May 2011

Prospects for improving the pen.

What’s particularly upsetting about that loss was that, even after the Royals jumped on Colby Lewis early, Texas pounced all over Royals starter Nate Adcock, getting to their bullpen before the third inning had ended.  Kansas City came into the game having lost five straight, a span in which the club’s inexperienced relief corps had gone 0-4, 4.19.

And then, last night, the quintet of Felipe Paulino, Everett Teaford, Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, and Blake Wood – a pitcher who’d just been discarded by the Rockies, three rookies, and a second-year reliever – absolutely shut Texas down for 10.1 innings (38 trips to the plate, three hits [all singles]) before their teammates exploded for five runs in the 14th inning.

Going into the ninth, the Rangers had a 7-6 lead, Neftali Feliz was trotting in, and the Angels were losing in Minnesota, 5-0.

None of that ended well.

But really, a loss is just a loss, and the indelible moment of that one looms larger, the 10th pitch that Feliz threw, the one that Alex Gordon destroyed, sending it 423 feet to the upper deck.

It was Feliz’s 10th pitch, and his 10th four-seam fastball.  Ninety-nine on the gun doesn’t matter when the hitter’s able to sit dead red, especially when he gets one middle-middle.

Then, in the 10th inning, Feliz strikes Jeff Francoeur out on a slider, throws Billy Butler three sliders out of four pitches and gets him to ground out on the final one, and then gets Wilson Betemit (presumably having to respect the possibility of another breaking ball) to pop up to shortstop on a fastball.

Feliz’s slider is not great.  He sort of slings it, and it doesn’t have as much tilt or depth as you’d like.

But it’s clearly the difference between Feliz’s fastball serving as a weapon and serving as batting practice.

Yorvit?

Texas is 26-25, tied for first.  Last year Texas ended May with a 26-24 record, and then rattled off a 21-6 June.

Of course, last June the Rangers drew the White Sox, Rays, Mariners, Brewers, Marlins, Astros, Pirates, Astros again, and Angels, 13 at home and 14 away.

This year, Texas gets the Rays, Indians, Tigers, Twins, Yankees, Braves, Astros, Mets, and Astros again in June, with only nine of the 27 games at home.  Tougher.

Since returning to Round Rock, Chris Davis has homered in three of four games.  Regardless of what the plans are as far as getting him back up here are, this is a very good time for Davis to be locked in at the plate.

But it goes back to what we said a week ago about trade opportunities: Do you want to trade Davis for a seventh- or eighth-inning arm right now, or do you hang onto him for the time being knowing that a club with an impact starter or reliever that could hit the market in six weeks has shown interest in Davis in the past?

The Padres, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, are “beginning to send signals that their three prospective free agents – Heath Bell, Ryan Ludwick and Chad Qualls – will be on their closeout-sale shelves in a few weeks,” but are “not motivated” to discuss players they can control past 2011, like reliever Mike Adams.

So to state things another way, would you trade Davis right now for Washington’s Todd Coffey, or Arizona’s David Hernandez?  It would make you better right now.

But what if San Diego believes Davis can be an everyday third baseman (that’s what he’s played exclusively while at Round Rock) and would take him as part of a package for Bell – just not for another month?

Jon Heyman (Sports Illustrated) hears that Texas “will consider the Mets’ Francisco Rodriguez, who has said he’s [willing] to go elsewhere as a set-up man under the right circumstances.”  It’s not clear whether the Rangers are on his 10-team no-trade list.

And Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports) adds to the intrigue, reporting that Rodriguez would have “no problem” setting up “for a club that acquired him, signed him to a contract extension and returned him to the closer’s role next season.”  Rosenthal identifies Texas as the perfect example of where that could work, as Rodriguez could fill the eighth-inning role right now (meaning his $17.5 million club option for 2012 would not vest) and then close next year under a new (less expensive) contract with Feliz moving to the rotation.

For the moment, I want to stop talking about relief pitchers, because it’s a little depressing.  Instead, a little minor league talk.

These were the 10 pitchers I pegged as breakout candidates on pages 22-23 of the 2011 Bound Edition:

Robbie Erlin, LHP

David Perez, RHP

Miguel De Los Santos, LHP

Cody Buckel, RHP

Joe Wieland, RHP

Justin Grimm, RHP

Matt Thompson, RHP

Neil Ramirez, RHP

Richard Alvarez, RHP

Shawn Blackwell, RHP

Erlin has been promoted to Frisco, where he’ll make his AA debut tomorrow.  His .132 opponents’ batting average with Myrtle Beach was lapping all of minor league baseball – the next best mark is 27-year-old swingman Jay Buente’s .163 for AAA Durham.  In 54.2 Pelicans innings, Erlin had scattered 25 hits and just five walks, fanning 62.  His 2.14 ERA was fourth best in the Carolina League, his strikeout total was second highest, and his walk rate was third best.

For those of you who haven’t seen this kid pitch, get out to Frisco.  He’s a machine, a pro on the mound.  We talk all the time about how young Martin Perez is (and granted, he’s been in AA for nearly two years), but the fact is Erlin (at age 20) is only six months older than Perez and the two are now teammates.

David Perez has fanned 22 and walked one in 13 extended spring training innings, permitting three runs on 10 hits.  The Dominican Summer League opens today, but Perez won’t be going back after he posted a 1.41 ERA in 13 DSL starts last year, striking out 62 and walking only eight in 64 innings and limiting opponents to a .202 batting average (allowing one run in his final 45 innings last summer, on 20 hits and four walks with 42 strikeouts).  Word is that the 18-year-old’s fastball has touched 98 in Surprise this month.

Eighteen years old.

De Los Santos, added in November to the 40-man roster, pitched six times for Frisco (8.04 ERA, 38 strikeouts and 17 walks in 28 innings) before a shoulder injury sidelined him three weeks ago.

Buckel emerged from extended a month ago and has allowed 16 hits and six walks in 17 Hickory innings, fanning 20 and inducing 1.73 as many groundouts as flyouts.

Wieland ought to be in Frisco with Erlin soon.  He leads the Carolina League in ERA (1.73) and in walk rate (issuing only three free passes in 52 innings), and he’s second in WHIP (0.88, trailing Erlin’s 0.55), third in strikeouts (61, trailing Erlin by one), and third in strikeout rate (10.41 per nine innings, ahead of Erlin’s 10.21 and trailing blue-chip prospects Jake Odorizzi and Drew Pomeranz).  Wieland is number 12 on Baseball America’s “Hot Sheet” this week.

Grimm was promoted from Hickory to replace Erlin in the Myrtle Beach rotation.  In nine Crawdads starts, the 2010 fifth-rounder from the University of Georgia (who signed too late last summer to make his pro debut) had a 3.40 ERA, giving up 45 hits (.247 opponents’ average) and 18 walks in 50.1 innings while setting down 54 on strikes, good for the third-highest punchout total in the 14-team league.  After walking 4.7 batters per nine innings in four April starts, he’d cut the rate to 2.1 per nine in May.

Thompson’s monthly Hickory splits have been even more dramatic than Grimm’s.  In four April starts, the 21-year-old went 0-2, 5.12 with an uncharacteristic 5.1 walks per nine.  In five May starts, he’s 2-0, 1.95, walking 2.9 per nine and also nearly doubling his groundout rate (2.69 in May).

Ramirez has had one of the biggest breakthroughs in the minors this year.  Summoned to Round Rock after one Myrtle Beach appearance (leapfrogging Frisco) for what was supposed to be a cameo start, his next move is now more likely to be a promotion than a demotion.  To be fair, his May in AAA (5.73 ERA, .293 opponents’ batting average, 23/11 k/bb in five starts) hasn’t gone as well as his April (1.69 ERA, .157 opponents’ batting average, 25/8 k/bb in four starts), and so there’s not a clock ticking on his arrival in Arlington, but since he’ll be on the 40-man roster this winter there will be a temptation to get him up here in September, if not sooner.  The 22-year-old’s rate of 10 strikeouts per nine innings is second best in the Pacific Coast League.

Through 15 innings in extended, the 18-year-old Alvarez has given up six runs on 11 hits and six walks, fanning eight.  He’s had two ineffective summer stints in the Arizona League and could return for a third run at rookie-league hitters next month, unless the organization chooses to challenge him with an assignment to Spokane.

Blackwell has struggled with his results in extended (though in his last outing he threw four no-hit innings, walking one and fanning four), and is probably headed to the Arizona League when its schedule gets rolling.

And the 10 position players:

Luis Sardinas, SS

Christian Villanueva, 3B

Jake Skole, OF

Mike Olt, 3B

Drew Robinson, IF-OF

Tomas Telis, C

Hanser Alberto, SS

Teodoro Martinez, OF

Josh Richmond, OF

Kellin Deglan, C

Sardinas has been recovering from shoulder surgery.

Villanueva is holding his own at age 19 in the South Atlantic League, hitting .288/.344/.431 as Hickory’s everyday third baseman, cooling off after a blistering .338/.400/.514 April.

Skole, last summer’s top pick, has also slowed down with the Crawdads, hitting .210 in May after a .278 April.  He’s dramatically improved his k/bb, though, going from 26 strikeouts and seven walks in 79 April at-bats to 20 strikeouts and 16 walks in 62 May at-bats.

Olt is having a tremendous first half, hitting .291/.400/.513 for the Pelicans, leading the Carolina League in base-reaching and sitting fifth in home run rate (one every 19.75 at-bats).  Nineteen of his 46 hits have gone for extra bases (11 doubles, eight home runs), and he’s thought of as a plus defender at third base.

Robinson, last summer’s fourth-round pick, was absolutely torching extended spring training opponents (.405/.479/.833 in 42 at-bats, four homers, four doubles, one triple, six walks, five strikeouts) before a broken finger sidelined him.

Telis, splitting time between catcher and DH for Hickory (as he returns from February 2010 Tommy John surgery), is hitting .281/.333/.413 with only 13 strikeouts in 167 at-bats.  He’s gunned down 16 of the 49 baserunners who have tried to steal on his watch.

Alberto is hitting .323/.350/.479, with only five strikeouts in 96 at-bats.  The 18-year-old hit .358/.377/.464 in the Dominican Summer League last year, winning the league’s batting title.

Martinez, son of former big league corner infielder Carlos Martinez, is hitting .286/.319/.368 as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League.  After hitting one home run in his first 142 pro games, the fleet outfielder has gone deep each of the last two nights for the Crawdads.

Richmond is having a solid .265/.355/.457 season for Hickory after his .297/.417/.458 debut last summer for Spokane.

Deglan has struggled offensively for Hickory, going 5 for 38 in May to drop his season slash to .185/.281/.272.  He’s thrown out seven of 38 would-be basestealers.  Deglan turned 19 this month.

What’s the point of all of that, other than to serve a distraction from the big league bullpen issue?

The fact that so many prospects have taken a leap forward this spring – and let’s include Jurickson Profar (hitting a malicious .308/.427/.551 in May, including 11 for his last 20 with six extra-base hits, four walks, and one strikeout), Roman Mendez, Cody Eppley, Barret Loux, Robbie Ross, Jake Brigham, Mark Hamburger, Joseph Ortiz, Ryan Rodebaugh, Tommy Mendonca, Mike Bianucci, and Ryan Strausborger – will make it easier to trade for bullpen help.

Erlin’s not going anywhere for relief reinforcements, and neither is Profar or Olt or Ramirez or either Perez, but the watch list on Texas prospects ought to be lengthier now than it was two months ago, and since the grimness of the Rangers’ bullpen situation has swollen right along with it, the developments at the lower levels of the farm may turn out to be not all that unrelated after all.

John Rhadigan relieved of booth duties.

I can’t remember how many years ago I was first struck with the thought that Chris Davis would be an interesting catcher project, but I do recall bouncing if off several baseball people, whose reactions plotted a wide spectrum, with one suggesting mine actually wasn’t an original thought and another submitting that it was an exceedingly terrible idea.

When Alexi Ogando was Argenis Benitez, a power-hitting prospect in the A’s system, someone with the Rangers squinted his eyes and saw a pitcher.

That worked out.

When Jurickson Profar was tripping 92’s on the gun at age 16 and drawing interest from multiple clubs as a pitcher, someone with the Rangers agreed with Profar that he was actually more suited to play shortstop.

That’s working out.

Johan Yan and Macumba and Matt West are further along in their mound experiments than Emmanuel Solis ever got, but each is still a longshot to ever get as far as Pedro Strop has since his own conversion.

The idea of making John Rhadigan a big league television play-by-play man, without any experience in that job at any level, was extraordinary one, akin maybe to introducing West to the mound in Arlington, rather than in Surprise, or the Phillies deciding to slide infielder Wilson Valdez into the rotation after what he did Wednesday night.

The Rhadigan move was Jeff Zimmerman without those 81 innings on the farm.  Ogando without the 30.2 minor league frames he logged stateside.

I wasn’t upset at Zimmerman for getting hurt, didn’t hold Donald Harris accountable for not making it as a baseball player (or football player), didn’t really blame Chris Pegram for that baserunning blunder against Waco Midway in the state playoffs.

I didn’t listen to more than a few at-bats of Rhadigan’s play-by-play this season (I’m a radio guy), so I’m not going to sit here and criticize his work (or defend it) or judge the decision to relieve him of his duties less than a third into the season.  But I got plenty of emails from you all, more than a hundred the day he was hired in January, more than a hundred today after the announcement of his removal, and hundreds in between, so I have a pretty good sense of what those of you who do rely on the television sound thought.

The decisionmakers with the Rangers obviously had as much conviction this winter about Rhadigan’s ability to take his across-the-board knack of getting the job done to the play-by-play booth as I’ve had with my crazy Davis-to-catcher idea (yeah, it’s sort of too late on that since he’ll be out of options at the end of the season), but at the same time this organization has demonstrated that it will promptly make a change if it believes it will improve the product (the Alonzo Highsmith Principle, which I wrote about when Texas traded Jarrod Saltalamacchia 10 months ago).  You can debate whether Rhadigan was given enough time to get better, but I suspect the Rangers came to their conclusion after hearing from enough of the fans – the day-to-day judges of the broadcast quality – to know what they wanted to do.

I thought Tom Grieve said it perfectly in his spot with Bob & Dan on the Ticket this afternoon.  “I’m just so disappointed for John that this didn’t work out.  Because I think so much of him as a person.”

Rhadigan said all the right things on Thursday, too, which is no surprise.  “I wanted to be doing the job for 20 years,” he told ESPN’s Richard Durrett.  “But I’ll look back on this grateful that I took the risk. . . . I enjoyed the challenge.”

He’ll go back to being very good at what he did before, anchoring the television pregame and postgame shows for Fox Sports Southwest.  Steve Busby and Bryan Dolgin will split duties alongside Eric Nadel on the radio broadcast, which is what affects me, and I’m looking forward to that, as both bring plenty to the table.  Dave Barnett moves from radio number two to television play-by-play, a role that suits him better, I think.

Today, trying to figure out what to say in this report since I haven’t really listened to Rhadigan’s play-by-play, I looked back at what I wrote back in January when he was hired to call games.

I’m not backing off of anything I said then, any more than I’d concede the foolishness of my belief that it might have been worthwhile to find out if Chris Davis could have made himself an option behind the plate, other than to admit that those few months of trial that I requested weren’t enough for me to draw my own conclusion on Rhadigan’s work, even if they were enough for many of you, and for the organization.

January 20, 2011

When Texas makes a season-defining trade, or calls up its top prospect to make his big league debut, the update I send out announcing the move generates dozens of emails, sometimes hundreds, often with wildly divergent opinions but the same level of energy and intensity.  Yesterday’s midday announcement of John Rhadigan triggered that sort of response, in both volume and vigor.  And many asked me to weigh in on the hire.

First things first: I’m a radio guy.  Tom Grieve knows it, Josh Lewin knew it.  For various reasons I do catch hundreds of innings of the television call each season.  But the TV sound is down in my home for probably more than 1,000 innings each year.  It’s partly because of Eric Nadel, of course, but not only because of Nadel.  I’m a radio guy in baseball and I am in football as well.  Always have been, always will be. 

But I do realize that those hundreds of innings of TV play-by-play I might tune into each season are as many as, if not more than, some segments of the fan base might catch of Rangers baseball all year – fans that the organization would like to convert into thousand-inning consumers.  And, of course, I’m intensely interested in seeing the Rangers striving to make themselves better everywhere they can and at every opportunity: in the rotation, in center field, in scouting, in sponsorships, in the television booth.  Even where I might not be directly affected, I want this organization to be great.

I have no idea how John Rhadigan will sound calling Rangers games.  This I do know: He’s a pro’s pro.  He knows this team and this franchise.  He’s an extraordinarily good guy, and you’ll find nobody who disagrees about that.  He’s been proficient at worst, tremendous at best, at everything he’s done in this market, and he’s done a lot.

But calling an eighth-inning 6-4-3 to end an Angels threat and preserve a one-run Rangers lead with the Texas magic number down into the teens?  Or reacting (and not overreacting) to what turns out to be a routine, bases-empty Adrian Beltre fly to left center in mid-May?  Don’t have an opinion on that.  Feels sort of wrong to fire one up just yet.

A year ago at this time, what would you have thought if you were told Texas would end up sending Chris Davis back to AAA after just 48 at-bats, would trade Justin Smoak during the season, and would give first base to Mitch Moreland, a recent 17th-round pick who just a year earlier had been told by the organization that it was up to him whether he wanted to convert wholesale to the mound, or remain a position player?  Who, in 2010, would be strictly an Oklahoma City outfielder until mid-July, two weeks before he’d be called up to settle in on a first-place Major League team as its starting first baseman?

Last March, Randy Galloway said he asked five Rangers officials who the club’s 2012 first baseman would be: Davis or Smoak?  The leading answer, said Galloway, was Moreland.

I’d say most of us who heard that, no matter how insane our level of interest in this team was, were pretty skeptical.

Are you as big a fan of Phillies play-by-play man Scott Franzke as I am?  Probably not, but if you are, how did you feel about his potential in that role when he was handling Rangers radio pregame and postgame show duties, just a few years ago?

Maybe John Rhadigan is Mitch Moreland.  Maybe he’s Scott Franzke.  Maybe not – but maybe.

Is it fair to say we just don’t know yet?

One thing we do know is that the scrutiny will be passionate, as it would be if some well-established, nationally renowned play-by-play man were brought in and loyal Rangers fans expected him to be fluent in how special a defender Davis is, how Alexi Ogando was acquired, the primary reason Craig Gentry didn’t make the playoff roster, and the fact that Moreland closed games for Mississippi State in the 2007 College World Series, and to fold all of that information into the broadcast without acting as if it’s the same level of revelation to the viewer as it is to him.  It’s one thing for Jon Miller to relate Josh Hamilton’s unique story when he knows he has viewers in New York and San Francisco, or Pittsburgh and Baltimore, or Denver and Cheyenne, but it would be a problem if a new announcer, with rows of trophies on his mantel, came in here and lacked not only a grasp of Rangers history and talking points, but also a sense of what the viewing audience’s grasp of those things is.

I don’t blame any of you for caring, no matter where you fall on this hire – it fires me up that the interest level is this intense – but for those of you who were disappointed with the announcement, and for those of you who couldn’t be happier, wouldn’t it make sense to wait at least until March 12, when John Rhadigan first relates the starting spring training lineup that Ron Washington is sending out there to take on the White Sox, to really judge it?

I can assure you right now that I’ll prefer the Rangers’ TV play-by-play man to Chicago’s that Saturday afternoon, but as for any more defined opinion than that, other than to tell you there are few guys in the local media who are more likable than John, it’s going to be many months before I’m prepared to, or interested in, giving one.

Sports.

If you don’t care about sports right down to the core, my wish for you is that you did.  Because tonight, for folks who live and die with the local teams, was unforgettably awesome.  They don’t happen that often like this, which makes them all that much more mind-blowing.

Sports.

I may not sleep tonight.

A few of tonight’s in-game @newbergreport tweets:

By the way, Rangers’ ’03 #1 pick John Danks retired Rangers’ ’03 #17 pick Ian Kinsler to start the 1st.  Alexi Ogando entered pro ball in ’02.

Kinsler doubles.  Haywood drains a free throw.

Alexi Ogando is good at baseball.

Hamilton and Cruz have made a difference offensively tonight.  #ObviousMan

Nadel calls Hamilton’s double “resounding.”  And there is no other possible word for it.

Hamilton tags!  Anderson sends him! (And there’s no throw.)  #4-0

So bizarre.  I’ve watched this whole half, and if you told me Dallas was either down 3 or 23, I would have guessed wrong.

Two months ago you’re told we’d shut PHI & CWS out, 5 hits each, back to back, Harrison & Ogando getting 52 of the 54 outs.  You buying that?

Alexi is 5-0.  Hamilton is 10-1.

Kendrick Perkins is what Andrew Bynum would be if Bynum s-cked.

Jason Kidd is the most dependable, intelligent athlete ever to play for a DFW team.

Unique players: Ogando & Hamilton, Dirk & J.Kidd.  What a sports night.

Pen state: Overhauling a relief corps.

The Tampa Bay Rays had the best bullpen in the American League in 2010 by some measures, leading the league in opponents’ batting average (.228) and ERA (3.33) and WHIP (1.17) and K/BB (2.61) and fewest walks (150) and save percentage (76 percent).

They have one of the league’s best pens again in 2011, leading the league comfortably in save percentage (82 percent) and sitting top five in nearly every other category.

So what?

Tampa Bay’s top six relievers last year, in terms of appearances, were Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier, and Randy Choate.

The Rays’ top six relievers this year are Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, Juan Cruz, Cesar Ramos, Adam Russell, and Jake McGee.

Soriano and Benoit and Balfour and Wheeler left for big free agency deals.  Cormier and Choate left for smaller ones.

The Rays were left to rebuild their bullpen, basically from scratch.  They brought in Farnsworth and Peralta on reasonable free agent deals, Cruz on a minor league contract, and Ramos and Russell from San Diego in the Jason Bartlett trade, while graduating McGee from their farm system (he’s since been optioned to get things straightened out).

They’re paying those six relievers a combined $5.6 million in 2011.  That’s about what Detroit is paying Benoit alone this year (the first of three guaranteed seasons) – for what is now a 7.47 ERA – and a little more than half of the $10 million Soriano will get from the Yankees this year (a number that jumps in 2012 and again in 2013) while regularly committing arson.

The point is that bullpens can be overhauled, can be done so effectively, and can be done so inexpensively.  Especially in the winter, but steps can be taken in the summer as well.  As we noted back on April 22:

Who are Wilson Ramos, Joe Testa, Matt Gorgen, Matt Cusick, Andrew Shive, Andrew Lambo, James McDonald, Joe Martinez, John Bowker, Rick Vanden Hurk, and Daniel Turpen?

One organizational top 10 prospect (Ramos), one who was so ranked a year ago but isn’t now (Lambo), and a bunch of journeymen and fringy minor leaguers.

That group was traded, last July 29 and 30 and 31, for closer Matt Capps, closer Chad Qualls, closer Kerry Wood, closer Octavio Dotel, and fellow veteran relievers Javier Lopez, Will Ohman, and Ramon Ramirez.

Texas may not have a completely different top six in the pen a year from now (the appearance leaders are Darren Oliver, Neftali Feliz, Arthur Rhodes, Pedro Strop, Cody Eppley, and Mark Lowe), but there will be changes this year and more after the season ends.

We’re all pretty well versed in who the top prospects in the Rangers system are, and you’re not going to trade Robbie Erlin or Jurickson Profar or Neil Ramirez or Mike Olt or either Perez to get any sort of bullpen arm, and there are probably another half dozen guys you could put on that list.  But when you read Scott’s daily farm recaps, there’s reason to key in on the progress that second- and third-tier guys like righthanders Jake Brigham, Mark Hamburger, Tyler Tufts, Trevor Hurley, Kennil Gomez, Johan Yan, Zach Osborne, and Ryan Rodebaugh, lefthander Joseph Ortiz, catcher Tomas Telis, infielders Tommy Mendonca and Odubel Herrera, and outfielders Ryan Strausborger and Mike Bianucci have made this season, not to mention the possibility that Chris Davis and Taylor Teagarden might be getting scouts thinking again.

The importance of developing vertical depth in prospects like Brigham and Telis and Herrera and Bianucci – or as we saw last year, Michael Main and Ryan Tatusko and Omar Poveda – is that you don’t have to move someone like Roman Mendez to get Taylor Buchholz, or Joe Wieland to get Tyler Clippard.

But before you start to map two or three deals out to revamp the Rangers’ relief corps right away, recognize that there are, what, three, four, maybe five teams that might be ready to look to next year and sell?

To get the Padres to part with Mike Adams now, to signal to their clubhouse and fan base in late May that it’s not happening this year, maybe they ask for Michael Kirkman and Engel Beltre and Ovispo De Los Santos, emboldened by the limited supply of teams willing to throw in the towel on 2011 and move big league pieces and seeing an opportunity to exploit the Rangers’ desperation for bullpen help.  But a month and a half from now, maybe the ask drops to Brigham and Telis, with more teams in sell mode and more relievers on the market.

Is that extra six weeks of Adams, maybe 20 innings of work in 20 first-half games, worth the higher price in prospects?  It’s all hypothetical, of course, but you get the point.

Just for kicks, let’s assume Texas decides a guy like Koji Uehara, even at age 36, is worth Baltimore’s current ask of, say, Robbie Ross (which I highly doubt, but go along with me for a second).  If you also know that the Twins love Ross and might eventually listen on Francisco Liriano, don’t you have to hang onto Ross, just in case he can be part of the package two months from now?

Stated another way, if the Rangers had traded Josh Lueke to San Francisco in the deal for Bengie Molina, who else would they have been forced to give Seattle a week later to get the Cliff Lee trade done?

There are always moving parts, and as badly as we all know the bullpen needs fixing, it takes discretion on the part of the people in charge of pulling the trigger on trades to do this right.  Part of the job description in the front office is that those guys exercise some greater degree of patience than any of us watching can muster up, and a great part of the challenge is to balance the shifting nature of the cost against the opportunity to avoid sitting through one more late-inning situation with not enough bullets in the gun.

Before wrapping this one up, I want to share some things that are going on in Arizona while nobody’s looking.  Dozens of Rangers prospects are held back in extended spring training after camp breaks each year, many to get in their work in Surprise before the short-season leagues begin in mid-June, others for other reasons, and just as in March, games are scheduled between clubs so their players can get competitive experience in aside from the instruction that goes on.

The game schedule in extended has been in full swing for over a month now, and the Rangers squad is dominating, sporting a record of 22-6-2 and apparently not just winning games but consistently doing so in convincing fashion.  Among the standout pitching performances:

  • Righthander David Perez has fanned 17 and walked one in 11 innings (two runs on eight hits)
  • Lefthander Victor Payano has allowed one run on five hits and one walk in 11 innings, striking out nine
  • Righthander Luke Jackson (who made his minor league debut last night: see Scott’s report) gave up one run on eight hits and one walk in 10 innings, punching out 11
  • Righthander Jose Monegro has fired nine scoreless innings of relief, scattering two hits and two walks while setting a dozen down on strikes
  • Righthander Cody Buckel threw six scoreless innings (three hits, no walks, six strikeouts) before a promotion to Low A Hickory
  • Before righthander Ben Henry moved on to Hickory, he punched out 13 in 10 innings, allowing six hits and two walks while permitting one unearned run
  • Righthander Ovispo De Los Santos has fanned six in six scoreless innings, allowing two hits and four walks
  • Righthander Ezequiel Rijo has racked up 6.1 scoreless innings of relief, yielding four hits and two walks while punching out seven
  • The two most interesting conversions, catcher Leonel “Macumba” De Los Santos and third baseman Matt West, have had intriguing lines: Macumba has yielded one run on four hits and one walk in 6.2 innings, fanning six, while West, who has reportedly touched 99 mph on the gun, has been hittable but has nine strikeouts and just one walk in 8.2 innings of work – West’s eight appearances in the squad’s 30 games to date are tops on the staff
  • Although the numbers are sort of incidental for rehabbing veterans, Scott Feldman fanned 11 and issued two walks in 13.1 innings before going out on his rehab assignment, while Brandon Webb has set four down on strikes in five frames, walking none

Highlights from the offense, which has a collective slash of .295/.371/.460:

  • The extremely versatile Drew Robinson (about whom I wrote in the 2011 Bound Edition: “I’m trying to resist the idea that Texas might be developing its own Ben Zobrist here, but that’s the obvious comp, and it’s exciting”) was destroying extended spring training pitching before he was sidelined by a broken right ring finger, hitting .405/.479/.833 in 42 at-bats with four home runs and more walks (six) than strikeouts (five); he’s been playing primarily at third base in Surprise – his fifth-most frequent position (out of six) on the field last summer
  • Infielder Alejandro Selen, versatile in his own right, was sitting at .338/.395/.662 with a team-leading six home runs (68 at-bats) before a promotion to Hickory this week
  • In 56 at-bats, catcher Jorge Alfaro is hitting .400/.411/.618
  • Middle infielder Edwin Garcia (.273/.455/.303) has drawn 11 walks while fanning only four times in 33 at-bats
  • Hit machine Hanser Alberto and January signee Rougned Odor, less flashy as shortstop prospects than Profar or Luis Sardinas, sit at .309/.333/.485 and .351/.422/.474, respectively; Odor has more walks (six) than strikeouts (four) in his 57 at-bats
  • Hirotoshi Onaka is hitting .378/.549/.649 in 37 at-bats, with 14 walks
  • Slight outfielder Kendall Radcliffe has three home runs in his first 24 at-bats
  • In five games before transferring to Frisco, center fielder Leonys Martin was 7 for 16 with three walks and one strikeout (.438/.550/.438)

A number of those player fit this conversation.

We sit here bemoaning the fact that our right-handed closer has faced 27 right-handed batters in 2011 and has yet to strike one of them out, and that there’s no clear eighth-inning guy, and that the club is having to rely on several relievers who were thought of in camp as emergency options.

And we know, given this front office and the depth of this team’s farm system and the reality that, in spite of everything that’s gone wrong to lead to 23-22, Texas sits atop the division with lots of reason to believe things can only get better, that the Rangers will make summer trades to address needs on the pitching staff.

But at the quarter pole of the season, you’re going to have to overpay for a pitcher as the few teams that are ready to sell look for ways to exploit the barrenness of the early market, to take advantage of a seemingly desperate situation for the defending American League champs.

The reassuring part of all of this is that while in past generations of this franchise, it might have been necessary to overpay in that way right up until the trade deadline because the Rangers system just didn’t have very much depth (Robb Nen and Kurt Miller for Cris Carpenter comes to mind), that’s not the case these days – just like it wasn’t the case last year when Texas traded Lueke, Main, Poveda, Tatusko, Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, Chris Ray, Evan Reed, Tanner Roark, and Joaquin Arias to get a number one starting pitcher (tonight’s opposition, in fact) and a handful of position players – plus one injured relief pitcher (Lowe) who wasn’t being counted on to impact the pennant race at all.  The Rangers added a ton of pieces on the way to the World Series without moving any more than one core prospect to get it all done.

While the bullpen was stable in 2010 and left alone through the trading season, it’s got to be priority one in 2011, sitting front and center on the whiteboard and maybe with more than one target in mind.  We know that groundwork is constantly being laid, and that there will be turnover, and but the timing on when that effort gets rolling is dependent on decisions being made in multiple war rooms, as teams begin to move in their own minds from competitive to forward-looking, and the cost of locking that determination in once and for all starts to come down to a point at which it’s palatable for the other team, the one that’s looking to shore things up and turn its bullpen from a nightly trouble spot back into some sort of weapon you can feel good about taking into a fight.

Uh-oh.

Neftali Feliz threw 32 pitches tonight.

The Kansas City Royals swung and missed at four of them.

Last night he threw 26.

The Royals swung through one.

Texas just lost its 21st game, a number that – all things considered – is nothing to gripe about, but nine of those losses have been decided in the opponents’ final at-bat.  There were only 15 of those all year in 2010.

On the road, the percentage is even worse.  Twelve losses, seven of the walkoff variety.

It’s not difficult to diagnose the biggest trouble spot underlying those stats, a bullpen corps providing very little relief, a problem that approaches crisis levels when you come to realize that your one go-to guy, your surest thing, at least at the moment is going to the mound not only without his normal command but now, staggeringly, without swing-and-miss stuff.

Life.

This is version number 3 of this email.  The first and second are, thankfully, obsolete, thanks to Texas 5, Kansas City 4.

I don’t need to go into the 2 for 17 performance with runners in scoring position (2 for 25 over the past two games), or to ask rhetorically how a team racks up eight base hits and draws 13 walks and pushes so few runs across, or to focus on the starting nine tonight, who individually left an average of three teammates on base each.

I don’t need to express my concern about the closer (though I bet his ninth inning has Elias scrambling) or extend a heartfelt “Sorry about baseball” to the unflappable (and, I believe, immovable) Alexi Ogando.

Instead, I wish to congratulate the Texas Rangers’ sixth and seventh outfielders and eighth infielder, and its backup shortstop who started and starting shortstop who pinch-hit, plus my favorite player on the team (“G-Flex”), all of whom contributed in a big way tonight, as did whatever number on the bullpen depth chart the final pitcher had secured for himself before tonight, a man who went from early-camp candidate to close to mid-April Round Rock Express reliever, but whose fastball, for the first time I can remember seeing since he arrived last season, moved.

A lot.

I’m not sure if I’ll have the opportunity to recirculate tonight’s final in-game tweet – #LoweLife – but I sure hope I do, because if that guy we saw finish the game tonight was more than just a momentary flash, that’s a piece.

Mark Lowe wasn’t the hero tonight, but he factored in, and helped prevent that game from becoming, in a very different sense, quite a big piece in its own right.

Good day.

Colby Lewis.

Martin Perez.

Joe Wieland.

Fernando Rodney.

That was a good day of baseball.

AL WEST       W        L          PCT     GB

Texas               22        19        .537     -

LA Angels      22        20        .524     0.5

Oakland          21        20        .512     1.0

Seattle             17        23        .425     4.5

Stuff.

It’s sorta remarkable.  C.J. Wilson started only 11 of the 25 Angels he faced with first-pitch strikes, threw only 62.5 percent of his 104 pitches for strikes, had his shortest outing of the season, his worst walk rate of the season, and had a couple extra unearned runs tacked onto his ledger, and yet the Rangers came out on top, something this team does for that starter with more frequency than anyone else in baseball.  Texas has now won 30 Wilson starts (and lost only 12) since the beginning of the 2010 season, outpacing the 28 games that the Phillies, Rays, and Yankees have won when Roy Halladay, David Price, and C.C. Sabathia start.

Texas starters have an ERA of 3.33 over the last 16 games, but only four wins.  Effectiveness goes beyond run prevention, and especially given the state of the bullpen, the 16.5 pitches per inning that Wilson, Colby Lewis, Alexi Ogando, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison have thrown in that stretch is too high a number.

Ogando, incidentally, is the only pitcher in baseball to record as many as six starts of at least six innings in which he allowed two runs or fewer on five hits or fewer.  He’s made seven starts and has yet to depart with his team behind.

This Thursday night in Frisco, Scott Feldman will make the start, Josh Hamilton will play his second rehab game for the RoughRiders, and Nelson Cruz will play his third.  Hamilton and Cruz should leave Leonys Martin with a “See ya later” at that point, with Hamilton heading to Round Rock for three games beginning Friday and Cruz possibly joining the Rangers that day in Philadelphia.  The timetable isn’t as clear for Feldman, who gave up one Corpus Christi run on two hits in five innings Saturday night (but threw only 61 percent of his 75 pitches for strikes) and reportedly won’t be considered for a return to the big club until he gets in some AAA work with Round Rock as well.

If Feldman’s cutter is back, with the way the right side of the bullpen is configured right now, . . . well, we’ve already talked about that.

Myrtle Beach lefthander Robbie Erlin is on Baseball America’s Hot Sheet for the third straight week, landing at number six on the list this time.  He leads all of minor league baseball comfortably in both opponents’ average (.119) and WHIP (walks + hits per inning: 0.52).  I’m betting he gets to Frisco before Martin departs.

An MRI confirmed that Julio Borbon didn’t tear his hamstring, and he’s hopeful that the inflammation will subside to the point that he can return to action early in June.

The Rangers have committed more errors (36) than any other team.

That’s twice as many as the Angels.

The Cubs outrighted Thomas Diamond off the 40-man roster and to AAA.  I believe it was his second outright, meaning he had the right to decline the assignment and take immediate free agency, but he pitched in relief for AAA Iowa yesterday and so it appears he chose not to leave.

Arizona released Ron Mahay.

BooksOther books!!  Shirts!!!

BA’s first mock draft has Texas taking Cleveland high school catcher Blake Swihart with pick number 33 at the end of the first round.  The publication projected TCU lefthander Matt Purke to go immediately before that pick, to Tampa Bay at number 32.

(Three weeks ago, BA suggested Miami-Dade Junior College outfielder Brian Goodwin could figure in for the Rangers at 33.)

BA’s Jim Callis believes Martin would have gone in the top half of the first round had he been eligible for this draft.

Texas doesn’t play the Angels for another two months (and in fact, there’s no AL West opponent on the schedule for nearly that long).  They face off in Los Angeles beginning July 19, a week after the All-Star Game and with trading season on the front burner.  That will be the first of 13 head-to-head meetings between the two teams in the second half, culminating with three in Los Angeles to finish the regular season.

Following this weekend’s series win against the Angels, Texas sits a half-game back in the AL West.  Strangely, I have less confidence in what the division standings will look like when the Rangers and Angels tee it up again in July than I do when number 162 is in the books.  Major reinforcements are coming – and there will be more by July 31 – and even today, given everything that’s gone on over the first six weeks, I think we have the better team.

Immediate ramifications of the Borbon injury.

The facts are that Julio Borbon strained his left hamstring tracking down a fly ball in the seventh inning and came out of the game, and that Endy Chavez was lifted from Round Rock’s game almost immediately after that, and that Borbon’s scheduled for an MRI today to determine the extent of the damage.  Nothing has been announced but it’s a very solid bet that Borbon will be on the disabled list before game time this afternoon and that Chavez’s contract will be purchased – and that Chavez might even be in the lineup in center field (not just because he hits left-handed but also because he’s 2 for 5 with a walk against Dan Haren lifetime).

Last night’s late-game intrigue involved what I believe was the first time Ron Washington has lifted Michael Young for defensive purposes (when he inserted Chris Davis at first base for the ninth, which is the right baseball move).  Today’s pregame intrigue?  Who comes off the 40-man roster to make room for Chavez.

The primary candidates would seem to be Ryan Tucker (someone is going to be dropped from the pitching staff to make active roster room for Chavez and Tucker is probably the first choice, and since he’s out of options he would need to be run through waivers anyway before he could be assigned to a farm club), or moving Wilmer Font to the 60-day disabled list, or taking lefthander Zach Phillips and running him through waivers in an effort to outright him to Round Rock.  I suppose Brett Tomko is a possibility as well, but I’d guess Tucker is on thinner ice than Tomko as far as the big league pen is concerned.

And no, don’t even ask: Leonys Martin is not coming up rather than Chavez, despite Martin being on the 40-man roster already.

.500.

Of the 32 players to get on the field for the Rangers this season, what stands out about these five: C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando, Dave Bush, Mitch Moreland, and Michael Young?

I’m hard-pressed to expand that list if I’m going to name the players who have met expectations (productivity and/or health) over the first 36 games, the equivalent of two innings completed if the season were a nine-inning game.  I typed Julio Borbon twice and deleted it twice, and he probably belongs, but a total of three walks in 90 plate appearances (.322 on-base) for a player of his type needs to be better, as do the decisions on the basepaths and in center field.  But yeah, make it a list of six.

Six out of 32, arguably, in what has been a tale of two nine-win stretches: the first over 10 games, the next over 26.  Texas is now 18-18, a .500 ballclub for the first time in more than a year.

The separator between 9-1 and 9-17, rightfully so or not, was Josh Hamilton’s bone-breaking slide home on a foulout near the on-deck circle, and in a cruel view of things a Hamilton slide may, right now, be a season’s defining moment for the second straight year.

But it’s very early.

That said, this doesn’t feel like a situation in which things just aren’t bouncing the Rangers’ way, or the result of running into a couple clubs that couldn’t do anything wrong, or a glaring hole or two brought on by injury.  Three spots in the rotation have been inconsistent, the bullpen has been flickering from top to bottom, the offense from a couple key contributors has been absent (particularly since Hamilton was sidelined), the defense has been sloppy.  It’s been a run of bad baseball, one that makes the brand this club played over the first 10 games difficult to remember.

But it was this roster, this rotation and this bullpen and (with Hamilton) this lineup, that busted out to that 9-1 start.  We’re watching bad baseball right now, but not a bad baseball team.

Lots has to right itself, but Texas has proved over the last month that momentum and results can change quickly.  So has Tampa Bay, which started the year 1-8, having lost Carl Crawford and Matt Garza and Rafael Soriano and Carlos Pena over the winter and Evan Longoria two games into the season.  The Rays are now tied for first in the AL East.

Hamilton could be back in two weeks.  I assume Nelson Cruz will return before that.  Scott Feldman is poised for a rehab assignment, and while the reports on his knee have been positive and in steady supply, I’m dying to know whether he’s rediscovered the bite and command on his cutter (which could give Texas an interesting eighth-inning alternative).  Tommy Hunter pitched well in a six-inning rehab start for AAA Round Rock yesterday, though he tweaked his groin muscle on the final pitch he threw.  He’ll have an MRI today.

Brandon Webb?  Still working on his mechanics.

But don’t worry about Webb right now.  Getting Feldman and hopefully Hunter and, maybe sometime this half, Tanner Scheppers will help.  Getting Pedro Strop ironed out will, too.  (He’s only pitched once since returning to the Express, getting out of an inherited bases-loaded jam four days ago before giving up two runs on three hits in the following inning.)  If Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison can build off their recent in-game adjustments, good.

Aside from Hamilton returning, two-thirds of the lineup can be better, most offensively and some defensively.

It can get better.  That doesn’t mean it’s a lock.  But most of these players, not just a few, have a track record better than what they’re showing right now, and the 2010 season plus the first week of this one suggest that the team itself is capable of considerably more than it’s put together over the last month of baseball.  We’re starting to hear the players say publicly that they just need to relax, and while they’re talking about themselves and not us, we can probably take a hint, recognizing that in many ways the Rangers couldn’t be playing worse, and yet the standings could look much worse, and don’t.

We’ve learned enough about this team and this game to know things can turn around.  I’d like to think that’s possible with this group even before Josh Hamilton gets back, starting tonight with Colby Lewis, whose own mini-resurgence could serve as a springboard for one on a much bigger scale, if you can muster up enough trust in this roster to get your head right with ball.

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