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The path.

For all the Juan Gonzalez-ness that Joey Gallo throws down, you read stories about Gallo spending his winters training with Jason Giambi, whose on-base numbers were more formidable than his power, and the picture gathers depth.

You read about Gallo “living in Adrian Beltre’s back pocket” in camp, as Mike Daly described it in a Monday morning MLB Network Radio interview.

About Gallo hanging around fellow lefty bomber Prince Fielder (nearly as much an on-base monster as Giambi was) as eagerly around the cage as he is around Beltre in the field.

About Gallo engaged in regular conversations with Michael Young about absolutely whatever Young wants to get across to the 21-year-old.

You read all those things, and you gain confidence that we’re fortunate not only that Texas engineered the first 10 rounds of its 2012 draft to go far over slot on Gallo with the compensatory pick it gained for the loss of C.J. Wilson, but also to have Gallo in a system where he’s gotten the coaching he has, and now has Beltre and Fielder and Young, along with Giambi, lining his path. 

For all the patience that we need to summon up as far as Gallo’s arrival is concerned, there’s comfort in recognizing how much a kid like that can grow during finishing school, just by being around Beltre in the field and Fielder by the cage and Young anywhere at all, not to mention Giambi in the off-season, and I won’t even stretch to point out he took Greg Maddux’s daughter to his senior prom. 

I believe part of what made Josh Hamilton so dominant in Texas was, yes, being embraced by an organization willing to take every step it could take to set him up for success, but also the fact that he got the chance to play for Ron Washington, and for all the sadness that clouds their careers today, nobody can deny their good fortune to have crossed paths.  That was a fit.

I heard a talk radio discussion last week about how Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler and J.J. Barea, for instance, have seen their games blossom — or even re-blossom — under Rick Carlisle.  We all know what Johnny Narron did for Mike Napoli’s career.  What playing with Young meant to Ian Kinsler.  Beltre for Elvis Andrus.

If the Rangers’ Fall Instructs experiment with Ryan Cordell at shortstop is really something the organization takes into 2015 — an opportunity created in part with Jurickson Profar down and Luis Sardinas and Odubel Herrera and Chris Bostick gone — you can imagine how important it is that Cordell, in camp well before minor leaguers are expected to report, is getting to watch a rededicated Andrus get his work in.

There have already been reports that Young (“the work really gets fun for me when I get a chance to work with a young kid and help him out with his day and help him out with his career”) has stopped down with Rougned Odor and Michael De Leon in the last few days, and he’s spent time with Cordell as well.  That’s awesome.

We’ll never be able to quantify how much any of these guys will have meant to Gallo’s development, or Cordell’s, or what Chi Chi Gonzalez can add to his polish by watching Yu Darvish work, and we don’t yet know whose career Jeff Banister will be indispensable to, but you see Young say, “I’m shocked [Banister] never got an opportunity before . . . he’s very hungry, very passionate . . . brings a lot of things to the table,” and then Phil Klein adds, “He says, ‘Why not us?,’ like people can doubt us, but it doesn’t matter . . . what it comes down to it is you’re there to win the day and get your work in, and let people say what they want to say . . . Oh, my God, I loved it . . . it gives you goose bumps” — well, me, too.

Leonys Martin has exceptional defensive and baserunning tools.  Jayce Tingler, whose work with him started months ago, will help them play at an even higher level.

Banister is going to be great for Andrus.  I think we all feel that.

Something, according to a whole bunch of local reports, has gotten into Darvish, and it’s all good.  Banister has apparently looked his ace in the eye and said he wants him pitching inside more, and wants his starting pitchers as a group to lead this club in communicating better, and Darvish is telling reporters — in English, which is pretty cool — that he’s all in on both counts.  

Darvish played for two managers in Japan (Trey Hillman and Masataka Nashida) and now two in the Major Leagues.  You can say about dozens of Rangers players that they have the opportunity to take all the positives they learned from Ron Washington and blend in the things that Banister brings to the table — but for Darvish, who had no minor league seasoning stateside and thus has basically learned the MLB game from Wash and Mike Maddux, the idea of integrating Banister’s perspective and expectations into his approach makes you wonder whether it could help the 28-year-old take his elite game to a new level in 2015, as a pitcher and as a leader, the latter of which would give me more confidence that he’ll want to continue paving this path in Texas, in the form of his next contract.

The Rangers, set to face the Royals in the exhibition opener tomorrow, got an intrasquad game in on Sunday, and in it Darvish struck out two in a scoreless inning of work, while Anthony Ranaudo fanned three in his scoreless frame.  It was a game that featured the three Ross’s getting work on the mound — Detwiler, Ohlendorf, and Wolf — though not Robbie Jr., who was traded five weeks ago for Ranaudo.  Maybe the Rangers do for Ranaudo and the Red Sox do for Ross what Narron did for Napoli and Carlisle has done for Barea.

Actually, look back to Edinson Volquez for Hamilton and what altered paths did for those two in 2008.  That’s not to suggest Ranaudo is going to go 17-6, 3.21 in the big leagues this season or that Ross will be that dominant in a bullpen role, but this isn’t Strat-O-Matic or FanDuel, and sometimes new coaches and new roles and new expectations do make a difference.  

Ranaudo takes Ross’s number 46, which I mention only because I tend to spotlight a very specific uniform number this day every year, and 46 has a pretty light Rangers history, but today I’m 46, which gives me license to shoehorn, not that it would be unfair for you to suggest every day is Shoehorn Day in this space.    

I’m not sure I’d say I feel older this morning, but I have felt older lately, for any number of reasons, and when Minnie Minoso passed away on Sunday, another piece of my youth was lost.  

Pretty much all baseball cards were magic to me as a child, but few were magical as this one:

 minoso

The back of the card described a “lined single to left field” by the man whose flawlessly classic baseball name, even to a wide-eyed eight-year-old, and the tremendously cool, tricked-up White Sox uniform he rocked were only the second- and third-coolest things about that card.  Minnie Minoso was 53 years old when he rifled that single to left that I had perfectly imagined in my second-grade mind.  

Minoso, who got into three September games in that 1976 season (one of which Bobby Jones appeared in for the Angels), had famously played big league baseball in the ’40s, the ’50s, the ’60s, and the ’70s, and that was so cool.  

When Minoso (who started playing in the Negro Leagues in ’46) turned age 46, he was seven years post-retirement — but five years pre-unretirement.

And nine years pre-unretirement, too.  Minoso got into two games for Chicago in 1980.

And then one for the tremendously cool, tricked-up independent St. Paul Saints club in 1993.

And one for the Saints in 2003.  

Seven decades of ball.  C’mon.  Does it get any cooler?

Minnie Minoso is gone, taking with him that little 2.5” x 3.5” piece of my youth, which probably makes me no different from baseball fans from any of three or four generations.

So yeah, feeling a bit older.

But just about every time I sit down to write, I end up feeling a bit younger by time I finish and click “Send.”  I think the word “inspiration” means breathing life into something, and I don’t take for granted that you guys give me the chance to write things I want about baseball.  I appreciate that a lot.  

I appreciate the opportunity to stay close to this great game, any way I can.

I started doing this when Juan Gonzalez was having his career year and Michael Young was playing his first full season of minor league baseball, and I’m still doing it as Young’s post-playing path brings him back to the Texas Rangers, where he’s already impacting the paths Joey Gallo and Michael De Leon find themselves on.  

And as the Rangers make preparations for an international J2 class that will be full of kids born after I first started emailing these reports out.

So, yeah, clicking “Send” doesn’t always make me feel younger.

Progress.

Does the new manager’s tone-setting “Why not us?” message at his first team meeting, talking about the taste of blood from getting punched in 2014’s mouth, slamming the door, and moving forward, promise a few extra in the W column this year?

Will Jeff Banister’s belief in shorter, more efficient spring training workouts, getting focused work in, eliminating the mundane, and getting the players off their feet and back into the clubhouse to team-build, help Matt Harrison and Martin Perez get back on the mound sooner?

Does the fact (OK, the likelihood) that Joey Gallo will be wearing some really cool, weathered combination of Scorched Red, Slate Blue, Texas Navy, and Cream on April 9, in front of a hi-def video board five times larger than its predecessor, mean Gallo’s incubation in Frisco will be even shorter and his debut in Arlington will come sooner?  Same answer if you throw in a State Fair-inspired area down the third base line at Dr Pepper Ballpark that will include a revolving series of local food trucks?

Does Michael Young’s presence in Surprise boost the odds on that re-breakout year from Elvis Andrus?

When Young’s day in camp lasts five and a half hours longer than his former teammates’ day and just might have involved some time around Ryan Cordell, the possible significance of which I’ll write about another time, are you feeling better about baseball?

Do the players’ #Nevereverquit T-shirts mean Prince Fielder will refind that backspin that no defensive overshift can do anything about?

Which moved the Bovada needle more: Baseball Prospectus’s evaluation that Chi Chi Gonzalez’s “realistic ceiling” is “James Shields with slightly fewer innings” and his “realistic floor” is “[t]he good version of Mike Leake,” or the impression Juan Carlos Oviedo made on Rangers coaches before the full squad had reported?   

Does the apparent fact that one of Gallo’s backfield BP bombs reaching the parking lot across North Bullard led Bobby Jones to use the word “freakin’” for the first and last time in his storied baseball life mean 2015 is going to be very different?

When Adrian Beltre agrees essentially to flip his 2015 and 2016 salaries, giving Texas an added $2 million of payroll relief this season, does it increase the chances of 162+ by making it more feasible to add a veteran lefthander to the bullpen now or to work with more ammunition in July?

Is Banister’s lengthy talk with Nick Williams something his predecessor would have fit in, and if not are you feeling better about April 6-9 in Oakland?

The answers to each of the above are probably somewhere between “not necessarily,” “uh, no,” and “how do I unsubscribe?”  But I’ve spent the last few minutes watching the national news roll out stories on llamas, the color of some dress, and Vanilla Ice, and I’m probably a little disoriented as a result.  I need baseball.

I know this: Every single thing above is awesome.  Even Bobby Jones cleaning up his vocabulary.

I also know this: Sometimes progress can be measured in wins.  Sometimes in days spent on the field rather than DL.  Sometimes in better uniforms and LED boards.  

And sometimes progress is nothing more than inching one day closer to ball.

The curse of caring.

I read words about Joey Gallo a couple days ago, describing the sound every six seconds of ball-off-bat under the rolling batting cage.  I saw no video.  I heard no audio.  I just read words.

It got me off my feet.

I’ve seen Gallo BP’s before, both on the back fields in Surprise and in Dr Pepper Stadium in Frisco, not to mention on TV from last summer’s Futures Game.  It’s not as if the accounts this week of what Gallo does to baseballs in his wheelhouse are any sort of revelation.  But, like Josh Hamilton BP’s back in the day, and Travis Hafner BP’s, and Mark Teixeira and Hank Blalock and Shawn Gallagher and Jason Botts, that sound — that sound — never gets old.

Just as we understand the meaning of sounds like that one, most of us probably have just as clear an understanding why it wouldn’t move the needle for those around us who don’t care so much about sports.  

The call on Dez’s catch still hurts, and its memory will gnaw and stab will for a lot longer than Justin Abdelkader’s cross-check on Kari Lehtonen, but last night’s Stars finish was a crusher — though maybe if James Harden were in goal for Dallas, wincing and shrieking and flinging his arms into the air the night before the Academy Awards, overtime might not have been necessary.

And maybe it would be a lot easier if I didn’t care.

No, thanks.

Maybe the rifle-report reverberating off Joey’s bat at regular six-second intervals shouldn’t continue reverberating, happily, in my head, especially when it’s just words about a sound, a clockwork sound on a chainlink-aproned practice field with a scoreboard that’s almost never turned on, a sound that has no special meaning other than the time on the calendar when it first finds us each year.

Maybe (unquestionably) if I hadn’t experienced Josh Hamilton’s spectacular rise in Texas from everything that preceded it, the equally spectacular fall since then wouldn’t reverberate so loudly and violently against the same sports nerve.  And maybe if I weren’t a Rangers or Angels or baseball fan, Josh Hamilton wouldn’t be anywhere near my radar, and all this would be simpler.

Not interested.

(And if I ever doubted, even momentarily, whether the end to Hamilton’s Texas career would end up overshadowing for me what came before it, I don’t today.  For all the mess his career finds itself in now — at the moment the husband of the newest Real Housewife of Orange County is baseball’s highest-paid position player in 2015 . . . and will be in 2016 . . . and will be in 2017 . . . with a full no-trade clause — I find myself today feeling a little sympathy for the guy.  I’m shocked at the Angels’ decision not to issue a locker this spring to Hamilton, who is expected to be sidelined through camp as he rehabs from early-February shoulder surgery.  That’s a brutal, embarrassing message for the franchise that offered that contract to that player to send to everyone else it pays, and to everyone who pays to watch them play baseball.)  

Joey Gallo is never going to be associated with Red Bull overload or smokeless tobacco withdrawals or ocular keratitis or blue-eyedness (Gallo’s eyes are brown).  He’s never going to say, “It’s gonna be something weird.”  He’s never going to drop a pop-up in center field unless it’s in Fall Instructs.  I’m never going to have to write about him: “He made $28.2 million in five years here.  He’ll make $125 million in five years there.  I’m not going to say those numbers will end up looking backwards in terms of the production he provides, but I’m sorta confident about which team will have gotten the better deal.” 

And the Texas Rangers will never passive-aggressively open camp without putting a locker up for Gallo, or for any of its players, no matter the reason.

Hamilton wasn’t included on the list of baseballs 30 best position players according to MLB Network Radio’s Jim Bowden and Casey Stern, but one thing he has in common with 10 of them is that he was traded while still a prospect, and Robinson Cano should have made that total 11.  Maybe Gallo will be traded before he’s an established big leaguer.  

But I seriously doubt it, because the Dodgers aren’t trading Clayton Kershaw.

(Which reminds me, for the portion of you who didn’t email me this week complaining that Texas didn’t trade Jurickson Profar for Giancarlo Stanton back when Profar was healthy and when Giancarlo was “Mike”:  The answer is that the Marlins never offered to do that.) 

That special sound of ball-off-left-handed-bat notwithstanding, Joey Gallo is not Josh Hamilton.  He’s no more 2008-2012 Josh Hamilton than he is 1999-2007 Josh Hamilton or today’s version.  Though none of would be surprised to see Gallo own a big league Home Run Derby one day or grace the cover of Sports Illustrated (assuming SI still puts photos on its covers), I give no more thought to whether Gallo could one day reach Hamilton peaks or Hamilton valleys than to whether Jamie Benn or Lindy Ruff could get fined as much for their (well taken) postgame comments as James Harden did for his flop against Blake Griffin in 2013.

And I give no moment’s concern to where Gallo might fit in Texas, given the outstanding speculation today that the Rangers, unsurprisingly, are determined to have Adrian Beltre finish his career as a Ranger and could go ahead and pick up his 2016 option for $16 million now, rather than wait to see if he racks up the 586 plate appearances this season needed to lock that club option in.  Gallo is an athlete, and will fit just fine at any of the four corners, and where he starts his career defensively won’t necessarily be where he spends most of it.  When the bat is ready, Gallo will be given a locker in Arlington.

No, Gallo isn’t going to head to Oakland the first weekend in April, but I’ve got no hesitation believing that the next Rangers team to win at the level at which the Hamilton Rangers won will feature both Beltre and Gallo in key roles.

Hey, I’ll haul off and drop a thousand meaningless words on you with no more motivation than a sentence or two about how batting practice sounds.  Maybe it’s because it’s in the 30’s and threatening sleet here, and in the 60’s and threatening monotony there.  Maybe it’s the cautiously optimistic news on Matt Harrison and on Kyle Blanks, or Mike Maddux telling reporters, about Keone Kela: “He throws freakin’ gas.  The ball comes out hot, real hot.”  Maybe it’s because I needed to create a distraction after last night’s hockey game.    

If I didn’t care at all about Blanks’s chances to help or Kela’s future at the back of this team’s bullpen, if I hadn’t been holding out flagging hope that this Stars team could battle its way into the eighth spot as the cavalry comes back off Injured Reserved, if none of this mattered all that much to me, it would make me no different from most of the people I know.  

But that’s not a me I want to be, because I’d rather care too much.  Sign me up for the brutal calls and the injury angst and the not-so-great expectations, and the chance to care about a team that battles and claws and competes to overcome all those things, and I’m right in my wheelhouse, waiting on another cookie out and over the plate, once every six seconds.

Stinks.

The Rangers have suited both Sandy Alomar Sr. and Sandy Alomar Jr. up.

Same with Mike Bacsik Sr. and Mike Bacsik Jr.

And Ruben Sierra Sr. and Ruben Sierra Jr., though the latter only on the farm.

There were Kevin Brown and the Kevin “The Catcher” Brown.

And Doug Davis and Doug “The Catcher” Davis, the latter of whom played one game as a Texas Ranger, singling to the shortstop hole in his lone plate appearance, which sounds vaguely reminiscent of an event that happened for another catcher nine months earlier, to the day.

Dan Smith, lefty, and Dan Smith, righty.

Texas has employed all four Esteban’s to ever play in the big leagues, and all four Beltre’s.

The Rangers are bringing righthander David Martinez to camp this week, and were one of four clubs to get big league at-bats from Dave Martinez in 2000.

One Luis Ortiz came over in the Jose Canseco trade to Boston (and got his burgeoning coaching career started here), the other is one of the Rangers’ top pitching prospects today.

Maybe one day there will be a second Mike Stanton in Texas.  My petition is in.

Once upon a time there were two Rangers righthanders named Julio Santana.  Probably.

But the Rangers have created a new category by signing, according to Baseball America’s Ben Badler, the 17-year-old brother of second baseman Rougned Odor to a minor league contract.

The younger brother’s name:

Rougned Odor.

Though a great many are already in Surprise getting work in, Rangers pitchers and catchers officially report tomorrow.

Eventually, it appears, so will the infielding Rougned Odor’s.

And that’s this afternoon’s installment of Today in Awesome.

 

Untitled.

Ten years ago today, Amar’e Stoudemire was preparing for the following day’s matchup against the Mavericks (a club his Suns would eventually oust in the playoffs), after which he would make the first All-Star Game appearance of his career, at age 22.   

It also turns out, I figured out today, that 10 years ago was the last time I’ve been as clobbered by the flu as I am right now.  The day I finally got past this crud that time in 2005, I wrote about the Rangers signing Pedro Astacio.

Pedro Astacio.

Guess I should be grateful it’s been that long.

Sorry I haven’t written in a few days, and it may be a couple more.  If I were feeling even a little better than this, I’d have written a virtually useless history of my ability to watch newest Rangers camp invite Jamey Wright pitch.  So maybe you’re better off that I’m sick.  High five.

Jamey Wright and Pedro Astacio were teammates for three years.  

In the ’90s.

And with that I’ll say farewell for the night, but hopefully not the week.  Amar’e Stoudemire is apparently a Dallas Maverick, based on a report tweeted out minutes ago by RealGM, and I don’t remember when he made that first All-Star Team and backed vote-leader Yao Ming up in the game, but I now remember all too well what those chills and sweats and all that other stuff felt like back then, and I’d probably trade it for another 2-8, 6.04 season out of Pedro Astacio.

Probably.

On Wright, I will say this, since a few of you have reminded me of those entries in 2007 when I admitted to having a very difficult time watching him pitch: I turned it around in 2008.  (May 5 of that season: “Wright, with all his moving parts, seems to be a great example of a guy who appears to be monumentally better out of the stretch, mechanically.”) 

Two months later, minutes after Josh Hamilton had walked one off against the Angels, I sent a quick report out, no longer than this one, and wrote this caption — “That look on Jamey Wright’s face is frozen on mine.  Still.” — underneath this photo:

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Texas Rangers 

That walkoff look Wright is sporting is about a 180 from the flu look I’m throwing down right now.

I’d finish this one with a reminder that we’re four sleeps away from baseball, but I’m gonna do my best to get in about a dozen between now and Friday.

Catch you again soon.

jamey wright mug

Nine.

Nine days.

Nine days until the first scrape and crunch of cleats on the sidewalk west and the sidewalk south, connecting the clubhouse to the back fields, a few miles north of Luke Air Force Base.  

The chatter, the carioca, the sweet music of slightly asynchronous long toss.

Nine days until about seven days until we grow weary of the vanilla cliches and recycled B-roll and yet another story about Matty’s back or Prince’s mission or Jurickson’s hair, and crave footage of a second team on the field, on one end or the other of pitches being judged by umpires, with the scoreboard turned on.

Nine days until about seven days until another 10 days or so until our eyes start to glaze over at yet another box score weighed down by two dozen players a side, and (even as Pat Cantwell does something else to impress the new big league manager, a story that will earn 10 fewer segments than the 10 on Jurickson’s hair) here comes another wave of vanilla cliches from the guys in BB-140C blue, telling us spring training is about two weeks too long, and everyone’s ready to leave Arizona to get back to Texas en route to Oakland, and not one of us will disagree.  

Nine days until about seven days until another 10 days or so until a few more weeks until we’ll cringe at how one of those four against the A’s went, with Ben Zobrist probably in the middle of things, wishing we could roll the calendar back a bit and get at least one do-over.  

That all seems like a long way off — “Better Call Saul” debuted (awesomely) just three days ago, and I think the first season will end by time Chuck Morgan introduces the Rangers and Astros — but we’re only a few “best shape of his life” quotes away from the sounds of fungo on horsehide on leather, of PFP’s and Adrian barking at Smiling Elvis, of Jeff Banister’s first spring training west of the Gulf.

Nine days.

Let’s go.

Nick Pants

Nick Pants

                                                 

Anxious.

There are times when the crush of story ideas debilitates me into total brainlock.

Then there are times when it feels like there’s just not a lot out there to comment on, and over the years I’ve tried to take that cue and not force empty words and kilobytes on you, which in five minutes you might suggest I occasionally fail to do.  

But sometimes a story idea creeps out from a place you don’t expect, and while this really isn’t a story at all — and probably shouldn’t have brought me to the keyboard this morning — here I am and here it goes.

Yesterday I was reading a Richard Justice column on MLB.com about the James Shields market and locked in on a Rangers mention:

“At this late date, several teams that might have had previous interest in Shields — the Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers — have filled out their rotation and are anxious to get to Spring Training and begin assessing their club.”

Lately I’ve considered sitting down to write about the camp competition set up between Michael Choice, Kyle Blanks, and Ryan Ludwick; about the subject of Johan Santana and Phil Coke and Joe Thatcher . . . and Martire Garcia; about the Hamiltons and shoulder surgery and reality TV; and about a really good column not about Tyler Seguin, but by him.

I’ve thought about spotlighting Keith Law’s Top 100 Prospects rollout, which contains six Rangers (four in the top 52) and includes three pitchers: Jake Thompson, Chi Chi Gonzalez (whom Law says “is probably the fourth- or fifth-best starting pitcher in the organization, period”), and Luis Ortiz (which is interesting, even if you don’t recognize that Cubs righthander C.J. Edwards, the key regret piece in the Rangers’ 2013 trade for Matt Garza, is nowhere on Law’s Top 100).  

Law also said this week on a Chicago radio station: “I could watch [Joey] Gallo take BP all day long.  It’s freakish.  I mean there’s 80 power, and there’s Gallo.  Gallo is [Giancarlo] Stanton-type power — the other players stop what they’re doing [to watch].”

I almost wrote a story about that.

I’ve resisted bullet-pointing a hundred things Jeff Banister said at the January 25 Coaches’ Clinic, but man, I won’t be able to resist forever, at least on some of what Banister shared for an awesome hour-plus.  

Allen Simpson (Perfect Game USA) wrote a Sporting News column this week in which he tabbed the Texas farm system as baseball’s second best (behind the Cubs), probably an overly aggressive ranking but a note that I might nonetheless have tucked toward the end of a COFFEY report, after notes about Boston’s refusal to put catcher Blake Swihart into a Cole Hamels deal (and why that’s relevant) and about the Red Sox now employing three of the busiest six relievers from the Rangers’ 2012 bullpen with the addition of both Robbie Ross Jr. and Alexi Ogando, and before mention of new homes for Neal Cotts, Scott Baker, Ben Rowen, Taylor Teagarden, Joey Butler, Nick Masset, Josh Wilson, Wilfredo Boscan, Joe Benson, Eli Whiteside, and Charlie Leesman, new limbo for Gonzalez Germen, and three new roving minor league instructors hired by the Rangers, including the only “Dwayne” in baseball history to have played in the big leagues without having a run in the Rangers organization.

I considered building a report around Thad Levine’s segment on the Ben and Skin Show yesterday, focused not on his use of the term “fluid organism” but instead on the things he said about the huge impact the club is already getting from Michael Young, who has been “working out a ton with our younger players, . . . educating [them on] how the game is supposed to be played, the way that he played it, the way the Texas Rangers played it when we went to two World Series.”  Levine talked about the benefits of “wear testing” how the front office communicates with players by bouncing ideas first off Young and Darren Oliver and letting them help streamline the message and the delivery.  Levine suggested that Young has limitless possibilities in the game, whether it’s in a front office capacity or in coaching, and that the “second half of his career has a chance to be as good, if not better, than his playing career.” 

I thought about writing about Kyler Murray and Russell Wilson, and an analytic model this week that compared Rougned Odor to Robinson Cano.

But in every one of those cases, I decided, right or wrong, that it just wasn’t worth overblogging on.

Then I read that Justice piece on Shields yesterday, zeroed in on the sentence that drew the subject of the Texas Rangers peripherally into the story, and dismissed the idea of Shields (and of writing at length about him) just as Justice did himself.

The rest of that sentence is what got my baseball adrenaline going.  

. . . anxious to get to Spring Training and begin assessing their club.” 

Man.  

There’s not really a story to write about those 11 words.  But they struck a nerve, because I know that’s exactly how many of us feel.

Between now and Surprise, I’d expect there to be a nameplate printed up for another left-handed reliever, or maybe another bat brought in to compete for work, and I suppose there’s a chance something happens over the next two weeks that prompts me to write something with actual substance.  But if not, that’s OK.  Because it’s just about that time.  Time to get there, and begin assessing.

It’s just about that time.

The importance of Rocky Bridges.

Jeff Banister, well over an hour into his allotted 30 minutes, pointed at one of the 300 seated coaches and asked him to name the coach who had the greatest impact on him when he was a kid, and why.

Banister pointed at another coach and asked the same two questions.

And another.

And another.

He went through the exercise maybe 10 times, and challenged the room to think about the legacy left with every word, every act.

Banister’s own answer to his first question: Rocky Bridges.

I’ve gotta confess: Rocky Who?  I scribbled the name down to Google later.

If you were at Rangers Ballpark for the Coaches’ Clinic that Sunday morning a week and a half ago, or the Awards Dinner two nights earlier, or Fan Fest in between, and got the chance to be around Jeff Banister for any amount of time at all, you’ve experienced the unmistakable presence, the command of the room, the posture and the pitch, all the things that add up to the epitome of Coach.  There’s a charisma that, in the delivery, won’t remind you of Ernie Banks — who we lost that weekend — but like it was with Banks, it takes about three minutes around Banister for you to start scrambling around looking for the eye black, and a wall to run through. 

I have no doubt what Banister’s stance is on playing two.

But back to the point.  

You think about all the influences Banister must have had in his life in pro ball, which will enter its 30th year when Pitchers & Catchers report 16 sleeps from now, not to mention the Little League and high school and college coaches before that, including his Dad Bob, a high school football and basketball coach in La Marque.  

Banister was managed by Jim Leyland.  Mentored by Chuck Tanner.  Groomed by Clint Hurdle.  

But Rocky Bridges was the one, even though that Google search seemed to establish that Bridges, who played pro ball for 15 years and managed in the minor leagues for 21, was never once with a club that Banister suited up for himself.

In one sense there’s more Banks in Banister than there is Bridges, in that Banister spent 29 years with the same franchise, an anomaly that calls to mind names like Banks, and Brett, and Bench, while Bridges was employed by seven different clubs as a player, and then four different organizations as a manager, three of which he’d never played for.

Bridges’s final stop was the Pirates, whose Prince William and Vancouver and Buffalo and Salem farm clubs he managed in the late ’80s, but in those same four seasons Banister was in Watertown and Macon and twice in Harrisburg.  No apparent overlap between Banister and the man he credits with making the greatest impact on his baseball life.

The 21st and final team Bridges managed was the 1989 Salem Buccaneers of the High Class A Carolina League, which was one level below the AA Harrisburg club that Banister played for.  They presumably spent time around each other in more than one spring training in Bradenton, but that’s not when the connection was made.

Bridges, you might discover by digging enough, hung around the Pittsburgh organization for a few years after he was done managing, serving as its roving minor league infield instructor.  He remained in that role in 1994, when a freshly retired Banister, only 30 years of age, was appointed to manage the Welland Pirates of the Short-Season A New York-Penn League.  As it turns out, Bridges, spent a great deal of that summer — his last of 48 in the pro game as far as I can tell — as Banister’s de facto bench coach, a 67-year-old lifer shepherding a survivor less than half his age.  A native of Refugio, Texas mentoring a native of La Marque, 1600 miles away in Ontario, Canada. 

Banister recalls Bridges, who I’ve learned in the last few days was one of the game’s all-time great characters, as having an uncanny ability to manage men, striking the perfect balance between stern and serious on the one hand, and keeping things light and loose on the other.  “Rocky taught me that baseball wasn’t going to define us as men,” Banister learned from Bridges.  “The separator was the relationships you were able to build with players, the ability to find their heartbeat, their pulse.”  

Equal parts old school baseball man and one-liner machine, Bridges has been credited by Leyland (in a story by MLB.com’s Tracy Ringolsby) as “one of those guys who had a reputation more for being a character than [for] his baseball knowledge.  But he knew the game.  He was sharp as a tack.  When I asked him about a player, I could go to the bank with his answer.”  Ringolsby described Bridges “a minor league cross between Casey Stengel, Don Zimmer, and Yogi Berra,” which is about a thousand-word description on its own.  

Banister describes him as more than that.

He tells a story about being a first-time manager for that Welland, Ontario club with lots of passion and energy, maybe too much early on.  Banister, months removed from an eight-year pro grind as a player, recalls one night early in his first year managing when he hopped off the bench with designs on putting a loud stamp on that game, only to hear Bridges, the weather-beaten veteran of more than 4200 games as a player and coach, call from behind: “Hey.  Casey.  What’re you about to do?” 

Slow your roll, in other words. 

Sit back down.  Let the players play.  Observe.  Give them your passion, give them your integrity.  But your job isn’t to holler at them from the dugout.

Bridges, Banister suggests, had as keen an eye on how to read a person as anyone he’s come across in baseball, or otherwise.  If you were able to look past the indestructible balloon of chaw that evacuated only to make room for a cigar, the irreversibly arthritic limp, the broken and gnarled fingers out of which he would still throw BP, you found a man with a passion for the game reminiscent of Banks, and a gift for impacting it from the trenches that resonated heavily with Banister.

Last week — four days after Banks passed away, and two days after Banister captivated a room of 300 local baseball coaches — Everett Lamar “Rocky” Bridges died.  He was 87.  

The obituaries — as well as a story linked inside this outstanding tribute by the great Jay Jaffe — say Bridges died of natural causes.  I have no idea whether his death was expected for some period of time, and if so whether Banister was aware of his condition when he spoke so reverently of the man on that Sunday morning at 1000 Ballpark Way.  

(And by “reverently,” I mean strictly in the tone of voice he used when punctuating the sound of the Bridges name.  Because he didn’t elaborate at all that day.)  

Banister held the room that morning the way I imagine Bridges had him hanging on every word 21 years ago over a summer in Welland and Hudson Valley, Batavia and Utica, Oneonta and Williamsport.  I could list a couple dozen inspiring things Banister said two Sundays ago and I imagine, little by little, I will.  A whole lot of people who were in that room will probably remember a lot of what Banister said 21 years from now. 

Based on nothing but that hour, I can’t wait to see what sort of impact Banister has on Rougned and Neftali, on Martin and Delino, on Jorge and Joey, on Chi Chi and Elvis and Tanner and Jake, on Leonys and Keone, on Prince and Derek and Boo and Jayce, passing on a legacy as he builds further on his own.

One of the things Banister urged the room of 300 was to be the kind of coach you wish you had at age 10.  

Ten days ago I didn’t know a thing about Rocky Bridges, who had 2,272 undistinguished big league at-bats.

Ten months ago I didn’t know much more about Jeff Banister, who had 2,271 fewer big league at-bats.

But I have a good idea now that Banister intends to be the kind of coach he had by his side when he was age 30.

That day when Banister next holds the room, this time in front of his new baseball team at 15960 N. Bullard in Surprise, influenced and inspired and mentored by many, but none more impactfully than Rocky Bridges, can’t come soon enough.

Rocky Bridges 3

Ross for Ranaudo.

Is Robbie Ross Jr. a success story?

Maybe he hasn’t settled in at his ceiling, either as a starting pitcher prospect or as the bullpen weapon he proved to be as a rookie in 2012.

But the 2008 second-round pick, at least by the Wins Above Replacement metric, has been more valuable in the Major Leagues than 17 of the 25 pitchers drafted ahead of him that year.  

And more valuable than 40 of the 41 second-rounders the Rangers have selected in franchise history (with 1986 pick Roger Pavlik the lone exception).

And a pitcher who has carved out a relatively stable big league role after being ranked number 25, 7, 19, and 14 in his four years as a Rangers prospect by Baseball America, making the club as a non-roster invite in 2012 and not even needing an option his first two seasons in Texas.

He was sent to Boston yesterday, probably at a point when his trade value was its lowest since his arrival in the bigs leagues.

What about Anthony Ranaudo?  A success, or not?

Three years after declining to sign with the Rangers out of high school as their 11th round pick, he was the third of three Boston first-round picks in 2010, a largely disappointing trio that included third baseman Kolbrin Vitek and outfielder Bryce Brentz.

And he didn’t get to the big leagues until his fourth pro season, posting a 4.81 ERA in seven late-season Red Sox starts and failing to miss bats (15 strikeouts in 39.1 innings) or keep the ball in the park (10 home runs).

But he was the AA Eastern League Pitcher of the Year in 2013, when he went 8-4, 2.95 in 19 Portland starts (before a promotion to AAA: 3-1, 2.97 in six appearances) and did miss bats (106 punchouts in 109.2 innings) and did keep the ball in the park (nine homers).

And he was the AAA International League Pitcher of the Year in 2014, when he went 14-4, 2.61 in 24 Pawtucket starts (before getting the call to Boston in August), fanning 111 in 138 frames and yielding nine bombs.

And only six of the 18 pitchers drafted ahead of him in 2010 have been more productive Major Leaguers.

Ranaudo’s BA ranking among Red Sox prospects largely receded over his four years in the system (2, 4, 14, 11), but just three winters ago he was getting votes from BA writers as they were putting together their list of the game’s Top 100 Prospects, while Ross was being given a non-roster invite to Rangers camp. 

It’s fair to point out that that was three years ago, and Ranaudo is no longer thought of in those terms.  Early projections that the 6’7” prototype would develop into a number two starter have given way to those suggesting he’s a four at best, a reliever at worst, and without sharpening his fastball command he may be nowhere on that spectrum, at least on a contending staff.  

But you have to ask yourself this, after shedding for the moment the fact that everyone loves Robbie Ross Jr. as a really good dude: Let’s say Nick Martinez, whose big league numbers weren’t all that different from Ranaudo’s in 2014, was traded today for a left-handed middle reliever whose ERA last year was 6.20 — including 7.85 in relief — and whose opponents’ slash line was a gaudy .319/.387/.464?  

And whose bottom-line 2013 numbers weren’t nearly as shocking — Ross posted a 3.03 ERA — but he lost his edge against left-handed hitters that season, as they slashed .341/.412/.538 against him over 102 trips to the plate? 

We all love Ross, but look at this deal objectively.  In spite of a thin corps of left-handed relievers, Texas was not going to comfortably entrust Ross in 2015 with the task of coming in to get Robinson Cano or Victor Martinez or Michael Brantley out.  And even if the cutter command against righties came back a bit (they hit .336/.408/.484 off him last year), there are several righthanders in the Texas bullpen who would get the ball before Ross in big spots.

One of the casualties of the Rangers’ injury-riddled spring in 2014 is that Ross — who was groomed exclusively as a starter as a Texas minor leaguer and moved to the bullpen only when he killed it in camp in 2012 and won a roster spot — was pressed into the rotation and started the season’s third game.  That experiment went pretty well for about three weeks, then poorly after that, and on his return to the bullpen he struggled for most of the year, prompting two intervening assignments to AAA Round Rock.

Just as Texas believes it has an opportunity to clean Ranaudo up and get some value out of his mid-90s velocity/power curve combination, Boston believes it has a chance to rebuild Ross’s four-seamer that tied hitters up a couple years ago from his low plane.

And still, thousands of Red Sox fans took WEEI up on its invitation to vote in a poll on the trade, and 76 percent think Boston made a bad move trading Ranaudo for Ross.

This is one of those deals in which a couple players have flashed much more value in the past — one a couple years ago in the big leagues, the other on the farm — and as fans it’s easy to dream on those flashes and fear the possibility that things come (back) together somewhere else.  

But among the things that a franchise’s pro scouts are charged with is to target players who they believe could benefit from a change of scenery (and perhaps coaching).  From a need standpoint, a veteran left-handed reliever would seem to be more important to Texas at the moment than a fifth-starter candidate who is probably a good bet to be sent out on his second of three options to start the season — and that should weigh even more heavily when wondering whether Josh Boyd and his crew felt Ranaudo, who offers six years of club control, has the chance to give Texas more value than Ross.  

All things equal, at this snapshot in time, you take the southpaw reliever.  And that should tell us all things were not equal between Ranaudo and Ross in the Rangers’ eyes, and the club’s front office probably tilted even more heavily than Red Sox Nation in that regard.

Jeff Wilson (Fort Worth Star-Telegram) tweeted this last night: “Rangers have long fancied Anthony Ranaudo, but they also liked the value he can ultimately bring.  More value than Robbie Ross would.”

I’m trying to resist thinking about what other type of “value” that word “ultimately” could suggest, and I keep telling myself a young Nate Eovaldi, who has now been traded twice, had issues missing bats as well.

As for the Rangers bullpen, Anthony Andro (Fox Sports Southwest) notes that Jon Daniels isn’t optimistic he’ll be able to add a late-inning lefthander before camp opens in three weeks.  Free agent Neal Cotts is reportedly set to sign somewhere else.  Phil Coke and a handful of others are still out there.  Current internal candidates are Alex Claudio, Michael Kirkman (who is off the roster), and Ross Detwiler, though he’ll come to camp competing for the number five rotation spot with Ranaudo, Martinez, Nick Tepesch, and Lisalverto Bonilla, perhaps among others.

Of the 18 non-roster players currently invited to big league camp, only Kirkman pitches from the left side.  

When Ross came out of nowhere in camp to win a job in 2012, four years out of high school, he was coming off a season in which he pitched 123.1 innings for High A Myrtle Beach and 38 frames for AA Frisco, almost all as a starter.

Lefthander Andrew Faulkner in 2014: 104 innings for Myrtle Beach, 30.2 for Frisco, almost all as a starter.  He’s now four years out of high school.  

Ross in that final year on the farm, per nine innings: 7.5 hits, 0.3 homers, 1.8 walks, 7.5 strikeouts.

Faulkner in 2014, per nine innings: 7.6 hits, 0.3 homers, 3.0 walks, 8.9 strikeouts.

And there have been suggestions (see your 2015 Bound Edition) that Faulkner, who has a little funk in his delivery, could end up as a power reliever who works late in games.

The lanky Faulkner and the stocky Ross don’t necessarily profile similarly on the mound, but the Ross example at least suggests the Rangers might have a taste for pushing one of their better prospects to see if he might be as suited for a role right now as anyone they could go spend free agent dollars on, or trade for.

Texas gave non-roster invites last week to pitchers Chi Chi Gonzalez, Alec Asher, and Keone Kela, third baseman Joey Gallo, catcher Pat Cantwell, and outfielder Jared Hoying.  It wouldn’t be shocking to see Faulkner get a late invite, especially in light of the new absence of Ross.

It’s probably fair to consider Ross and Ranaudo disappointments to a point, given the promise they once flashed.  But the job of Rangers and Red Sox scouts, and the General Managers they report to, is to evaluate players not on how high they were drafted, or how they pitched three years ago, but on how they might fit the current picture, and what there might be worth dreaming on down the road.

Two years ago, the idea that Texas would trade Robbie Ross Jr. at age 25 for a fifth starter candidate who’s a good bet to spend the better part of a third year in AAA would have been as preposterous as the thought that Boston would trade former first-rounder Anthony Ranaudo, coming off consecutive Pitcher of the Year seasons at the AA and AAA levels, in exchange for a middle reliever who just posted a 6.20 ERA and allowed an .851 OPS and is a lefthander who historically doesn’t get lefties out.

That’s a lot of words devoted to a trade of two players of that profile, but good old-fashioned baseball trades that aren’t made because of money don’t always involve core players.  And on the Rangers’ end, when it’s a trade that not only isn’t made for need but actually contradicts what the roster appears to be in need of, the fascination level kicks up another notch and makes you wonder which team’s scouts will feel better about the recommendation another year or two down the road. 

Placeholder.

I’m going to put some time in tonight on the Yovani Gallardo trade story, in hopes that I can finish and roll it out in the morning.  

In the meantime, here are the prospect features I wrote for the 2015 Bound Edition on the two minor leaguers who accompanied Luis Sardinas in the deal, righthanders Marcos Diplan and Corey Knebel, whom I ranked 13th and 19th in the Rangers system, respectively.

Marcos Diplan, RHP (number 13 overall) (International free agent/2013)

The Rangers blew away their international bonus pool allocation in 2013, ignoring the $1.94 cap and paying out more than $8 million once the tax penalty was added to the stack of bonuses they gave a handful of Dominican and Venezuelan teenagers.  Of the high-profile names, only Diplan was a pitcher, and according to Baseball America, he was the top available arm in the entire crop of J2-eligibles, in spite of the fact that he stands under six feet tall.  Small righthanders have long been discounted from a scouting standpoint, though perhaps the Royals magical run in 2014, with hard-throwing, sub-six righties Yordano Ventura, Greg Holland, and Kelvin Herrera at the forefront on the pitching side, could signal a greater tolerance.  Texas signed Diplan for $1.3 million in July 2013 but kept him in the Dominican Summer League for all of 2014, a far more conservative decision than when the organization assigned Martin Perez to Short-Season A Spokane to make his 2008 debut.  Diplan’s results were outstanding.  Permitting more than two earned runs only once in his 13 regular-season starts, he posted the fifth-best ERA (1.54) in the 36-team league.  He held opponents to a helpless .154/.302/.213 slash line (allowing only 32 hits in 64.1 innings — easily the best hit rate among all pitchers in the league) and struck out eight batters per nine, though he did lead the league with 36 walks.  In the DSL championship series, the 17-year-old blanked the Red Sox over four frames (three hits, four walks, five strikeouts) in helping the Rangers knot up a best-of-five that they eventually won in four games.  Showing velocity at 89-92 when he signed, Diplan touched 96 this summer, flashing a curve and change that he’ll look to start developing further when he pitches stateside in 2015.  Whether his ultimate future is as a starter like Ventura, or a late-inning weapon like Herrera or Holland, Diplan is part of a wave that’s three or four years away but with the type of ceiling that could be very much worth the wait.

Corey Knebel, RHP (number 19 overall) (Trade with Detroit Tigers/2014)

Knebel’s profile matches Huston Street’s so closely that there’s at least some sense that he hasn’t quite met expectations, which is crazy.  Street was undrafted out of Austin Westlake High School, Knebel undrafted out of nearby Georgetown High.  Both were dominant closers as University of Texas freshmen.  Both were supplemental first-round draft picks after their junior year (Street 40th overall, Knebel 39th overall), dominated pro competition that summer, and less than a year after their final college appearances were big leaguers.  That’s where the parallels end, as Street won Oakland’s closer job out of spring training in 2005 and won AL Rookie of the Year honors, while Knebel joined Detroit last May and was shaky every third time out, getting sent back to AAA after six appearances (five runs on eight hits and three walks in 6.2 innings, with eight strikeouts).  The 22-year-old was as dirty in his return to the International League as he had been before the call-up (four runs on four singles and eight walks in 14.1 frames, 16 strikeouts), much of which took place with Texas sitting on his appearances as Joakim Soria trade talks were developing.  Perhaps stemming from those talks, the Tigers brought Knebel back up to the big club on July 19, getting him into two games before the Soria trade was made four days later, when they sent Knebel and AA righty Jake Thompson to Texas for the veteran reliever.  The Rangers assigned Knebel to AAA Round Rock with clear designs on getting him to Arlington by season’s end, but after three strong weeks with the Express (20 strikeouts in 12 innings, .205/.300/.364 slash line), he was shut down with an elbow sprain.  When he’s right, the 6’3” Knebel touches 98 and mixes in an out-pitch curve with sharp, late break.  Along with Keone Kela, he represents another closer prospect for the Rangers to factor into the relief picture, and he should begin to make an impact on the big club in some form in 2015, assuming the elbow is sound.

There are 70 more minor leaguers featured in the book, which is for sale in two formats:

* Hard copy ($24.95)

* eEdition ($9.99)

Catch you tomorrow (I’m hoping) with the Gallardo writeup.

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