The narrative in Philadelphia, following a brilliant effort by Kyle Kendrick and solid bounceback from rookie reliever Mario Hollands and continued production from an aging middle-of-the-lineup, is obvious.
Closer Jonathan Papelbon, whom the Phillies are into for $13 million this year, and $13 million more next year, and another $13 million in 2016 if he finishes a certain number of games in 2014-15 (he won’t), allowed as many hits plus walks in his third of an inning as Kendrick and Hollands allowed in their eight frames combined.
That’s what they’ll be talking about in Philly today (now that the basketball team’s losing streak is an uninteresting two).
Here’s a stack that they ought to be talking about today in Rangers Nation:
Nov. 20, 2013: Texas acquires righthander Shawn Tolleson off waivers
Jan. 29, 2014: Texas acquires lefthander Pedro Figueroa off waivers
Mar. 26, 2014: Texas acquires righthander Seth Rosin off waivers
Might as well add this one:
Nov. 12, 2012: Texas signs 27-year-old minor league free agent outfielder Jim Adduci to a minor league contract
Yes, Shin-Soo Choo and Leonys Martin and Mitch Moreland — and unquestionably Robbie Ross Jr. — headline Texas 4, Philadelphia 3, but it can’t be overlooked that Tolleson, Figueroa, and Rosin, three waiver claims who probably wouldn’t be in Arlington if the pitching staff weren’t so banged up, fired four innings of scoreless relief (one walk, one strikeout, six groundouts, four flyouts) against a Phillies club hitting .327 with 19 runs over 23 innings at that point to hold the game in check and give the offense an opportunity to wake up in the ninth and bring home a win.
And the pinch-hitter Adduci — a 10-year minor leaguer with zero time in the big leagues whom I spent 929 words on last August suggesting he might be a suitable replacement for David Murphy — Acsche’d a nubber down the third base line and beat Asche’s throw to first by a thousand strides, obviously a massive play in the midst of an improbable comeback.
Texas plays 27 season-opening innings against Philadelphia at home, and leads at the end of only three of them.
Think about that.
And yet when two of those three frames are the ninth on Tuesday, and the ninth on Wednesday, you walk away from that set with a 2-1 record, admittedly no more meaningful half a week into the season than the Athletics’ 1-2 or the Angels’ 0-3 (or the Mariners’ and Astros’ lossless starts), but it sure is a lot more fun to spend the first off-day talking about winning the opening series, and about the impact not only of nine-figure contracts but also the importance of building the 30th and 35th spots on the roster with effective scrap heap scouting, and about the awesome unveiling of this, while we await Matt Harrison’s start tonight for Frisco, Yu Darvish’s start Sunday against Tampa Bay, and Colby Lewis’s next start, whether it’s Monday in Boston or a final tuneup on the farm.
Tolleson and Figueroa and Rosin won’t all keep their big league lockers when the April reinforcements all return, but for one night, they did what the other team’s four-year, $50 million man couldn’t do — keep a big league lineup off the scoreboard long enough to make the midfield celebration possible.
The A’s are 0-1.
The Angels are 0-2, and getting booed.
Ian Kinsler went 0-4 on Monday, and then went 0-1 last night.
Even though the Tigers didn’t play.
Texas spoiled Kinsler’s 0-162 wishes last night, thanks in large part to Shin-Soo Choo, who was in Cincinnati this time last year, and Tim Bogar, who was in Little Rock this time last year, and Martin Perez, who was on the disabled list this time last year.
I don’t know where Pudge Rodriguez was this time last year, but it wasn’t standing in the batter’s box during a Yu Darvish bullpen session, or throwing BP to Rangers hitters, or watching from a seat next to the dugout he used to live in as Adrian Beltre did Adrian Beltre things, or joining the FOX Sports Southwest postgame set, which was exponentially more awesome than I thought it would be, and those are all things Pudge did on Tuesday, before and during and after Texas 3, Philadelphia 2.
Hats off the folks at FOX.
Hats off all around.
Texas hammered Cliff Lee for eight runs, all earned, over five innings, and it wasn’t enough. Not close.
Tanner Scheppers struck out twice as many as Lee did on the day, but then again those numbers were merely two and one, and in fact of the 93 pitches Scheppers threw, only two were swung at and missed. Scheppers — too amped up, maybe? — was up in the zone all day, and the Phillies took lots of pitches, spoiled a bunch of two-strike offerings, and squared up over and over, when they weren’t pool-cueing balls down the third base line.
If I ever give up on the NFL or NBA, it will be brutal officiating that pushes me away. In baseball, it would be missing the strike zone — leading not only to walks but also to lots of hitters’ counts — and Scheppers’s ugly 55 percent strike rate on Monday was only marginally worse than the first three Texas relievers tasked with keeping the club in the game, after the offense created the opportunity.
Philadelphia’s first seven runs (and 11 of 14 overall) came with two outs. Frustrating.
But look: Texas is not going to lose more games than it wins in 2014, and it’s not going to win twice as many as it loses.
Somewhere comfortably between 54 and 81 losses is the number of times this year the other team will end the game fist-bumping in the middle of the diamond. Yesterday was just one of those.
Slam dunk: Two points.
Phillies 14, Rangers 10 doesn’t change this team’s forecast by 20 games, or 10. It probably doesn’t really change it by one, and I’d be surprised if USA Today’s Bob Nightengale recants yesterday’s tweet and picks a new AL pennant winner based on the first one of 162.
When the Angels have a sixth-inning, 3-1 lead in Jered Weaver’s hands and lose their opener by seven runs, and when Oakland’s new closer — its highest-paid pitcher, in fact — makes his A’s debut by going five-pitch walk/single/hit batsman/Nyjer Morgan sac fly/run-scoring single in the ninth to take the loss, you’ve probably got a bunch of LAA and OAK fans this morning trying to pull their friends off a cliff from which the three teams picked by everyone to win the West now look up at the division-leading Mariners and idle Astros, offering up flimsy April Fools’ references to help ease the completely unnecessary pain.
(Speaking of which: Yes, Angels hitting coach Don Baylor broke his leg catching Vladimir Guerrero’s ceremonial first pitch yesterday. It happened.)
You can use up some energy this morning harping on Michael Choice’s game-opening assignment on Monday, or Martin Perez’s, or your level of trust in Alexi Ogando, or you can shift your focus to Perez and A.J. Burnett tonight, which is what I feel like doing, because this is baseball, and by the time we close the books on Tuesday, Texas could be tied for first in the division, while you and I and Yu and Matty and Jurickson and Derek and Colby and Geovany look on, watching this team fight to hold its ground until the reinforcements start arriving.
It’s big news, granted, that the Angels and Mike Trout agreed Friday on a six-year extension that will pay him $144.5 million from 2015 through 2020, when he’ll turn 29, but I just can’t get that worked up about it. I could come up with a couple reasons, as a Rangers fan, to wish it didn’t happen and a couple others to feel good about it, but whatever.
Just like Josh Hamilton’s recent decision to live in baseball without an “accountability partner” for the first time since Texas acquired him from the Reds. OK. Play ball.
I’m more interested in what plays out this afternoon in San Antonio as the Rangers nail down the final couple spots in the bullpen, the last of which will be occupied for just four games that count before the eighth reliever is shipped out to make room for the April 5 purchase of righthander Nick Martinez, whose final spring training tune-up (5-2-1-1-2-5 last night, with six groundouts [including two double plays] and two flyouts) went just fine.
It’s premature to decide that next Saturday in Tampa Bay will be a one-and-done effort for Martinez and that Colby Lewis will step in against Houston on April 11, but if Lewis really does have an April 10 out in his non-roster deal, you can bet he’ll be purchased by that date, perhaps leading to the re-option of reliever number eight, who just might come up for Martinez the day after he faces the Rays, and perhaps the fact that Texas was willing to let the Astros see Martinez as much as they did last night supports the theory.
I don’t have a flak jacket handy so I’m not going to spend too much time on the fact that David Murphy is hitting .212/.276/.327 in Indians camp, which is insignificant, as is his spring OPS trend the last four seasons that has seen his number drop from .911 to .876 to .801 to this month’s .603, as is the fact that the unrelated Donnie Murphy doubled, homered, hit a sac fly, and doubled in his first four Rangers plate appearances, but you can bet that the latter will be the second baseman in Monday’s starting lineup, even if he’s just 2 for 18 off Cliff Lee, who incidentally is the pitcher he’s faced more times than anyone else in his eight seasons in the big leagues.
It’s all just exhibition noise right now.
A year ago, the Rangers’ off-season catcher carousel looked like this, as far as the 40-man roster was concerned:
October 6: Mike Napoli, Geovany Soto, Luis Martinez
November 1: Napoli, Soto, Martinez, Konrad Schmidt
November 3: Soto, Martinez, Schmidt
November 30: Martinez, Schmidt
December 3: Soto, Martinez, Schmidt
December 12: Soto, Martinez, Schmidt, Eli Whiteside
December 14: Soto, Martinez, Whiteside
December 20: A.J. Pierzynski, Soto, Martinez, Whiteside
December 26: Pierzynski, Soto, Whiteside
January 3: Pierzynski, Soto
April 7: Pierzynski, Soto, Robinson Chirinos
This winter, the catching crew has remained fairly well settled from where it was a year ago — AJP out, JPA in — while keeping track of the state of the pitching rotation has been a kaleidoscopic challenge.
The Rangers’ starting five — ranked in January as the seventh strongest in baseball by ESPN’s Buster Olney — was slated to be Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, and Alexi Ogando.
Instead, when Texas and Philadelphia trot out to the baselines Monday afternoon, the Rangers’ starting five will feature Tanner Scheppers, Perez, Robbie Ross, Joe Saunders, and Nick Martinez.
Since 1945, the only pitcher whose first big league start came on Opening Day was the Dodgers’ Fernando Valenzuela (1981). Scheppers, who was born six years after Valenzuela blanked the Astros, 2-0, will be the second.
There’s no Elias note to pin on the addition of Martinez, who spent all month in minor league camp, at least officially. You could have named a dozen other candidates to break camp in the Texas rotation ahead of Martinez, the Rangers’ 18th-round pick in 2011, including Nick Tepesch, who was the breakthrough starter a year ago, but Tepesch got rocked this spring, and since Tommy Hanson wasn’t sharp and Colby Lewis wasn’t deemed quote ready, Martinez is getting the call.
The 23-year-old from Florida made two appearances for the big club this spring, relieving Scheppers to get the final out of the third inning on March 8 (he struck Andre Ethier out looking on a 93-mph fastball) and then, on Tuesday, closing out a 5-0 Rangers win over Cleveland with two clean frames in relief of Ross, racking up four strikeouts and two groundouts (around a double and two singles).
That first effort was a classic “Just In Case” appearance, a minor league pitcher completing an inning for a big leaguer who had hit his pitch limit so the rest of the game’s pitching plans could be kept in place. The second one might have looked like incidental work as well, with the club six days from Opening Day and having specific amounts of work in mind for everyone headed for the active roster. But clearly, the Rangers put Martinez on the mound for two innings Tuesday because of plans they had for the young righthander himself.
Martinez split the 2011 season between Surprise and Spokane, spent 2012 with Low A Hickory, and worked as a starter for High A Myrtle Beach for all of 2013 until a mid-August promotion to AA Frisco, where he made four starts and one very memorable relief appearance.
After three extremely effective RoughRider starts (three earned runs on eight hits and six walks over 19 innings, with 14 strikeouts and a .129/.206/.129 opponents’ slash), in one of which he was perfect through 4.1, on August 27 he was tasked with relieving Tepesch, who was prescribed a specific number of pitches against Corpus Christi as part of his rehabilitation from an elbow injury.
Tepesch hit 41 pitches after issuing a walk and yielding an infield single to start the third, and on came Martinez.
The first Hooks hitter flew out to right. The next one worked a free pass. But Martinez promptly erased him with a 5-4-3 double play grounder.
And then Martinez retired the next 18, in order.
Seven no-hit innings, with one walk and six strikeouts.
Another brilliant start followed (6-3-1-1-0-3 in Midland), and Martinez’s season was over. He’d obviously made an impression.
He’s a back-of-the-rotation type if everything comes together, less heralded than the Chi Chi Gonzalez or Luke Jackson or Alec Asher, three righties he was expected to join in the Frisco rotation next week. He may be a RoughRider not long after that, as Lewis could be ready by April 11. Darvish and Harrison should return not long after that.
Martinez could get rocked in Tampa on April 5, and even if he doesn’t, his mound opposition that day will be David Price.
But strange things sometimes happen, like Justin Grimm and Tepesch earning AL Rookie of the Month honors in April and May a year ago.
Martinez’s backstory gets even more unlikely when you drill back to his college days. Here’s the profile I wrote on him for last year’s Bound Edition, heading into the 2013 season:
Rangers area scout and Davidson College product Jay Heafner spent two years as an infielder in the Texas farm system, playing in 2006 for Short-Season A Spokane and in 2007 for Low A Clinton. While teammates like Chris Davis, Craig Gentry, and Michael Kirkman were working on things that would eventually get them to the big leagues in 2008, 2009, and 2010, Heafner spent 2009, 2010, and 2011 in the Bronx watching most of the 26.1 innings that Fordham University’s starting second baseman happened to pitch, sometimes in the sleet, and it was that resolve and vision that led to Heafner recommending Martinez to the Rangers — as a pitcher — and to the 18th-round pick that the club spent on him. The lanky righthander was not mentioned at all by Baseball America among the 25 draft-eligibles from New York (and 1,361 players overall) in its 2011 pre-draft features, but Heafner believed there was something there, and he appears to have been right. It’s a remarkable story. In his three Rams seasons, Martinez (who started 146 of a possible 165 games at second base) amassed an unsightly 5.47 ERA in those 26.1 scattered innings (6.2 as a freshman, none as a sophomore, 19.2 as a junior), giving up 33 hits (.311 opponents’ average) and 16 walks while fanning 22. Yet in two pro seasons, he’s gone 11-9, 3.99 in 31 starts and 15 relief appearances, issuing only 55 walks while punching out 165. Working in the low 90s with an effective change, his curve has come along to the point at which he threw it for strikes 88 percent of the time in Fall Instructional League play this year. In eight FIL innings, opponents hit .241/.333/.241 against him, and he maintained the velocity he’d shown as a mainstay in Low A Hickory’s rotation during the season. The next step for Martinez will be High A Myrtle Beach, a level that Heafner never reached as a player, and the expectations for the 22-year-old pitcher go well beyond that.
It’s yet another tip of the cap to the Rangers scouting and player development group, who found a middle infielder that was hitting under .300 without power at a small New York college program and, in less than three years, have him in line to start a Major League baseball game. On the mound.
Can’t predict ball.
I was in Surprise in 2010 the morning that Ron Washington issued a shocking statement about a very big mistake he’d made the previous summer.
I was in Surprise in 2011 the morning that it was announced that Chuck Greenberg was leaving the Rangers, less than a year after he’d officially arrived.
Having scheduled just a weekend trip to spring training this year, I figured the odds were pretty good I’d get there and back without any drama.
Maybe next year.
As soon as we landed in Arizona on Friday, we headed to the back fields, ecstatic about our good fortune that Yu Darvish’s start that afternoon had been rerouted to the AAA game, which would take place on chain-link-fenced Field 5, where we’d be closer to the action than the first row of any stadium in Major or Minor League Baseball, among what would probably be an audience in the double digits.
I didn’t get the greatest night’s sleep Thursday, waking before 5 a.m. to make the early Friday flight, but mine apparently went better than Darvish’s. He woke with a stiff neck and was scratched from the back fields start — and eventually from his Opening Day assignment.
Jump ahead two days. Waiting at Gate 6 to board our flight home, news popped that Jurickson Profar had torn a muscle in his throwing shoulder, and would miss up to three months getting it back into playing shape.
Everything between was basically perfect.
Darvish didn’t make it to Field 5 on Friday, but we did anyway, and got another reminder that things don’t always go as expected.
Back in 2010, Elvis Andrus and Robbie Erlin had breakthrough baseball seasons. Andrus, in his second big league campaign, made his first All-Star Team at age 22 and had an outstanding playoff run, hitting .294 and stealing eight bases in nine tries. Erlin, age 19, in his second pro season, dominated at Low A Hickory (89 hits and 17 walks in 114.2 innings, with 125 strikeouts), and was tabbed by Baseball America as the Rangers’ number four prospect, behind Martin Perez, Profar, and fellow 2009 draftee Tanner Scheppers.
At the end of that 2010 season, among the possibilities of where you might have found Andrus and Erlin (who was traded to San Diego in 2011 with fellow pitching prospect Joe Wieland for reliever Mike Adams) on March 21, 2014 was probably not an entry that had them facing each other in a AAA exhibition game.
But injuries happen, and as a result of a couple of them, Erlin (auditioning for a rotation spot in San Diego due to Josh Johnson’s strained tendon) was making a back fields start and Andrus (still nursing forearm soreness and in need of at-bats) was leading off the bottom of every inning.
Andrus doubled the other way off Erlin in the first inning, singled the other way off him in the second, and doubled the other way off him in the third, but that’s not the story.
In a camp in which Prince Fielder and Perez have been virtually the only projected starters to have a clean run in camp, it’s actually pretty good news that Andrus is playing baseball every day, even if it’s not on both sides of the ball and involves every-inning plate appearances on the back fields. He’s at least expected to be ready to go by Monday’s Opening Day.
Alex Rios and Mitch Moreland appear to be past early-camp oblique injuries, but now Geovany Soto is expected to miss the same 10-12 weeks as Profar, with a torn meniscus in his knee requiring surgery. But Matt Harrison’s recovery from his latest lower back thing should delay the start of his season by only a few weeks, Colby Lewis should beat him to the active roster, and Adrian Beltre’s quad and Shin-Soo Choo’s elbow will be fine. Probably.
I don’t want to write another sentence about injured ballplayers, or complain about the state of the Rangers’ overall health with the opener around the corner — national writers like Ken Rosenthal and Buster Olney have joined the local beats and columnists in focusing on all of that — but I will say this: Right now is exactly when you most want Ron Washington to be the manager of your baseball team.
And as little interest as I have in post-season awards, things are teed up at this point for Wash, who once finished second in the Manager of the Year vote, and third another time, to win the trophy in 2014.
For that matter, as dark as the baseball cloud appears to be right now, there’s no sense in assuming that Wash’s team can’t win its own trophy this season. The odds may get longer with every press release, but I kinda like when this team is put in a corner.
With Profar and Soto out until the middle of the season, second baseman Rougned Odor and catcher Jorge Alfaro — number 1 and 1A on the club’s top prospects list — aren’t going to be in Arlington next week. Odor is slated for Frisco and Alfaro (almost certainly) for Myrtle Beach, where the two finished their 2013 seasons after second-half promotions. But if Odor translates another strong camp to another quick start, and if neither Josh Wilson nor Kensuke Tanaka nor Adam Rosales nor Brent Lillibridge (nor someone Texas acquires in the next couple days) holds things down at second base early on with Texas, Odor may be gone from the RoughRiders by time Alfaro arrives.
A “veteran American League scout insists,” according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, that “Odor is so talented [that Texas wouldn’t] miss a beat with Profar out three months.” But Jon Daniels said the club will prioritize Odor’s development over any temptation to rush the second baseman, who turned 20 last month. Rangers announcers will have a little more time to ramp up on the pronunciation of his name, and for now might focus instead on the rule we learned back when Akinori Otsuka was closing games here that the “u” is silent.
And speaking of closing games, it didn’t take much on Friday to see that Neftali Feliz, who couldn’t keep the ball down and whose 90-92 on the scoreboard velocity-meter probably wasn’t a miscalibration (given Ryan Feierabend’s subsequent 93), wasn’t doing a whole lot of inspirational work to lay claim to his old role, especially when Joakim Soria has been so efficient in camp. Feliz had reportedly hit 97 in winter ball, encouraging the Rangers that his heyday velocity had returned. He never approached that this month, sitting low-90s and touching 95 on maybe two or three pitches. He didn’t exceed 92 on Friday.
Wash said Saturday morning that Soria was now his man in the ninth inning, and Feliz wasn’t. And that Alexi Ogando and Neal Cotts would get the chance to hold things down in the eighth inning, and Feliz wouldn’t. Asked to give an assurance that Feliz would break camp with a big league job . . . Wash wouldn’t.
Yesterday afternoon, the Rangers optioned Feliz to AAA. To rebuild arm strength.
And the organization’s trust.
The last time Feliz was a minor leaguer (not counting very brief rehab assignments) was 2009. In Oklahoma City.
The eighth inning was a discussion point since, that same morning, Wash confirmed that Scheppers — who had thrown 75 pitches in Friday’s efficient six-inning start (95-100 pitches if you count the extra work he got in the bullpen after being lifted), fanning six and walking none and hitting 96 on that same gun — had won a rotation spot.
Scott Feldman (2008), C.J. Wilson (2010), and Ogando (2011) set examples here as relievers who made successful transitions to the rotation.
Feliz (2012), not so much.
Get it done, Schep.
You, too, Robbie Ross. Hard to imagine that seven scoreless innings yesterday — after Scheppers had just become the first Rangers pitcher this spring to log six frames (four outs more, incidentally, than he’d ever recorded as a pro, at any level) — isn’t a prelude to the lefthander, who was nothing but a starter in the minors but has been nothing but a reliever in the big leagues, joining the beleaguered rotation himself. While nothing has been made official, that seems to be a near-lock at this point.
We all could have imagined, a month ago if not a week, a perfect scenario in which Scheppers took the ball on Opening Day, perhaps on the back end of a Darvish-to-Wash handoff, tasked with holding an eighth-inning lead against the Cliff Lee Phillies as Feliz began to stretch in the bullpen.
Instead, Feliz will be in Frisco, sizing up his Express road threads for Tuesday’s exhibition against the RoughRiders (when he’ll perhaps relieve Lewis), and waiting for Thursday’s opener in Round Rock, as Oklahoma City — now an Astros affiliate — comes to town. Somewhere in that span of days he’ll meet Chris Snyder, his new catcher, unless the two shake hands today as Snyder arrives in big league camp on his new non-roster deal while Feliz prepares for his first day of minor league drills.
And Scheppers may get the ball Opening Day anyway, only it would be in the first inning. Whatever number he occupied on the potential rotation depth chart this winter, Monday’s start won’t go to number one (Darvish) or number two (Harrison) or number three (Holland). It could go to Scheppers, or to Perez.
In 2011, the Rangers’ second World Series season, they used seven starting pitchers all year, with those aside from the top five making only five total starts.
In 2014, Texas could exceed both numbers in April.
And that’s whether or not veteran righthander Scott Baker, reported last night to be on the verge of signing a non-roster deal with the Rangers after refusing a AAA assignment with the Mariners, works his way from Round Rock to Arlington sometime in the season’s first month.
Coming back from spring training, what I really wanted to write about was Nick Williams stinging the ball with regularity and driving it with authority the other way to left field, which incidentally was almost exclusively his defensive home in 2013, while, at least on the two days I saw him this weekend, he was working in center field, which is a very cool development if it sticks.
I wanted to write about what middle infielder Yeyson Yrizarri (who turned 17 last month) did against Royals blue-chip lefthander Sean Manaea (who turned 22 last month) in a AA game on Saturday — an assignment Yrizarri got because Odor was with the big club that day, contributing a ringing pinch-hit double down the right field line — and about what Ronald Guzman (age 19) has been doing against all pitchers in what’s become a shocking number of looks with the big club (and about the impact this Guzman opportunity has to have had on Nomar Mazara and Lewis Brinson and Drew Robinson). About the work Joey Gallo still has to do, in spite of a raw power tool that Baseball Prospectus’s Jason Parks calls “the best I’ve ever seen at the [minor league] level.”
I wanted to write about a Chris Bostick-Sherman Lacrus moment on the back fields Saturday afternoon and about Ryley Westman’s backstory and about what Bill Stein’s kid is doing these days — and how it might impact the Rangers’ minor league hitters — and about an awesome 15-minute session in the bullpen involving Lewis, Mike Maddux, Andy Hawkins, and Brad Holman.
I really wanted to write about Alfaro and about what he did to that poor Royals runner straying off third and about what he did when his shortstop’s throw to first was wide and up the line and about how he nearly Blake Griffin’d that popup over the first base dugout and about what he can do with a bat in his hands and about how 1.82 + 4.18 equals not only six but also, in Alfaro’s case, something very cool and super-unique and about how confident I am that Pat Cantwell will play catcher in the big leagues, maybe for a long time as Alfaro’s sidekick, eventually, with both of them learning from Yadier’s big brother, which would be pretty great, all of which, you might have noticed, I can hardly contain myself about.
And about how extra-cool this picture of Jorge and Landry and Max and Preston and Dominic and Jake will be when they’re in high school and he’s in his prime.
But real life — in a baseball context — intervened, and instead I’m writing about unwelcome assignments to the disabled list and to Round Rock, and a growing pile of headaches stacking up for the Rangers, days before a new season gets unwrapped.
I suppose there’s a lesson in there for the five nine-year-olds who just got two very busy days in on the back fields, that they may never play with or against a player as good at baseball as the 215 that they saw suited up as Rangers this weekend, yet more than 150 of them may never get past AA and never make any money playing the game, and others who have made it to the big leagues will miss time because they threw too much or threw not enough or got run over by a motorcycle or tripped by a dog, or because they suffered a surgically indicated knee injury triggered during the catcher’s crouch, or slept wrong.
It’s hard. Bad things happen to athletes, and to teams.
And to fans, I guess. I know it feels that way now.
But when it comes to sports I’d much rather be frustrated, even despondent, than apathetic. If the bad stuff ever got to be too much, it would easy enough to cauterize the whole sports thing and move on, but that’s not me and that’s not most of you. Sports isn’t always Candy Land, and winning is a lot sweeter when it’s hard to do.
It’s been the worst spring training in Rangers history from a health standpoint. But it was the best spring training ever for Landry and Max and Preston and Dominic and Jake, and I bet for Jorge, too, as his picture continues to come into hi-def, rock ’n’ roll focus.
Those five kids, and that young catcher, are reminders to me of what’s so good about this game, even when it’s bad.
Because for those kids, on Field 5 and the rest of the diamonds fanned out around it, and in the stadium a few hundred yards and, for the fortunate ones, maybe just a few years away, amid all the long odds and the invariable setbacks there’s plenty of hope to dream on.
Texas hosts Seattle this afternoon and then busts tail for the airport with all the force and purpose of Elvis going first to third. Those guys, you can bet, can’t get out of Arizona soon enough.
And I can’t wait for Monday. It will be the final day of an ugly baseball month, and the first day of what we hope is another 162+. I’m fired up about Michael Choice, I’m fired up about Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross and Joakim Soria, I’m fired up about Jorge Alfaro and Rougned Odor and Yeyson Yrizarri and the Nick’s, Williams and Martinez.
That’s the type of stuff I expected to write about on my return from Surprise. Not the other stuff. The bad news has trampled the good news coming out of Surprise the last couple weeks, but that in no way disables — in fact it probably adds fuel to — my sports instinct to demand that yet another season of ball come on in, man, and go ahead and bring it.
Preferring not to dwell on the state of Elvis Andrus’s elbow or Shin-Soo Choo’s elbow, or Mitch Moreland’s oblique or Adrian Beltre’s quad, or the Rangers’ odd comments after last night’s game that the trip to the mound (with the trainer) to go get Alexi Ogando before he threw a pitch in the fourth had nothing to do with any physical issue, something happened last night, and all month, that’s made me think back seven years, to a time when Mark Teixeira was still a Ranger, Sammy Sosa hadn’t yet returned for his second tour here, the Five-Step Plan had not yet been set in motion, and Michael Choice was coming off his junior season as a catcher-second baseman for Mansfield Timberview High.
Jon Daniels had been on the job for a year and Ron Washington had been Rangers manager for a month and a half when, on December 23, 2006, a dozen days after Baseball America had named lefthander John Danks the Rangers’ number one prospect (after the 21-year-old had finished second the three previous years, respectively, to Adrian Gonzalez, Thomas Diamond, and Edinson Volquez), Daniels traded Danks and righthanders Nick Masset and Jake Rasner to the White Sox for righthander Brandon McCarthy and outfielder David Paisano.
The idea, the Rangers said, was that McCarthy, two years older than Danks and with 150 innings of big league experience (compared with Danks’s 70 frames at the AAA level), was ready to contribute (at least more so than Danks) and that Texas (coming off three straight third-place finishes and seven straight no better than that) was ready to win. Neither was particularly true.
McCarthy was DL’d with a blister and then DL’d with a stress fracture in his shoulder and gave Texas 101.2 innings of below-average production in 2007, while Danks — who was supposed to need a little more AAA seasoning — made the Chicago rotation out of camp and logged 139 healthy innings.
The Rangers, not ready to win, finished last in the West in what was otherwise a landmark year in franchise history, as the club tore things down by trading Teixeira (and Eric Gagne and Kenny Lofton) and killing it in both the draft and internationally, bringing young players like Elvis Andrus, Matt Harrison, draft-and-follow Derek Holland, Martin Perez, Mitch Moreland, Neftali Feliz, David Murphy, Tommy Hunter, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Engel Beltre, Julio Borbon, Leury Garcia, Neil Ramirez, and Matt West. It would have been very cool if Danks arrived at the front of that wave.
Danks was a lot better in 2008 than McCarthy, who spent most of the year on the disabled list (forearm).
Danks was a lot better in 2009 than McCarthy, who spent half the year on the disabled list (shoulder).
Danks was a lot better in 2010 than McCarthy, who spent all year in AAA and on the disabled list (shoulder surgery).
Granted, Texas made it to the World Series that year without either of them. McCarthy’s Rangers career ended unceremoniously that November when the Rangers outrighted him, Esteban German, and Doug Mathis off the 40-man roster. McCarthy had the procedural right to refuse the assignment and move on from what had been a disastrous run with Texas. He did that, and signed with Oakland a month later, after a strong showing in the Dominican Winter League.
Five months before the A’s signed McCarthy, they signed Choice, their first-round pick that summer out of UTA.
Choice was the 10th overall pick in that 2010 draft. Danks had been the ninth overall pick in 2003.
And that’s not the primary parallel I’m hoping to draw here between the two Texas preps.
The Rangers said they traded Danks-plus for McCarthy-plus because they thought that they were ready to contend and that Danks wasn’t as ready as McCarthy to help them do that. The White Sox were willing to wait a little longer on Danks — and it turned out they didn’t need to.
The A’s presumably traded Choice-plus for Craig Gentry-plus because they know their window is wide open right now and believed Choice wasn’t ready to contribute to the immediate cause, at least not at Gentry’s level.
The Rangers were willing to wait a little longer on Choice — and it turns out they may not need to.
Now, I’m not going to suggest Gentry, whose back injury has him yet to make his first appearance on the field for Oakland (he took BP on Sunday for the first time in nearly a month), is about to embark on a plagued run with the A’s as far as his health is concerned. He’s always been injury-prone — fluky stuff — but he’s an established (30-year-old) big leaguer, a proven winning piece. Trading for veteran role player Craig Gentry is not the same as trading for promising young starting pitcher prospect Brandon McCarthy.
Gentry can play for my team any day — and, as a matter of fact, at this point so can McCarthy.
But just as Danks surprised a lot of people by being ready right out of the gate, Choice — whose walkoff infield single late last night capped off a two-hit, one-walk effort that raised his camp slash line to .381/.409/.476 — has relentlessly proven this month that he’s ready to play in the big leagues, and help Texas win.
Now, Choice could be this year’s version of Borbon, or Minnesota’s Aaron Hicks, who was getting Rookie of the Year projections after his .370/.407/.644 run in camp with the Twins last year, before a .192/.259/.338 line in the big leagues led eventually to a return to AAA. It’s been an extraordinary camp for Choice, offensively and defensively and in the way the local product has impressed coaches with his work ethic and approach, but translating spring training production to the games that count isn’t automatic, once he’s facing nothing but big league pitchers who are no longer working on their third pitches, and the league starts to develop a book on the kid. Baseball is hard.
But what Choice has done so far in camp, earning a job that wasn’t necessarily set aside for him when the Rangers made the December trade to get him — just as Danks wasn’t supposed to win an April job when Chicago made its December trade to bring him in — has been a huge shot in the arm, an expression that I apologize for and that, given the way Rangers camp has gone from a health standpoint, makes me hopeful that this is the last report I write anytime soon that invokes the name of Brandon McCarthy.
My lines on my wheelhouse are as blurry as Vladimir Guerrero’s, with a similar level of comfort in the chaos. I’m usually not in my zone unless I’m doing three things at once.
But last week, in a country whose name is loosely translated as “rich in springs,” or “land of wood and water,” or Land of Rolando Roomes (and Devon White, and Chili Davis, and . . . Justin Masterson?), the number of things I wanted to juggle at any given time was exactly zero, with occasional flashes of one.
Virtually off the grid, I left the TV off and the newspapers to others, checking in only occasionally with Twitter to keep surface tabs on Flight MH370, on a couple go-to takes on the “True Detective” finale, and on the latest developments in the Cowboys’ systematic program of robbing Peter to owe Paul and grease the skids on the team’s steady course of embraced mediocrity. There was very little in the way of electronic means — unless you count my introduction to Anton Chigurh via e-reader — and I’m pretty sure in five days I gave back everything I’d gained over the preceding 21-day cleanse, but hey, it’s easier to rationalize forfeiting a draft pick to sign Shin-Soo Choo when you know you’ll get one back for Nelson Cruz.
I’m a big proponent of the stabilizing effects of extended nothingness (nap status: lost count), even if I seek it out so rarely that it’s practically as much of a bucket list box to check off as a two-hour zipline canopy tour. I’m rejuvenated, so stinkin’ ready now for the 162 that we’re just two weeks from, and that was true before Lewis Brinson (can he be the next Devo?) doubled on the first big league spring training pitch he ever saw Saturday afternoon, two minutes after which Nick Williams (the next Chili?) homered in his first-ever big league spring training at-bat, two innings after which Williams maintained his perfect 5.000 OPS by going deep yet again, tying the video-game score but more importantly, on the second bomb, displaying that elite bat speed and barrel control as he rifled a pitch low and in over the right field fence with the pop time of a Jorge Alfaro throw to second.
Nick Williams is going to be special, but temper your enthusiasm for now, because he’s not going to help Texas in 2014.
Unless he helps make Giancarlo Stanton a Ranger.
It was a meaningless final third of a meaningless exhibition game, and two Williams blasts should carry no more weight than Joey Gallo’s five strikeouts in six trips in the same game, but then again this is the time of the spring training schedule when you see things like Nelson Cruz getting a start in center field for the first time since his current Orioles manager shifted the rookie to center for the final two innings of a blowout Rangers win over Oakland on August 9, 2006, and we latch onto moments like Williams’s — and left-handed reliever Rafael Perez’s bases-loaded faceoffs with lefties Brandon Moss and Josh Reddick in the second inning Saturday, and Ronald Guzman’s Williams impersonation Sunday, going deep in his own first-ever big league exhibition at-bat late in that game — as the novelty of camp wears off and the imminence of the regular season still feels not imminent enough. Overreactions in mid-March are sort of unavoidable.
The way you feel about what Michael Choice continues to do in Arizona, seemingly every day if not every at-bat and every defensive chance, is not an overreaction. He’s the story of camp at this point.
The positive one, at least.
The negative ones have zero to do with wins and losses and slash lines and almost everything to do with health, but even the red lights on those are starting to turn yellow in several cases, even as rival clubs’ pitchers take a number to visit Dr. James Andrews.
And yeah, since his first full season I’ve had less confidence in Neftali Feliz than most, and yesterday’s 92-94 in a result-clean eighth concerns me almost as much as the issues Colby Lewis and Nick Tepesch had locating on Sunday.
But we have enough experience as baseball fans in mid-March to know that concerns over Feliz’s velocity and Adrian Beltre’s quad muscle and Neal Cotts’s ineffectiveness could end up fading away with all the evanescence of Rolando Roomes’s big league career. The good stuff from Arizona could be desert mirage, too — remember how we felt a year ago this time, as David Murphy was taking .313/.348/.453 camp numbers into his contract year.
Texas won its second straight game yesterday for the first time this spring, and if you’d like to get worked up about that, be my guest, but spring training, of course, is less about moments than it is about process, and unless you’re Brent Lillibridge or Kevin Kouzmanoff fighting for a bench spot, or Engel Beltre or Michael Kirkman trying to make an absence of options stand up, the moments and results just don’t matter a ton.
Still, coming back home this weekend to see Nick Williams and Ronald Guzman do loud things to a baseball, and to see Rafael Perez remind us momentarily of the Rafael Perez we used to know, and to see Pat Cantwell shake Joakim Soria’s hand at the end of a game (which may happen again before Williams and Guzman arrive in Arlington), and to see Michael Choice make baseball his wheelhouse, those things do tend to work on me, in a yearly bucket list kind of way, and I’m going to go ahead and hit “send” on this report, because I’ve got about three things I’ve gotta go do.
This is not for very many of you. The ones who it’s really for don’t need me to go into detail about what went on this weekend in Trophy Club, because they were there to experience it themselves.
And the rest of you don’t care.
But this is what I want to say today, if it’s cool with you: