The new West.

I watched a couple dozen seven- and eight-year-olds take ground balls and hit live pitching and get clocked home-to-first and first-to-third under gloomy skies and plummeting temperatures late Sunday afternoon, a bunch of kids impervious to the spitting rain and chill-gusts as they played a little baseball, each with an obvious spirit for the game that, as parents, we know will only bring them more great experiences as they get older.

I was the genius out at the fields in gym shorts and a T-shirt, having set out earlier in the day when it was 20 degrees warmer and dry, but in a fleeting moment of temporary thaw and clarity, I thought about Matt West.

When the Houston native was seven years old, and eight, and 18, I’m sure he was the best player on the field just about every time he laced up.  Going into his senior season with the nationally ranked Bellaire High School program, he was a Rawlings Preseason All-American shortstop.  He had scholarships lined up to play collegiately at both Arizona State and San Jacinto Junior College (where he’d be eligible for the draft after just one season if he went that route), though most figured college wasn’t in the plans as he was thought to be a potential supplemental first-round pick.

After hitting .545 with power and speed that season, West wasn’t taken that high but was popped in Round Two by the Rangers in their landmark 2007 draft, which ultimately helped produce Cliff Lee (Blake Beavan [1st round], Josh Lueke [16], Matt Lawson [14]), and Mitch Moreland [17], and Bengie Molina (Michael Main [1]), Julio Borbon [1s], and Jorge Cantu (Evan Reed [3]), and Cristian Guzman (Ryan Tatusko [18]), and Koji Uehara (Tommy Hunter [1s]), and Neil Ramirez [1s].

West signed quickly with Texas and, shifted primarily to third base, would hit .301 his rookie summer.  The Rangers had had years of difficulty in the second round, for whatever reason, and was having no luck developing prospects at third base.  West had the chance to erase both runs of disappointing results.  He was still one of the best players on the field, a familiar place for the kid to be.

But things went downhill for West, whose numbers at the plate decreased every season after that and who had to deal with considerable adversity off the field as well.  Going into 2011, it’s safe to say that the 22-year-old was more likely to be released than to ever reach Class AA.

That’s certainly not to diminish the ups and downs that righthanders Ramirez and Jake Brigham fought through to earn the 40-man roster spots they were awarded by Texas on Friday, or to downplay what the addition to the roster might mean to a kid like Roman Mendez to be traded from the organization he’d chosen to leave his home land for, or to overlook chronically overlooked reliever Justin Miller, or even to take for granted the fact that Martin Perez, like Ramirez and Brigham and Mendez and Miller, has landed a roster spot of his own.  It doesn’t always work out that way, even for the high-profile prospects.  Just ask Kasey Kiker.

Or Matt West.  Pre-2011 Matt West.

Things hadn’t worked out for the handful of third base prospects brought into the system by the Rangers immediately before West – Johnny Whittleman (2005), Johan Yan (2006), and Emmanuel Solis (2006), the first of whom was moved to the Royals for a return that has never been identified and the latter two of whom were moved to the mound.  It wasn’t working out either for West, who had been passed in the system by 2009 draftee Tommy Mendonca, and with the emergence in 2010 of Mike Olt and Christian Villanueva, any hope that the Rangers had for West seemed to be fading into baseball oblivion.

That is, until the Rangers approached him in camp eight months ago with an invitation to climb the mound (a tuckaway thought that assistant director of player development Jake Krug, for instance, had held onto since scouting West at Bellaire), just to see.  Without so much as a mechanical tweak, the lifelong infielder tripped mid-90s on the gun, flashing a wipeout slider.  If a career wasn’t reborn at that moment, it was certainly about to be overhauled.

West had a sensational extended spring training run, locating a fastball that was suddenly touching 99 to go along with that swing-and-miss slider.  The Rangers assigned him to Short-Season A Spokane in June, where the competition was only one year behind in age and well ahead of the new pitcher in experience, and he was scored on just five times in 23 appearances.  In 26 innings of work, West allowed 23 hits (.242 opponents’ average) and one walk, striking out 35 and leading the club with nine saves.  Left-handed hitters (.194/.219/.387) were less effective than righties (.286/.299/.422), and he coaxed three times as many groundouts as flyouts.

Northwest League managers helped Baseball America conclude after the season that West was the league’s number five pitching prospect (number 13 prospect overall), and there was enough of an assumption that the industry was onto his considerable upside – with an arm having zero wear on it – that Texas wasn’t going to risk exposing him to the Rule 5 Draft.

West pitched at the fifth of the Rangers’ six levels in 2011 (not counting a season-ending opportunity to help High A Myrtle Beach in its playoff run), but Texas couldn’t rule out the idea that some club might not only take a camp flier on the 6’1” righthander but also find a way to keep in the big leagues for all of 2012.  For instance, one of the men responsible for the decision to make West a pitcher, former Rangers senior director of player development Scott Servais, is now part of the decision-making crew with the Angels.  A year after Texas had Rule 5’d Mason Tobin from Los Angeles, it wouldn’t have been a shock to see Servais’s Angels call West’s name on December 8 – if the Rangers had left him off the roster.

But they didn’t, and he’s now one of an extraordinarily large number of Texas pitchers currently holding roster spots who would be longshots at best to win a roster spot coming out of camp – Ramirez, Brigham, Mendez, Miller, Perez, Fabio Castillo, Miguel De Los Santos, and Wilmer Font, along with West, figure to be auditioning in Surprise for big league work later on down the road – but it speaks to the tremendous pipeline of young pitching the Rangers have developed and still have coming.  And most of them – including West with those two plus pitches that profile to show up late in the game – have a real chance, if everything falls into place, to force their way to Arlington at some point in 2012.

Every one of those guys, along with most players fortunate enough to play this game professionally, spent most of their lives as the best player on the field.  But the reality is that, in this game of failure and cruel attrition, most never get to the point at which all the kids who shared the Little League fields with them could so much as flip the TV on to see them suited up.

On occasion, though, there’s a player who goes from a lifetime of being The Best, falls precipitously off that perch and very nearly out of the game altogether, and not only gets an opportunity to revive his career, to fully redefine it, but also converts on that chance.

In the case of West, who turns 23 today, I’m betting the game is a whole lot of fun again, maybe as much as it was when he was seven or eight years old and didn’t care if it was 50 and raining and almost Thanksgiving, playing the game and dreaming of that day when he might have a nameplate in a big league clubhouse.

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