Changing seasons.

When the Rangers played their 120th game in last year’s World Series season, they lost their fourth straight, a shaky Colby Lewis start (four Baltimore runs on nine hits in 6.2 innings) in which the Texas offense got three runners to second base all day en route to a Brian Matusz-Koji Uehara shutout.  Texas fell to a terrible Orioles team, 4-0, and was 67-53.

Yesterday, the 120th game of this season, saw Lewis in better form, the offense in a better groove, and Uehara in a different uniform.  Texas drilled a terrible A’s team, and is 68-52.

The record is one game better this year.  The dogfight that wasn’t there a year ago (that August 19, 2010 loss to Baltimore dropped the Rangers’ division lead to seven games for the first time in 25 days) is all about the Angels, who along with Oakland was limping along at .500 this time a year ago, yet goes into play today at 65-55, having hung within two games of the Rangers every day for the last two and a half weeks until yesterday’s loss dropped them to three back.

Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz and Neftali Feliz haven’t been as productive this year as they were in 2010, there’s no Cliff Lee around, and there’s certainly not the same air of cautious confidence going into the season’s final quarter, but the Rangers have won more games at this point than they did last year.

Primary blame for the different feel this season has should be assigned to Los Angeles – and to the reasonably heightened expectations of a team no longer trying to wipe out a history of dashed hopes but instead trying to defend an American League pennant.

Ben Nicholson-Smith of MLB Trade Rumors ran a list a couple days ago of baseball’s top 20 GM candidates.  Number three on the list was Thad Levine.  Number nine was A.J. Preller.

Want to imagine a scenario in which Jon Daniels might have shown up on that list himself?

A week ago on MLB Network, Daniels said that Padres GM Jed Hoyer beat him out for an internship with the Red Sox a year before Daniels would land an internship of his own (in 2001) with the Rockies.  A season later John Hart called his old protégé Dan O’Dowd in Colorado seeking a bright young baseball operations prospect to bring aboard in Texas, leading to Daniels joining the Rangers’ front office.  If Boston had hired Daniels rather than Hoyer, Daniels wouldn’t have ended up with the Rockies – nor with the Rangers (at least not under the same circumstances).

Maybe Daniels would have established himself with the Red Sox the way Hoyer did.  (Hoyer earned the title of co-GM from mid-December 2005 through mid-January 2006 [during Theo Epstein’s brief resignation] and eventually interviewed for the Pittsburgh and Washington jobs before getting hired in 2009 by San Diego.)  But Daniels, had his career gotten underway with Boston rather than Colorado, wouldn’t have joined Texas in 2002 or become Assistant GM in 2004 or General Manager after the 2005 season.

Maybe, like Ben Cherington, who served as co-GM in Boston with Hoyer and now sits at number four on Nicholson-Smith’s list, Daniels – the sixth longest-tenured GM in the American League – would be poised now to get interviews around the league to run his own team.  I’d suggest he’d have gotten a GM post somewhere else by now, but it most likely wouldn’t be here.

And that might mean no Hamilton or Cruz or Feliz or Elvis Andrus or Matt Harrison in Texas, no Uehaera or Mike Adams, no Levine or Preller or Don Welke or Scott Servais or Scott Littlefield, no Lewis or Jurickson Profar or Martin Perez or Leonys Martin.

I’m glad Boston hired Hoyer.

Incidentally, Hoyer recently told Darren Smith of XX1090 Sports Radio in San Diego: “No one liked watching Mike Adams pitch the eighth inning more than I did.  [But y]ou can’t have the back end of your bullpen taking up a third of your payroll space.”

Robbie Erlin has made two starts for AA San Antonio since the trade, fanning 15 and issuing one walk in 12 innings while allowing one run (a Mike Bianucci home run when Erlin faced his former Frisco teammates on Monday) on seven hits.  Joe Wieland has started twice for the Missions as well, yielding five runs (four earned) on nine hits and one walk in 11 frames, fanning nine.  Solid early returns for the Padres on the Adams trade.

And again, as I said back on July 31, “setting aside a personal wish that those guys pitch in the big leagues for a long time, from a pure baseball standpoint we want them to succeed.  The last thing you want is for your team to start to get a reputation for moving overhyped prospects with inflated statistics who don’t pan out.  Better to be known as an organization that knows how to scout – and develop – so that other clubs continue to want your players.  That’s a good thing.”

For what it’s worth, Chris Davis is 8 for 36 with a double and a homer (.222/.243/.333, one walk, 11 strikeouts) for the Orioles.  Tommy Hunter has a .333 opponents’ batting average and 6.94 ERA in two starts and one relief appearance, with three strikeouts and no walks in 11.2 innings.

To catch up on what last July’s traded prospects are doing with their new clubs, check out Scott Lucas’s outstanding writeup if you didn’t catch it in Wednesday’s farm report.

Leonys Martin’s numbers since joining the Rangers organization a month into the season:

May (Frisco): .353/.438/.588

June (Frisco): .350/.458/.550

July (Frisco): .333/.407/.542

July (Round Rock): .274/.338/.301

August (Round Rock): .267/.298/.311

I’m not that discouraged.  We need to remember that this isn’t only Martin’s introduction to pro ball, it’s also a situation in which he’s being asked to play every day after an extraordinary layoff from baseball (one that lasted nearly a full year after he defected), not to mention learn a new culture on the fly.  Martin dealt with a back issue that cost him two weeks in mid-June, and maybe he’s wearing down a little bit under the relentless demands of his first pro season.  It wouldn’t be shocking.

Do I expect that we’ll see Martin in Arlington in 2011?  I sorta do.  Probably the last week or two of the regular season.

Round Rock is going to make the Pacific Coast League playoffs, and Daniels said a couple weeks ago that while he expects to recall a third catcher when September rosters expand (assuming Taylor Teagarden returns to the Express between now and September 1) as well as “a couple pitchers” (Darren O’Day would seem to be a lock, and Michael Kirkman close to it; others already on the 40-man roster include Pedro Strop, Cody Eppley, Eric Hurley, and Ryan Tucker), but that beyond that he wanted to respect Round Rock’s post-season run and not disrupt up it too much.

I bet Martin plays out the string with Round Rock and then shows up in Arlington.  The first round of the PCL playoffs will be played September 7-11.  The league’s championship series could go until September 18, and a PCL-International League Championship game is played September 20.  Should the Express be in that final game, about one week would remain on the regular season schedule for Texas to get Martin up.

Why bring him up at all?  It seems very unlikely, unless Martin were to find a second wind and absolutely tear things up over the next month, that he’d be a legitimate candidate to be part of a post-season roster here, especially because it can’t reasonably be expected he’d be any more of a weapon right away than either Endy Chavez (left-handed bat, defender) or Craig Gentry (runner, defender).

But Texas expects Martin to compete in March for the Opening Day spot in center field, and just as getting used to playing every day this summer has been a key part of the acclimation process, having him travel with this club to Oakland and back to Texas for a series against Seattle and then go to Anaheim for what could be a huge season-ending stretch could be an invaluable experience for the 23-year-old.

By the way, there’s a Scott Lucas photo of Martin now up in the photo rotation on the front page of the website, replacing the Erlin photo.

Arthur Rhodes signed a prorated minimum-salary deal with St. Louis (relieving Texas of its commitment only to that small extent).  The veteran says he chose the Cardinals over proposals from the Yankees and Red Sox plus a minor league offer from the Phillies, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Probably not coincidentally, St. Louis has released lefthander Ron Mahay from his AAA contract.

After missing 10 days with a left thumb injury, Justin Smoak returned to action on Friday night only to suffer fractures of the nose and cheekbone on a bad-hop line drive off the bat of Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  No telling how much time Smoak will miss, but he’s been placed on the disabled list.

Tomorrow is the signing deadline for 2011 draft picks.  The three most prominent unsigned picks for Texas are probably Pennsylvania high school outfielder Derek Fisher (sixth round), Georgia high school catcher Max Pentecost (seventh round), and Mississippi high school righthander Brandon Woodruff.  Fisher and Woodruff are expected to forgo the opportunity to go pro, opting instead to honor commitments, respectively, to the University of Virginia and Mississippi State.  Aside from those three, every other one of the Rangers’ picks in the first 18 rounds has signed.

Baseball America surveyed league managers and scouts in its annual “best tools” rankings, with the Rangers showing up as follows:

American League: Josh Hamilton has the second-best power (tied with Miguel Cabrera, behind Jose Bautista) and is the second-most exciting player (tied with Jacoby Ellsbury, again behind Bautista).  Elvis Andrus is the best defensive shortstop and second-best baserunner (behind Ellsbury).  Adrian Beltre is the best defensive third baseman and has the best infield arm.  Ian Kinsler is the third-best defensive second baseman (behind Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia).

Pacific Coast League (AAA): None.

Texas League (AA): Tommy Mendonca is the best defensive third baseman.  Steve Buechele is the best manager prospect.

Carolina League (High A): Leury Garcia is the fastest baserunner.  Mike Olt is the best defensive third baseman.  Ryan Strausborger is the best defensive outfielder.  Former Myrtle Beach starters Erlin (best changeup) and Wieland (best control) factored in as well.

South Atlantic League (Low A): Jurickson Profar is the best defensive shortstop and has the league’s best infield arm.  Christian Villanueva is the best defensive third baseman.

If it weren’t for Bryce Harper, it’s safe to say Profar might have been tabbed as the circuit’s best batting prospect and most exciting player as well.  (Said BA’s J.J. Cooper about Profar: “I think he would be [in my overall top 10 prospects].  I can’t find a scout who doesn’t love him.  Hard to put any limits on a guy doing what he’s doing at 18.”)

What he’s doing: .290/.397/.501, with an OPS over .900 in four of five months.

Jurickson Profar is good at baseball.

The Orioles released righthander Josh Rupe from their AAA bullpen to make room for recently signed righthander Willie Eyre (who has since been brought up to Baltimore).  Rupe and Eyre were AAA Oklahoma City teammates in 2007 and 2009.

After two very good starts for AAA Iowa (following three bad ones), righthander Dave Bush opted out of his minor league deal with the Cubs.

I neglected to mention a month ago that Pittsburgh added righthander Jason Grilli to its big league bullpen, after he’d spent the first half with Philadelphia’s AAA club.

Thanks again to those of you who have responded with “honor system” contributions to the Newberg Report this past week.  If you’re still interested in participating, you can find details here.  But again, this is voluntary.  Please don’t feel compelled to partake.

Matt Harrison against Rich Harden this afternoon, while Dan Haren faces Brett Cecil in Toronto, and then the next four late nights will see Texas in Anaheim for what some will refer to as no more than 4 of 162.

Here we go.

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