« February 2007 | Main | April 2007 »

March 30, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Pacific Coast League

Many of the Ranger affiliates discussed so far have long and interesting histories, but those histories are not intertwined with Texas. To be sure, affiliations are often short-lived, especially at lower levels. As you’ve read, Texas’s recent history is especially turbulent. When the franchise pulled up stakes and moved its Spring Training home to Arizona in 2003, it ended three decades of mostly eastern-based minor-league relationships.

The AAA Oklahoma Redhawks are the proud exception. Since both New York teams terminated lengthy affiliations over the winter, Texas and Oklahoma now have the fifth-longest association in AAA:

Atlanta – Richmond, since 1966 (when Braves moved out of Milwaukee)
Kansas City – Omaha, 1969 (affiliate since beginning of franchise)
Boston – Pawtucket, 1973
Chicago Cubs – Iowa, 1981
Texas – Oklahoma, 1983

Indeed, Oklahoma has changed its name, nickname, league and stadium since affiliating with Texas.

Oklahoma City’s connection with professional baseball began in 1904 as the Mets of the Southwestern League. The team began a fifteen-year membership in the Western League in 1918, followed by 22 years in the Texas League. While in the TL, Oklahoma City was known as the Indians and usually (but not exclusively) affiliated with Cleveland.

After four baseball-free years, Oklahoma City rejoined pro ball in 1962 as the 89ers of the American Association, a Triple-A league situated in the Midwest. (“89ers” refers to the Oklahoma Land Run of 1889.) One year later, the league folded and its teams were divided into the Pacific Coast League and International League, with Oklahoma City joining the PCL. In 1969 the Association reformed and OKC rejoined. During its first 21 years, the AAA 89ers united with Houston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. In 1983, the 89ers affiliated with the Texas Rangers, which had plowed through five AAA affiliates in the eight years since leaving Spokane.

1998 would be a momentous year for Oklahoma City baseball. First, the American Association disappeared for good, and the 89ers returned to the PCL. Second, the team dropped the “City” and changed the nickname, becoming the Oklahoma Redhawks. Third, the team moved into a new stadium.

From 1961 through 1997, the 89ers played in All-Sports Stadium, located on the state fairgrounds in western OKC. For the following season, the team moved to the new, state-of-the-art Bricktown Ballpark constructed at the edge of downtown. Originally sponsored by Southwestern Bell and then the abbreviated SBC, the park now has “AT&T” in its moniker. Actually, since Southwestern Bell renamed itself SBC, and SBC later purchased AT&T and assumed its name, sponsorship hasn’t changed at all.

The Redhawks bring plenty of fans to the Brick. Oklahoma ranked fifteenth in per-game attendance among all minor-league teams in 2006. They also ranked sixth in the 16-team PCL and 12th among the 30 AAA teams. (Three lower-level teams outdrew them: the AA Frisco Roughriders, the low-A Dayton Dragons, and the short-A Brooklyn Cyclones.) The park also hosts the Big 12 college baseball championship tournament, and in 2006 it hosted the first Bricktown Showdown, a one-game playoff between the winners of the PCL and International League.

Oklahoma has claimed four titles as an AAA club, twice in the PCL (1963 and 1965) and twice in the Association (1992 and 1996). While affiliated with Texas, the 89ers/Redhawks have had three league MVPs: Steve Buechele in 1985, Juan Gonzalez in 1991, and Lee Stevens in 1996.

As for the Pacific Coast League, it began in 1903 as an independent league and joined Organized Baseball the following year. The Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Oaks, Portland Browns, Sacramento Senators, San Francisco Seals, and Seattle Siwashes comprised the original members. For fifty years, the PCL was the dominant league on the west coast. During the 1950s it was classified as “open,” ostensibly a level above AAA. The league aspired to become a third major league, but the arrival of the Dodgers and Giants dashed those hopes. Additional cities once hosting a PCL team and now part of MLB are Dallas/Fort Worth (well, close enough), Denver, Phoenix, and San Diego.

The 1960 Tacoma Giants featured future Hall-of-Famers Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal, and (briefly) Gaylord Perry. In 1964, the league included Tony Perez, Phil Niekro and Fergie Jenkins. Warren Spahn, who won 363 MLB games over 21 years, finished his career in 1967 as a 46-year-old member of the Tulsa Oilers.

The PCL splits its teams into four divisions. Oklahoma fights Round Rock (Astros affiliate), New Orleans (Mets), and Albuquerque (Marlins) for the American South division crown. After a 144-game schedule, the champions of the two American divisions play a best-of-five, as do the two Pacific champs. The winners play another best-of-five for the league title. Incidentally, only four of the Pacific Coast League’s sixteen teams are within 200 miles of the Pacific Coast. Nashville is 1,750 miles to the east.

Among Oklahoma’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

0 – 2006 draftees
0 – 2005 draftees
0 – 2004 draftees
1 – 2003 draftee
3 – 2002 draftees
0 – 2001 draftees
2 – 2000 draftees
1 – 1999 draftee
1 – 1996 draftee (guess who?)
2 – undrafted free agents
5 – undrafted free agents signed from another team
4 – minor-league free agents (with MLB experience)
9 – trade acquisitions
2 – MLB waiver claims

The Oklahoma roster has the broadest range of origins and ages among Texas’s minor-league teams and the smallest percentage (33%) of players originally signing with the Rangers. In 2006, ages ranged from 21 (Joaquin Arias, John Danks) to 34 (Jamie Burke, Adam Hyzdu); hitters averaged 26 years of age, pitchers 26.5.

While the typical AAA team will have many more players of Major League caliber than a Double-A team, it often has fewer prospects. One reason is that many of baseball’s elite prospects may spend only a brief period in AAA or skip it entirely. Mark Teixeira and Ivan Rodriguez never played a game for Oklahoma. Michael Young lasted seven weeks before his promotion to Texas. Hank Blalock started his first MLB game after bypassing AAA, though his slow start in 2002 soon led to four months in a Redhawk uniform. Another reason is that MLB teams need reinforcements in case of injury. AAA teams abound with players like John Wasdin, Adam Hyzdu, and Jamie Burke, veterans who never achieved (or failed to retain) assured roster spots in Major League baseball but have the ability to fill in for short periods if needed.

Despite its reputation as a hitter’s paradise, PCL offenses scored 3% fewer runs per game than the American League in 2006 (but 2% more than the NL). The Brick put Detroit’s pitcher-friendly Comerica Park to shame last year. The Redhawks and their opponents scored only 7.2 runs per game in Oklahoma versus 9.6 on the road. Bricktown Ballpark also depressed home runs by nearly 20% relative to other parks. The park-adjusted, league-average ERA in Oklahoma last year was only 3.89, and the adjusted batting line was a mere .259/.331/.387. To make a long story short, Jason Botts was even better than you thought.

Bobby Jones returns to manage the Redhawks after a one-year stint as Ranger first base coach. Jones has sixteen years of managerial experience in the Texas system including six in Oklahoma. Andy Hawkins will again coach Oklahoma’s pitchers.

If you’d like to see each PCL team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth.

This concludes my rundown of the Texas minor-league system. Up next: baseball!

Posted by Lucas at 05:17 PM

Weekend Photo


Rangers Ballpark In Arlington, 29 July 2006. It's time for baseball.

Posted by Lucas at 10:26 AM

March 29, 2007

Transaction Roundup

Texas released reliever RICK BAUER.

The Rangers couldn’t find a trade partner for Bauer, so away he goes. In just four weeks, Bauer slid from valued reliever and trade bait to unemployed. He’ll find a job somewhere.

Texas placed shortstop JOAQUIN ARIAS and pitcher JOHN RHEINECKER on the 15-day Disabled List.

Rheinecker never got out of the trainer’s room long enough to take a crack at the fifth starter job. He’ll join Oklahoma’s rotation when healthy. Likewise, Arias’s meager hope for a roster spot was ended by injury, in this case, an infected thumb.

Texas optioned relievers FRANK FRANCISCO and WES LITTLETON and outfielder JASON BOTTS to AAA Oklahoma.

Both Francisco and Littleton had roster positions waiting for them, but terrible springs left the door open for the likes of Bruce Chen and Mike Wood. I’d guess that Littleton gets first dibs on a bullpen opening.

Texas has removed FRANCISCO CRUCETA from the 40-man roster and outrighted him to AAA Oklahoma.

Cruceta cleared waivers. He’ll join the AAA bullpen and fall in line behind several others in the potential call-up order.

Posted by Lucas at 11:56 PM

March 28, 2007

Fired!

ESPN has discontinued offering Fantasy Baseball Correspondents, effective immediately, so I’m out of a “job.” I found out second-hand from another correspondent, who tried to post a new story, only to discover the uplink had disappeared. He informed someone upstairs, who replied: “I sent an email to the correspondents to let them know that we are discontinuing correspondents this year. Thanks for all your help!”

Neither I nor many of the other correspondents received said email, but in my case I’d bet he was using something like tex05@scottlucas.com, which I deleted after 2005. Given that this was my sixth year, I would’ve preferred they’d used the actual, working email address listed in my ESPN profile, and I also would’ve preferred they’d cut us loose before the busiest time of year for a fantasy writer, but oh well.

That said, I’m not displeased. Five years ago, the correspondents were an intergral part of ESPN’s fantasy product, and I was proud to be part of it. There was a group of people back then: Kent Williams, Mick Doherty, John Gizzi, maybe me, and several others, who were equal to or better than any paid roto writer. As ESPN expanded Eric Karabell’s role and added more paid writers over the years, the correspondents became superfluous. Until 2005 I used to receive 4-5 emailed questions per day during March. Last March I received a ten, total. So far this March, four. This was to be my last year.

I’m still (online) friends with several former correspondents, and when the ESPN gig proved too stifling (you can only write so much about fantasy ball for one team) I created the blog you’re reading now. Plus, I now have the affiliation with Jamey Newberg.

So, to make a short story very long, if you’re looking for fantasy advice about the Rangers, I’m afraid you won’t find it here. It was (mostly) fun while it lasted.

Also, my fantasy league with eleven other fired correspondents has its draft on Sunday. It’s an ESPN league, of course.

Posted by Lucas at 02:58 PM

March 26, 2007

Astacio in, Bauer Out

Texas claimed EZEQUIEL ASTACIO off waivers from Houston and placed pitcher ALEXI OGANDO on the restricted list.

One of three heralded minor-league prospects acquired from Philly for Billy Wagner, Zeke has yet to fulfill his potential. Occasionally very good, often very hittable, Astacio’s main problem is a catastrophic 2.5 homers allowed per nine innings. That’s one per sixteen batters faced. Astacio has no options remaining, so, like Houston, the Rangers must attempt to pass him through waivers if they want him in AAA. Perhaps he’s more likely to squeeze through at the end of the month when many teams will be facing difficult roster decisions. Now 27, he’s just a pitcher instead of a prospect, but he’s not a terrible insurance policy for the rotation.

Ogando and Omar Beltre will once again terrorize the Dominican Summer League.

Texas designated reliever RICK BAUER for assignment and added infielder ADAM FOX to the 40-man roster.

Huh? Like John Wasdin in ‘06, Bauer signed a Major League contract in the offseason, only to be released before the season begins. Going into Spring Training, he was the Ranger Most Likely To Be Traded To A Team Ready To Overpay For Relief Help, but his atrocious spring snuffed whatever hope Texas had of converting him into a real prospect or reasonable facsimile. Now, apparently, Texas will pay him not to pitch in Arlington. This is one of those roster moves that probably won’t have any positive or negative effect on the team. That said, it’s an odd decision. Despite his middling track record and awful spring, Bauer was a useful reliever last season.

As to why Texas added a 25-year-old who spent most of last year in high-A instead of, say, Sammy Sosa, it’s just a temporary situation. Per Jamey Newberg, Fox recently became a father and is held in high personal regard in the system, so Texas is buying him a few days in the MLB pension plan and a union card. When Texas puts Sosa, Jerry Hairston, or someone else on the 40, Fox will clear waivers with ease and probably join Frisco.

Posted by Lucas at 11:48 PM

March 25, 2007

Taking The Fifth, Revisited

MLB.com’s T.R. Sullivan believes the competition for fifth starter is over, and Jamey Wright has prevailed. I can’t say I had any reaction at all when I heard the news in the midst of a fantasy draft Saturday night. He’d might as well have announced, “Drill a pilot hole before installing an anchor in sheetrock.”

I can’t find the link now, but I recall Wright saying he’d found a groove last season in San Francisco until Mike Matheny was injured. The stats bear him out:

Period
ERA
BABIP
HR%
BB%
SO%
Career
5.14
.307
2.5%
11.4%
10.9%
2006 with Matheny catching
4.56
.301
2.2%
6.2%
12.0%
2006 with others catching
5.45
.308
2.4%
11.3%
10.9%

His success with Matheny was no BABIP-induced fluke, and his bullpen didn’t have to bail him out (one of his two bequeathed runners scored). Cutting his walk rate to a terrific 2.4 per nine innings dropped his ERA to within spitting distance of league-average. Alas, with either Todd Greene or Eliezer Alfonzo as his receiver, his mechanics suffered and he offered the usual.

How much credit does Matheny actually deserve for Wright’s modicum of success? That slides into the grey areas of Matheny’s defensive reputation and how their personalities clicked. But if Wright says so, it’s at least partially true. However, it’s reasonably certain that Mike Matheny will not be catching Jamey Wright this season.

I realize no one is asking Wright to pitch 162 innings with a 4.50 ERA. (Actually, Jon Daniels did say, “[Wright] is capable of giving us 160-180 innings,” but he has to say stuff like that occasionally.) Also, the fifth-starter decision isn’t made in a vacuum; it includes injuries, depth problems at AAA, younger candidates with minor-league options, and Wright’s contractual ability to bail if he’s not on the 25-man roster. However, from all I’ve read, coaches and management seem pleased with him, irrespective of the extraneous issues factoring into his ascendance. They believe they can keep his mechanics in order.

Herein lies the problem. We have a pitcher:

  • with a career ERA+ of 93 in over 1,400 innings
  • who’s pitched exactly one season of at least 162 innings and league-average ERA in his career (six years ago)
  • who’s allowed opponents an OBP of .369 outside of Coors Field
  • who’s permitted 5.2 BB+HBP per nine innings
  • who’s been released fives times during the season or Spring Training
  • and who’s been cut rather than granted arbitration five other times.

We also have an organization that, during the past nine years:

  • has posted a better-than-league-average ERA only twice,
  • and has developed exactly one homegrown pitcher who’s thrown at least 162 league-average innings (Doug Davis, 2001).

And Texas is going to fix Jamey Wright? Pin a medal on Mark Connor if that happens.

Posted by Lucas at 01:14 PM

March 23, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Texas League

Frisco’s minor-league history is brief but rooted in one of baseball’s most storied leagues.

The Texas League was founded in 1888 but lasted only three years. Resurrected twelve years later as a Class D circuit, it slowly moved up the food chain until achieving AA status in 1946. Except for the years of World War II, the league has operated continuously since 1902. It has two divisions of four teams each, and teams play a 140-game schedule. The first and second-half winners in each division meet in a best-of-five series, and the victors play another best-of-five for the championship.

To date, 26 Hall-of-Famers have played in the Texas League. In 1931, it featured Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Hank Greenberg. Both Brooks Robinson and Willie McCovey played in 1957, and Joe Morgan faced off against Steve Carlton in 1964.

27 cities in Texas and 12 in other states have hosted Texas League teams over the years. Dallas, Fort Worth, and Houston were longtime members before Major League Baseball came to Texas. San Antonio has the longest continuous presence in the league, having joined in 1907. Arlington debuted in 1965 as the Dallas/Fort Worth Spurs, and the team affiliated with the Cubs, Astros and Orioles during its seven-year tenure. The Spurs played in Turnpike Stadium, which was expanded and renamed Arlington Stadium when the Rangers arrived in 1972.

In 2001, Tom Hicks’s Southwest Sports Group became part-owner of Mandalay Entertainment’s Shreveport Captains. After two very lame-duck seasons as the Swamp Dragons, the team relocated to Frisco and debuted in the newly constructed Dr Pepper / Seven Up Ballpark on April 3, 2003. Frisco’s entry terminated Shreveport’s 35-year association with the league and a 26-year relationship between Texas and the Tulsa Drillers.

Fans in Frisco and the surrounding area showed up in astonishing numbers. In their inaugural season, the Roughriders ranked fifth in attendance among all minor-league teams with 9,264 per game. Round Rock’s advancement to AAA in 2005 bequeathed to Frisco the honor of highest attendance among AA teams during the past two years.

Ownership and Cadbury Schweppes, makers of Dr Pepper and Seven Up, agreed to shorten the park’s name to Dr Pepper Ballpark in 2006. Per Jim Trebilock, senior veep of marketing and brand management: “Renaming the stadium reinforces the Dr Pepper brand’s iconic status in the Dallas/Fort Worth market and aligns more closely with a strategy that has long tied Dr Pepper to sporting venues and events.” He could have just said “The old name was too long,” but it’s all good.

Nothing against its residents, but when I heard that Frisco would host a AA team I was dumbstruck. When I moved out of the D/FW area in 1986, Frisco seemed no more likely to claim a professional baseball team than Alvarado or Decatur. As I learned, it’s grown a bit since then:

1980 – 3,500 residents
1990 – 6,100
2000 – 33,700
2005 – 71,000

Frisco’s population has increased at an annualized rate of 17.7% during the past 25 years. The city planning department suggests a population of over 90,000 as of September 2006 and 275,000 by 2020. Frisco also hosts a Major League Soccer franchise, the training facility of the NHL Stars, and north Texas’s largest mall.

The Roughriders lost in the league finals to San Antonio in their inaugural year, then won the following season. The ’04 champs included Jason Botts, Ian Kinsler, Drew Meyer, Kameron Loe, Chris Young, and several other future Major Leaguers. Texas often sends Major Leaguers to Frisco rather than more-distant Oklahoma City for rehab assignments. Botts, Loe, and five other Rangers spent a few days in Frisco last season.

Among Frisco’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

0 – 2006 draftees
1 – 2005 draftee
6 – 2004 draftees
1 – 2003 draftee
3 – 2002 draftees
0 – 2001 draftees
1 – 2000 draftee
6 – undrafted free agents
5 – undrafted free agents signed from another team
6 – trade acquisitions
1 – MLB waiver claim

The hitters averaged 23.8 years of age, the pitchers 24.2. The youngest among the top thirty was pitcher John Danks, who turned 21 last April. Most were between 22 and 25-years-old. 20-year-old Eric Hurley just missed placing among the top fifteen in innings pitched. 35-year-old Lou Pote was 17th.

AA roster composition shifts markedly from the lower levels, where almost everyone has played only for the Texas organization. In contrast, only 60% of Frisco’s top thirty players in 2006 were originally signed by the Rangers.

The Texas League plays very close to the American League in terms of runs scored. Teams tend to reach base at a slightly higher rate but hit for less power. Walk and strikeout rates are 10% higher than in the AL. Dr. Pepper Ballpark slightly favored hitters last year. A league-average batting line for a Frisco hitter in 2006 was .269/.345/.407, and 4.50 was the average ERA. Unearned runs still exceed the AL but are well below the per-game averages in low-A and high-A.

Dave Anderson will replace Darryl Kennedy as manager for 2007. Anderson played for the World Series champion Dodgers in 1988 and has seven years of minor-league managerial experience. He also coached the University of Memphis team for four years.

If you’d like to see each team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth. Surprisingly, Dr Pepper Ballpark has yet to appear in the satellite imagery.

Posted by Lucas at 01:43 PM

Weekend Photo


Oklahoma's Jason Botts, Scott Feldman and Joaquin Arias vs. the Round Rock Express, 3 May 2006.

Posted by Lucas at 11:56 AM

March 21, 2007

ESPN Fantasy Column

Outfielder Update
I’d talked last week about Brad Wilkerson lacking the platoon issues that cut into the value of guys like Kenny Lofton and Frank Catalanotto. As it turns out, manager Ron Washington has hinted that Cat may get at-bats against lefties despite his well-established track of mediocrity against them. Since Wilkerson has done little to encourage management this spring, and I don’t peg Nelson Cruz for more than 400 appearances anyway, I’d guess that Cat’s extra at-bats would come mostly at Wilkerson’s expense.

So, downgrade Wilkerson some, and upgrade Catalanotto a tiny amount. In any case, neither is draftable in most mixed leagues. The Ranger outfield situation is very fluid and ought to change throughout the season, another reason to look dimly upon all possible draftees. Sammy Sosa is batting .417 with three homers. I put no weight in Spring Training stats as an indicator of future performance, but he has definitely cemented a significant role on the team to start the season. I remain skeptical of his fantasy potential. You know, “a foolish consistency” and all that.

Teixeira Returns, Young On The Way
Mark Teixeira returned to action Sunday showing no ill effects from his bruised knee. Texas will attempt to get him as many at-bats as possible during the next ten days since he has always begun the season slowly. He probably will again, but don’t sweat it. Michael Young should return Thursday or Friday after having sutures removed from his left ear. He required surgery after being hit on the ear. He should be fine; don’t adjust his value based on this mishap.

Gagne
Eric Gagne pitched in an “A” game for the first time this spring and allowed a solo homer in one inning. It was also his first appearance after only one day of rest. Texas will handle him with care early on, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Akinori Otsuka get a save chance if Gagne’s pitched the previous two days. All the more reason to have Aki as a fallback in AL-only leagues, and he’s a decent late-round pick in mixed leagues.

Third and Fourth Starter
As is stands, Brandon McCarthy with be the #3 starter followed by Robinson Tejeda. Both have mean stuff and potential, but neither has any value in mixed leagues. I project McCarthy as a poor man’s Kevin Millwood: 10 wins, 140 strikeouts, 4.80 ERA, and a 1.36 WHIP in 175-180 innings. The strikeouts and WHIP are respectable, but his penchant for homers will drive up that ERA.

As for Tejeda: 8 wins, 105 Ks, 5.20 ERA, 1.60 WHIP in 155 innings. That’s an ugly line, but that’s what the computer tells me. The problem is that Tejeda pitched 52 of last year’s 73 innings on the road and was also outstanding with runners in scoring position. A more even distribution of innings and typical RISP performance will not help his fantasy production.

Battle For Fifth Starter
Hah, just kidding! I’m not writing about the Rangers’ fifth starter in a fantasy column. Just don’t draft him.

Posted by Lucas at 01:20 PM

March 20, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The California League

The next step up in the Ranger farm system is the Bakersfield Blaze of the California League (CAL). The league began in 1941 as level C but was reclassified as A in 1963. It ranks higher than the Midwest League despite the same classification and is usually described as “A-advanced” or “high-A.” Current affiliations include the entire western divisions of the American and National Leagues plus the Boston Red Sox. Bakersfield is a charter member. In an arrangement that resembles Texas within the AL West, Bakersfield plays in the Northern Division despite being geographically closer to the southern, Los Angeles-area teams.

The CAL has a bizarre postseason format. Six of the league’s ten teams qualify. Each division’s first-half champion receives a first-round bye, while each second-half champ plays a best-of-three against the team within its division with the next best overall record. Then, the first-half champs play the winners of the first series in a best-of-five, and those winners play each other in a final best-of-five. (There will be a quiz next Monday.) Bakersfield last won the title in 1989 as a Dodgers affiliate.

Prior to joining the CAL, Bakersfield hosted only two years of professional baseball: as the Drillers of the San Joaquin Valley League in 1910 and the Bees of the California State League in 1929. Since then, Bakersfield has associated with many teams, the lengthiest union being with the Dodgers from 1968-1975 and 1984-1994. Afterwards, the team adopted the nickname “Blaze” and operated as a co-op for two years. The Blaze then spent four years with the Giants and the Devil Rays before affiliating with the Rangers. Texas’s relationship with Bakersfield is the shortest among its minor-league clubs. Texas originally affiliated with Stockton when it vacated the southeast US in 2003, but after two years the franchise contracted with the Blaze.

Historic Sam Lynn Ballpark (the “Historic” appears to be an official part of the name) was constructed in 1941 and is among the quirkiest in baseball. The in-play area resembles an overgrown softball field: dimensions are an ordinary 328 feet down the lines but only 356 to dead center, plus a uniform 15-foot wall. Despite the coziness, the park did not favors hitters in 2006 (or, more likely, the league’s other parks were equally hitter-friendly). Also, the park faces nearly due west, meaning a batter can look directly into the setting sun if so inclined. Umpires in the past would call an in-game delay until the sun crept below the outfield wall. More recently, a taller fence behind centerfield provides extra protection, and the team simply begins mid-summer games later than everyone else.

In 2006, low-A Clinton drew 108,000 fans in a city with 27,000 inhabitants. High-A Bakersfield drew only 77,000 despite its location in a rapidly growing city with 311,000 residents. Worse still, attendance is down from 101,000 in 2002, and only Visalia drew fewer fans in 2006. Since Visalia will complete a major renovation of its ballpark during the offseason, Bakersfield probably will rank last in CAL attendance in 2007. Rumors of the team’s departure have circulated since 1995 after it lost its long-time affiliation with the Dodgers. Since 1994, Bakersfield has never held an affiliation for more than four years. In 2004, a consortium of CAL owners purchased the team and ran it essentially as a ward of the league.

D.G. Elmore purchased the team in 2005 and appears committed to baseball in Bakersfield. The Rangers are also committed, having recently signed a four-year extension through 2010. Unfortunately, the new owner and the city have made no apparent progress on solving the facility problem. A new park is imperative to baseball’s future in Bakersfield, but the basic questions remain unanswered. Should it be located downtown? Should it be shared with Cal State Bakersfield? Most importantly, who will pay for it? Presumably, a new stadium won’t face the setting sun; the late and variable starting times make a colorful story but certainly aren’t helping attendance.

Among Bakersfield’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

1 – 2006 draftees
7 – 2005 draftees
8 – 2004 draftees
6 – 2003 draftees
1 – 2002 draftees
4 – undrafted free agents
3 – undrafted free agents signed from another team

The ’06 draftee is 21-year-old reliever Danny Ray Herrera, also known as “Danny Ra Herrera” at The Baseball Cube. He and infielders German Duran and Mauro Gomez were the youngest members of last year’s team. The fifteen most active hitters averaged 22.8 years of age, and the pitchers averaged 22.5. Both groups average a little over one year in age more than their Clinton counterparts.

While the lower-level Midwest League depresses runs, the California League encourages them, glorifies them, even demands them. In 2006, the league hit .275/.350/.413 and teams scored 5.3 runs per game, 8% higher than the American League. It allowed a 9% greater walk rate but also 17% more strikeouts. Top prospect Eric Hurley surrendered 5.36 runs (earned and unearned) per nine innings last year, which sounds ugly but is in fact perfectly average for the league and park. As with the Midwest League, unearned runs are inflated relative to MLB. Bakersfield allowed 156 unearned runs last year, over one per game. Sam Lynn Park played neutrally last year.

Carlos Subero will return for his second season of managing the Blaze. He had previously managed the LumberKings from 2003-2005 and the rookie-level squad in 2001-2002.

If you’d like to see each team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth.

Posted by Lucas at 05:03 PM

March 19, 2007

"Transaction"

The Texas Rangers announced the cessation of its relationship with Ameriquest Mortgage Company. Its stadium will now be known as “Rangers Ballpark In Arlington” instead of “Ameriquest Field.”

As a fan, I can accept corporate sponsorship of stadiums, but I was never thrilled about the Rangers associating with the nation’s top sub-prime lender. Not that sub-prime lending is inherently unethical, despite its reputation. Folks with bad credit need loans, too. No, the problem is that when the naming deal was announced, Ameriquest was already under investigation by several state attorneys general for overcharges and other predatory lending practices. The investigation expanded to 49 states plus the District of Columbia, and in early 2006 Ameriquest agreed to a $335 million settlement. The company had also paid fines for prior transgressions.

To be sure, any renaming would have caused a little anguish because it eliminated the real sponsors of the stadium, the citizens of Arlington. Allying with a good corporate citizen with local ties would have eased the pain. Naming the stadium after a SoCal-based company of dubious standing did the opposite.

Now, with the sub-prime mortgage market in tatters and several lenders going belly-up, Ameriquest probably wishes paying the settlement was its only problem. Whatever its future, I’m glad its affiliation with the Rangers has ended. Despite a Ranger press release to the contrary, I expect another sponsorship before long, hopefully a more palatable one.

Incidentally, Ameriquest’s founder and majority owner of its holding company is Roland Arnall. Arnall has been the most successful fundraiser for President George Bush since 2002. In 2006, after the announcement of the $335 million settlement, he was appointed the US ambassador to The Netherlands.

Posted by Lucas at 07:07 PM

March 18, 2007

The Real Roster Crunch

The battle for fifth starter has three contestants: Jamey Wright, Bruce Chen, and Kameron Loe. A related issue: What is Texas going to do with all the starting pitchers who don’t make the Opening Day roster? Assuming Wright wins out, I see the following potential starters in Oklahoma:

Edinson Volquez
Josh Rupe
John Koronka
John Rheinecker
A.J. Murray
Thomas Diamond
Kameron Loe
Bruce Chen
Francisco Cruceta
Mike Wood
(And maybe others I’ve forgotten)

The situation may partially resolve itself. Rheinecker might start the season on the Disabled List, Cruceta is out of options and can declare free agency once demoted, Texas may use Wood in relief, Texas could keep Diamond in AA for a few weeks, Chen might also leave (if his contract allows it – I’m not sure), etc.

Texas already has an excess of relievers, so using putative starters in relief roles only exacerbates the problem. Management looks to have a more difficult task deciding the AAA roster than Texas’s.

Posted by Lucas at 11:32 PM

March 17, 2007

Taking The Fifth

Joey Matschulat, the new guy over at Baseball Time in Arlington, describes Spring Training hero Jamey Wright as this year’s Pedro Astacio and includes some embarrassing quotes from Peter Gammons and Buck Showalter back in the day. Now, the nature of the internets is such that you can make anyone look foolish if you dig through enough old columns and quotes (me included, to be sure). But that doesn’t make it any less funny.

More to the point, Matschulat’s comparison is apt. We’re talking about someone who hasn’t pitched more than 100 league-average innings since 2000. Yes, his career ERA+ is better than Adam Eaton’s (also funny), but Sweet Fancy Moses, those peripherals! 4.4 walks per nine innings but only 4.8 strikeouts. As Colorado’s Aaron Cook has shown, a pitcher can succeed in a hitter’s park with both a low K rate and a high hit rate if he also cuts down on the walks and keeps the ball out of the cheap seats. Wright does neither.

Wright claims “I have a new delivery. I feel confident, I feel great. I feel like I can dominate,” and I’m not going to sit here in Austin and tell him he’s wrong. But when T.R. Sullivan says “Wright's growing fifth-starter candidacy is one of the big stories of camp,” that's when I reach for my tequila. And not the good stuff, either.

Posted by Lucas at 01:21 PM

Newberg Report Special: The Midwest League

Clinton’s professional baseball history began in 1906 as the Miners of the Class D Iowa State League. The city hosted clubs sporadically during the next 48 years before becoming a charter member of the Midwest League (MWL), a renamed and expanded version of the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League. The MWL upgraded to Class A in 1962. It has fourteen teams split into two divisions and a 140-game, split-season schedule. With an excessive spirit of inclusiveness, the league allows eight teams into the postseason: each division’s winner and runner-up in each half-season. Teams play two best-of-threes culminating in a best-of-five final.

Clinton has affiliated with numerous teams over the years, the most lengthy being a fifteen-year association with the Giants that ended in 1994. For most of its history, the team used the same nickname as its MLB parent. In 1994, its owners adopted the name LumberKings to honor the city’s heritage. Clinton is located on the western bank of the Mississippi River and was one of the largest wood processors in the nation during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Clinton plays at Alliant Energy Field. The former Riverview Stadium is a Works Progress Administration project constructed in 1937. Clinton residents voted down a city-financed renovation in 2002, but the complex underwent a $3.7 million renovation before 2006 with funding from Vision Iowa, the county Community Development Association, and other public and private sources. Improvements included new clubhouses, a completely reconstructed playing field, new fences, new seating sections, and replacement of the old wood bleachers with metal.

Despite the improvements, Clinton is a remnant of a bygone era in minor-league baseball, when practically any moderate-sized city could host a C or D-level team. It’s no coincidence that the five largest metropolitan areas in the MWL – Dayton, Grand Rapids, Fort Wayne, Lansing, and Kane County -- gained their franchises after 1990. Each has over 400,000 residents, while Clinton has just over 27,000 and the county less than 50,000. Worse, the city population has declined 20% since 1970.

Nevertheless, Clinton is committed to keeping baseball, and the park improvements are part of a larger effort to revitalize the city’s economic livelihood. The team is actually owned by Clinton’s citizens, who have rebuffed several offers to sell the team (and relocate it, no doubt). There is hope. After bottoming out at 44,400 fans in 1998, attendance has climbed in eight consecutive seasons. After the offseason renovations, 2006 attendance jumped 13% last year, from 95,775 to 108,301, despite the worst performance in Clinton baseball history. A postseason editorial in the Clinton Herald offered cautious optimism.

Texas affiliated with Clinton in 2003 after four years with Savannah of the South Atlantic League. This season, Mike Micucci will manage the LumberKings after a season in Spokane. Among Clinton’s fifteen batters with the most at-bats and fifteen pitchers with the most innings in 2006, their origins are as follows:

1 – 2006 draftees
8 – 2005 draftees
5 – 2004 draftees
2 – 2003 draftees
10 – undrafted free agents
1 – undrafted free agent signed from another team
3 – acquired in trade

You’ve probably read that Ranger management has handled its prospects aggressively. That strategy was featured most prominently in Clinton, where the typical LumberKing was no older than those in short-season Spokane. The hitters averaged 21.7 years of age versus 21.5 in Spokane, and the pitchers were actually younger: 21.0 compared to 21.4. Spokane’s only teenaged pitcher among the top fifteen was Kasey Kiker, while Clinton had four: Omar Poveda, Jake Rasner (now a White Sock), Zach Phillips, and Michael Kirkman. The team’s relative youth probably contributed to its woeful 45-94 record, including a 26-44 performance before the home faithful.

Full-season baseball is an unprecedented challenge to the players. 2006 Texas state high-school champs The Woodlands played 39 games. The 2005 NCAA champion Texas Longhorns played 72. The short-season Spokane Indians play 76. In contrast, the LumberKings will play 140 games in 152 days, plus playoffs if necessary.

Fans should keep in mind a few things when following the L-Kings:

  • The MWL favors pitchers. Run scoring is about 10% lower than in the American League. The league batted only .253/.325/.365 last year, compared to .275/.339/.437 for the AL. John Mayberry’s line of .268/.358/.479 may look vanilla for a true prospect, but that’s an OPS+ of 135.
  • Strikeout rates are 16% higher than in the American League. An MWL pitcher who strikes out 7.5 batters per nine innings is merely average.
  • On the other hand, the league permits far more unearned runs than the Major Leagues. In 2006, 16% of runs allowed in the MWL were unearned compared to 8% in the AL. Texas gave up 53 unearned runs last year. Clinton allowed 111 in 23 fewer games.
  • Alliant Energy Field used to favor pitchers, but in 2006 it became a hitter’s park. The park renovations cut the distance near the left-field corner, and they may have also slightly shortened the distance to right and right-center.

Once again, if you’d like to see each MWL team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth. Unfortunately, Alliant Energy Field and several of the other parks don’t resolve very well. Those Silicon Valley snobs apparently can’t be bothered with “flyover” country.

Posted by Lucas at 12:26 PM

March 16, 2007

Weekend Photo


Waimea Canyon, Kauai, 10 Dec 2004

Posted by Lucas at 11:28 PM

March 15, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Northwest League

Texas sends its college-aged draftees and highest caliber high-schoolers to the Spokane Indians of the Northwest League of Professional Baseball (NWL). The NWL is classified as “short season” A ball; eight teams play a 76-game schedule beginning in mid-June after the draft. The league has two divisions, and the winners of each play a best-of-five series for the championship. Currently, the Athletics, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Giants, Mariners, Padres, Rangers, and Rockies affiliate with the league. The NWL began in 1937 as the Class B Western International League (WIL). The league adopted its current moniker in 1952 and except during 1956 has operated in Class A ever since.

Spokane’s association with pro baseball dates back to1890, only six months after Washington became a state. The Spokane Bunchgrassers (no, really) founded the Pacific Northwest League with Tacoma, Seattle, and Portland, Oregon, and won its inaugural championship. The league folded during its third year in the midst of an economic depression. Spokane joined a new league in 1901 and operated during the next two years as the Blue Stockings and the Smoke Eaters (no, really). Then the team adopted the name “Indians,” which, per Baseball-Reference.com, was a corruption of “Inlanders.” Regardless of league or affiliation, Spokane has called its team the Indians for all but three of the last 70 years.

After another baseball-free stretch, in 1937 Spokane joined the WIL and remained for its upgrade to the Class A NWL. Except during World War II, Spokane has hosted professional baseball continuously since 1937. In fact, Spokane leapfrogged to AAA when it joined the Pacific Coast League in 1958. The city returned to the NWL after 1982.

I hope the Rangers take pride in having Spokane as an affiliate, because its citizens love their baseball. The Indians have led the NWL in attendance every year since 2000, and its 2006 per-game average of 4,800 fans exceeded seven AAA teams and nineteen AA teams. Daily attendance compares favorably to the AAA Las Vegas 51s, Charlotte Knights, Richmond Braves and Omaha Royals. Spokane is a gigantic step up from the largely fan-free Arizona League.

Texas’s relationship with Spokane actually dates back to 1973, when the Indians were the Ranger AAA affiliate. Spokane won the PCL championship that season with a roster that included Lenny Randle, Bill Madlock, John Wockenfuss, Rick Waits and Don Stanhouse. Spokane won again in 1974 with several of the same players plus Roy Howell and Larry Gura. After another season Texas switched to Sacramento.

The Rangers reacquainted themselves with Spokane in 2003 when they moved all of their low-level minor-league affiliations out of the southeast US. The relationship paid immediate dividends as the ’03 squad went 50-26 and won the Northwest League title. The champs included rookies Ian Kinsler, Wes Littleton, John Danks and Matt Farnum. Spokane won the title again in 2005 despite a 37-39 record. Notables from that team were John Mayberry, Steven Murphy, Freddy Thon, Doug Mathis and Broc Coffman.

Spokane harbors a slightly more mature collection of players than rookie-league Arizona. Most college and junior-college players begin their careers there. Among the 30 players spending the most time in Spokane (fifteen hitters and pitchers) in 2006, their origins were as follows:

15 – 2006 draftees
5 – 2005 draftees
4 – 2004 draftees
1 – 2003 draftees
3 – undrafted free agents
1 – undrafted free agent signed from another team
1 – acquired in trade

The average Spokane hitter was 21.5 years of age, the average pitcher, 21.4. Among the top thirty players, only one was a teenager, fresh-out-of-high-school first rounder Kasey Kiker (more on him in a week or so).

George Brett owns the Indians along with brothers Bobby and J.B. Former MLB pitcher Ken Brett, who died in 2003, was also an owner. Nine-year MLB veteran Andy Fox, who drew a walk for the Rangers in his final plate appearance, will manage the Indians. Hector Ortiz, who also played briefly for Texas, will serve as hitting coach.

If you’re familiar with Google Earth and would like to see each NWL team’s facilities, visit http://rangers.scottlucas.com/newberg/NWL.kmz, download the file, and open it within Google Earth.

Posted by Lucas at 07:12 PM

Defenestration

Related to the “Sammy!” post of a few days ago, some thought on 40-man roster issues:

First, in a chat on Wednesday, DMN’s Evan Grant mentioned that the Rangers’ backup catcher isn’t in camp yet. That may be, but the names he threw out -- former Rangers Todd Greene and Sandy Alomar Jr. – do not impress. I’m not sure if Grant knew that Greene dislocated his shoulder last month and won’t play for at least another ten days or so. And Alomar… Texas has three potential backups already on the 40-man roster and none is better than 40-year-old Alomar? Pretty sad, if true.

Second, upon review of the present 40, the Rangers could easily make room for both Sosa and a middle infielder without outrighting one of their eight outfielders. The first player would be Alexi Ogando, who, like Omar Beltre, can’t enter the country because of a protracted visa problem. Sticking him on the restricted list frees one spot. One possibility for the second is pitcher Francisco Cruceta, who is out of options and appears to have no hope of making the final cut. Another is catcher Guillermo Quiroz, likewise out of options.

After those, the choices become less palatable: outfielder Victor Diaz and perhaps currently injured pitcher John Rheinecker. Trading Rick Bauer or Ron Mahay for a player not on the 40 would also create space.

Posted by Lucas at 10:09 AM

March 13, 2007

ESPN Fantasy Column

Injury Notes

Eric Gagne pitched his first live action of the spring and threw his full assortment of pitches with solid results. He can’t and won’t dial it up like he did in 2003, but he has become a worthwhile fantasy risk. Right now he’s averaged 18th among closers taken in ESPN’s mixed leagues and 10th in AL-only leagues, both of which feel right at this time. He has room to move up, though I can’t see him ranking among the top half of closers prior to the season because of his injury history. Akinori Otsuka is a fine caddy and darn near a must-own for Gagne owners in large mixed leagues and single leagues.

Mark Teixeira missed Monday’s game with a sore knee and won’t play again until at least Friday. That’s all I know. Texas is probably just being careful, but owners drafting this week should move him down a few slots.

Outfielder Nelson Cruz was tested for a concussion and fractures after Yovani Gallardo plunked him on the noggin. Results were negative, and he should be back soon.

Pitcher Projections

KEVIN MILLWOOD
2006: 16-12, 4.52 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 157 SO, 215 IP
2007: 14-11, 4.22 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 158 SO, 210 IP

Millwood pitched very close to my expectations in 2006, but I also predicted greatness from Brad Wilkerson, so there I go. Millwood’s a pretty ordinary fantasy pitcher, useful only in AL-only leagues and large mixed leagues. His 2006 was highly indicative of what to expect this season. Yes, I project a lower ERA despite a higher WHIP. Millwood was terrible last year with runners in scoring position and seemed to allow his baserunners in huge clumps; a more even distribution should help his ERA.

VICENTE PADILLA
2006: 15-10, 4.50 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 156 SO, 200 IP
2007: 12-11, 4.58 ERA, 1.41 WHIP, 155 SO, 200 IP

My normally trusty computer predicts a very slight decline for Padilla, but that may be a hangover from his injury-riddled 2004 and 2005. Padilla offers a performance remarkably similar to Millwood overall, though he also will melt down on occasion and disgorge some pitching lines that will kill owners in head-to-head leagues. Another pitcher who doesn’t quite merit a look in typical mixed leagues, but if you’re in need of strikeouts, he and Millwood will provide.

Outfielder Projections

Keep in mind that the Ranger outfield situation can change on a daily basis. I don’t believe that any outfielder is worth owning in mixed leagues with twelve or fewer teams.

KENNY LOFTON
2006: 522 PA, .301/.360/.403, 79 R, 3 HR, 41 RBI, 32 SB
2007: 500 PA, .280/.335/.375, 75 R, 3 HR, 40 RBI, 22 SB

Among players age 40 or higher, only Rickey Henderson and Davey Lopes have achieved 30 stolen bases. Kenny Lofton won’t join them, and his other stats should decline also. I think there’s a little upside in the batting line listed above, but he is going to be 40 in May, and what would be really strange is if he didn’t decline some. Don’t factor in a park bounce; Lofton doesn’t hit for power, and Dodger Stadium was actually favorable to hitters last year. Since he won’t start against lefties, Lofton won’t amass enough runs to counteract his lack of power and RBI. He’s suitable strictly for AL-only leagues and very large mixed leagues.

FRANK CATALANOTTO

2006: 499 PA, .300/.376/.439, 56 R, 7 HR, 56 RBI, 1 SB
2007: 500 PA, .290/.360/.418, 60 R, 6 HR, 55 RBI, 1 SB

Skydome has favored hitters just as much as The Ballpark during the past three years, so Little Cat doesn’t gain anything by coming to Arlington. Plus, he’s already spent three years in Texas and has career highs of only 77 runs, 15 homers and 59 RBI. Yawn. He’s not the same player as Lofton but is generally as useful in fantasy leagues. He’ll sit against lefties. Catalanotto stopped running four years ago.

BRAD WILKERSON
2006: 365 PA, .222/.306/.422, 56 R, 15 HR, 44 RBI, 3 SB
2007: 550 PA, .253/.353/.465, 70 R, 22 HR, 74 RBI, 3 SB

Of the Rangers’ 24 outfield options, I believe Wilkerson has the best chance to help a mixed-league team. I’m not suggesting you draft him, not in small and average-sized leagues, anyway. However, he lacks the platoon issues that hinder other Rangers and stands to get the most playing time. If he returns to full-time status, he could become a worthwhile free agent in many mixed leagues. 25 homers are possible.

SAMMY SOSA
2005: 424 PA, .221/.295/.376, 39 R, 14 HR, 45 RBI, 1 SB
2006: Did not play, not even for the Long Island Ducks
2007: 250 PA, .235/.310/.430, 28 R, 11 HR, 32 RBI, 0 SB

Swingin’ Sammy has ripped the cover off the ball in Arizona, and Ranger management and players have professed their Sosa love. Neat. On a totally unrelated topic, Kevin Mench batted .417 and slugged .929 in Spring Training last year and by July had played himself out of a regular job and off the Ranger roster.

I’m not saying Sosa will fail, but I am saying his spring numbers are indicative of jack squat. His last fantasy-worthy season was 2004, and even then he didn’t offer much beyond his 35 homers. Attribute his awful 2005 to injuries and emotional upheaval if you like, but that won’t make him any younger or make up for an entire year out of baseball. Worth a flyer in AL-only leagues; otherwise, pass. I hope I’m wrong.

NELSON CRUZ
2006: 138 PA, .223/.261/.385, 15 R, 6 HR, 22 RBI, 1 SB
2007: 400 PA, .250/.310/.425, 52 R, 16 HR, 60 RBI, 8 SB

Cruz is no easier to predict than Sosa. After hitting .300 with 20 homers and 17 steals in AAA, Cruz struggled mightily in the big leagues. Already 26, he doesn’t have that much upside. He also might begin the season starting only against lefties, with more at-bats to come based on performance and injuries to others. An intriguing late-middle pick in single leagues.

Posted by Lucas at 05:57 PM

March 12, 2007

Newberg Report Special: The Arizona League

Some minor leagues have histories rich enough to be microcosms of American history. The Arizona League is not among them.

The Arizona League (AZL) represents the lowest level of MLB-affiliated baseball within the United States. It began in 1988 as a counterpart to Florida’s Gulf Coast League. Only 22 of the 30 Major League clubs field teams at this level. Unlike most minor-league teams, AZL teams are directly owned and operated by Major League franchises, and teams play in their Spring Training facilities. Texas shares its Arizona complex with the Kansas City Royals.

The league presently consists of nine teams including Texas, the rest of the AL West, Kansas City, the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee, San Diego, and San Francisco. Teams play a 56-game schedule from mid-June through the end of August, followed by a single championship game between the winners of the season’s first and second halves. The ferocious heat and lack of a fan base keep crowds to minimal levels. As described by former Arizona Cubs manager Jerry Hairston in Bill Mitchell’s Minor League Ramblings, “We start our flips in the batting cage at a quarter 'til seven [in the morning]. Then we do our fundamentals so all that's done. We start our games at 10 o'clock before most of the heat of the day.” The league doesn’t bother charging entry or maintaining attendance records.

Technically, players over the age of twenty and with more than two years of minor-league experience are ineligible, but the league frequently hosts older prospects on rehab assignments and even Major Leaguers. Star-crossed reliever Jeff Zimmerman threw his final pitches in Surprise in 2003. During 2006, Jason Botts, Robinson Tejeda, and Randall “Sausage Killer” Simon each spent a few summer days with players who were lining up prom dates only months earlier.

Texas joined the league in 2003 when it moved its Spring Training home from Port Charlotte, Florida, to the Phoenix suburb of Surprise. Located twenty miles northwest of Phoenix on a gridlocked Highway 60, Surprise has grown from 7,000 residents in 1990 to over 80,000 today thanks mostly to Del Webb’s Sun City Grand housing development.

Not every team with a Spring Training home in Arizona participates in the AZL. The White Sox, Rockies and, oddly enough, the Arizona Diamondbacks don’t field teams, though each did in the past. Both the Cleveland Indians and Los Angeles Dodgers are negotiating moves to Arizona and could join the league within a couple of years. That said, the future of the AZL is not assured. After 2005 MLB considered disbanding the league, but it continues to operate.

Most of the Rangers’ high-school-aged draftees and young Latin American players play their first stateside pro ball in Surprise. Among the squad’s fifteen hitters and fifteen pitchers with the most playing time in 2006, eight were selected in the 2006 draft and six in 2005. One (Armando Galarraga on a lengthy rehab) was acquired in trade, and the other fifteen were undrafted free agents mostly from outside the US. The hitters averaged 19.3 years in age, the pitchers 20.6.

Texas hasn’t maintained a presence in Arizona long enough to build much of a history. So far, the only Rangers to play there during their normal course of development are Edinson Volquez and Scott Feldman. The former “Edison” made his US debut in Surprise in 2003. Feldman pitched a combined thirteen AZL innings during 2003-2004 before rocketing up the ladder and into the Majors in 2005. The ’03 team went 38-18 before losing the championship game to park-mate Kansas City. Eric Hurley could join Volquez and Feldman before long, and the departed John Danks (another ’03 alumnus) might reach the Majors within three weeks.

Pedro Lopez will return to lead the AZL Rangers after spending a year in Bakersfield as hitting instructor. He managed the team from 2003-2005.

If you’re familiar with Google Earth and would like to see each team’s facilities, download this file, and open it within Google Earth.

Posted by Lucas at 11:47 PM

Programming Announcement

For the six of you who know me but not Jamey Newberg:

I’ve joined the Newberg Report and will be providing daily recaps on the Ranger minor-league system as well as special reports. I’ll be cross-posting the specials here but not the recaps. If you’d like to read those, you can get them via email or just visit Jamey’s front page which now includes a fine picture of me taken in 1999.

The Rundown will continue unabated.


Posted by Lucas at 11:41 PM

March 11, 2007

Sammy!

I (and others) have been predicting that Sammy Sosa will have a Phil Nevin-like performance and tenure with Texas: a fine March against mostly non-MLB pitchers, a mediocre April, a terrible May, and unemployment by June. The DMN’s Evan Grant has a slightly different outlook:

On Sammy: I think he's still on the roster in mid-June, but don't think he's reached 12 homers. I don't think he's still on the roster at that point because he's been a great addition to the lineup, but rather because the Rangers are holding their own regardless of his performance.

My rejoinder is that Texas was holding its own last May when it jettisoned Nevin. On the other hand, Nevin was horribly expensive and not a “name,” while Sosa will be cheap and is SAMMY SOSA! So, on further reflection, Grant’s prediction makes perfect sense. It’s just a question of whether Sosa can maintain an employment-level line of around .250/.320/.430.

In the immediate future, Sosa’s presence exacerbates a crowded outfield situation. The Rangers already had eight outfielders on the 40-man roster before signing Swingin’ Sammy (but only five infielders including the bound-for-Oklahoma Joaquin Arias). Further, all eight outfielders have MLB experience, and only Jason Botts and Nelson Cruz have less a full year under their belts.

Texas will need to add Sosa plus a middle infielder (probably Jerry Hairston). Thus, not only does Sosa force an experienced player to the minors, he also forces a player (or players) off the 40 and most likely out of the organization. During the past three years, Texas has not started a season with more than seven outfielders on the 40.

Now, I’m not going to shed any tears if Texas trades Victor Diaz for some demi-prospect, and I don’t think Jason Botts is Travis Hafner’s heir. But I do disagree with the idea that Sosa is a risk-free, upside-only proposition. The risk is that because he’s Sammy, he could hit terribly and still occupy the #5 slot for a couple of months. That could cost Texas a game or two in the standings of a very winnable AL West.

(Lone Star Ball has a lengthy take on Jason Botts here.)

Posted by Lucas at 12:49 PM

March 10, 2007

Weekend Photo


Las Vegas, 2 March 2007. Not a double exposure; the glass across the walkway creates a mean reflection.

Posted by Lucas at 06:48 PM

March 08, 2007

On Young

Note: I was in Las Vegas when Texas signed Young, so here's a belated review.

Texas signed shortstop MICHAEL YOUNG to a five-year extension beginning in 2009. Young will earn $80 million, $15 million is deferred. Details are lacking.

A huge roll of the dice on the part of Texas. Young will be only two weeks shy of his 37th birthday by the time this contact ends (or actually be 37 if Texas makes the ALCS). Some thoughts:

Age

Young will turn 32 before his new contract commences. Here’s a list of starting shortstops in 2006 who were Age 32 or older:

Omar Vizquel (39)
Royce Clayton (36)
Craig Counsell (35)
Derek Jeter (32)

That’s it. Two others were 31, another five were 30, and the other nineteen were under 30 (including Young).

In 2007, probably only eight regular shortstops will be older than Young: Vizquel, Jeter, Orlando Cabrera, David Eckstein, Carlos Guillen, Miguel Tejada, Julio Lugo, and Edgar Renteria. That’s as of today, not in two years when Young’s extension begins. By the time that happens, Young might already be among the five oldest shortstops in the Majors.

What became of 2002’s collection of aged starting shortstops? 2002 featured seven who were 32 or older and another four of 30-31 years of age:

Shortstop
Age
What Became of Him
Barry Larkin
38
Retired after two more seasons. Could still hit respectably
Mike Bordick
36
Out of baseball after one more season
Omar Vizquel
35
Still starting and getting on base, averaged 151 games during last three years
Royce Clayton
32
Still starting, but on six different team in five years. Replacement-level hitter in 2002 and today
Shane Halter
32
Out of baseball after two more seasons
Tony Womack
32
Intermittent starter from 2003-2005; on the fringes of employment in 2006 and 2007
Jose Hernandez
32
Still playing but has declined from regular to super-utility player to ordinary sub to infrequent sub and pinch-hitter
Chris Gomez
31
Mostly a utility player and most often a 1B; only 110 games at short during 2003-2006
Andy Fox
31
Retired after two more seasons of minimal play
Rich Aurilia
30
Mostly a super-utility player who spends most of time at 1B and 3B, now a starter at 1B; bat improved during 2005-2006
Rey Ordonez
30
Had two seasons of dwindling play; not retired but no MLB appearances since 2004

Six of the eleven players are retired or effectively out of Major League Baseball. Two others are bench players. One is now a regular first basemen, and two are still starting at short (though I’m skeptical of Clayton’s immediate future).

Now, I’m not suggesting that Michael Young won’t last at shortstop because of the case histories of Chris Gomez and Shane Halter. But this exercise clearly indicates that shortstop is a young man’s position. Young has been exceptionally durable, and I expect him to remain at short longer than most of his peers. Near the end of his term, though, he may have to move to third or left, where his bat probably will be a liability.

Money

Did the Rangers pay too much? Of course they did. But this contract doesn’t seem too far out of line with other deals inked this winter. Young’s contract wedges nicely between former Rangers Carlos Lee (6 years, $100 million) and Gary Matthews (5 years, $50 million). Give a choice between the three, I’d take Young and his contract.

Deferment

Reportedly, $15 million of the $80 million total is deferred. To my knowledge, the specifics weren’t publicized, but let’s assume $3 million is deferred in each of Young’s five extension seasons with deferred payments to begin the year after the extension ends. Thus, Young would receive $13 million during 2009-2013 and $3 million from 2014 through 2018. What do those deferments mean relative to a straightforward five-year contract at $16 million per season?

In terms of present value, not much. Using a discount rate of 6% (equivalent to a “safe” rate of return), deferring $3 million per season for five year lowers the present value of the contract from $69.2 million to $67.5 million, a difference of just $1.7 million. Upping the discount rate to 8% (equivalent to salary inflation) results in a savings of $2.2 million.

The real savings come from the retention of his current contract. Texas will pay Young only $3.5 million in 2007, his last arbitration-eligible year, and $5 million in 2008, his first free-agency year.

Assuming my guesses are within reason, I’d say the deferred payments make the deal more palatable for the Rangers but will have, at best, a small effect on their payroll structure and (in)ability to sign players during Young’s extension.

Defense

This is something I’ve been saving for my boffo article on Hank Blalock that I’ve been promising for many months, but I’ll print it here instead. For years, Baseball Prospectus rated Young as a bad defensive shortstop and Hank Blalock an average third baseman. Suddenly, in 2006, Young became Ozzie Smith and Blalock became Butch Hobson. You think I’m joking? I am not:

Baseball Prospectus “Rate2” Defensive Stat *

Michael Young, 2002-2005:
Michael Young, 2006:
Ozzie Smith, career:
90
113
112
Hank Blalock, 2002-2005:
Hank Blalock, 2006:
Butch Hobson, career:
99
87
87

* Rate2 is an indexed statistic measuring how many runs a player saves or costs a team defensively. 100 is average. Young’s 113 in 2006 indicates he saved Texas 13 runs per 100 games played. Scores outside the 90-110 range are rare.

My stat-free, visual opinion is that Young is an average defensive shortstop, neither as bad as previously rated by BP nor as fantabulous as rated in 2006. He’s no elite, but I certainly see no reason for a position switch in the near future. But again, age is a killer. Texas has locked up Young through 2013, but they haven’t locked up a shortstop for that long.

Teixeira

I don’t recall Teixeira ever indicating that he’d prefer to stay in Texas. He’s here only because Texas drafted him, and after 2008, he’ll sign with the team that offers the best combination of money and potential to win a championship. Retaining Young will have only a minimal effect on Teixeira’s decision.

I don’t mean that as a criticism. He wants to work for a winner and get paid as much as possible. Don’t we all?

Conclusion

Is it okay to remain ambivalent about this deal? To an extent, it is an attempt to defy Time, and Time never loses (except to Julio Franco and Elizabeth Hurley).

Texas desperately needs to make some noise during Young’s most productive years because the downside of this deal is almost too depressing to contemplate. Imagine a Ranger club that hovers around .500 for three or four more seasons, then falters with Young’s inevitable decline. At that point we’re looking at fourteen years (2000-2013) of mediocrity or worse.

On the other hand, I think that Young, more than anyone in baseball (and I do mean anyone), has the work ethic to make this deal pay off for Texas. Given how far he’s surpassed the expectations of almost everyone (me included), presuming that he’ll decline precipitously would be foolish. Who’s to say Young can’t emulate Omar Vizquel and Barry Larkin, blithely hitting well and playing shortstop into his late thirties?

I hope so.

Posted by Lucas at 06:07 PM

March 06, 2007

Non-Weekend Photo


Las Vegas, 2 March 2007. As with the Danks trade, Texas consummated a blockbuster deal just as I was leaving town, in this case Sin City for five days. My very belated opinion on the Young deal to come soon.

Posted by Lucas at 12:28 PM

March 01, 2007

ESPN Fantasy Column

I’m not going to offer outfield predictions yet because I haven’t a clue right now. It’s not so much a question of predicting quality, though unproven Nelson Cruz and back-from-the-void Sammy Sosa present their difficulties. Instead, it’s figuring out who will play.

The Rangers have eight outfielders on the 40-man roster with Major League experience. They also have this non-roster invite named Sosa. They’ll be fighting for playing time at just four positions (outfield plus DH). 2,800 plate appearances spread amongst nine hitters? Awkward.

We can eliminate two straight off. Freddy Guzman has practically no chance of making the team out of Spring Training. The Rangers didn’t sign Marlon Byrd to a Major League deal because they thought Guzman was The Answer. Likewise, Victor Diaz hasn’t a prayer.

The optimal lineup might involve starting Brad Wilkerson, Kenny Lofton and Sosa in the outfield plus Frank Catalanotto at DH against righties, then Wilkerson, Byrd, and Nelson Cruz plus Jason Botts against lefties. That requires seven outfielders. If Texas carries twelve pitchers, two catchers, and five infielders, it has slots for only six outfielders. Very awkward. Unfortunately for Botts fans, getting from six outfielders to five is painfully simple: if Sosa makes the team, Botts does not.

What else is most likely? Lofton and Catalanotto will probably start every game against righties and sit against lefties. The platoon will limit each of them to about 500 plate appearances. Byrd will replace Lofton against righties, giving him around 150. Guzman may get a large mug of coffee holding about 50 appearances, and perhaps Diaz squeezes in with 30.

The rest is frightfully unknown. Not much on which to base a fantasy strategy, is it?

So, with the probables out of the way, here are my semi-educated guesses that are subject to change based on injuries, Spring Training performance, and the flavor of yogurt I eat for breakfast.

Sosa will become 2007’s version of Phil Nevin. He’ll make the team, bat fifth, and hit just well enough to keep a full-time job for a while. After a lengthy slump, Texas will platoon him and eventually cut bait. Let’s give him 250 plate appearances.

Nelson Cruz will make the team, but, as with much of last year, start only against lefties. He’ll gain more starts after Texas bids Sosa adieu, but not enough to qualify for the batting title. Say 400 appearances.

Poor Jason Botts will finally get a real chance at a regular Major League job by June and achieve about 300 plate appearances. Or, perhaps Texas will again trade for a big bat in July, and Botts will again spend the late summer torching the Iowa rotation.

Wilkerson makes out better than anyone. With no serious platoon split and no obvious successor to left field, he plays frequently and attains 600 PAs.

Making all these predictions on March 1 is the height of foolishness, and in a few months I’ll probably look back on this exercise with embarrassment. But, they do reveal a common thread, which is that Texas may not have a single outfielder worth drafting in average-sized mixed leagues.

Really, who do you want? Lofton has the .300 average and plenty of steals, but he also won’t play every day, hasn’t surpassed the modest sum of 80 runs in three years, and is a negative in homers and RBI. Catalanotto likewise won’t play full-time and undercuts his .297 lifetime batting average with bland career highs of 83 runs, 13 homers and 59 RBI. Cruz and Botts are unproven 26-year-olds. Sosa is an unproven 38-year-old. Wilkerson is coming off shoulder surgery, and I believe he struck out in 142% of his at-bats last season. Most of these players will be pretty good baseball players and help Texas win. They’re just not nearly as likely to be good fantasy players, at least in mixed leagues.

The situation is fluid. I’ll try to explain it as March progresses.

Posted by Lucas at 10:51 AM