Tanner Scheppers moved from the AAA bullpen into the rotation two weeks ago. Teammate Michael Kirkman has rediscovered his command. Frisco horse Blake Beavan is on a ridiculous roll, firing 10 straight quality starts (7-2, 1.80, five walks and 42 strikeouts in 70 innings). Derek Holland and Rich Harden are getting healthier.
But when Texas decided to use Monday's off-day not to skip the fifth starter but instead to give Colby Lewis two extra days of rest (something he was afforded on occasion in Japan), the club could have thrown Dustin Nippert back out there against the Angels (who have slapped a 6.40 ERA on him lifetime, including a 9.49 mark in Anaheim) and not looked to the farm or the disabled list at all.
But rather than worry about Nippert giving them a third straight three-inning start, killing the bullpen in a crucial series, Texas chose to reach down for another option. The club could have held Guillermo Moscoso or Doug Mathis out of their last AAA starts to have them ready to go in Anaheim, but didn't. Matt Harrison (1.50 ERA over his last five appearances, though averaging just 38 pitches) could have gotten the opportunity. The call could have gone to Scheppers or Kirkman or Beavan, but the Rangers didn't feel the time was right for them.
As recently as 20 weeks ago, nobody would have bet on Omar Beltre having a big league career.
But even 20 hours ago, nobody could have guessed that Beltre would be the Rangers' ninth starter in 2010. In spite of his advanced age and spot on the 40-man roster, he got only one appearance with the big club in spring training, a one-inning look in which he fanned a couple and allowed one baserunner, on a walk. Ogando, by comparison, got into five Cactus League games. Kirkman got more of a spring training look than Beltre. So did Zach Phillips. And Michael Ballard. And Richard Bleier.
Who knows what Beltre will do Wednesday night when he takes the ball in the bottom of the first? Here's what you can expect: command of a fastball-slider-split repertoire, lots of ground balls, and a pitcher who won't be overwhelmed by what, objectively speaking, ought to be an overwhelming experience.
You've heard plenty about the long odds that Alexi Ogando faced and overcame in getting to the big leagues after a five-year exile from the United States, but the 28-year-old Beltre served the same sentence, was always a more heralded prospect, and thus theoretically had more taken from him than his fellow Dominican. After a five-year span during which no sentence that included Ogando was without Beltre's name as well, the two will be teammates tomorrow, not in the Dominican Summer League or in Oklahoma City, but in Anaheim as members of the Texas Rangers pitching staff.
After its heyday in the previous decade, Texas made a relatively light impact in Latin America in the 1990s. In 2000, however, the franchise got opportunistic. Cincinnati had secured a verbal agreement from the 6'3", 190-lb Beltre in the fall of 1999 to sign for a reported $300,000. But the Reds delayed papering the deal so that they could assign Beltre's signing bonus to the organization's 2000 budget. The administrative tactic backfired.
As his deal hung in limbo, Beltre amped his velocity up several miles per hour that winter, touching the mid-90s as an 18-year-old (believed at the time to be 17), and he walked away from the Cincinnati commitment. Texas outbid several other interested teams and landed the big righthander for what was reported to be $650,000 in March 2000.
Believing he was ready for the challenge, not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well, the Rangers promptly assigned Beltre to the short-season Gulf Coast League, where he posted a 3.54 ERA, a .238 opponents' average, and just 15 walks in 61 innings. League managers named him the circuit's 10th-best prospect.
In his second season, Beltre posted similar numbers for advanced rookie-level Pulaski (fronting a rotation that included C.J. Wilson) while nearly doubling his strikeout rate, leading the short-season Appalachian League with six wins. Turning just 20 at the end of that season, he had replaced the injured Jovanny Cedeno as the club's top long-term pitching hope.
But elbow surgery wiped Beltre's 2002 season out, and he spent the 2003 (Low A Clinton) and 2004 (High A Stockton) seasons working in middle relief. He was healthy again, but his place on the club's prospect depth charts was receding.
It then disappeared during the span between 2005 and this January, when he was denied a work visa for five years due to his involvement in a marriage fraud and human trafficking scam. In those five years he was limited to pitching in the Dominican Summer League - there was even talk that Texas considered selling him at one point to a Japanese club, as bleak as his prospects for reentry into the States appeared to be - and while he was ridiculously dominant in the DSL (1.33 ERA, 120 hits and 29 walks in 176.1 innings, 222 strikeouts, one home run), he was a man in his mid-20s pitching against kids in their late teens, at a time in his pitching life when he probably would have reached Arlington if not for the legal issues.
As you watch Beltre pitch and begin to get a feel for his approach, you won't be that far behind the Angels, who simply can't have scouted him as extensively as most prospects on the doorstep of the big leagues are typically scouted. He's only logged 37.2 innings this season, nine AAA relief appearances followed by a mid-May transfer into the Oklahoma City rotation (a stretch of five starts that also included one relief outing when he returned from a two-week shutdown early in June due to a ribcage muscle issue - he also had a short disabled list stint in May with an elbow strain). And if Los Angeles only saw him work out of the RedHawks' bullpen, they saw a different pitcher from the one who was asked to go through an opposing lineup more than once.
As a reliever this year, Beltre posted a 3.94 ERA and .300 opponents' average, walking six batters per nine innings and fanning 11 per nine.
As a starter: 1.25 ERA, .203 opponents' average, three walks per nine, 10 strikeouts per nine.
And in spite of the healthy strikeout rate, he's nonetheless averaged just 13 pitches per inning as a starting pitcher. He's not going to light up a radar gun the way Neftali Feliz and Ogando and Scheppers will, but when he's right he's chewing up innings by pounding the zone, particularly with that splitter that generates a groundball barrage, often early in the count. Beltre's pitch efficiency is exactly what Nippert (20 pitches per inning, including 26 per nine in his two starts) has not been able to provide this year.
In his last start, a five-inning effort against New Orleans, Beltre (working with Jarrod Saltalamacchia) held the Zephyrs to two singles and no walks in five scoreless innings, fanning six from a lineup that included blue-chip Marlins prospects Cameron Maybin and Logan Morrison.
Tomorrow, six days later, he'll face a lineup that includes Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and Howie Kendrick.
If Beltre can locate the way he did on Thursday (75 percent of his 56 pitches for strikes), against a lineup completely unfamiliar with him and without the benefit of much of a book on him, he'll have a shot to keep Texas in the game early. Will he make an immediate impact the way Ogando has, making himself as indispensable? Doubtful, but a decent showing would probably earn him a home start against Cleveland next week and perhaps another one against Baltimore before the club reaches the All-Star Break.
Is there a chance that this is a showcase move, that some team in seller's mode has indicated some level of interest in Beltre heading into July? Can't rule it out. But this is a pitcher who will be 29 before the end of the season, and for that reason it's unlikely that a team looking get younger will key on him.
But there's another layer to that analysis. If Beltre fares well tomorrow, and over a run of several starts heading into the back half of July, could it make Texas a little more comfortable parting with another pitcher who might figure into the rotation picture soon? Sure. Behind Lewis and Wilson and Scott Feldman and Tommy Hunter is a pool of candidates that includes Holland and Harden, and Scheppers and Kirkman and Beavan, and Harrison and Moscoso and Mathis. Martin Perez isn't going to be a factor in 2010, but he's back on track in Frisco. There's some depth there. A solid showing from Beltre could conceivably make a guy like Beavan or Kirkman less difficult to part with.
Who goes to make room for Beltre (who is already on the 40-man roster)? Nippert could be designated for assignment or hidden on the disabled list, though presumably you'd want him around for the Beltre start in case a long man is needed. That role could be assumed by Harrison, however - or Harrison could be optioned to AAA to replace Beltre in the rotation and get stretched out again himself. Surely Ogando is no longer a candidate to be sent back to Oklahoma City. And while Chris Ray has had his issues and could have the leverage of his assignments lessened due to Ogando's presence, I doubt he'd be optioned.
I'd bet on Beltre replacing Nippert or Harrison, the latter of whom would not have to be exposed to league-wide waivers.
And another thought: If Harrison goes down to AAA and slides into Beltre's vacated rotation slot, it could facilitate his own showcase. Despite the variance in experience, Harrison is a full four years younger than Beltre. It would stand to reason that the 24-year-old lefthander (who has 32 big league starts but won't be eligible for arbitration until after the 2011 season) would be involved in July trade discussions. Teams have seen him in the big leagues this year, and he's been especially good in June (2.03 ERA in relief, .208 opponents' average). That's a good reason not to send him down, of course. But putting him on predictable display for scouts every fifth day in Oklahoma City could have a different benefit.
There has been and will continue to be much talk about Vladimir Guerrero's return to Anaheim this week, rightfully so. I continue to ponder what the AL West standings would look like right now if you took Guerrero and Darren Oliver off the Rangers roster and put them back in Los Angeles.
But Beltre's arrival in a major league ballpark is a pretty big story as well, given all that he's gone through. While Guerrero will be the most recognizable figure in Angel Stadium this week, no player will be less familiar than Beltre, and from a baseball standpoint the Rangers are hoping that works somewhat to their advantage.
There's the matter of Scott Feldman-Joel Pineiro to take care of first tonight, but as far as tomorrow night is concerned, make plans to stop by www.FOXSportsSouthwest.com for our third live Newberg Report in-game chat session of the season. I don't have a good feel for how long Omar Beltre will last, but we'll get the chat started before the game begins and go all the way until the final pitch of the game.
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(c) Jamey Newberg