O’Day?  Will we feel as good about Arthur Rhodes and Darren Oliver in August and September as we do now?  At mid-season is someone going to be re-running that column about Adrian Beltre’s productivity when there’s not a contract on the line?  
Can Colby Lewis do it again?  Can Alexi Ogando?  Can Mitch Moreland?  Will Tanner Scheppers be this year’s Ogando?  Will Strop?  Who will this July’s Cliff Lee be?  Will we file Davis in the Cruz column, or the Jason Botts column?  And by the way, Cruz’s spring struggles are no big deal – right?  
Yorvit Torrealba, Mike Napoli, Thad Bosley – we feel good about those adds, though with the more newsworthy events of the winter there hasn’t been much scrutiny.  Will we say the same in four or five months?  How’s that nine-game June road trip to Minnesota, New York, and Atlanta gonna go?
Does Brandon Webb contribute in a meaningful way?  Does Scott Feldman?  Does Eric Hurley?  Will the Tommy Hunter-Derek Holland-Michael Kirkman-Matt Harrison quartet make it necessary for a couple of them to step up?  Elvis Andrus, at age 22 – is he what he is, or is there more offensively?  Mason Tobin is no Ben Snyder, it appears.  But is he Fabio Castro, or more?  What is Mark Lowe?
What is Feliz?
An argument can be made that every position can be better offensively in 2011 than it was in 2010 (with the possible exception of DH, though even that spot sputtered to the finish), particularly when you consider that Hamilton and Kinsler and Cruz missed an average of 45 games last year.  But before any of us can take a guess as to how important those final three games in Anaheim will be, and to which team(s), we have lots of questions to answer, most of which are the type that only real baseball games can sort out.  Chuck Morgan and Rob Matwick and their crews are probably thankful for these next eight days as the new video board and the rest of the new Ballpark features get fine-tuned, but I’ll go ahead and say that I’d be just fine if Opening Day player introductions started in about eight minutes. 
If you need to figure out a way to pass the time as spring training limps to a finish, read Richard Durrett’s tremendous ESPN feature story on the great Don Welke – seriously, read it – or check out Scott Lucas’s fantastic spring training photography, or order a 2011 Bound Edition or a Newberg Report T-shirt or two (adult and youth sizes now available in either blue or pink).  
You can also make plans to stop by the Newberg Report book signing at the Barnes & Noble at the Parks in Arlington on Saturday, April 2, from 1:00-3:00 in the afternoon, hours before Game Two against Boston.  
That feels like ages away, but maybe it will take your mind off of the fact that Webb was unable to get his shoulder loose yesterday during a live BP session and was taken off the mound.  Dr. Keith Meister examined Webb’s shoulder and reportedly said the tightness was “nothing serious,” but out of precaution the club will apparently put him back on long-toss for now.
Frustrating, maybe
even depressing, but no more so (given the expectations) than Bill Simmons’s repeated reference at the SMU Athletic Forum event yesterday to the 2006 Mavericks, a reminder that no matter how wide open the window may seem to be, there are never any guarantees.  
None of us wants to think that the 2010 World Series could turn out to be to Texas what the 2006 NBA Finals were to the Mavs, but it’s on the spectrum of possibilities, and one more reason that as much as I was geared up for all the landmark dates that the spring training calendar teases us with each year, enough is enough, and I’m not sure how much more patience I can summon up before the next 162 get underway.

Right angles.

Another start looms for Neftali Feliz, Thursday night in front of a split squad (and a TXA21 television audience) against the Padres, but the support for his transition from the ninth inning to the rotation could gain or lose momentum before he ever takes the mound.
Yes, Nolan Ryan thought Feliz “looked more starterish” with his solid five-inning effort on Saturday, but on Sunday Jon Daniels vocalized what is probably the primary concern at this point:
“[Feliz's] role on the club influences more than just one guy.  It influences how the dominos fall.”
If Feliz were to be lifted from the bullpen, someone else has to close, and that could force more than one other reliever into higher-leverage roles than those earmarked for them in the version that includes Feliz in the ninth.
“It’s all part of the same discussion,” Daniels added.  “You can’t make the decision on Neftali in a vacuum.”
Alexi Ogando had allowed 14 hits plus walks in 8.2 Cactus League innings – with much of the damage coming a third time through the opposing lineup as he too auditions as a starter – before firing five scoreless innings against Seattle’s AA squad on the back fields yesterday, scattering four hits and a walk as he fanned seven hitters in a lineup full of guys awaiting assignments to AA West Tenn, if not High A High Desert.  Better than Ogando getting knocked around, of course, but he’s still a pitcher with very little experience, and how comfortable would you be asking him to nail down wins for a team coming off a World Series and expecting to compete for another?  Ogando wants the job and has the stuff to get it done, but this isn’t Mariano Rivera taking over for John Wetteland.
Still, he’s a stronger option to succeed Feliz than is Mark Lowe, who was reportedly the frontrunner candidate coming into camp but has been so ineffective in Arizona (12 runs [11 earned] on 14 hits and five walks in seven innings, four strikeouts) with a fastball clocking in at 97 but without any life.  One problem in making Ogando the closer means someone else would have to assume the role of eighth-inning righty, charged with getting outs that in many cases are bigger than those in the ninth, and Lowe’s not doing anything yet to claim any key role.
Darren O’Day?  He’s fanned six and walked none in seven spring innings, but location doesn’t only mean throwing strikes.  It means throwing good strikes.  Stated another way, control is not the same as command, and O’Day is getting ripped right now – eight runs on 16 hits, including five home runs (three of which came in succession on Saturday) in those seven frames.  Even if he’s done enough in his two full big league seasons to earn some patience as he struggles to find a groove over the next week and a half, ask yourself this: If Ogando, Lowe, and O’Day are the three key righties in a pen without Feliz, how secure do you feel right now if they’re asked as a group to take on more late-inning responsibility?
Rule 5 pick Mason Tobin has had an impressive camp, but let’s be honest: He didn’t pitch in 2010 and threw only 2.2 innings in 2009 and 37.1 innings in 2008 – all at the Class A level.  Even if you were to make the huge leap and predict anything approaching an Ogando-like level of instant effectiveness, how many innings can Texas really count on from the 23-year-old?
Pedro Strop may be in the process of earning an Opening Day spot on this staff.  But how big a role would the club be comfortable entrusting to him in April?
If your mind wanders to the deal that sent Frank Francisco to Toronto for Mike Napoli two months ago, realize that Francisco is scheduled to see orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham tomorrow, as the Blue Jays seek a second opinion on the lingering soreness in his right pectoral muscle.  Francisco is a question mark himself right now (though, for what it’s worth, Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos isn’t claiming damaged goods, noting that an MRI on Francisco on Friday was clean).
A trade?  There’s no rule against making a deal late in camp (Matt Treanor and Andres Blanco were acquired last year during this week), and theoretically you can transition in a new closer more painlessly than any other key position, but don’t count on it.  Teams aren’t going to move a closer now unless it helps them fill another immediate need (a Francisco-Napoli type of deal) or brings a blue-chip prospect in return.  When John Hart acquired Dave Burba from the Reds days before the 1998 season and made him Cleveland’s number three starter, he parted with Sean Casey, an elite prospect at the time.
Said Daniels over the weekend: “If you look at the transactions the last 10 years, how many dominant players at any position get traded [during] spring training?  It’s few and far between.  We’re operating as though the group we’ve got is the group we’re breaking with, and we’re happy about that.”
That’s not to say the Rangers aren’t making calls and checking in with other teams – they always do, constantly – but don’t expect Joakim Soria or Heath Bell jogging out to the first base line a week from Friday as Chuck Morgan introduces the 2011 Texas Rangers to us.
Lowe and O’Day have minor league options and no service time hammer to prevent Texas from using them.  But I don’t even want to think about that, particularly in O’Day’s case, and would be thrilled to see reports from Surprise that he got a bunch of San Diego minor league hitters out this afternoon, weather permitting, that his fastball is sinking again, that he’s found his command and isn’t piercing the middle of the plate.
Because if this trend continues with O’Day and Lowe right up until camp breaks next week, no matter what Feliz does Thursday night there’s going to be a sense of uneasiness as far as the right-handed component of the relief crew is concerned.  Elevating roles isn’t the key concern right now.  Getting those guys back into form is taking on a feel of semi-urgency.
Daniels said of Feliz: “As a group, we feel like he’s capable of starting. . . . It’s just a matter of what’s best for the team.”
The spring work turned in by a key pair of Feliz’s fellow righty relievers has made that last part more of an issue than anyone could have expected.

Surprise party.

So my Rangers week in Arizona was capped off, last night, with Chris Davis stepping up in the seventh inning, as a pinch-hitter for Adrian Beltre, with San Diego closer Heath Bell on the mound and with the bases loaded, that is, with nowhere to put Davis.  

Stepping up, and nowhere to put him, each in more ways than one.  

Davis deposited Bell’s 92-mph fastball, middle in, 450 feet away to right center, for his fourth bomb of the spring (and second in two days), and he finished his birthday night at .410/.429/.872 in 42 camp plate appearances — but there’s simply nowhere to put him.

Mitch Moreland, having his own outstanding camp (.375/.432/.675), is the first baseman.  Beltre is the third baseman.  Michael Young reinforces both positions.  David Murphy and Mike Napoli are already extra bats that will get to the plate hundreds of times.

Davis doesn’t do what Matt Treanor does (in spite of my pet pipe dream for a few years), and with Napoli being counted on as a bat against lefthanders, you need another backup catcher.  Davis doesn’t do what Andres Blanco does, and neither does anyone else on the projected roster behind Elvis Andrus.

Which gets us to Julio Borbon, who made another two errors last night, one throwing (maybe a fluke) and one fielding (a bad play).  On the one hand there’s Davis, who has had a tremendous camp despite virtually no shot at a job.  On the other, Borbon, who has had a disappointing camp despite being entrusted with a job the organization doesn’t want him to lose.

But even if the Rangers choose to use their final option on Borbon, something they seem resigned to do with Davis, that theoretically means they’ll go with an outfield of David Murphy, Josh Hamilton, and Nelson Cruz.  Unless you’re then going to make Moreland the fourth outfielder — and not have a true center fielder on the roster other than Hamilton, a contingency that we will not see — sending Borbon out wouldn’t create a role for Davis.

On the Borbon topic, would you trade him and more stuff for Marlon Byrd?  B.J. Upton?  Grady Sizemore?  Aaron Rowand?  

I might be able to get behind the Byrd thing.  I’m as into the idea of giving young players a chance as anyone, but notwithstanding Borbon’s relative inexperience (he got to the big leagues very quickly), it’s not apparent that he’s making much progress.  Since his 2009 arrival he’s regressed at the plate, in the field, and on the bases, and even though Texas really needs him the way this club is put together, this team’s window is open right now, and between him and Davis it’s the other Scott Boras client I have more confidence in to contribute.

The Neftali Feliz conundrum takes center stage on Saturday afternoon, when the righthander is slated to pitch next, and given that it will come less than two weeks before Opening Day, you’d have to think after that outing it will be about time for the team to make the starter vs. closer decision once and for all.  If he’s going to close, he’ll need to get back into a routine in which his arm is conditioned to work on consecutive days.

Mark Lowe isn’t inspiring much confidence right now that he can step in as the ninth-inning solution should Feliz move into the starting five.  We’d have to lean toward Alexi Ogando right now, wouldn’t we?

Ron Washington may have different ideas.  Then again, his comment earlier this week that he thinks Jon Daniels will have to go get an established closer from another team if Feliz starts seemed more than anything to be a thinly veiled vote to keep Feliz in the ninth.

Mason Tobin had me pumped on Tuesday when he blew Eric Hosmer away on a fastball up and coaxed a flyout off the bat of Wilson Betemit in a back fields “B” game, but then he served up a loud home run to Mike Moustakas, and I don’t even want to get into his two-thirds of an inning last night against the Padres.

There’s plenty of long-term excitement about 17-year-old catcher Jorge Alfaro and 18-year-old righthander David Perez, but the two Rangers prospects generating the most buzz on the back fields this week were righthander Neil Ramirez and third baseman Mike Olt.  They’ve had consistently good days in camp, and starred in yesterday’s AA exhibition opener.  Ramirez fanned four Royals in two perfect innings, sitting mid-90s and touching 97 while mixing in that good-looking curve.  Olt cranked a two-strike home run off Kansas City righthander Leonel Santiago and made at least two tough plays look easy at third, both backhanded 5-3′s during lefthander Robbie Erlin’s clean eight-pitch third inning.

There’s no question in my mind that I had Olt (number 19 in my off-season Top 72) and Ramirez (number 30) too low in my system rankings.  Probably ought to cut both those numbers in half, at least.

Righthander Barret Loux worked in the mid-90s in the High A game.  Lefthander Martin Perez touched 97 himself but had a shaky two frames (the second of which he failed to complete), as the Royals’ putative AAA squad frequently squared up on him when he wasn’t missing the zone altogether.  

Here are some very good photographs from the back fields, courtesy of our own Scott Lucas (including a shot of the one player on my week’s bucket list that I never got to see throw — catcher-turned-picher Leonel “Macumba” De Los Santos): http://pix.scottlucas.com/txr/TXST110316.htm

It’s back to Texas now, with my thoughts momentarily fixed on what Feliz does tomorrow and how it impacts the biggest decision this team has to make over the next two weeks, but more generally trained on the first week in April, when the Rangers host the Red Sox — in the unfamiliar position of being the Hunted.  It kinda fired me up to see that Boston manager Terry Francona told reporters this week, regarding his decision to slot Josh Beckett fourth in his rotation after Opening Day assignments the last two years: “I just think watching the way last year unfolded, we want him to get off to a good start.  We’ll pitch him in [our second series,] in Cleveland.  I think that’s a good place for him to start.”

I’m not used to the idea that other teams, especially formidable ones like Boston, might actually be game-planning around Texas, rather than the other way around.  But I like it.  I like it very much.

I’ve had a very good week in Surprise, but not any better than Chris Davis, with a birthday grand slam off an All-Star closer highlighting what the optimistic want to see as a month-long party for a player whose potential has proven for the last two years to be outside his grasp, at least at the big league level.  The bigger party is two weeks from today, and right now it’s hard to come up with a scenario where Davis is on the invite list, but you have to believe he’s part of an important discussion upstairs every day at this point, and a month ago that’s about all the 25-year-old could have rightfully asked for.

Surprise: No report today.

A year ago today, St. Patrick’s Day 2010, was maybe the strangest day I’ve ever experienced as a Rangers fan, and enough has been written about it.

There have been plenty of strange days in this franchise’s 40 years, including a fair share of drama in the year since that chilling presser in the makeshift conference room behind the center field berm in Surprise Stadium, but thankfully the things I woke up today thinking of writing about were strictly about baseball.  Like why spring work does matter when you’re Mark Lowe.  Mason Tobin’s “B” game inning on Tuesday, and something Jurickson Profar did toward the end of that game that opened my eyes on him even a bit further.  

The triumvirate of Chris Davis, Scott Boras, and Jon Heyman, and this Tampa Bay angle.  A couple arresting throws made on Wednesday by a couple of the Rangers’ minor league catchers, one 27 and the other 17.  A thought about center field.  The half-serious idea that Mitch Moreland may need a day off after the number of high-intensity throws he had to make from right field last night.  Joakim Soria.  (Don’t see it.)  

Justin Smoak’s spring.  C.J. vs. Lester, Colby vs. Lackey, and — Hunter? — vs. Buchholz.  Mike Olt and a mistake I need to admit to.  The next step for Brandon Webb, and Tanner Scheppers.

But I’m tired this morning, and I think I’ll beg off writing for a day.

Happy 25th Birthday, Chris Davis.  Keep doing what you’re doing, on the field. 

TINSTAAST.

He was drafted after going 2-10, 6.87 as a college junior.  Had Tommy John surgery two years after that, months after the only time in his five minor league seasons that he showed up on Baseball America’s list of the Rangers’ top 10 prospects (and even then he only nailed down a number eight ranking).  

In his first taste of the big leagues, he posted a 6.94 ERA in 24 appearances (including six brutal starts [12.05 ERA]).  Two solid seasons followed, but then there was a 6.02 ERA out of the bullpen the year after that, leaving the pitcher with one minor league option remaining and an uncertain role.

Today, just over two years later, the odds that he’ll be the most sought-after starting pitcher on next winter’s free agent market are as good as anyone’s.

This isn’t really an article about tonight’s starting pitcher, C.J. Wilson, other than to point out that there were far more instances along the path of his development that made him a candidate for flameout than there were plotting out the arc that his career has taken.  The march to the top of a contending rotation isn’t always systematic.  It wasn’t with Colby Lewis, who was designated for assignment four times, outrighted three times, and released twice before taking his game to Japan.  It wasn’t for Cliff Lee, who was optioned to AAA after winning 46 games in three years, and left off Cleveland’s post-season roster.  It wasn’t for Wilson.

The competition in Surprise for the final two spots in the rotation (if not the final three) is heated, and the favorites coming into camp aren’t necessarily the ones leading the pack as we’re two weeks away from heading east, but if you’re one of the handful who emailed me after Derek Holland’s shaky effort yesterday, or if you’re in that camp with those folks, writing Holland off because of the eighth inning in Game Two of the World Series and claiming added conviction based on his uneven work this month, you ought to think back to what Wilson was at a similar stage in his career — not to mention as a pitching prospect.

What Holland did in his first full season out of Wallace State Community College — blitzing from Low A Clinton to High A Bakersfield to AA Frisco in one season while amassing a 13-1, 2.27 composite record that paled in comparison to a Texas League playoff run in which he allowed one run in 20.2 innings — doesn’t factor into to whether he should open the 2011 season in the Rangers’ rotation, nor does what he did to Seattle on July 30, 2009, when many thought he was a day away from being traded, nor does his big win in Toronto on September 8 last year, snapping a five-game team losing streak that was the club’s longest since April.  

Nor do those 5.2 scoreless innings in his two great-looking ALCS relief appearances.

Holland was generally ranked as baseball’s number four or five lefthander prospect going into 2009 (behind David Price, Madison Bumgarner, and Brian Anderson, in some order, ahead of Brian Matusz for some and behind him for others), sitting between 20 and 40 on most Top 100 Prospects lists, none of which C.J. Wilson was ever considered for in his minor league days.  But all that is at this point is a media guide footnote, or filler in an almost-daily team-centric email newsletter.

It would have been easy to walk away from Holland’s dominant three-inning “statement” effort against Oakland a week ago, and all the post-game soundbite plaudits it prompted from the manager and pitching coach, and rush off to buy good seats for Sunday, April 3 against Boston.  Brandon McCarthy pitched well in that same game, another solid spring performance that was followed by yet another one yesterday, and Oakland is evidently close to rewarding him with a rotation spot, pleased with those nine strikeouts and zero walks in 13.2 camp frames.  We’ve seen how that episode frequently ends.

Thomas Diamond has already been optioned to AAA by the Cubs.

They’re not all David Price or Madison Bumgarner or Justin Verlander or Tim Lincecum, or Jon Lester, who will start against Wilson in Arlington on Opening Day.  Sometimes they’re Clay Buchholz, whose dazzling 2007 debut, which included a no-hitter among his three starts, was followed by a 2-9, 6.75 mark in 2008, or Zack Greinke, who went 5-17 in his second big league season and wasn’t sure he wanted to play baseball anymore.  Frequently, much more frequently in fact, they’re Thomas Diamond.

Holland wasn’t very good yesterday, unable to put Dodger hitters away when he wasn’t falling behind them, a far cry from his 37-pitch, 30-strike effort last Wednesday against the A’s.  In four innings of work, he surrendered four Los Angeles runs on seven hits and two walks, and the numbers may actually be kind.  It wasn’t World Series Game Two bad, but it served as a reminder that while a young pitcher can have all the talent in the world, all the minor league success and Top 100 honors, finding consistency against big league hitters regularly takes time, and sometimes never comes at all.  

Hey there, Adam Loewen.

As I walked up to take in the “B” game yesterday morning, the first uniformed Royal I saw was AAA hitting coach Tommy Gregg, whose late-’80s rookie card I’m embarrassed to admit I had enough volume of to wallpaper an entire big league dugout, which is where he’d spend most of his nine big league seasons.  Gregg isn’t going to have much time at Omaha this year to work with Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas before they depart for Kansas City, but before we start punching our All-Star ballots out for those two young Royals hitters, all we have to do is remember that Alex Gordon is no longer anywhere near either one’s path, and once upon a time he was Hosmer and Moustakas himself.

The point is that the path isn’t always linear for hitters, either.  The Mets and A’s and Brewers questioned whether Nelson Cruz was going to right himself, and frankly, so did Texas three years ago, when the organization designated him for assignment, allowing the other 29 clubs a $50,000 opportunity to hang faith on the path themselves.  None did.

The Cruz precedent is among the reasons we all understand why Texas hasn’t acted yet on multiple opportunities to trade Chris Davis.  Hitters don’t always figure it out, and some that do take years to make the necessary adjustments.

But it’s a lot safer to bet on Eric Hosmer or Mike Moustakas than it ever was on C.J. Wilson or Thomas Diamond or Jair Jurrjens or Brandon McCarthy, or Derek Holland.  There’s No Such Thing as a Pitching Prospect, some say, and they’ll admit to the exaggeration, but the point is in the suggestion: Big league pitching success is difficult to predict, difficult to achieve.  And easy to overreact on, after three brilliant Cactus League innings or a brutal 13-pitch sequence in the World Series.

What would jump out at me more than a Surprise line score for Holland is to hear someone in charge of evaluating him tell reporters that he’s showing signs of Wilson’s work ethic and drive and his insane desire to get better.  I’m not suggesting Holland doesn’t already have those things, but we all know that Wilson’s wiring is a large part of what separates him from many other pitchers (and from what he probably would have ended up being himself).  

If Holland has some of that, if Tommy Hunter and Matt Harrison and Michal Kirkman and Eric Hurley have it, if Miguel De Los Santos and Martin Perez and Robbie Erlin and David Perez have it, the odds for each of them increase.  But it’s never a sure thing with a young pitcher, whether they’re Tommy John graduates who gave up seven runs per nine innings in college, or one of the shiniest prospects in the league.  

There’s No Such Thing as a Sure Thing, at least on the mound, but at the same time it’s a pretty good idea to summon up an extra helping of patience w
hen it comes to drawing a conclusion about what a young pitcher is, or will be.

Dream on.

I wrapped up yesterday’s report with a self-imposed directive to get myself out to back fields early enough to catch minor league lefthander Robbie Erlin throwing BP.  I got there in time, and got a lot more than just a glimpse of Erlin, including a reminder that while Baseball America may not have this system in the top one or two slots in baseball this year, the depth in high-upside pitching prospects to dream on is still dizzying, a point that came up at our roundtable event last night (a good recap of which can be found here).

The assembly line was already in motion when I got to the fields at 9 a.m., with half a dozen hitters stationed at each of the four minor league fields, waiting to step up against a succession of pitchers getting in what probably amounted to 20-25 pitches each (I should have counted).  Catchers’ signals differentiate live BP from what you might envision; while the L-screens are in place, there’s no steady diet of coach-pitch fastballs grooved from 50 feet.  The pitchers take the hill, at a full 60’6″, with the intention of throwing their pitches and getting phantom outs.  The hitters don’t know what’s coming.  The pitchers don’t always like the signals, and will shake them off on occasion.

There’s a group of pitchers throwing with each other in a barren outfield to get their arms warm, four more who have moved on to the next station, lined up opposite catchers and getting loose in the super-sized bullpen, and another four who have jogged from the pens to one of the four fields fanned out around the Eagle’s Nest, stepping in against hitters.

Shortly after I arrived, the foursome in the pen included lefthanders Martin Perez, Kasey Kiker, and Corey Young and righty Joe Van Meter.  It’s no intended knock on Kiker, Young, and Van Meter that I didn’t lock in on how they looked.  Perez was closest to me and everything else, when he’s throwing, is penalized into periphery.  Danny Gutierrez, in the foursome ahead of the Perez-Kiker-Young-Van Meter group, was pitching to Engel Beltre on Field 5, which is something I was interested in watching, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Perez throwing his warm-up pitches to Vin DiFazio.

When pitching coordinator Danny Clark called for the groups to rotate forward, Perez jogged to Field 6, and I slid that way myself (as Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Trevor Hurley, and Andrew Doyle moved in to throw their pens).  Alinson Perez got into his crouch behind the plate, and slightly built infielder Santiago Chirino stepped in.  And then husky outfielder Jared Prince.  After that, Jared Bolden, and then catcher Kevin Torres.  They didn’t do much.  Bolden, a fourth-year pro who’s had a brief taste of AAA, rocketed a ground-rule double to right center on the final pitch he saw from Perez (especially impressive in that he hits from the left side), but other than that it didn’t take much squinting to envision the 19-year-old Perez on a big league mound by sometime in 2012.  Hyperbole, maybe, but that guy even looks different peering in for the signal, receiving the ball from the catcher, striding off the mound at the completion of his work.  He is, in the parlance, a Guy.

As that group finished, I caught Ramirez on Field 4, dealing that tantalizing fastball-curve combination that’s stirring up some buzz in camp.  The 2007 supplemental first-rounder (compensation along with righthander Michael Main for the loss of free agent Gary Matthews Jr. to the Angels) has battled through various arm and wrist injuries since turning pro, but he put in a full year at Low A Hickory in 2010 (142 strikeouts and 37 walks in 140.1 innings) and got stronger as the season wore on.  He’s putting himself back on the map the way Michael Kirkman did a couple years ago, though the righthander is a different pitcher.

But it was back to Field 6 when the groups rotated next, because there was Erlin, emerging from a bullpen foursome that included righties Barret Loux and Ezequiel Rijo and southpaw Joseph Ortiz, jogging to take his place on the mound that Perez had vacated minutes beforehand.  

Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.  Don’t.  But I imagine that when Cliff Lee was coming up through the Montreal system, Robbie Erlin was something like what the Expos thought they had.  

Sort of.  Erlin is 20 years old.  At the same age, Lee had just completed his freshman year at Meridian Community College, after having turned the Marlins down as a high school pick in 1997′s 8th round and then the Orioles as their 20th-round pick in 1998, opting instead to transfer to the University of Arkansas (from which he’d go to the Expos in the 4th round in 2000).  Erlin, on the other hand, had just blown through the South Atlantic League in his first full pro season after signing out of high school as the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2009.  Starting 17 times for Hickory (and relieving another 11 times), Erlin was among the league’s youngest pitchers but led the circuit with a 2.12 ERA — the third-lowest ERA among all starters in minor league baseball in 2010 — and also in hits plus walks per inning (0.92).  To make it more plain, older opposition managed just 89 hits in Erlin’s 114.2 innings (.213 average), but these Lee-suggestive numbers — only 17 walks and a league-leading 125 strikeouts — may be the most dazzling.  Erlin, who stands a tick under six feet (which some suggested was the primary reason he lasted until the third round two June’s ago) hits his spots and misses bats.  He unleashed a few curves that Jacob Kaase and Cody Podraza swung through and that froze Jared Hoying, leaving two of the three with a good-grief smile (not an exaggeration).  

Erlin is not Cliff Lee.  He’s not someone we should keep the number one slot vacant for.  But he’s a big league arm with big league makeup, and he’s going to see Frisco at some point this year.  He was two steps behind Perez on Field 6 on Monday morning, but may be just one step behind him in development, and on the starting pitcher prospect depth chart.

I didn’t have to move an inch once Erlin finished his work (with one final bender to Hoying), as righthander Roman Mendez (the key piece in July’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade) climbed the Field 6 mound next.  The 20-year-old flashes an explosive, swing-and-miss fastball/slider combination, but even to an untrained eye like mine it’s apparent that he doesn’t have much feel for the changeup (at least he didn’t yesterday) and there are still command issues on the hard stuff.  Lots there to like, though.

Next on Field 6: the slingy, all-limbs, nasty (if not scary) Geuris Grullon, a tall and lanky 21-year-old lefthander who has walked 63 (and hit another dozen and unleashed 38 wild pitches) in 94.2 minor league innings over four pro seasons stateside.  The 112 in the strikeout column, the one home run allowed professionally, and the obscenely great groundout/flyout rates make Grullon a prospect, and the walk rates have improved a bit each year, but there’s still much to be harnessed.  An upside arm to not forget, but one with as much potential to flame out before AA as he has to be death on big leagues lefties one day.

As Grullon was finishing up, I peeked over my right shoulder to see that the next foursome included David Perez, Cody Buckel, and Luke Jackson, and it irritated me that I was going to have to choose.  Though I’d seen Perez a couple times in 2010 and between the other two had only seen a Jackson session in October that didn’t even include a baseball, ultimately the choice wasn’t that difficult.  The Other Perez is only 18 and has yet to throw an official pitch in the United States, but I’ve got him as the Ran
gers’ number nine prospect (Baseball America has him at 11), and I can’t see enough of this kid right now.

The way the four back fields are organized, it was the AAA diamond that Perez was sent to (and that the GM slid over to as well).  Not much should be read into the back field assignments in mid-March (for one, a good number of eventual AAA and AA players are still in big league camp, and will remain so at least until minor league games start up this Thursday), but it was interesting to see the lanky teenager commissioned with the task of pitching to Marcus Lemon, Erold Andrus, and a couple other seasoned pros several years older than anyone Perez has ever been asked to face.

Perez posted a 1.41 ERA in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 (including only one run over his final 45 innings of work), striking out 68 and walking eight in 64 innings, and limiting hitters to a .202 batting average.  His stuff promises to take another step or two forward as he fills out his 6’5″ frame, but there’s plenty there right now, enough to prompt Andrus to tip his helmet toward the mound after he finished his round against the kid eight years his junior.

Hours after I’d seen Ramirez and Erlin and Mendez and Grullon and the Two Perez’s, I sat in the stadium and watched Miguel De Los Santos follow four innings of Neftali Feliz and four more of Eric Hurley, facing the back end of the Dodgers’ traveling squad but burying a dizzying change (to go along with an interesting fastball and curve that still have room for refinement).  Feliz now wants to be a starting pitcher (I’m still making him my ninth-inning guy in 2011, if it’s my call).  Hurley wants to remind everyone that he’s back in the picture.  De Los Santos, for his part, wants to prove that the Rangers’ off-season decision to put him on the 40-man roster — in spite of no experience above Low A Hickory — was the right call, and in one eye-opening inning yesterday, he started making the point for thousands who had never seen him pitch.

That’s part of what makes the back fields so interesting, a study in contrasts where even the untrained among us can look at Martin Perez and Robbie Erlin and David Perez pitching to hitters and dream.  As Kevin Goldstein and others remind us, we’re all guilty of overhyping our own prospects and complaining that they’re ranked too low in this system evaluation or that one (“you can’t move them all up unless you tell me who you’re moving down”), but rankings are subjective anyway, and statistics can be deceiving.  

Given a 15-minute look at these guys getting in their mound work while the scoreboards are off and the umpires are nowhere to be found, you might decide, even while admitting that such small doses can be misleading — especially to a fan not trained to assess such things — that the pitching pipeline is still producing, which bodes well for this club’s ability not only to continue addressing its needs on the mound internally but also to make impact trades with a currency that’s just as important as room in the budget.

Saint Sunday.

When Julio Borbon graduated from De La Salle High School in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic in 2004, fellow Santo Domingo product Adrian Beltre was in the midst of his career year in the big leagues, hitting a robust .334/.388/.629 for the Dodgers with 48 home runs, 121 RBI, and a second-place finish in the NL MVP race.  

Beltre had broken into the big leagues when he was 19 years old.  When Borbon was that age, he was a freshman at the University of Tennessee, two years away from being drafted by Texas.  The 19-year-old Beltre would never see the minor leagues again, aside from a rehab stint in his fourth Los Angeles season that lasted less than a week.  In contrast, Borbon, now 25 — the age Beltre was when he had that storybook 2004 season — is trying to earn a job on the big league club to ensure Texas doesn’t take advantage of his final option and put him in the Round Rock lineup to start the season.

It’s safe to say that every player in a Rangers uniform was happy to see Beltre, a magician with the glove and arm and a right-handed threat offensively, added to the mix, but maybe in a way nobody was as fired up as Borbon, who may or may not have chosen number 29 professionally as a tribute to his countryman but was probably happy to give it up once Beltre arrived.

There was a moment Sunday morning that caught my attention as I was fixated (once again) on Beltre taking fungoes at third base during BP.  I wasn’t thinking about any of the Beltre-Borbon connection when the young outfielder stepped in to take his cuts, other than a fleeting thought about how Beltre’s path to the big leagues was so accelerated and certain — his permanent arrival came after only 318 stateside minor league games, including just 64 in AA and none in AAA — while Borbon’s own quick arrival remains riddled with questions, both at the plate and in the field.

Standing near the third base dugout, I was keyed in on Beltre, whose actions are as fluid and irresistible to watch as Omar Vizquel’s were at shortstop.  (Chris Davis was taking grounders with Beltre, and looks very good at third as well, but it’s impossible to hold your own in a side-by-side comparison with Beltre.)

Minutes before, Ron Washington had said, asked about any concerns he’ll have when Beltre gets his first game appearance for Texas (three to five innings expected this afternoon, playing both sides of the ball, getting two or three at-bats), that the true test as far as his recovery from a calf strain goes will not be running the bases or hitting the ball but instead on defense, with all the quick-twitch movements it requires.  

“The key on Monday,” said Washington, “is just to get Beltre off the field healthy, nothing more” (a remark he also made about Tommy Hunter’s pending start later in the day yesterday, which was about the only box you could check about Hunter’s performance — though a two-out, bases-loaded misplay by Borbon in center didn’t help).  

I’m not a trainer and not a scout, but Beltre didn’t appear to be favoring his right calf as he absorbed every shot Jackie Moore swatted his way.  He started to creep in and take grounders inside the baseline, on the grass in front of the bag, and I shot a look back toward the plate, to see if righthanders Ian Kinsler or Elvis Andrus, who were taking turns with Borbon, were up.  But it was still the left-handed Borbon, who got under a pitch right then and sent it lazily to short left center, a far too frequent and unwelcome sight last season.

“Stay back, stay back!” barked an unfamiliar voice.

I turned back toward the infield, where the instruction came from, looking for Thad Bosley.  Nope.

Gary Pettis, maybe?  Wasn’t him.

Definitely not BP pitcher Bobby Jones, whose voice is unmistakable and whose comment would have included four or five extra words, none of which I can include here.

It was Beltre, crouched in position, awaiting more Jackie Moore prey, shouting encouragement to his new teammate, who was eight years old when Beltre signed with the Dodgers (at what we now believe to have been age 15) out of Santo Domingo’s Liceo Maximo Gomez High School, and who was 12 when Beltre got to Los Angeles.  I thought about what it would have felt like 22 years ago if Robin Yount or Paul Molitor, getting their own work done, had shouted at me to keep my shoulder down, or if Michael Chabon were to email me in a few minutes, suggesting diplomatically that today’s report was another one to quietly file away in the circular bin.

Since Beltre had yesterday off, I’m not sure whether he was in Surprise Stadium to see Borbon drop a perfect bunt single down the third base line to load the bases in the third inning, or to see him single sharply to center to lead off the fifth and eventually steal third bases, setting the table for a two-run inning, or to see him single to center again in the sixth, driving in a run and then scoring another in the Rangers’ three-inning frame.  But all three times Borbon did his job, doing exactly what he wanted to do with the baseball, something he needs to do with a lot more regularity in order to solidify his role at this level and prevent a trip to Round Rock for a second go at AAA competition.

Beltre’s 2011 debut comes this afternoon, when he’ll be in Surprise Stadium, wearing the familiar number 29 that Borbon relinquished and hitting cleanup for a Rangers squad that will include Neftali Feliz getting the start and Michael Young playing across the diamond at first base and Julio Borbon manning center field, and while the fact that it will come against the Los Angeles Dodgers probably adds no meaning, it ought to be somewhat of a big moment for the veteran, just as the batting practice moment with him coaching a young hitter while fielding grounders yesterday was for at least one guy — me, that is, if not Borbon himself.

</melodrama>

I’m off to the back fields now, with priority one to catch lefthander Robbie Erlin throwing live BP on the minor league side.  Hope to see lots of you tonight in the stadium, as we have our free roundtable event with Eric Nadel, Tom Grieve, John Rhadigan, Scott Servais, and Josh Boyd, starting promptly at 6:00.  The third base gate will be open for entry, and we’ll set up over the first base dugout.  

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