The revitalizing effects of Draft Day.
On August 25, 1996, Texas rolled on the Twins, 13-2, behind five home runs and a strong Bobby Witt start. The win was the Rangers’ 12th in 16 games, extending their division lead to a season-high-matching eight games. They were on their way to the first playoff appearance in franchise history, led by league MVP Juan Gonzalez and team leader Ivan Rodriguez, who would earn his first top 10 MVP finish that year as well.
That same day, the Yankees fell to Oakland, 6-4, their 10th loss in 16 games, though they maintained a six-game lead in the AL East. Coming off its first playoff season in 14 years, New York would reach the post-season again in 1996, the second of what would be 13 straight Octobers and the first of three out of four that would begin with a spanking of the Rangers in the ALDS. That 1996 season was Derek Jeter’s rookie campaign.
Both Pudge and Jetes would put up an OPS of .882 when their clubs met in that playoff series.
The day after Texas 13, Minnesota 2 and Oakland 6, New York 4, a kid named Edward Ti’Quan Forbes was born in Mississippi. Eleven months before that, a kid named Luis Ortiz was born in Northern California.
The preceding has been more than just an awkward effort to point out that the Rangers drafted players last night who were born in 1995 and 1996, which makes me feel even older than the fact that my daughter (born the day after Texas drafted Scott Heard, Laynce Nix, Nick Masset, and Edwin Encarnacion) turns 14 today.
It’s also a setup to shoehorn in the fact that it was Pudge who stepped to the podium to announce the Forbes selection last night, and it was Jeter whom Forbes singled out as the player he models his game after.
As long as MLB (with very limited exceptions) disallows the trading of draft picks, you never want to be drafting near the top of round one (because of that which prompted it), and if you’re fortunate enough that your team is strong enough to be parked toward the back of the first, the result is that the names tend not to sizzle as much in the projections or the selections themselves.
But when you hear your General Manager say about Ortiz, taken by Texas last night with the 30th overall pick: “Our guys were pretty ecstatic — there are years when you line it up and the board dries up real quick, and there are years when other teams see things differently, and this was probably one of those years because we got a guy that we love,” it sounds a lot like what he said a year earlier when his guys were thrilled to see Oral Roberts righthander Chi Chi Gonzalez fall to number 23.
I’ve never seen Ortiz pitch. I’ve seen the same videos you might have seen since last night, but that’s it. And even if I’d seen him pitch in person a dozen times, I’m certainly not qualified to say whether he was the better pick than fellow high school righties Michael Kopech (from Mount Pleasant) or Jack Flaherty, both of whom went a few minutes later, or than righthander Sean Reid-Foley or outfielder Monte Harrison, two kids widely projected to go a full round earlier than the mid-second round slots where they were ultimately chosen. I have no opinion on the forearm issue that caused Ortiz to miss one start this spring, or whether to be encouraged by or concerned about the 40-pound weight loss a year ago and the body type that necessitated it (people raised similar red flags once upon a time about Felix Hernandez, whose game Ortiz models his own after). I leave all those things to the people making ultimate decisions for the Rangers, and the scouts and advisors and medical team providing their evaluations along the way.
But I will say this: When Jon Daniels, informed by his team of evaluators, says they expected Ortiz to go off the board in the upper half of round one, and calls his “pure stuff as good as anybody in the draft — big league-caliber stuff right now,” and also drops the “strike-thrower” and “bigtime competitor” praise on the kid, and adds that he’s a very good bet to sign right away (his slot is valued at $1.7605 million) rather than hold the team hostage with the leverage of his commitment to Fresno State, and when a guy like ESPN’s Keith Law (with his own background in scouting and player development) judged Ortiz to be the number 10 draft prospect in his final evaluation, published Wednesday, then I’ve heard all I need to hear to be pretty fired up about the pick.
And I would have said that even without having seen Law suggest: “I think the Rangers just got their best pitching prospect with the 30th pick, and he could be in the Texas rotation by late 2016,” when he’ll still be just 20 years old. If Ortiz — who says he’s never had a pitching coach, but instead developed and refined his mechanics by intently watching King Felix and others on TV — does move fellow righthanders Gonzalez and Luke Jackson down a slot in the Rangers’ pecking order, even arguably, then the decision not to sign Kendrys Morales before the draft and forfeit that draft pick looks even better, as does the strength of the pipeline flowing toward Texas.
As for Forbes, a toolsy, projectable athlete who was projected by at least five different mock-drafters to be a strong bet to go to Oakland at pick number 25 — and at one point Law’s prediction for Texas at number 30 — the fact that the Ole Miss commit fell to 59, for now, feels less like a concern than a potential windfall.
One of the youngest players in the draft (if you did the math above, you know he won’t turn 18 until late August), he’s a high school shortstop whom Assistant GM A.J. Preller believes could stay at that spot or move to third base or the outfield. Also his high school’s quarterback, the 6’3” Forbes has the bat speed and arm strength and run tool combination that causes scouts to dream, and while the predictability of his development could be as erratic as A.J. Preller’s war room sport coat, I won’t ever complain about an organization who loads up on the high risk/high reward types, because for every Jordan Akins and K.C. Herren (and Jameis Winston) there’s a Jorge Alfaro, and you don’t win in baseball by playing it safe on the talent acquisition side.
The Rangers had five first-round picks in the pivotal summer of 2007. Four of them have reached the big leagues, and the fifth (Michael Main) was traded well, bringing Bengie Molina into the fold at a time when Texas needed a frontline catcher to help push the momentum forward for a franchise that still hadn’t won a playoff series. Five other players from that Rangers draft class have gotten to the big leagues, including three who didn’t sign with Texas (Drew Pomeranz, Erik Davis, and John Gast), and there are a few others who still have a chance, like Matt West and Ryan Tatusko, not to mention Anthony Ranaudo, another draftee who didn’t sign here.
And here’s the thing about that 2007 draft class: Of the 10 eventual big leaguers and those who still could earn that opportunity, just seven years later only two are still Texas Rangers — Mitch Moreland and West, one of whom was moved from the infield to the mound in the minor leagues and the other of whom almost was.
It’s an awesome thought to imagine Luis Ortiz Bobbleheads and Ti’Quan Forbes T-Shirt Night in Arlington one day, and maybe that’s where this is headed, but there’s also the possibility that they could each get nothing more than a big league cup of coffee here, hit a wall before AA, or be moved together in two years in a deal for Andrew Cashner, and that’s assuming they both sign pro contracts in the next few weeks as expected.
There’s plenty that’s starting to make me feel old these days, including draft picks who haven’t lived a day when Derek Jeter wasn’t a Major Leaguer, but there’s also something about Draft Day that rejuvenates me annually, and while I’m pretty sure I won’t be writing regularly about baseball when some kid born tomorrow gets drafted by a big league franchise, today is not the day to ask me to bet against it.