With two weeks to go in camp, a week longer than most years and maybe two weeks longer than necessary, there are a few roster spots still in flux though, in a happy departure from previous camps, we're mostly talking about the last couple spots on the bench and the staff.
On Friday, my last day in Surprise, there was less morning activity on the back fields than normal because the bus to Tucson left at 7:30 a.m. The players in big league camp who didn't make the trip were getting their reps in, but it had a different feel since it was basically the group that would have the afternoon off. The pitchers gathered on the half-field for a round of PFP, only nobody manned the mound. Two groups got their work in, the first of which featured Kevin Millwood hitting the fungo ground balls, the second of which had Frankie Francisco and C.J. Wilson taking grounders at third base, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz at shortstop, Brian Gordon at second base, and Luis Mendoza at first. (Feliz was really, really good, and Holland made a sensational backhand stab and throw going to his left on a ball up the middle. Vicente Padilla, who worked with the first group, played a slick first base.)
On the BP field, after several rounds of "Did you?" (a game in which hitters, if challenged by a teammate immediately after making contact, have to call whether the shot would clear the fence or not - with sets of 10 push-ups the punishment if they call it wrong), right-handed-hitting Andruw Jones stepped in to hit left-handed. The form wasn't terrible, and he hit several balls on the screws and with some authority, though nothing with the type of path to prompt a "Did you?" bark from Marlon Byrd or Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Chris Davis.
It's what Jones can do from the right side of the plate - optimistically speaking - that has Texas reportedly considering whether he's a more viable role player than Frank Catalanotto. When Texas brought Jones in six weeks ago for a non-roster audition, he was given a March 20 opt-out date on which he could take his release if not added to the roster. Jones agreed several days ago not to opt out on the 20th, moving the date to the 23rd, which is tomorrow. This morning, however, Jones reportedly told Jon Daniels and Ron Washington that he doesn't plan to opt out tomorrow even though it's been made clear to him that under no circumstances will he get regular at-bats. At best, Jones would figure in as the right-handed designated hitter, the fifth outfielder, and a pinch-hitter.
Is he a better fit in the first role than Max Ramirez? The young hitter's huge three-run homer for Team Venezuela on Wednesday notwithstanding, his sparse World Baseball Classic work has been a real disappointment, as he could have had a steady dose of at-bats in camp had he not committed to play for his country on the premise that he'd be used regularly. If Ramirez might have been such a candidate after his standout 2008 and winter ball season, any chance of that was erased over the last few weeks of missed opportunities to win a job.
Is Jones a better fit as the fifth outfielder than Brandon Boggs? With the four-man bench pretty much locked in at three spots - catcher Taylor Teagarden, infielder Omar Vizquel or Joaquin Arias, and fourth outfielder Marlon Byrd - if the question is between Jones and Boggs, a switch-hitter who had roughly even splits in 2008 (.227/.327/.500 against lefties and .226/.336/.354 against righties), I'd prefer Boggs defensively at this point in their careers.
But truthfully, with a four-man outfield rotation of Josh Hamilton, David Murphy, Nelson Cruz, and Byrd, plus Hank Blalock as a designated hitter whose splits aren't nearly as lopsided as they once were (he hit .277 against southpaws in 2008 and actually had a higher slug against lefthanders [.566] than against righthanders [.480]), playing time is going to be sporadic, particularly for a young player who might not have his manager's full confidence yet. (Thinking about Blalock sliding to first and Davis sitting? Davis has hit .279/.323/.593 against big league southpaws, .287/.335/.531 against righties.)
Bottom line: Boggs has two options left, and I'd rather see him playing six days a week for Oklahoma City than getting six at-bats a week with Texas. (Interesting: Boggs got a look in center field yesterday, something he did once for Texas last year and a few times for Oklahoma, plus more often than not in the Mexican Pacific League this winter.)
If pinch-hitting chops are the key, do you prefer Jones or Catalanotto? Jones is a .190/.346/.381 pinch-hitter in 42 lifetime at-bats. Catalanotto is a .289/.375/.423 pinch-hitter in 194 lifetime at-bats. His batting average is second highest among active players with at least 150 pinch-hit at-bats.
As for where the pinch-hitting opportunities will arise on this club, chances are that, with everyone healthy, the only starter who would be regularly pulled for another hitter is Elvis Andrus, late in the game. Depending on what kind of rhythm he's in, it might not be strictly a handedness decision, either. First, he actually proved in 2008 to be stronger against right-handed pitching (.303/.360/.378) than against lefties (.258/.307/.323). Second, it's likely that if Washington chooses to lift Andrus late in a close game, it will be less because of a particular matchup than because he wants a veteran at the plate to face off against the opponents' best relievers.
In the West, Texas will deal with one left-handed closer (Brian Fuentes) and two righties (Brad Ziegler and either Miguel Batista or Brandon Morrow until fellow righthander Chad Cordero is ready). The top eighth-inning man for each club is a righthander as well.
In the East, there are two left-handed closers and three righties. In the Central, all five closers are right-handed.
From that standpoint, doesn't the left-handed-hitting Catalanotto make more sense than Jones? Both have traditional splits.
Before answering, consider this: In April, which the organization knows is a critical month given how the club has gotten out of the gate in Washington's first two seasons, 10 of the 22 games will be against a team whose closer throws from the left.
There are lots of reasons to believe the Rangers will play far better this April than they did in 2007-2008, when they went a combined 20-33. First, Texas opens at home this year, after opening on the road the previous two. Second, Texas plays more home games than road games this April, after the opposite the previous two. Third, only three of the 22 games on the schedule are against a team that had a winning record in 2008 - Toronto, which won 86 games last year but lost A.J. Burnett without adding anyone significant. Fourth, as alluded to above, Texas starts the season with its backs against the wall, in a way. Another bad April, and Washington doesn't survive the month.
If having Catalanotto around rather than Jones to face George Sherrill or B.J. Ryan - or Rafael Perez or Jamie Walker or Scott Downs or Ron Mahay or Bobby Seay or Josh Outman - might mean even one more April win, is it worth choosing him over Jones?
Here's the other thing about the Jones vs. Catalanotto situation. Texas will pay $6 million for Catalanotto over the next year ($4 million in 2009 and a $2 million buyout after the season to void the $5 million club option for 2010). Unless the Rangers can trade him, which is unlikely, that expenditure is there whether he's around or not. Jones will make $500,000 this year if he makes the team (negligibly more than the $408,540 Boggs is contracted for). Jones can start to tack on playing time bonuses once he reaches 340 plate appearances, but let's face it - he's not going to get to 340 unless he's extremely productive, that is, hitting at a level that Catalanotto can't be expected to hit.
So the decision isn't a financial one. This appears to be all about roster maximization. If Jones would accept an assignment to Oklahoma City, he could be given steady at-bats with the RedHawks (mixing in with Boggs, Julio Borbon, Greg Golson, and Ben Harrison in an outfield/DH rotation) and serve as a fallback option while Catalanotto (and then Vizquel) come off the Texas bench to finish certain close games. Give Jones another opt-out date in late April or May and see where things stand then.
In the meantime, even though Jones can opt out of his Rangers contract tomorrow, it appears that he won't, and one of the stories for the next two weeks will be his battle with Catalanotto for what might be the final spot on the bench - assuming he doesn't decide to leave for a different opportunity first.
The stiffer competition is in the bullpen, where Francisco and Wilson have locked down spots but five jobs remain. Contestants from the left side are Eddie Guardado and Jimmy Gobble; from the right side, the battle for roles is between Warner Madrigal, Willie Eyre, Dustin Nippert, Josh Rupe, Derrick Turnbow, Brendan Donnelly, and possibly Jason Jennings, who is apparently now being considered in middle or long relief. (Jennings's lone big league relief appearance was a one-inning effort in a 12-3 Astros loss to Atlanta on August 1, 2007, three days after a disastrous start in which he gave up 11 San Diego runs and failed to get out of the first.)
It's too early to really handicap where the bullpen battles are headed. For now, keep the following in mind:
Madrigal and Eyre each have two options remaining.
Nippert, Rupe, and Gobble are out of options. Nippert (dealing now with a strained back muscle) has been outrighted before, which means he can decline an assignment and take free agency even if Texas were to get him through waivers. Rupe and Gobble haven't been outrighted, so Texas can hang onto them if they clear waivers - but Gobble most likely wouldn't clear. As for Rupe, an erratic spring from a control standpoint was compounded today by an ineffective inning of work. He really needs a strong finish to camp.
Of the non-roster invitees, Donnelly can request his release if not on the roster by March 27 or April 27.
Turnbow can request his release if not on the roster by March 31 or May 1.
Jennings can request his release if not on the roster by April 25.
I don't believe Guardado has an opt-out date.
But don't assume Madrigal and Eyre are lagging the group just because they can be safely sent to the farm without the risk of losing them. Those two are probably leading the race for jobs among the righthanders. For now.
Madrigal and Francisco didn't really have it today.
Also consider this: if Andrus and Vizquel make the club, and Eric Hurley and Joaquin Benoit get transferred to the 60-day disabled list, that leaves one open spot on the 40-man roster. For two of the group that includes Guardado, Gobble, Turnbow, Donnelly, and Jennings to make the roster, someone will have to be designated for assignment. (And don't say Catalanotto - removing him to add Jones simply trades one roster member for another.) That's probably Rupe if two of the non-roster relievers stick.
A note on Gobble: Although his career ERA is 5.23 (with an opponents' line of .279/.344/.470), in Rangers Ballpark he has a lifetime 2.87 mark (.200/.267/.345).
Even if he were to pitch in the big leagues all season, Gobble will still be short of free agency by a year.
He looked interesting enough in his one inning of work today. Want to see more.
Brandon McCarthy has allowed one hit in his last eight innings. His ERA in 10 camp innings is 1.80. He's scattered three hits and three walks, fanning seven. The Cactus League is hitting ..094/.171/.125 off the 25-year-old, and he said after his last effort - four hitless innings - that he didn't even have his best stuff . . .. a recipe that too often has meant bad results during McCarthy's time here.
Though he was facing a bad Padres lineup, hitless is hitless (hey, if the Padres had ripped him, would their fans have said "Yeah, but it was just Brandon McCarthy"?), and he needed only 54 pitches to get his four frames in.
Righthander Pedro Strop was brought over from minor league camp to pitch an inning on Friday against the team from whom Texas stole the fireballing righthander, and he retired three Rockies in a perfect seventh, getting big leaguer Ryan Spilborghs to fly out to left, big leaguer Todd Helton to ground out to second, and big leaguer Tomas Perez to ground out to first.
The Rangers don't play tomorrow, and there are reports suggesting that the club could use the off-day to make a long-term contract proposal to Hamilton's agent, Michael Moye, who already had plans to be in the Phoenix area on personal business.
Wilson fanned two and issued one walk in a scoreless ninth yesterday, with no apparent blister issues.
There's evidently been some level of thought, according to one local report, of converting Wilson back to a starting role down the road, though Washington suggested that while he has the repertoire to do it, he probably throws too many pitches to be an effective starter.
Cool moment in Saturday's game: With Texas facing Colorado, Daniels suggested to Washington that it might be a nice gesture to get first base prospect Chad Tracy into the game, as his father Jim was in the opposite dugout as the Rockies' bench coach. Washington inserted Tracy as a pinch-runner for Davis in the sixth inning, and in the seventh he stepped up in a 4-4 game with the bases loaded, clearing them with a grand slam. The younger Tracy sits at 1.000/1.000/4.000 and could finish camp with that maxed-out line.
Loved seeing Adam Fox get playing time in today's Rangers-Dodgers game, and celebrate it with a no-doubt home run to straightaway left in the ninth off legitimate big leaguer Cory Wade. That's a good dude who's paid lots of dues.
Click here to see the "Five Questions: Texas Rangers" column that Scott Lucas wrote for The Hardball Times.
Click here to see the fourth batch of spectacular spring training photos that Scott took in Surprise, including five from the above-mentioned Friday PFP session.
Hope you caught a lot of 105.3 The Fan's Ben & Skin Show from Surprise last week. If you didn't, or even if you did, you can go here and listen to segments Ben & Skin did with Tom Hicks, Daniels, Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Byrd, Wilson, McCarthy, Holland, Eric Nadel, and me, plus a half-inning of play-by-play they did with Jim Sundberg on Thursday.
Boston determined that righthander Wes Littleton wasn't going to make its team and placed him on the waiver wire, off of which he was claimed by Milwaukee for a two-week audition. The Rangers, as a result, won't receive a second player from the Red Sox to complete the trade that sent Littleton to Boston for minor league reliever Beau Vaughan. Texas will instead receive the Brewers' $20,000 waiver claim fee to complete the deal.
According to Baseball America, Texas signed a teenage righthander from Mexico named Daniel Rodriguez.
The White Sox traded catcher Chris Stewart to the Yankees for a player to be named later. That makes Stewart's career progression White Sox, Rangers, Yankees, White Sox, Yankees.
Kansas City signed righthander Sidney Ponson to a minor league deal.
Righthanders Adam Eaton and Alfredo Simon are in the running for Baltimore's last rotation spot. Texas plays the Orioles seven times in April, four more times than any other opponent.
Spring training stats: Philadelphia outfielder John Mayberry Jr. is hitting .279/.323/.525 with three home runs in 61 at-bats. Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley is hitting .391/.440/.609 in 23 at-bats (the same number that Justin Smoak and Golson have here). Cincinnati outfielder Laynce Nix is hitting .235/.333/.500 in 34 at-bats. Kansas City righthander Robinson Tejeda has a 3.86 ERA in 11.2 innings (one start and four relief appearances), with 16 strikeouts but 12 walks.
I wrote a few days ago that after Carson Leslie was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2006 and underwent surgery, he had a five-month course of radiation and chemotherapy. I pulled that from another story written about the inspiring 16-year-old, and I need to correct part of it. His course of chemotherapy last 15 months, during which he had radiation treatments every day for six weeks.
Does anyone have a copy of Wii Sports (not the system, but just the game) that you'd trade for a Bound Edition? Email me.
Outfielder Nathan Haynes retired. The 29-year-old signed a minor league deal in January but was going to have a hard time finding playing time in Oklahoma given the Boggs/Borbon/Golson/Harrison mix that figures to begin the season with the RedHawks.
The Rangers weren't going to take at-bats away from four prospects like that to give playing time to a journeyman like Haynes. Whether they'd be willing to do so for Andruw Jones is another question, but not as big as whether Jones would be willing to accept the arrangement himself.
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