How long ago was April 15, 2009? The Rangers beat the Orioles that night, 19-6, behind the pitching of Kris Benson, Willie Eyre, and Josh Rupe and a lineup that featured Andruw Jones hitting fourth and Hank Blalock hitting fifth.
It was the last day Mason Tobin threw a professional pitch that counted.
And it came in Class A.
On the scale of Rule 5 relievers, there are more Fabio Castro's than Darren O'Day's, and far more Chris Mabeus's than Joakim Soria's. It's an achievement for Tobin that he's made the Texas pitching staff, not only for the 23-year-old but also for Director of Pro Scouting Josh Boyd and pro scouts Keith Boeck, John Booher, Greg Smith. He's a pitcher who didn't pitch in 2010, and got in only 2.2 innings of work at the start of the 2009 season before an elbow injury led to Tommy John surgery. And that came after a 2008 season, his first full year out of junior college, when triceps and shoulder injuries limited him to only 37.1 innings (which were nonetheless enough for Baseball America to slot him as the Angels' number 10 prospect).
This is a kid who simply hasn't pitched much. Rich Harden contributed almost as many innings last year (92.0) as Tobin has thrown in the minor leagues since being drafted four years ago (96.1).
Look at it another way. Tobin had appeared in only 25 minor league games over four years when Texas paid the Cubs a bounty to use the eighth overall pick in December's Rule 5 Draft and select him for the Rangers (who weren't willing to take the chance that he might have lasted until the 23rd slot) from the Angels' unprotected list. Not once has he ever faced a Rangers affiliate, which in this age of blanket scouting isn't all that significant other than from the standpoint that there wasn't even a game or two mixed in where he made a lasting impression on a handful of Rangers coaches and players faced with the task of beating him. To the extent that a Rule 5 pick making the club so qualifies, this has been a scouting success.
Before Boyd joined the Rangers he scouted the Pacific Northwest for the Padres from 2005 through 2007 and you can bet he'd developed a decent book on Tobin, who was chosen by Atlanta as a draft-and-follow out of a Washington State high school in 2005 (15th round) and again out of Western Nevada Community College in 2006 (45th round), and then by the Angels out of the Everett Community College program in Washington in 2007 (16th round).
(Incidentally, Tobin will be the second 45th-rounder in 2006 to appear in the big leagues, after the Rangers' pick in that round: lefthander Danny Ray Herrera, who was sent to Cincinnati with Edinson Volquez in the Josh Hamilton deal. He'll also be the second 16th-rounder in 2007 to get to the Majors, after Cubs reliever Brian Schlitter (chosen by the Phillies) - unless the Rangers' selection in that round, righthander Josh Lueke, appears for Seattle first.)
It's best not to get ahead of ourselves. Castro was the first pick in the Rule 5 Draft preceding the 2006 season and made the Rangers' staff but pitched his way out of the club's plans before the All-Star Break, getting shipped that June to the Phillies, who relied him a good amount that summer but very little in 2007 and not at all in 2008 before they traded him to Toronto for Matt Stairs. Just because Tobin has made the staff doesn't mean he'll last the season. He'll be asked to be relatively effective in what promises (at least early on) to be erratic usage patterns, prescribed not only by his inexperience but also by virtue of the fact that he's pitched so little that the Rangers are going to have to monitor his workload carefully. Don't be surprised if there is a disabled list stay or two during the year due to "arm fatigue."
And remember, this is a club that unseated its closer less than a week into the season last year, a team whose Opening Day catcher made one 2010 start and who switched out young first basemen less than three weeks in (Chris Davis out, Justin Smoak in). The Rangers plan to win in 2011, and every roster spot is going to be counted on to produce. Tobin has cleared a very big hurdle, but he'll have to prove himself all year long to stick around. Rule 5 doesn't let a team send a player to the minor leagues for a full season. Conversely, Jon Daniels, given where the club is, won't force Ron Washington to play with a 24-man roster just to hide a player all year if he's not contributing.
There's only so much you can learn about a player in spring training, particularly a pitcher, given the limited number of innings to distribute. Tobin was solid in eight "A" game appearances spanning 9.2 innings, posting a 1.86 ERA (though his two earned runs were accompanied by four more unearned runs) and surrendering only six hits (but six walks) while fanning nine. He wasn't taken deep (unless you include a Mike Moustakas "B" game laser), induced three times more groundouts than flyouts, and was economical, needing just over 11 pitches per inning.
This is a pitcher whose fastball, pre-injury, sat low-90s with heavy sink and touched 97, who flashed a hard slider and dirty change. Who, in six weeks in front of Mike Maddux, had his new pitching coach praising his "gamesmanship." Who isn't a finished product but has shown enough over the last month and a half to earn the Rangers' trust in the short term.
Texas drafted righthanders Neil Ramirez (who was one of the buzz guys on the back fields this camp) and Michael Main (who helped net Bengie Molina) as compensation when the Angels gave five years and $50 million to Gary Matthews Jr. in 2006. The Rangers pounced on Warner Madrigal when Los Angeles got sloppy procedurally in 2007. In 2009, the Angels would have had the opportunity to reacquire O'Day, whom they'd left exposed to the Rule 5 Draft, if the Mets had gotten him through waivers in April - the Rangers prevented that from happening with a waiver claim.
Last year, Texas signed free agents Vladimir Guerrero and Darren Oliver away from Los Angeles. The Angels were thought to be the frontrunners for Adrian Beltre this winter before Texas swooped in, and reportedly refused regularly to trade Mike Napoli to the Rangers, only to see Toronto flip him to Texas after a four-day career as a Blue Jay in January.
Not every one of those moves have worked out for the Rangers at the Angels' expense, but most of them have, and at the moment, at least, Tobin qualifies as a scouting win for Texas and a mistake by Los Angeles. The Angels added only one minor leaguer (outfielder Jeremy Moore) to their 40-man roster in November, probably in part because they wanted to keep the roster wide open as they went into a winter when multiple national writers felt they were poised to sign not only Beltre but also Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano. Had they put Tobin on their roster, he'd have gone to camp, probably gotten eight or nine innings in, and satisfied club officials that he was once again healthy, worthy of an assignment to AA Arkansas or AAA Salt Lake and a spot squarely back on their map.
Instead, Tobin's week includes plane trips from Surprise, Arizona to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Round Rock, Texas to Arlington, where he'll take a seat tomorrow at the Welcome Home Luncheon, surrounded by a World Series roster of teammates, just as he will be on Friday afternoon when he jogs out to the first base line, introduced by Chuck Morgan before a sellout crowd rather than finding an efficiency to rent in Arkansas or Utah.
Standing near him along the chalk will be O'Day, whose pitching profile and whose road to and from Rule 5 have been quite different from Tobin's, but who will pull up a chair next to him in the bullpen as a tangible reminder that this can turn out real well, for him and for the team, even if the Angels felt he was less worthy of a spot on a 40-man roster than Texas believes he is of a spot on the 25.