My friend Ben Rogers, who along with Jeff "Skin" Wade is taking the Ben & Skin Show from the Ticket taxi squad over to Live 105.3 for a fulltime slot (weekdays, 11-3, starting a week from Monday), is taking a big chance. He's giving up something that's relatively safe (his normal job, which looks a lot more like most of ours) in exchange for more upside. Risk: potential reward.
Ben said it best: "Nobody is going to brag at my funeral about the awesome conservative decisions I made."
Maybe it would have been safer for Texas to have used the number 11 pick in June's draft on a college pitcher like TCU's Andrew Cashner or a high school arm like Ethan Martin, than to draft Justin Smoak, both because he was unquestionably going to command a couple million dollars over slot to sign, and because the Rangers' top prospect was Chris Davis, a first baseman himself and roughly the same age as Smoak.
Texas could have even made an awesome conservative decision like the Astros did at pick number 10, when they chose eminently signable Stanford catcher Jason Castro, passing over Smoak. But that's not how the Rangers think, or act.
Were there nervous moments on Friday as the late-night deadline neared, real possibilities that the club wouldn't come to terms with Smoak and would be left with slot 11A (which will be the 13th pick) as consolation next summer? Absolutely. But Tom Hicks stepped up financially, as he has done every year at draft time, Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan stayed true to the game plan -- which meant both going significantly above slot but not limitlessly and refusing to offer a major league contract -- and a $3.5 million deal got done just as the hourglass was nearly emptied.
As for the issue that the right-handed-throwing Davis appears to be this club's long-term first baseman despite the versatility to play elsewhere, while the left-handed-throwing Smoak is an above-average defender at first base but not likely to profile in the outfield? That question is answered easily.
As Daniels said late last night: "There are worse problems to have than to have to figure out a way to get both bats in the middle of our lineup down the road."
Whether that means that Davis could eventually slide over to third base or an outfield corner, or that one of them will ultimately figure in at designated hitter -- or that we bring the name of Matt LaPorta up again in 2009 -- it's a non-issue right now.
Right now the key is that Justin Smoak's pro career is about to launch, and it will be as a Texas Ranger, with stops in either Spokane or Clinton this month and then Surprise in the fall.
Where it goes from there, that is, when and how soon and in what capacity, isn't as important now as the awesome aggressive decision that Texas made on June 5, and last night, to add another impact talent to the organization.
I'll try to remember to pay attention to who is on the board next June at pick number 13, when the switch-hitting Smoak is terrorizing one of the minor leagues in a Rangers-issued uniform.
One other thing. If the season were to end today, the 2009 draft order would be as follows:
Washington 44 79 .358
Seattle 46 75 .380
San Diego 47 75 .385
San Francisco 51 70 .421
Cincinnati 54 69 .439
Pittsburgh 55 67 .451
Kansas City 55 67 .451
Atlanta 55 67 .451
Colorado 55 69 .444
* Washington (comp pick for failure to sign Aaron Crow)
Cleveland 55 66 .455
Oakland 56 65 .463
Detroit 59 63 .484
Baltimore 59 62 .488
Texas 61 62 .496
Houston 62 60 .508
Toronto 62 60 .508
Florida 63 60 .512
Dodgers 63 59 .516
Arizona 63 59 .516
Yankees 64 58 .525
* Seattle (comp pick for failure to sign Joshua Fields)
Philadelphia 65 57 .533
Mets 66 56 .541
St. Louis 69 56 .552
White Sox 68 53 .562
Minnesota 68 53 .562
Milwaukee 70 53 .569
Boston 71 51 .582
Tampa Bay 74 47 .612
* Yankees (comp pick for failure to sign Gerrit Cole)
Cubs 75 47 .615
Angels 75 45 .625
I would never root for Texas to lose games, but keep an eye on this. If the Rangers finish with one of baseball's 15 worst records -- they are at number 14 right now -- then if they sign a Type A free agent this off-season, they'll forfeit their second-round pick, which could be around the 60th pick overall.
If Texas finishes with one of baseball's 15 best records -- a group from which the club is separated right now by just 1.5 games -- it will instead forfeit its first-rounder by signing a Type A.
Tonight Matt Harrison:
a. Struck out more batters (eight) than he had in his other seven big league starts combined (seven).
b. Allowed three singles -- two of which came in the first inning -- and no walks.
c. Retired the final 18 batters he faced.
d. Threw one of the best games any Rangers pitcher has thrown this season.
e. Threw one of the best games of his pro career, at any level.
f. Earned his fifth win in eight starts, one victory less than Kevin Millwood has in 21 starts.
g. Became just the sixth Rangers starter this season to complete at least eight innings (and the first Rangers rookie to do so in more than two years).
h. Needed only 109 pitches -- 72 percent of which were strikes and a greater percentage of which looked absolutely aggressive -- to get his 24 outs.
i. Gave the bullpen a badly, badly, badly needed break.
j. Got an eighth-inning hug in the dugout from Ron Washington . . .
. . . while 20 feet away, a son of South Carolina, sitting in the Owner's Box hours after being introduced to the press and then the crowd as the organization's newest acquisition, got the chance to watch the North Carolina product show that it can in fact happen: on a night on which the offense is able to scratch out only a few runs, this team's pitching is capable of making them stand up. Texas 3, Tampa Bay 0. Solid.
Speaking of Justin Smoak, an early big league scouting report:
HATES TO FACE: Ron Washington (when hitting right-handed)
LOVES TO FACE: Ron Washington (when hitting left-handed)
LOVES TO TATTOO: The façade of the upper deck in right field
After an impressive showing at 20-minute press conference, displaying the right combination of easygoing and confident, Smoak walked out of the dugout and onto the Rangers Ballpark field, approached first by Marlon Byrd, who greeted him with a smile and a hug and gave him his first big league ribbing, calling him "the next Chipper Jones."
Smoak, who will board a plane for Clinton, Iowa tomorrow to get his career underway, stood behind the batting cage talking shop with acting hitting coach Mike Boulanger and fellow hitting guru Johnny Narron, and then jumped into the cage to take some cuts off the batting practice pitcher who doubles as the big league manager.
Stepping in first from the left side (which he didn't begin to hit from until the summer after his freshman year in high school), Smoak took a few inconsistent cuts before he began to use all fields with some authority, sending one shot a majestic mile before it crashed off the façade of the upper deck in right.
His next time up, he hit from the right side -- where he really does resemble Chipper Jones, I thought -- and squared up a on a few balls but also fouled several straight up or back into the netting. Keep in mind, of course, that Smoak's last at-bat against live pitching was two-and-a-half months ago, and it was with an aluminum bat.
The LumberKings clinched a playoff spot in the season's first half, which means Smoak can be force-fed at-bats over the regular season's final two weeks, after which he'll get instant playoff experience.
Jon Daniels said at the pregame press conference that yesterday was the first time that Smoak's representative backed off his insistence on a major league contract for his client, but there wasn't a hint of disappointment today as Smoak, flanked by his family and girlfriend, fielded questions from reporters, took batting practice off of Washington while wearing the home whites (sporting a number 12 jersey that said "Smoak" rather than "Vazquez"), signed autographs for fans, visited on the field with Tom Hicks for the first time, and got the chance to hang out with a group of major league baseball players that likely included several future teammates.
It had to be an overwhelming experience for a 21-year-old about to embark on a journey he's probably dreamed about for nearly 20 years.
Probably not all that unlike the feeling that Matt Harrison, very much like Smoak in size and stature and breed, had several hours later as he walked off the mound after eight brilliant innings, heading toward the dugout and experiencing an ovation of 30,000 in the stands and a couple dozen down the steps, one heck of a solid way to celebrate your 23rd birthday.
So I'm told now that Matt Harrison revealed on the postgame show tonight that the Rangers media guide (not to mention STATS, MLB.com, ESPN, Wikipedia, and everyone else) is wrong: his birthday is September 16, not August 16.
So forget those last few words of my last post.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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