March 2012

Appraising Arizona.

It wasn’t Yu Darvish’s first experience pitching in the United States but it was his first in Arizona, and it ended with a flourish to the extent that a stretch of spring training can include a flourish, as he faced the Rockies’ “A” lineup and fanned 11 in six innings, including Carlos Gonzalez in each of his three at-bats and Troy Tulowitzki in all three of his.

Darvish issued one walk – to Marco Scutaro, the first batter he faced – and continued to have trouble locating his fastball to his second hitter, Dexter Fowler, but came back to strike out Fowler, Gonzalez, and Tulowitzki to finish the opening frame, and as far as Scutaro was concerned, Darvish came back in the fifth to punch the veteran out with a wipeout curve ball that:

  • In baseball terms, buckled Scutaro’s knees
  • In basketball: posterized Scutaro (hat tip: Jeff Wilson [Fort Worth Star-Telegram])
  • In football: broke Scutaro’s ankles
  • In Ron Washington’s words, had Scutaro “running back to the dugout like he’d just seen a curve from Bert Blyleven,” one of the great deuce artists the game has ever seen.

Flourish-y.

Darvish would tell local reporters afterwards that he didn’t feel like he had that many strikeouts, and he was quick to credit Mike Napoli for his pitch-calling and for “the way we worked together,” which helped him “pitch[ ] comfortably.”

The big righthander now has 32 strikeouts in 21 camp innings, if you include his six minor league and intrasquad frames.  Limit the look to his official Cactus League work, and you get 21 punchouts in 15 innings.

Of course, the numbers don’t really matter much, but for a player like Darvish, taking on a very different challenge from any he’s taken on before, you’d rather have 32 strikeouts in 21 innings than four in 21, if for no other reason than to feed his confidence in a brand new environment.

Said Jon Daniels after last night’s performance: “This is what he’s capable of.  He’s gotten better and better every time out.  He commanded the fastball really well tonight.  He was able to get a couple of punchouts on called third strikes away and then he really buried his breaking ball.”

Following his final Arizona assignment, his first effort under the lights, Darvish told the press: “I think overall the whole spring in Arizona was a great camp.  All my wonderful teammates helped along the way, and I think I was able to have a great spring, and I’m very satisfied with where I’m at physically and mentally at this time.”

Next up: Wednesday against Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt’s RoughRiders squad in Frisco.  Then: Monday the 9th against the Mariners, in Arlington.

Between now and then, there’s still the matter of figuring out if the Rangers want to clear more than the one current open spot on the 40-man roster to make room for non-roster players like Robbie Ross (another positive effort last night) and a utility infielder and maybe a right-handed corner bat unless the club decides to go with project Brandon Snyder.  (If Greg Reynolds earns a bullpen, it likely means that Koji Uehara or Mark Lowe will have been traded, opening up a spot that way).

There won’t be any more Andres Blanco rumors, as he’s signed a make-good deal with Philadelphia.

There won’t be speculation as to whether Conor Jackson will join AAA Round Rock after all, as he’s signed a minor league deal with the White Sox.

But there’s going to be speculation about hooking up with the Cubs on a deal, because they’re said to be looking for bullpen help (according to ESPN’s Buster Olney) and because there’s a natural soft spot in this market for Marlon Byrd – not to mention a theoretical roster fit for the right-handed-hitting center fielder – but he’s not the player he used to be.

But is he a better solution (ignoring for now the contract factor) than the player Craig Gentry is and how that compares to the player the club wants Gentry to be?

There’s still the issue of Josh Hamilton’s tight left groin that took him out of last night’s game and makes him a day-to-day proposition.

Which will probably push the Byrd speculation above the fold, justified or not.

There are those story lines and a few others to get us through the next six sleeps, but the biggest story of camp for the two-time defending AL champs was how Yu Darvish’s stuff would translate and how he would fit in the clubhouse and how he and the club would feel about things as the club prepared to leave Arizona for Texas, and there doesn’t seem to be any speculation about any of those things, answers to which are as clear as the fact that the term “unadulterated filthiness” is pure paradox but a description that I refuse to reject as I think back on the look on Marco Scutaro’s face as he made his posterized walk of shame back to a dugout at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Josh Hamilton, center fielder.

Why should we presume at this point that the plan might just be to have Josh Hamilton be this team’s everyday center fielder when the gates open a week from tomorrow?

Because the club believes (as it did in the 2010 post-season) that its best defensive alignment has Hamilton in center, regardless of what hand the opposing pitcher throws with?

Because Julio Borbon is once again letting a wide-open opportunity get by him?

Because the Rangers, according this morning to Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports), are exploring trade possibilities for a right-handed bat who can play left field and first base?

Because the club isn’t as concerned with the Hamilton wear and tear issue since chances are at least reasonable that he’ll belong to another team in 2013?

Every one of those reasons is defensible.

Texas has three young center fielders with legitimate chances to help in 2012: Craig Gentry, Borbon, and Leonys Martin, with odds of contributing probably in that order (even if you might rank their upside in reverse).

Gentry has this Nick Johnson/Roy Tarpley aspect to his career that unfortunately has to be factored in.  He had Tommy John surgery in college.  Since joining the Rangers, there have been right knee and hamstring and left knee and right wrist and thigh and concussion and groin injuries that have cost him time.  This spring alone, he’s been slowed at various times by hamstring and wrist issues, as well as a bout of dehydration that forced him out of Sunday’s game against the Angels in the third inning.

Ron Washington expressed his frustration after that game, suggesting that Gentry needs to stay on the field to earn a meaningful role with this team, an obvious observation but one that resonates when it comes from the manager’s mouth late in camp and involves a player needing once again to prove himself.

Borbon has been healthy this spring, but he doesn’t run routes as well as Gentry, doesn’t throw as well, doesn’t run the bases as well, and perhaps most frustrating, has yet to turn the corner on the little things the team needs a player of his profile to do.  Latest example: After an opportunity to get the go-ahead run home from third in the 10th inning last night, Borbon fouled off strike one on an attempted suicide squeeze, fouled off strike two on another attempted squeeze, and then struck out.

Washington went to Borbon in the dugout to share his direct thoughts, and then did the same after the game with reporters.  “The first one, that’s OK,” the manager said.  “The second time, that’s no excuse.  You get a second shot, you’re not supposed to miss it. . . . That’s the job. And if they can’t do that . . . .”

I doubt the published trail-off at the end of the comment had anything to do with column inches or Dictaphone batteries or a pen that ran out of ink.

Borbon wouldn’t need to hit .280 or reach base at a .380 clip to be useful, but he continues to have issues executing, defensively and at the plate and on the bases, and while the job he’s trying to earn is different from Gentry’s (because of handedness), he’s had as wide open an opportunity and, for different reasons, appears to be falling short in earning the Rangers’ trust.

As for Martin, Washington had some encouraging things to say on the Ben and Skin Show this week, but he’s not ready for the big leagues.  He might be sometime in 2012, but it sounds unlikely that it would any time before the middle third of the season, at the earliest.

The local press has noted this week that Texas could move Koji Uehara or Mark Lowe as the season approaches, and this morning Rosenthal tweeted that the idea is to find a utility infielder (who can play shortstop) and that right-handed hitter who can contribute in left and at first base – in other words, what Conor Jackson was given the opportunity to be, before the club released him earlier this week.

The obvious take-away from that note is that, rather than looking for a center fielder to either hold the position down, or present a platoon upgrade over Gentry (right-handed) or Borbon (left-handed), any of which would allow Hamilton to play left field, the club is apparently looking for someone to give Washington an opportunity to rest either David Murphy or Mitch Moreland against lefthanders.

It’s perhaps an indication that the club plans to give Mike Napoli and Michael Young less work at first base, a subject for another time.  But the implication in left field is pretty interesting.  Rather than game-planning opposing lefties by shifting Hamilton from center to left and starting Gentry in center (which is what Texas did in the 2011 playoffs), this looks like an effort to find a way to simply adjust left field based on who’s pitching, and leave Hamilton alone in center field.

And though Hamilton told local reporters yesterday that he’d be open to negotiating a contract extension with the Rangers even once the season is underway, as long as talks were smooth and didn’t present a distraction, there are all kinds of reasons for us and for Hamilton’s representatives to believe that some team out there, if not more than one, will be happy to throw appropriate dollars and crazy years at him this winter, and that as a result, this might be his final season as a Ranger.

If that’s the case, protecting Hamilton physically by limiting his center field assignments isn’t as important, at least as far as long-term planning is concerned.

On the issue of a right-handed corner bat, Washington told the local media this week: “We’re looking to fill whatever weaknesses we can fill.  If we can’t fill it inside, we’ll look outside.  Clubs are always talking.”  That’s revealing.

And Hamilton said this week that he wanted to get more time in center field this week “in case he’s there on Opening Day.”  A reasonable request, perhaps.  But Texas is facing John Danks on Opening Day.  He’s left-handed.  Think Hamilton would have made the Opening Day reference without some indication from the club that he might be in center field a week from tomorrow?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

If you decide to head out to the Fan Sports Lounge across from the AAC from 2:00-3:30 this afternoon for Josh Lewin’s book signing (Ballgame!  A Decade Coving the Texas Rangers from the Best Seat in the House), ask him if the Mets, his new employer, are still enamored with Gentry, as they apparently were earlier this off-season.

Texas doesn’t need to trade Gentry.  Both he and Borbon have one option remaining, so the Rangers aren’t facing potentially irreversible decisions on either of them over the next week, but that’s not the point.

The point is that the Rangers no longer have to decide whether they’re built to win, or building toward something.  This is a winner, with no interest in experimenting any more than necessary, and with its three center field hopefuls failing to seize and lock in an opportunity this month, for different reasons, it’s looking more and more like Josh Hamilton is going to be an everyday center fielder, and that the fourth outfielder won’t be David Murphy, but instead – if trade talks work out – could be someone not yet on the roster.

If that happens, Gentry and Borbon may be fighting for a role best characterized as fifth outfielder, a job that will entail late-inning baserunning and defense and result in what might be Hamilton’s only real work in left field – in the final inning or two, with one of the young center fielders finishing out games that the club possibly went into camp hoping that they’d lay a claim to starting.

Glue.

He hasn’t lived up to the expectations of the contract.

Two years ago he went from Opening Day starter to a healthy scratch from the playoff rosters.

He’s a relief pitcher with a basically undefined role, wildly overpaid for the job he’s being asked to fill, and in seven or eight months Texas is unquestionably going to buy him out of his club option for 2013 rather than lock him down for that extra year.

But Scott Feldman is going to be vitally important to the success of the 2012 Rangers.

Texas fought through its share of key injuries to the everyday lineup in 2011, but its season-opening rotation was remarkably healthy, making 157 of 162 starts.  Those five other starts were necessitated only by a couple blisters and a front office effort to ease the load on a couple young starters.

The rotation of C.J. Wilson, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Matt Harrison, and Alexi Ogando was nails last year.  Each won at least 13 games, the first fivesome to do so in the American League since the Baltimore and New York rotations pulled it off before any of them were born (1977).

The starting five was so reliable that the injuries that sidelined Feldman (coming off winter knee surgery) and Tommy Hunter (who suffered a groin strain in spring training, making Ogando a starter) for the entire first half never really became an issue.

But you can’t count on that sort of rotation health for a second straight year, and chances are Feldman, who made two of those cameo starts last year (Dave Bush made the other three), will be asked to contribute more in 2012 than he was in 2011.

Two years ago, just before the 2010 season began, Texas gave Feldman – who was coming off a 17-8, 4.08 campaign – a contract extension that would pay the righthander $4.4 million in 2011 and $6.5 million in 2012, with a $9.25 million option for 2013 that can (and surely will) be bought out for $600,000.  The club was locking down the two remaining arbitration years for the pitcher it was about to hand the ball to open the 2010 season, and giving itself the option to delay his free agency by a year.

Three days after signing the extension, Feldman delivered a quality start in a 5-4 home win over Toronto, kicking off a Rangers season that would end in the World Series . . .  which Feldman watched with the rest of us, having lost his rotation spot with two months to go and mopping up the rest of the way as Texas locked down its post-season ticket.

A non-factor in camp in 2011 as he worked his way back from knee surgery, Feldman’s expected return to action was delayed by two months when a May rehab assignment was cut short.  He didn’t rejoin the big league staff until July 14, the start of the second half, and didn’t get called on to pitch until eight days after that, when he was asked to work the ninth inning of a 12-2 win over the Blue Jays, the same club he had dealt against on Opening Day a year and a half earlier.

There were a few standout moments down the stretch for Feldman (led by six shutout innings against Tampa Bay in a combined 2-0 shutout on August 30, which enabled the club to maintain a 3.5-game lead in the division and give Harrison some added rest), but it was his work through most of the playoffs that reminded us what an asset he can be when the cutter is cutting and located.  In the first 10.1 of his 13.2 post-season innings, Feldman scattered four hits and walked nobody, fanning 10 Rays, Tigers, and Cardinals and permitting none to score.

As Texas readjusted its rotation going into 2012, replacing Wilson with Yu Darvish and Ogando with Neftali Feliz, the plan remained somewhat amorphous for Feldman, who wouldn’t be asked to start and wouldn’t be asked to close and wouldn’t be asked to set up.  He’ll just be a glue guy in the pen, probably called on to make a spot start here and there, and maybe more if rotation injuries or ineffectiveness so dictate.

It wasn’t necessarily a representative Reds lineup that Feldman faced last night, but firing six shutout innings (three hits, no walks, nine strikeouts) is firing six shutout innings.  He was sharp with his command and missing bats.

Those results mean no more than what Wilson did against the Cubs’ AAA squad on Sunday (five innings, three runs on six hits and four walks, zero strikeouts), but at some point you have to look at Feldman’s spring (20 innings, 20 strikeouts and two walks) and feel pretty good about your $6.5 million long/middle reliever-spot starter, or whatever the club is calling him.

While Jon Heyman (CBS Sports) is out there suggesting that “the LA Angels may be the first team ever to have too many good players,” guys like Scott Feldman, a former 30th-round pick who has pitched in relative obscurity in his good years and gotten pegged as a bad investment in his bad ones, are rarely going to get much attention.

But good teams have Scott Feldman’s around to do the dirty work, which in some years will pile up more than in others, and you can bet that the Rangers have been approached by other teams about the number nine pitcher on their staff a lot more than the national media would ever believe – and that the club is not particularly inclined to discard a pitcher who is probably going to end up playing a bigger role in keeping this thing in contention than almost anyone expects.

Bringing it.

Sunday afternoon, Texas travels to Tempe to play the Angels.  It’s Yu Darvish’s day to pitch, and C.J. Wilson’s.

But they’ll pitch to minor leaguers that day, away from the cameras and away from what Jon Paul Morosi (Fox Sports) calls “the most interesting rivalry in the game.”

Let the games begin.

This is not your Gerald Laird-Adam Kennedy brand of the Rangers-Angels rivalry.  Or Feldman-Kennedy.  Or Lackey-Kinsler.  Or chip-on-his-shoulder Vlad.

It’s Beltre and Napoli, Wells and Napoli, Weaver and Napoli, C.J. and Napoli, Moreno and Napoli.

(“Our baseball people,” the owner recently told GQ Magazine, “felt that Napoli’s arm was not gonna hold up for a season and they made the decision that they wanted to move him.”)

(Moreno also said, in the same interview, that Darvish would have been a bad investment for the club that will pay Albert Pujols $30 million to play baseball at age 41, or 45: “We did not bid on [Darvish].  I’m not saying our scouts hadn’t discussed it, but there was never any discussion with me about Darvish.  Probably [because of] price.  I mean, we can sit there and have a couple beers and sort of have fantasy baseball but the reality is you try to look and to say objectively how do you economically balance your fans and your radio and your television—the whole package, right?”)

It’s Fox Sports contracts and Scott Servais and tweeting cell numbers and a first baseman for the 1993 Arizona League Angels named Harold Herdocia.

It’s Darvish vs. Pujols, C.J. vs. fill-in-the-blank.  Eventually.

It’s ESPN’s Buster Olney calling the Angels’ early schedule the second-easiest in the American League.  And Sports Illustrated crowning Los Angeles as the 2012 winner of the AL West, the ALDS (over Texas), the American League (over New York), and the World Series (over San Francisco).

And King Felix telling USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that he loves Pujols but that “the Rangers still have a tougher lineup and team than the Angels.”

It’s waiting until May 11 for a matchup that counts, and circling that season-sending three-set in Arlington on September 28, September 29, and September 30.

This franchise, and you and I, went a very long time without a World Series.  But we’ve gone longer without a real rivalry, a nemesis-nemesis competition with a mutual “bring it” intensity.

We’ve got one now, and as far into the baseball future as you can see.  Sunday afternoon’s exhibition game will be marked by a little tactical gamesmanship rather than Darvish against Wilson, but even the decision not to show those two to lineups who have never faced them has a way of pushing the sports needle a lot more than wondering what Adam Kennedy is plotting next.

This one goes to 11.

This afternoon, weather permitting, Yu Darvish will take on the Milwaukee Brewers, pitching what is estimated to be four innings before something approaching 10,000 in Surprise and a much bigger number tuned in locally to Fox Sports Southwest.

While Number 11 makes his third spring training start, each televised locally if not nationally, the other Number 11 in Rangers camp will suit up on the back fields, a few hundred yards away and a million miles from the glare.  A few dozen people will line the chain-link fence girding the field that Jurickson Profar will play on, facing a Kansas City squad misleadingly designated as “AAA,” with a good chance that the pitchers not working today will outnumber everyone else in the crowd gathered behind the fence between the dugouts.

Profar was brought over for two big league game appearances last spring in Surprise (1 for 4, RBI double), yet only once this month (0 for 1, walk, caught stealing) despite all that’s transpired over the last year for the player widely considered to be the number three position player prospect in baseball, behind Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

The reason is likely because of the spirited camp competition for the utility infield spot that didn’t exist when Andres Blanco was around a year ago.  Any plate appearance or inning in the field for Profar would take away a potential opportunity for Yangervis Solarte, Alberto Gonzalez, Greg Miclat, or Luis Hernandez to push the immediate audition forward.

But then again, infielders Leury Garcia and Guilder Rodriguez and Renny Osuna have each gotten multiple chances to play in big league games this month, as has Matt Kata.  Maybe management isn’t ramping up the “Just In Case” assignments for Profar this year just to make sure Ron Washington doesn’t even think about making a case to take the 19-year-old to Arlington in two weeks.

I’m kidding about that part.

Mostly kidding.

Baseball America used to publish a “Baseball for the Ages” feature each year, recognizing the best baseball players in the world from age 12 through age 25.  The editors admit that the focus was on domestic players, which I suppose may explain why, in 2005, the final year that BA ran the feature, the chosen 12-year-old was Delino DeShields Jr. rather than the two-time Little League World Series star Profar, and the 18-year-old was Andrew McCutchen, with Colby Rasmus and Chris Volstad as runners-up instead of Darvish, who as a Nippon Ham Fighters rookie had thrown a complete-game, two-hit Japanese League shutout a year after finishing high school.

You get the sense that Darvish would probably prefer less hype, while Profar would welcome a little more.  In a couple dozen other camps, Profar would be getting far more attention than he is in Texas, and that’s OK.  He’ll get his moment, soon enough.  A year from now he’ll be in big league camp as a non-roster invite, and the 100-plus with cameras and notepads in Surprise who are there for Darvish and Kinsler and Holland and Andrus will take notice.  It’s inevitable when you’re around the kid long enough.

Darvish is strikingly big for an Asian pitcher but doesn’t throw 98.  Profar is strikingly small for a blue-chip prospect and doesn’t have an 80 tool.  But you factor in the completeness of their games, and the nuances, and their presence and their youth and their feel for the game and their taste for the big stage, and you start to think about the awesome likelihood that they’re going to be teammates for at least half of Darvish’s deal with the Rangers.

You can watch Darvish pitch this afternoon.  You’ll have to walk to the back fields in Surprise and make sure you’re not standing directly behind Zach Jackson in order to get a good look at Profar.

BA predicted a few days ago that the Rangers will win the World Series (over Arizona) in 2015, if not before, with Darvish winning the Cy Young and Profar figuring in somewhere.

They’ll be in Texas, together, before then, with plenty of hype to go around.  With my time this spring in Arizona now complete, I’m looking forward to camp ending and the 2012 season getting underway, but in the back of my mind I can’t wait for the time when Jurickson Profar has to give up Number 11, once and for all.

“Don’t overanalyze,” in 460 words.

In Cliff Lee’s first start as a Ranger, the Orioles took him deep in the fourth inning.
And the fifth.
And the sixth.
He hadn’t given up three home runs in any other start all year, and in fact it had happened only once in the previous three years.
Yu Darvish had no feel for his fastball yesterday.  That’s it.  He didn’t have it getting loose in the bullpen, he didn’t have it in the first inning or the second or the third, and he put himself into rocky situations that he managed to wiggle out of for the most part, thanks to a sharp array of breaking balls and Yorvit Torrealba’s pop time.
Darvish threw more balls (32) than strikes (29), and it wouldn’t be shocking if that never happens again in his Rangers career, or at least crops up as infrequently as a three-homer game off of Cliff Lee.
I’m also betting now that there will never be a Darvish start in which the offense gives him a seven-run lead that he doesn’t lock down, and that none of you would take me up on that bet.
There’s no sense in overreacting to what happened yesterday.  The work that Robbie Ross (excellent) and Engel Beltre (what-the??) did in the eighth inning were more important in terms of performance results to take away from Wednesday’s game, televised for our consumption and over-analysis.
Don’t wipe next Monday’s start against the Brewers off your DVR to-pull list.  Yesterday was a hiccup, something from which Darvish can and will learn from and adjust.  Opportunities for him to work off something that didn’t go exactly as planned in March should, in the big picture, set things up for a smoother April through September, and October.
If yesterday’s result counted, we could talk about how Darvish’s ability to minimize the damage and the Rangers’ efficient offense combined to keep intact the righthander’s 49-0 lifetime record in games in which he received at least four runs of support.  But it didn’t count, outside of giving Darvish a chance to experience bad things to fight through, a not-unwelcome part of the process of figuring out how to beat Major League lineups and become the best pitcher to ever come here from Japan and maybe the best something-else.
I don’t have time this morning to unpack the back fields notes I planned to share from yesterday, but I’ll get to those eventually.  I’d probably have gotten to them if I didn’t spend too much time commenting on a Darvish effort that I sit here suggesting shouldn’t be overanalyzed, and for that I apologize and will get myself out to the chain-links in a bit for another morning of players being developed outside the grab of the spotlight.

The young, and the restless.

The two outfielders walked together toward the most remote station of the most remote campus of the most remote spring training complex in Arizona, 1900 miles from their Georgia homes, towns with populations that amount to less than 30 cents on the Surprise dollar.
Jordan Akins and Zach Cone are prime examples of why baseball takes time.
On the recommendations of Georgia area scout Ryan Coe, Texas made Akins the 103rd player selected in the 2010 draft (round three) and Cone the 37th pick (supplemental first round) in 2011.  Cone, the University of Georgia product, struggled in his rookie season, hitting .201/.278/.339 (57 strikeouts in 224 at-bats) for Short-Season A Spokane last summer, but he wasn’t anywhere near as unproductive as Akins, the high school grad, had been in his debut the year before, when he hit an empty .187/.241/.252 (35 strikeouts in 107 at-bats) for the Rookie-level Arizona League squad.
A year later, there might be fewer than half a dozen prospects in the Rangers system who have flashed more upside offensively than Akins.  The show he put on in Fall Instructs late last year, after an encouraging .283/.312/.428 encore in the Arizona League, caused me to write glowingly, even on a Newberg scale.  If I were another team dangling an impact player that Texas was chasing, Akins would be a guy I’d push very hard for on at the back of the deal.
If we were to decide a ballplayer’s future based on a rookie season alone, we’d have written Akins off a year ago.
That’s not to say that Cone is half a year away from forcing fans to debate whether he should be untouchable.  He may never make it to AA.
But this is a game of failure, and adjusting to failure, diminishing its impact, and minimizing its endurance.  Those who adjust at a more accomplished pace than the players 60 feet and six inches away advance; those who don’t, don’t.
Cone didn’t get any good wood in his live BP session against righthander Ben Henry, who in five pro seasons hasn’t moved past Low Class A, or against righty Ken Wiser, the 51st and final player drafted by Texas in 2011, but neither did Akins against either Wiser or righthander Francisco Mendoza, whose four seasons have topped out a Low Class A as well.  You can’t tell a whole lot in a sampling of BP sessions (says the fan blogger who’s never afraid to drop 1,000 words on a player who had a good half-hour at Fall Instructs), and I wouldn’t suggest any conclusion can possibly be drawn when sidewinding 26-year-old lefthander Kyle Fernandes makes 16-year-old Nomar Mazara look lost at the plate in a two-minute duel, just as I wouldn’t make too much of the fact that Alexi Ogando, Greg Reynolds, Tanner Scheppers, Wilmer Font, and Robbie Ross each took a pitching machine deep late Monday morning, though people far smarter about these things than I am will confirm that, regardless of who’s pitching, Rougned Odor just hits.  
The overriding point I’m trying to make, without meaning to diminish the value of the experience of watching Christian Villanueva field or Miguel De Los Santos pull the string or Hanser Alberto hit or Jurickson Profar do everything, is that things can change, sometimes relatively quickly and other times only after the impatient set has tuned out.  This isn’t football and it isn’t basketball, and the payoff of bringing a kid like Jorge Alfaro or Neil Ramirez into the system is typically not realized for years, if at all.
Two of the most aggressive talent accumulators in the game, Tampa Bay and Texas, signed Cuban first baseman Jose Julio Ruiz in 2010 and 2011, respectively, each building in multi-year, multi-million-dollar options that they hoped he would give them little choice but to pay with his minor league play.  He didn’t, and neither did they.
Last week, Ruiz signed with the Laredo Lemurs of the independent American Association, a move that we can assume one party to that negotiation is very happy about.  He’ll be 27 in two weeks, and right there is all the reason you’d need to understand why his opportunities with the Rays and Rangers were structured without factoring in any room for patience.
Players rarely come to Major (or Minor) League Baseball at such an advanced age.  Usually those who do are Cuban defectors or Pacific Rim stars.  Most aren’t Yu Darvish, but when they’re Jose Julio Ruiz, they become Laredo Lemurs after just seven months in the minor leagues.
The other 99 percent of players who leave home to give baseball a shot, particularly those blessed with elite athleticism and the baseball promise that in keen cases attaches to it, typically earn years of patience, a relative rarity in pro sports and often a challenge in being a fan of pro sports.
As 22-year-old Zach Cone and 19-year-old Jordan Akins walked into a cage to get locked in before stepping in for live BP on Field 5, in the deep recesses of a baseball facility expansive enough to have a Field 5, one a major college product who struggled in his first effort to play pro ball, the other a raw high school product three years his junior whose initial struggles were even greater but who now builds off an unmistakable breakout year as an athlete-turned-ballplayer that promises more, both a long way from home and setting out on a long path to where they want to be, it was an ordinary moment early in minor league camp that nonetheless serves as a reminder that restlessness will not only spoil the time-tested formula for building a baseball franchise with any sort of staying power — it’s also a recipe for disappointment if you’re a fan.

Who’s left?

Tied for second among the most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over the nearly 14 years of this project have been “What ever happened to Jeff Zimmerman?” and “When will Erik Thompson return?,” both of which are firmly ahead of “What kind of law do you practice?” but miles behind the pacesetter:
“Got any spring training tips for a first-time visitor?”
My answer’s always some variation of the same thing.  Back fields, 10 a.m.  There have been spring training trips on which, by choice, I haven’t stepped foot in the stadium one time.  But I don’t ever miss the morning drills.
Yesterday offered a bonus appointment, as the Rangers had a B game scheduled for 10:00 against the Royals, across the complex.  It promised to be lightly attended (a hundred or two, tops), with the best weather of the day and a vantage point from which you could read the seams of the ball.
Then, just before leaving the hotel, I saw the lineups.
Sorry, Luis and Alberto and Yangervis and Greg.  As spirited as the utility infield battle might be, and as much as I hope one of you carves out an Andres Blanco run in Texas, I was thinking I’d rather see Jurickson and Rougned and Hanser taking ground balls and BP.   I did have some interest in seeing Leonys Martin face Jonathan Broxton and Joakim Soria, but as for Engel Beltre and Kyle Hudson and Brad Hawpe, they weren’t going to define this trip the way Jordan Akins and Ronald Guzman and Jorge Alfaro could.
Alexi Ogando would start the morning exhibition, but I’ll be able to watch him all year.  Among the slated relievers, Roman Mendez and Jake Brigham interested me, but an inning each against a largely 4A-studded Royals lineup was only mildly inviting.
I ditched the idea of the B game, and slid over to the minor league fields on the Texas side — but the workout schedule was skewed because of an ownership/sponsorship event playing out on the fields.
So I jumped over to the big league morning workout, and the first thing I saw was an interesting trio of pitchers getting their side work in simultaneously.  The absence of Darren Oliver and Mike Gonzalez has opened the competition for a left-handed reliever to win a job, but the roster members (Michael Kirkman, Miguel De Los Santos, Kelvin De La Cruz, and Martin Perez, who needs to be pitching every fifth day in AAA in April) have struggled a bit out of the gate, and the non-roster veterans brought in (Joe Beimel, Mitch Stetter, and Neal Cotts) and fringe candidate Ben Snyder have had inconsistent showings.
First point: It’s really too early for me to be writing about this.  We’re talking about a couple innings of work for each lefty, plus some side work observations that have reached print about a few of them, and there’s more than three weeks of A and B games to go in this competition.
Second: There’s one development that it’s probably not too early to be writing about, another non-roster invite quietly making some noise.
While Yu Darvish drew a crowd on the PFP field and Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, and David Murphy attracted another swarm of fans as they rotated through a round of loud BP, few fans were hanging out in the bullpen area, where Mike Adams and Koji Uehara were getting their work in alongside a third pitcher, a short lefty with a stocky lower half that even the RoughRiders faithful have had only seven opportunities to see.
If Adams and Uehara are in good form, they can be very effective against left-handed hitters and diminish the need for a left-on-left specialist, perhaps one reason the club didn’t match what Toronto offered Oliver and along with the rest of the league hasn’t met Gonzalez’s demand for a healthy big league deal.  The job is likely still Kirkman’s to seize, but that small lefty getting his work in next to Adams and Uehara yesterday morning is entering the picture.
Robbie Ross has made one relief appearance in three pro seasons since being made the Rangers’ second-round pick in 2008 out of a Kentucky high school.  He’s been groomed as a starter, and he’s been a very good one.  Last year, the 22-year-old won the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year award and the circuit’s ERA title (2.26), and he finished particularly strong, firing quality starts nine times in his final 11 Myrtle Beach appearances and earning an August promotion to Frisco, where he posted a 2.61 ERA in six starts (36 strikeouts and five walks in 38 innings) and then struck out a career-high 12 in his lone playoff start.
Ross has rarely been mentioned in the same conversation as Perez, whose power arsenal he lacks, or Robbie Erlin, whose elite command catapulted him to the point at which he was able to key the Rangers’ trade deadline deal for Adams.  But Ross’s deceptive fastball-slider mix has always been difficult for minor league hitters to square up, or keep off the ground, and there’s a telling set of numbers in his 2011 profile that jumps out.
High A and AA opponents managed to hit only .228 off Ross last year, but zero in on what left-handed hitters did against him and you see a new frame, at least for now, to put the picture in.  Ross held Carolina League and Texas League lefties to an anemic .167 average, which included no home runs and only four doubles and a triple in 138 at-bats.
Move off of the hard evidence, and ask the scouts, and they’ll tell you that everything Ross offers moves.
Drill down beneath the tools, and they’ll rave about the kid’s confidence, an obviously key ingredient for any relief pitcher, particularly one whose role would be to come in and get Adrian Gonzalez and Robinson Cano and Eric Hosmer out, and even more important when considering a pitcher who has yet to pitch at this level or the AAA level or any more than a month in AA.
Ross has been a kid to keep an eye on for the last three years, but he may be changing the conversation when it comes to what we’re keeping an eye on him for, and how soon.
Obligatory Darvish observations from Sunday: (1) As he got settled in the home bullpen for the afternoon game against the Indians, he took a seat in a folding chair between bullpen catcher Josh Frasier and AAA pitching coach Terry Clark, with no interpreter in sight.  Cool.  (2) When Derek Holland and the Rangers defense took the field to Chuck Morgan’s introduction of “Your American League Champion Texas Rangers,” one of the 20 pitchers and catchers and coaches in the bullpen area applauded.  It was Darvish.  Cool.  (3) There’s a shaded area next to the two bullpen mounds, behind a chain-link separator.  When Holland jogged out to the pen after his efficient three innings to get a little more work in, Darvish (and Fabio Castillo) leaned up against the chain-link behind the lefthander and paid very close attention to what he was doing.  Cool.
Either non-roster catcher Chris Robinson has some Japanese in his arsenal, or he and Darvish went baseball-English as they chatted during the early innings.  Again, no interpreter.
Nice day for Mitch Moreland, who went 3 for 3 in the morning B game and 2 for 2 in the afternoon game (including a roped double off lefty Tony Sipp) before Ron Washington gave him the rest of the day off.  His batting practice displays have seemed healthy, too.
Ian Kinsler was scratched from the A game with minor tightness in his back, and I wonder if it had anything to do with the one-hopper off Brandon Snyder’s bat in morning BP that hit Kinsler in the back in short left center field as he was walking toward the clubhouse.  He seemed fine when it happened.  I’m sure he’ll be back at it today.
Kevin Goldstein ranks the farm systems for Baseball Prospectus, making Texas number six overall, behind Oakland (fourth) and just ahead of Seattle (seventh), while pegging the Angels at number 23 with this comment: “Without Mike Trout, this would be a nightmare, and he won’t qualify anymore after his first big league game of the season.”
My guess is that Robbie Ross will continue to qualify as a rookie when Goldstein issues his rankings a year from now, but I’m not as sure about that as I was two weeks ago, reserving the right to be even less certain in another couple weeks if he keeps on doing the right things on the back fields and, when he gets the chance, between the lines in the games that don’t really count but absolutely matter.

The Opposite of March Madness.

You know the next part of the story.
Five days after 19-year-old Wilson Alvarez’s disastrous debut against the Blue Jays, the undeterred White Sox accepted him and 20-year-old outfielder Sammy Sosa, who’d also been briefly showcased by Texas, for DH Harold Baines.
Alvarez’s first appearance for Chicago wouldn’t arrive until more than two years later.  In it he finally established a big league ERA by striking Mike Devereaux out swinging to lead off the first, adding swinging strikeouts of Juan Bell and Cal Ripken Jr. to end the frame.  The day would only get better.
In his debut, on July 24, 1989, Alvarez had emerged with an ERA of infinity.
In his second big league appearance, on August 11, 1991, he made history.  Alvarez no-hit the Orioles.
Yesterday morning, as we were about to jettison in an escape pod from a Phoenix hotel experience so comically terrible that it inspired me to write about Wilson Alvarez’s big league debut, I wrote: “Like Alvarez’s career, this trip is not only about to turn around in the right direction — it’s going to get exponentially better.  Starting now.”
The 45-minute drive that followed after I sent that report was my two-year wait for Alvarez’s next big league game, with what felt like the same payoff.
I didn’t see every one of Yu Darvish’s 43 live BP pitches, but I got there in time to see probably 35 of them, each overdubbed with the “clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack” soundtrack of a 1950s press box at full tilt.  Every moment of the 20 minutes I saw was captured by most of the 30 tripodded cameras lining the fence behind home plate, not just the deliveries to the plate (mostly from the stretch, but not exclusively), but also the discussions on the mound with Mike Maddux that couldn’t be heard and the handshake at the end with 25-year-old Myrtle Beach catcher Zach Zaneski.
To call this a circus is, as T.R. Sullivan recently put it, unfair and incorrect.  A mere visual of the swarm of Japanese press gives off a paparazzi vibe, but to actually take in the scene in person is a completely different experience.  The reporters and photographers are relentless in their mission but polite, methodical, and shockingly unobtrusive.
Sullivan’s words: “The media coverage of Yu Darvish is not a circus and anybody who tweets that is wrong.  The members of the media here from Japan to cover Darvish are professional, courteous and dedicated.”
It’s absolutely true.
And the symphony of clicking shutters, which lasted until Darvish disappeared from view behind the center field fence on his way to the clubhouse, was basically all that pierced the silence of the Surprise morning, with the training pilots from Luke Air Force Base evidently taking the morning off.
As the World Series came to an end, with all the bitterness and hurt that went with it, if someone had told me that, 19 weeks later, I’d be standing in a nearly silent place under high blue skies dotted by a dozen hot air balloons suspended and plotted in various directions, chilled occasionally by light shocks of air that made the 65 degrees all the more awesome, watching Yu Darvish throw measured, quiet, explosive pitches to Engel Beltre and Greg Miclat in front of four or five dozen reporters and photographers and visitor Akinori Otsuka, shaking Zaneski off from time to time as he settled in on exactly what pitch he wanted to prevent Beltre or Miclat from doing anything with, and doing it while wearing a Texas Rangers baseball uniform, clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack-clack, (measured, quiet, explosive), then the hurt would have hurt less, or at least for less of a duration.
This is where I drop the reminder that, when I’m in Surprise, my travel plans rarely extend beyond the Royals side of the complex.  So I wasn’t in Glendale to see what looks to have been sensationally efficient early-camp work from Colby Lewis and Scott Feldman and the latest episode of Craig Gentry’s chronic physical hiccups and a two-hit day from Mike Olt and a developing story line centered on Engel Beltre’s ability to play anywhere in the outfield and impact the game that way, but I did see Olt taking morning fungoes from Ron Washington at third base, and I’m glad I did, and I did see Josh Hamilton taking morning fungoes at first base before his turn at the plate, out of which not too much should be made, and I did get to watch Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus engage in what amounted to a duel of fungo-slap burnout at third base, which is appointment baseball, and I did meet the great Howard Byrant, who (like Gerry Fraley) can write on just about any subject and get my attention and make me smarter, and I did learn from Wash that “IKEA just don’t have my style.”
And I saw Yu Darvish preparing, which over the next five years or more will be one of very many things he will gift us, and the Wilson Alvarez-ness of my 2012 trip to Arizona moved forward just as it was supposed to.

From Phoenix, AZ: Momentary fail.

It was July 24, 1989, Arlington Stadium.  Texas Rangers lefthander Wilson Alvarez was 19, and toeing a big league rubber.  It was his Major League debut.

Up stepped Blue Jays leadoff hitter Junior Felix.  Line drive single to center.

Then Tony Fernandez.  Home run to left field.  Crushed.

Kelly Gruber.  Home run to center.  Cranked.

George Bell.  Seven-pitch walk.

Fred McGriff.  Four-pitch walk.

Alvarez’s day was done.  As was his Texas career, though he’d go on to put together a very solid 14-year run in which he won over 100 games and finished with a lifetime ERA under 4.00 — in spite of that Rangers ERA that doesn’t even register numerically, since you can’t divide by zero.

The hotel that we stayed at in Phoenix last night was a number you can’t divide by zero.  A Wilson Alvarez debut.  A fly ball caught by Conor Jackson’s eye.  A power outage on Grand Avenue.  A marginal upgrade from yesterday afternoon’s scene at the DFW Airport gate where that guy was flossing (if not punishing) his teeth, in full view of a crowd waiting out the delayed boarding of a flight that would be full and dreading that he’d end up in neighboring seat, a dental exercise carried out publicly with the ferocity and relentlessness of Tony Fernandez and Kelly Gruber jumping all over a poor young pitcher not anywhere near ready for the Major Leagues.

Don’t ask which hotel it was.  You’ll never stay here.  It’s not anywhere near Surprise, in fact not near any spring training complexes.  Or campus.  Or anything else remotely in your wheelhouse.

Like Alvarez’s career, this trip is not only about to turn around in the right direction — it’s going to get exponentially better.

Starting now.

On to Surprise, after a very brief stay in Phoenix that packed in as much fail as the worst pitching debut in Rangers history.

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