He was getting ready to hand me the ball.
I said: “No. You need to wait.
“Listen to the noise, the crowd. That’s for you. It’s getting ready to get real loud.
“Don’t ever forget this.”
And with that, Jeff Banister took his hands off of Chi Chi Gonzalez’s shoulders, and pointed demonstratively toward right center, as if to say: “This young man has put this baseball game in your hands, Bullpen. Your turn. Come get the torch.”
No, wait. Listen. Never forget this.
Banny, of all people, understands.
“It meant a lot,” the pitcher said. “He kind of slowed it down for me. I saw the manager coming in and was going to give him the ball and go, but he slowed me down and made me enjoy what was happening.”
The hands on the shoulders got me off my couch. The intent look in Chi Chi’s eyes, with the brims of his and his manager’s caps basically touching, choked me up. For some reason, Banister’s point to the bullpen gave me stinkin’ chills.
Twenty-four hours after Jon Daniels told local reporters that the start he was bringing Gonzalez up to make on Saturday was not a one-and-done assignment — “It’s his spot to lose,” Daniels said — Gonzalez took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, working the edges of the zone all night, pitching inside, keeping the ball on the ground, puzzling Boston hitters with late life on everything he showed them.
Gonzalez’s five-plus before permitting a base hit was the deepest in a career debut for a Rangers pitcher since Roger Pavlik, who went 5.1 hitless on May 2, 1992.
When Gonzalez was three months old.
Texas 8, Boston 0 was the Rangers’ first shutout of the season — they came into the game as the last team in baseball without one — and their first since beating Seattle, 1-0, last September 7, which was Tim Bogar’s first win as Rangers’ manager. It came less than two years after Gonzalez was drafted 23rd overall, on a night when the Rangers had figured he’d be snapped up well before their slot came up.
That was on June 6, 2013.
On May 30, 2015, seconds after David Ortiz broke up Gonzalez’s no-hitter and stood on second base: “[Ortiz] looked at me and I looked at him and he gave me a little clap, and a head nod, which was awesome. Just giving me respect, which I didn’t think — I’m a new guy, a rookie. It was awesome.”
Minutes later, after his moment on the mound with Banister and his walk toward 20 teammates standing in the dugout, along with nearly 43,000 in the stadium, more than any time this year aside from Opening Day, in a game televised to a national audience: “I wasn’t expecting the loudness of it. But it was awesome having the support of Rangers Nation. It was awesome having them scream for me and support me even though I’m the new guy. It just made me feel at home. I want to be here and stay here.”
It’s Chi Chi’s spot to lose.
He listened, and gave us a baseball moment we won’t forget.
After Neftali Feliz’s ninth-inning blow-up on May 16, resulting in the Rangers’ third straight loss and fourth out of five, Jeff Banister shared with local reporters that he’d told his bullpen that all roles would be undefined going forward.
Sixth inning, seventh inning, eighth, ninth: Be ready. The phone call could be for you.
“It’s my job as manager and our job as a staff to find the solution,” Banister told the beats. “I believe the solution is in that clubhouse. I still believe in these guys. . . . This coaching staff and I have to find the right mix that’s going to lead to W’s for this team. . . . We’ll see where this takes us and what mix of pitchers step up and shut the door for us.”
Since that edict, the Rangers relief corps of Shawn Tolleson, Ross Ohlendorf, Keone Kela, Tanner Scheppers, Sam Freeman, Alex Claudio, Anthony Bass, and Feliz has been entrusted with 31 innings over nine games.
The results: Seven runs (2.03 ERA) on 21 hits and 12 walks, with 28 strikeouts.
Two wins and six saves, with the team record 8-1 over that stretch.
Remove Bass’s mop-up inning at the end of the 15-4 win over the Yankees, and the bullpen ERA over those nine games is 1.50.
Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports) said in a televised report yesterday that the Rangers “know they need a second baseman and two relievers.” That may be true — and there are several relievers in Round Rock right now whom I expect to be factors in Texas this summer, starting with Jon Edwards and including Luke Jackson, Spencer Patton, Roman Mendez, and possibly Jimmy Reyes or even Jared Burton — but for the moment, Banister and his staff have found the right mix, in their own clubhouse.
And another thing:
In 1996, AL MVP Juan Gonzalez was hitting .298/.352/.556 (.909 OPS) through 45 of his own games played.
In 1998, repeat AL MVP Gonzalez was hitting .314/.342/.580 (.921 OPS) through 45 games.
In 1999, AL MVP Ivan Rodriguez through 45 games: .324/.351/.551 (.902 OPS), with 80-grade defense.
In 2003, AL MVP Alex Rodriguez through 45 games: .301/.391/.568 (.959 OPS).
In 2010, AL MVP Josh Hamilton through 45 games: .287/.345/.519 (.865 OPS).
Prince Fielder may not win AL MVP this year, but through 45 games he’s hitting .371/.422/.597 (1.018 OPS). He has the best batting average in baseball, and the most RBI (38) in the American League.
Hard to imagine Fielder’s arena league numbers (including .484 with five home runs and 15 RBI over the club’s current seven-game win streak) were any more ridiculous when he was terrorizing 9U pitching.
I’m not sure Gonzalez or Hamilton at-bats were ever any more fun to watch.
I don’t know that I can predict that Fielder will finish the season with a four-digit OPS with any more conviction than I would in suggesting the Rangers will ride things out with the current bullpen corps or even a couple AAA reinforcements and not go out and trade for another weapon or two for the late innings.
But I’m feeling very good right now about a whole lot of Jon Daniels moves — from the blockbuster trade for Fielder to the waiver claims and scrap-heap pickups of players like Tolleson and Ohlendorf and Kyle Blanks to the Rule 5 drafting of Delino DeShields to the steadfast faith in Colby Lewis and Mitch Moreland — and that ledger absolutely needs to include his decision in October, when there was at least one easier and obvious direction he could have gone, to entrust the field management and leadership of this baseball team, and all that that entails, to Jeff Banister.
There was the Jon Morosi (Fox Sports) tweet late in the morning yesterday, in which the national columnist thought out loud that he could “[e]asily see [Texas] becoming a Wild Card contender.”
Then, just as yesterday’s Rangers-Indians series opener got rolling, after Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre preceded Josh Hamilton’s return moment with a pair of bombs, Jon Heyman (CBS Sports) suggested: “[T]hink Rangers may surprise some folks. Prince hitting like .350. Some pitchers on [the] way back. Under the radar team.”
This morning, Buster Olney (ESPN): “Rangers’ current focus and investment in each other really stands out — starts with Beltre, Fielder. Dangerous team.”
With eyes wide open to the risk of making too much of a small sample, I’m going to say this about Jeff Banister because it’s not really about statistics: I can count on one hand the number of managers — any team, any level — about whom I’ve thought, “Man, he really knows how to manage a bullpen.”
Maybe bullpen isn’t the adequate word.
Under the radar.
It wasn’t long ago that they weren’t talking at all about the Rangers on a national level.
If George Springer hadn’t caught the ball, Texas would be one game under .500 today, in spite of everything.
Sure, you could also point to a couple bullpen meltdowns and play the “if only” game, but that’s more a part of the game than Springer’s ridiculous play, and if you want to highlight the fact that this club is where it is even though it has only one win when Ross Detwiler starts, you probably also need to acknowledge that it’s lost just once when Nick Martinez takes the ball.
Martinez, basically the Rangers’ eighth starter, tied a franchise record yesterday by logging his 15th consecutive start (dating back to the fall) of three earned runs or less, equaling the mark set by Rich Hand in 1972 — when the league ERA was 3.06, dramatically different from today’s 3.92.
Heading to Boston and then New York to kick off a nine-game roadie on the heels of losing three of four at home, including two of three to the bad Indians, the Rangers have taken the first four of five from the Red Sox and Yankees, boosting an AL-leading May OPS to .804 and MLB-leading May numbers in both slug and runs.
This month, Texas is just one behind Houston for the most big league home runs (32), and — in an unrelated note — sorta — the Rangers are also one ahead of those same Astros for most bombs in May on the farm (133), more than 20 ahead of the Royals’ minor leaguers, who are next.
Going into tonight’s series finale with the Yankees, the Rangers sit 4.5 games out of the Wild Card, with nearly three-quarters of the season to go.
Josh Hamilton joins the club tomorrow.
Matt Harrison threw four scoreless innings in an extended spring training game yesterday, maintaining his velocity throughout, and his next start on Thursday could be his final tuneup in Surprise before a rehab assignment in Frisco. Buster Olney (ESPN) suggests “the expectation now is that [Harrison] could be back [with Texas] by the end of June.”
Martin Perez — who is slated to make his first extended spring appearance on June 5 — could be back in Arlington sometime in July, along with Derek Holland, who will begin a throwing program within the week and could be on a mound in three weeks, assuming the next MRI is lit green.
Rougned Odor (.289/.400/.711, five strikeouts and six walks in 45 AAA plate appearances) will probably beat all three pitchers back. He’s in AAA for more than just his lost offensive approach, but at least at the plate he’s doing what he needed to do with his demotion.
Prince Fielder (.351/.407/.544, on pace for 30 home runs and 113 RBI) has a park-adjusted OPS+ of 163.
In the three seasons in which he finished top 5 in the MVP vote (2007, 2009, and 2011), his OPS+ numbers were 157, 166, and 164.
Delino DeShields Jr., the club’s new leadoff hitter, is reaching base at a .400 clip, something he managed to do once in five minor league seasons.
He’s seeing 4.10 pitches per plate appearance, which leads regulars on the club (ahead of two-hole hitter Shin-Soo Choo’s 3.95) and is among the top 20 in the league. Last in that category for Texas: Leonys Martin (3.38) — a bottom 10 mark in the league.
Hamilton’s return does prompt the question about DeShields’s playing time, and it’s probably not going to come at second base (Ryan Rua is more likely to see some work there), but one way or another, neither Hamilton (.364/.391/.545 with five doubles and a homer in 46 AA/AAA plate appearances) nor Martin should be viewed at this point as a fixture in the lineup, at least as long as DeShields continues to ignite the offense the way exactly the way the club hoped he would, if not more so.
Thursday, when the Rangers return home, this time with Hamilton in uniform, they’ll be hosting Boston — whose starting pitcher hasn’t been announced, but would be knuckleballer Steven Wright if he’s given the ball again after pitching well yesterday — and sending Martinez to the mound, and right there are three pretty good reasons to consider it appointment baseball.
Especially if, between now and then, a Texas club coming back into focus continues to close the gap on the AL, and on expectations.
If you were hunting for the category under which to file November 20, 2013’s trade of Ian Kinsler to Detroit for Prince Fielder and $30 million, you could probably stick it in the “High Profile” stack.
Hours before Texas and Detroit pulled that deal off, the Rangers made player personnel news that instead probably belonged in the category “Etc.”
November 20 is the date most years when clubs have to add draft-eligible minor league players to their 40-man rosters in order to make sure they’re not lost in December via Rule 5. Earlier that day in 2013, before trading Kinsler for Fielder, the Rangers added Luis Sardinas, Lisalverto Bonilla, and Ben Rowen to the roster, and outrighted Edwar Cabrera to clear more space.
But they also added a player that the Dodgers had designated for assignment earlier that week, apparently to make room on their own roster for minor league pitchers Yimi Garcia, Pedro Baez, and Jarret Martin.
Because of the way off-season claim priority works, the Astros had the first shot to claim 25-year-old righthander Shawn Tolleson when the Dodgers ran him onto the waiver wire. But they didn’t.
The Marlins could have claimed Tolleson, who’d logged 37.2 big league innings before missing most of the 2013 season due to back surgery. But they didn’t.
The White Sox could have claimed Tolleson, who still had two options, but didn’t.
The Cubs and the Twins and the Mariners and the Phillies and the Rockies and the Blue Jays and the Brewers and the Mets and the Giants and the Padres and the Angels and the Diamondbacks and the Yankees and the Orioles and the Royals and the Nationals and the Reds could have put in a claim on Shawn Tolleson, but none of them did.
Texas, which won 91 games in 2012 and had to wait behind 20 teams in the waiver line, claimed the Allen High School and Baylor University product, whom the Dodgers had decided a few days earlier to try and sneak through waivers to make sure, for instance, that they could roster Martin — whom they’d designate for assignment one year later without so much as a big league appearance.
We’ve passed the quarter mark of the 2015 season, and though Jeff Banister hasn’t named a closer since Neftali Feliz ceded the role, Tolleson has as many saves (two) as unintentional walks, and he’s punched out 26 hitters in 19.2 frames.
Tolleson has struck out 32.9 percent of the hitters he’s faced. Feliz: 17.9 percent.
Outs on the ground: 1.29 for every out in the air. Feliz: 0.54.
You can argue about which team Fielder (.340/.397/.488, five home runs, signed through 2020) and Kinsler (.309/.383/.400, zero home runs, signed through 2017) tilt the scales in favor of at this point, with Texas paying $19.7 million per year and Detroit $23 million per year for the duration of its new player’s deal, but it’s pretty clear that Fielder is one of the Rangers’ most important and most productive players right now.
As is Shawn Tolleson, who may not have made the Rangers’ biggest headline on November 20, 2013, but whose acquisition was clearly a pretty big deal.
So Josh and Wash are going back home, and Dave’s just going home.
We all saw that coming, right? Along with a 2-1 win in Fenway authored on the mound by a 30th-round pick making his first big league start (and just his fifth as a pro) against a team he’d never faced; a 27th-round pick; a supplemental first-rounder who’s been in the big leagues the last four years and in AAA five of the last six; a minor league free agent; and a waiver claim who’d been another club’s 30th-round pick.
And starring a Rule 5 pick who did his thing offensively and defensively and whose OPS now lags only Prince Fielder’s and Mitch Moreland’s among Rangers regulars.
Hours earlier, Josh and Joey homered in the same game, for the first time and, this year, likely the last.
There will be more.
Phil Klein, the lead candidate to finish 2015 as the Rangers’ unlikeliest starting pitcher, threw nearly 70 percent of his 81 pitches for strikes — and was efficient enough that he pitched into the sixth, which Texas couldn’t have expected. He started off 14 of the 23 Red Sox he faced with a strike, and induced more swinging strikes (8) than his Boston counterpart, fireballing righthander Joe Kelly, who missed only seven bats over his 108 pitches.
Klein will probably get the ball again on Monday in Cleveland — going back home, incidentally — possibly backed by Josh Hamilton, and by then Matt Harrison could be on his way to Frisco, where he’ll assume Hamilton’s post–game spread duties.
None of it was predictable, other than Letterman’s retirement, which we knew about a year ago, when the American League’s current second-leading hitter was headed toward season-ending neck fusion surgery that had some people concerned about his career.
None of it was predictable, so it won’t surprise me at this point if Keith Law’s prediction last night that Florida high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers, thought by many to be the top candidate to go 1.1 in the draft 18 days from now, falls to Texas and is announced as the Rangers’ pick at 1.4.
If Rodgers lands here, the speculation on where his path will lead will be fascinating, as he’ll get to the big leagues well before Elvis Andrus’s contract expires, and even if Josh Hamilton is gone by then, Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo won’t be, and neither will Harrison or Derek Holland or Martin Perez, at least contractually. I still hold out hope that Yu Darvish’s next contract will be in Texas, too.
And hey there, Chi Chi and Jake and Luis.
When Rodgers gets to the big leagues, if it’s in Texas he’ll be teammates with Nomar Mazara and Gallo, who Baseball Prospectus’s Ryan Parker suggested yesterday are “the best 1-2 prospect punch of any system.”
If Jorge Alfaro is hitting seventh, cool.
Rougned Odor: .318/.464/.818 with Round Rock since his demotion. Maybe more startling: five walks and two strikeouts.
See ya soon, Roogie.
Probably before Wash is back in Arlington on June 23.
Hugging it out with Josh during BP at Globe Life Park.
Just like we all imagined.
Who are Tim Beckham, Jarrod Dyson, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales, Cain again, Hosmer again, Morales again, Lonnie Chisenhall, Michael Bourn, Brett Hayes, Jose Ramirez, Jason Kipnis, and Carlos Santana?
They are the last 16 hitters Neftali Feliz has faced.
He didn’t strike any of them out.
Maybe just as alarming: Feliz threw those 16 hitters 57 pitches.
And there were four swings and misses.
And that includes the first two pitches the .175/.229/.237-hitting Ramirez saw last night before he fouled off an 0-2 fastball and grounded another four-seamer to shortstop on the play that tied the game and brought Kipnis to the plate for the decisive, rug-pulling upper-tanker, again on a four-seam fastball, not long after which Adrian Beltre said to reporters what the rest of us were thinking:
“The way the game went, we expected to win. We kept fighting and had a lead in the ninth and somehow lost the game.”
For the first month of the season, the lead story as far as the Rangers’ slow start was concerned was the offense’s missing bats.
Now the thing I can’t stop thinking about is how infrequently the closer is missing bats himself.
Since it wasn’t enough that 2014 hammered the Rangers with a record number of DL days and roster moves and Joe Saunders and all kinds of brutal baseball luck, what’s probably the silverest lining afforded the team by the sport has gotten battered as well.
Finishing with the game’s third-worst record (which was the first-worst with only eight games left on the schedule), Texas had its June 2015 draft position bumped down from 1.3 to 1.4 because Houston, having failed to sign its top pick a year ago, California high school lefthander Brady Aiken, was allowed to butt in line with what will be the second pick three weeks from now.
OK. Rules are rules. Plus, with Aiken back in the draft, theoretically dropping one slot might have turned out to be a wash (and at less expense).
But as the season began, many industry evaluators were calling the 2015 draft class, at least at the top, unusually thin on impact talent.
And then Aiken underwent Tommy John surgery late in March.
A week later, so did Duke righthander Michael Matuella, who like Aiken was a candidate to go at or near the top of the draft.
And lefthander Kolby Allard, thought by many to be the top high school pitcher in the draft, missed most of the spring with a stress reaction in his back, while University of Virginia pitcher Nathan Kirby, perhaps the top draft-eligible collegiate lefty, strained a lat muscle three weeks ago and was shut down as well.
Whether the Rangers had targeted Aiken or Matuella or Allard or Kirby (not to mention Allen High School infielder Kyler Murray, who has pulled out of the draft to cement his commitment to play quarterback for Texas A&M) is only part of the point, as there’s a strong chance one or two or three of the pitchers would have gone in the three slots ahead of the Rangers pick, pushing other players to Texas that might now be taken off the board beforehand.
Baseball Prospectus’s Christopher Crawford wrote, after Matuella went down on April 1: “Long story short, this was a less-than-ideal situation for teams with high draft picks before the Matuella injury, and while there’s still talent in this class, today’s news makes this the weakest top of the class I’ve ever covered.”
Kiley McDaniel of FanGraphs, that same day: “Just heard about Matuella’s UCL tear. So, yeah, that sucks and the 2015 draft is looking like a horror movie at this point.”
It would have been a nice year to be able to trade down, since the prescribed slot doesn’t devalue just because the talent level might. But rules are rules.
The Rangers, who haven’t drafted this high since 1985 (Bobby Witt, 1.3) and 1986 (Kevin Brown, 1.4), will draft a player they love on June 8, even if it’s not necessarily the player they’d have chosen if everyone were healthy, but as for who that will be, there’s very little consensus as to whose name the club will call — because there’s plenty of uncertainty at this point over who will go to Arizona at 1.1, much less who fits at 1.2 (Houston) or 1.3 (Colorado).
In Baseball America’s initial mock draft, published May 8, that publication predicted Missouri State righthander Jon Harris would be the Texas pick.
BA rolled out a new mock yesterday, this time pegging UC Santa Barbara righthander Dillon Tate, rumored by other publications (and BA in its first mock) to be a strong candidate to go 1.1 to the Diamondbacks.
Crawford has Tate going to Texas as well, while McDaniel projects Louisville righthander Kyle Funkhouser.
Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo (MLB.com) predict Georgia high school outfielder Daz Cameron, son of Mike, will be the Rangers’ choice at 1.4 (though Callis has also suggested Funkhouser could be the pick).
Dave Rawnsley of Perfect Game USA: LSU shortstop Alex Bregman.
Matt Garrioch of MinorLeagueBall.com: Harris.
ESPN’s Keith Law hasn’t rolled out a mock yet, but said in a chat recently that he believes Vanderbilt righthander Walker Buehler is at the top of the Rangers’ list, though he could also see Florida high school shortstop Brendan Rodgers slipping to 1.4.
Incredibly, it seems there was more consensus on the Rangers’ direction when they were regularly drafting in the 1.20’s.
I miss the days of drafting in the 1.20’s.
Some are going to suggest, hyperbolically, that drafting fourth overall in 2015 is no different — aside from the price tag — from drafting some years in the 1.20’s, but it is what it is, and the Rangers are going to add a very good baseball player with a very high ceiling when they make the fourth selection in 23 days.
And maybe, as that pick comes a mere weeks (we hope) before Derek Holland and Martin Perez and maybe even Matt Harrison return to action, we can get closer to slamming the book shut on the black cloud that lowered and dumped on this team in 2014, and hasn’t quite fully cleared away.
I don’t ever want to title a report “1.4” again.
You could stretch to sugarcoat things and point out that Ross Detwiler allowed only three Royals runs in Thursday’s start, in which he delivered a career-high 108 pitches, but that would be a remarkable effort at spin.
It took Detwiler those 108 pitches to record a mere 15 outs, and it continued a disturbing trend.
In the 29-year-old’s first Rangers start, he was relieved by Logan Verrett.
In his next start, he handed the ball off to Stolmy Pimentel.
Next start: Anthony Bass (in the third inning, which Detwiler kicked off having been given a 7-2 lead).
Next: Bass again.
In Detwiler’s next start, his 7-4-1-1-2-7 gem against Houston, Keone Kela took over for the eighth.
Detwiler’s start after that: Bass.
Detwiler (0-5, 6.95) still doesn’t have a win as a Ranger, and part of the reason for that even when he’s pitching reasonably well he isn’t getting deep into games. And when you’re not getting deep into games, you force the manager to dip into the bottom of the bullpen, because he has the rest of the day, and the next few after that, to map out. And when you’re relying on the bottom of the bullpen that often, it shouldn’t be surprising when games tend to get out of hand.
And the bottom of this bullpen, out of medical necessity, has featured a number of pitchers who wouldn’t be here at all if the pitching staff were healthy to start the season, and in Verrett and Pimentel’s case, aren’t here any more. Whether Bass, whose effectiveness has waned lately, survives as the bullpen continues to regain health is less than certain.
Detwiler’s own hold on a job — at least the one he’s been entrusted with so far — would seem to be tenuous, but the reason he’s been given the ball as often as he has is that Martin Perez, Derek Holland, and Matt Harrison aren’t ready to return, Anthony Ranaudo (3-0, 2.87 in six AAA starts but with 18 walks in 31.1 innings) hasn’t earned his way back to Texas, and Chi Chi Gonzalez (2-4, 4.50 in six AAA starts) hasn’t been consistent and isn’t considered quite ready. Unless you want to roll the dice by going to Jerad Eickhoff or the Phil Klein experiment or Ross Wolf, you’re stuck with Detwiler for the time being, and now’s probably a decent time to thank goodness for Wandy Rodriguez.
The part about Detwiler that frustrates me more than any other it’s not an issue of inferior stuff. He has innings (and has had one game) when he looked like a guy you could get behind taking a chance on, as the Rangers did this winter. (The players Texas gave up for him, incidentally: Second baseman Chris Bostick, repeating Low A, is hitting .224/.285/.288, and righthander Abel De Los Santos, in his first run at AA hitters, has a 6.39 ERA and .288/.345/.500 opponents’ slash.) I actually look forward to the time when Detwiler is repurposed as a reliever, when I think his stuff could play up and the pitch count issue won’t be as magnified and won’t handicap the rest of the team so much.
That transition just doesn’t seem to be imminent, and that’s not because of his arsenal or the upside that scouts saw. It’s because there just really aren’t tempting alternatives to Ross Detwiler right now.
A career-high 108 pitches in five innings just isn’t very encouraging, especially when a lot of them miss the target by a foot (usually up), and when, as has been the case in almost every Detwiler start this season, they cause the day on which you send your least effective starter to the mound to also be a day on which you end up having to use your least effective relievers. Hard not to expect different results.
I was about five years into my law practice and a year into writing regularly about baseball when I decided, late in 1999, married but not yet a dad, that the natural thing for me to try doing was to represent baseball players. I’d gotten to know a bunch of minor leaguers, and their parents. A partner at my firm had represented a handful of Dallas Cowboys. And there were things about my skill set that made me think, perhaps myopically, that it would be a pretty good fit.
The first opportunity came after a handful of emails and a phone call with Jamie Hill, a 22-year-old lefthander from the University of Alabama-Huntsville (and, before that, Middle Tennessee State) who wasn’t among the 1,474 players drafted that June, but who signed a free agent deal with the Rangers for $1,000 and was assigned that summer to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League club. On a club and in a league where the average age was 19, Hill was really good, holding opponents to a homerless .203 average in 46 innings of relief (with one start mixed in) on a staff featuring Jovanny Cedeno and a team led by Hank Blalock.
I’m sure Hill was just flattered that someone asked if he needed an agent, and too nice a guy to turn it down.
I met him in Port Charlotte in March 2000, and we talked about expectations. I certainly couldn’t charge him anything — there’s nothing I could have done at that stage of his career to increase his paltry, standardized, lockstep salary, and I wasn’t about to cut into it — but we talked about me helping him out during the 2000 season with an extra pair of cleats, maybe a new glove, things like that.
We went to grab dinner at a nearby Chili’s after one day’s spring training workout, and while we were waiting for a table Hill introduced me to 20-year-old righty Colby Lewis, whom the Rangers had given $862,500 to sign as a first-round pick in that same June draft nine months earlier when nobody bothered to call Hill’s name at all. Lewis, a junior college product, was two-and-a-half years younger than Hill but assigned by Texas that summer to Pulaski of the more advanced Appalachian League, where the competition was closer to Hill’s age — and Lewis posted a 1.95 ERA, punching out 84 mostly older hitters in 64.2 innings.
At least that late afternoon at Chili’s you’d have never guessed that Lewis was any more pedestaled than Hill, despite their vastly different paths to Port Charlotte and their even more monumentally different expectations. There were plenty of kids in the system quick to bigtime anyone who would listen long enough, but neither Lewis nor Hill seemed to be among them.
Hey, one day, maybe, I’ll be representing kids like Colby Lewis.
I never really represented Hill, as it turns out. He was released a couple weeks before spring training ended. About four months after that the Yankees gave him a chance to pitch in that same Gulf Coast League against kids who were then four years younger rather than three, but after two appearances that was cut short, too. He didn’t pitch professionally after that.
And despite a couple later opportunities that didn’t quite materialize, I never did add “player agent” to my bio.
Hill is now an elementary school principal in Madison, Alabama, after a stint as his district’s special education coordinator, and when he’s not running his school or coaching one of his sons on his 13U baseball team (one of only four Majors-classified teams in the state), he’s busy working toward his doctorate in education at the University of Alabama.
It’s all worked out.
I thought about Hill the other day, when Kevin Matthews was released by the Rangers.
I thought about Hill because Matthews too is a slightly undersized left-handed pitcher, from the same general area of the country. And because he’d been released.
Only Matthews was released Thursday because, the day before, he’d been charged with driving under the influence in Hickory, North Carolina, where he’d been pitching in middle relief for the Crawdads in Low Class A, the highest level he’d reached in five years as a pro.
Since missing the 2013 season due to injury, Matthews had pitched a total of 29.2 innings, with as many walks (28) as strikeouts and an unsightly 7.28 ERA. His stock as a prospect had waned long before; his hold on a job had probably become tenuous this spring, even without the legal issues factored in. The concept of expectations in the game for the former first-rounder had given way to a question of survival.
Matthews was charged with the misdemeanor count hours before Lewis threw an 8-6-1-1-1-6 gem against Houston to complete a Rangers sweep.
Matthews was drafted 33rd overall in 2011, part of the Rangers’ compensation for the loss of Cliff Lee.
Lewis had been drafted 38th overall in 1999, part of the club’s compensation for the loss of Todd Stottlemyre.
Matthews really never got his career rolling, after his first full pro season in 2012 was followed by 2013 shoulder surgery.
Then again, Lewis had overcome Tommy John surgery in high school, and after that his path took him from Bakersfield Junior College to Pulaski to Port Charlotte to Tulsa to Texas to Oklahoma City to Texas to Oklahoma City to Texas to Oklahoma City to Texas to a torn rotator cuff (and 2004 shoulder surgery) to Toledo to Detroit to Toledo to Detroit to Toledo to Washington to Sacramento to Oakland to Sacramento to Oakland to Kansas City to Hiroshima to temporary paralysis of the facial nerves to Texas to a torn flexor tendon (and 2012 elbow surgery) to Round Rock to Frisco to Round Rock to Frisco to bone spurs in his hip (and a 2013 resurfacing procedure) to Round Rock to Texas, and he goes into tonight’s start against Kansas City in the American League top 10 in ERA (9th, at 2.61) and WHIP (10th, at 1.079) and WAR (5th, at 1.5).
According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s Jeff Wilson, it’s been suggested that nobody has ever pitched after Tommy John elbow reconstruction as long as Lewis has, about 19 years to be exact. That includes all TJ graduates who haven’t had any more appointments on the operating table.
And no pitcher had ever returned from hip resurfacing surgery before Lewis, evidently.
Lewis is 35 and he’s returned from elbow surgery and shoulder surgery and another elbow surgery and hip surgery — and Japan — and there’s never been anybody in the big leagues like him. Which is to say nothing of the fact that he’s dealing right now.
It struck me about a week ago that there’s not a really good reason that Colby Lewis isn’t higher up on my list of favorite Rangers players ever. He should be.
Thirty-seven players were drafted before Lewis in 1999. The first two were high schoolers Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett, one fighting now for a last chance and the other retired.
Of the 35 players drafted after Hamilton and Beckett but before Lewis on June 2, 1999, five have had more productive big league careers than Lewis.
Only 14 of those 35 have had big league careers at all.
He’s had more comebacks — and not the Josh Hamilton or Steve Howe kind — than just about anyone you can think of in the game. He’s a warrior-beast with a lifetime post-season ERA of 2.34 in eight Rangers starts, including wins in his first four post-season decisions, which doesn’t count the five shutout innings he threw in a 2010 ALDS loss to the Rays, and he’s a tremendous example of all kinds of things for young pitchers wearing a Rangers uniform, or one that says Round Rock or Frisco or High Desert or Hickory or Spokane across the front.
Or one of those scarlet red workout shirts on the back fields in Surprise.
It’s too soon to talk about the success that the 32 players drafted in 2011 ahead of Kevin Matthews have had, though half have made it to the big leagues while Matthews was unable to get past Low A. Too soon to judge Boston’s pick three slots after Matthews of fellow high school lefty Henry Owens, and to be fair, if you’re going to focus on the fact that Texas used the Cliff Lee compensation picks to take Matthews and High A outfielder Zach Cone, you should probably also recognize that the Rangers used the money not taken by Lee to instead sign Adrian Beltre and take on the extra couple million that trading Frankie Francisco for Mike Napoli required.
But yeah, though hindsight is easy, Owens rather than Matthews would have worked out better, and college outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (40th overall) rather than the college outfielder Cone (37th) looks at this point like it would have been the better choice, too.
Cone, facing High A pitching for a third season, may be showing signs of figuring things out (though pinball numbers in High Desert carry potential asterisks), while Matthews is now facing a different crossroads altogether. He jumped at the chance to play professional baseball four years ago, for a reported $936,000 signing bonus, which was $935,000 more than Jamie Hill got a dozen years earlier, but Matthews has now been released at age 22, about seven months younger than Hill was when the Rangers let him go.
Hill got a second chance, brief as it was, and Lewis got a whole bunch of them, and though they’re doing very different things with their lives today it’s plain that they’ve both succeeded in big ways.
I hope there are good things ahead for Matthews, whether it’s in baseball or something else.
The day I met Lewis at a Chili’s in Port Charlotte, Florida, my wife was expecting our first child. Our daughter is now in high school, only a few years younger than Lewis was then, and now he’s got an eight-year-old and four-year-old of his and Jenny’s own.
Jamie Hill has two sons, one in high school and another headed that way a little over a year from now. Maybe one of his kids will need an agent soon.
It won’t be me, and that’s OK. I learned some things back then that steered me away from the agency game, which I realized others are better equipped to handle. In 1999, the things I envisioned for my law practice were nothing like what actually came to be, and that’s all good, too, and I obviously had no idea that my little writing diversion was headed in this direction, either.
I’m happy I got the chance to meet Hill and have a ton of respect for what he’s done with his life. Maybe he knew in the summer of 1999 that he’d pitch in a pro uniform for a year, possibly two, and then transition into educating kids, and coaching them in his free time. But whether he knew then where his path would take him, the 38-year-old kid has done more than all right, as has 35-year-old Colby Lewis, who was probably less likely than Hill back then to have predicted the incredible path that took him from there to here.
I’m sure that Matthews’s vision four years ago, when he decided to forgo an opportunity to attend the University of Virginia and instead take a lifetime of baseball preparation to the pro level, didn’t include any of the things that happened this last week. Where things go for him from here may or may not involve professional ball, but that doesn’t mean the next phase can’t be better than the last. Matthews may not have any feel today for the direction he expects the next part of the path to lead, but at this point the burden of expectations is probably his own.