My first year to come to Fall Instructional League in Surprise was 2007. The Rangers had added so much high-end talent that summer -- through the trades of Mark Teixeira, Eric Gagne, and Kenny Lofton, a draft that included five first-round picks, and an impressive July 2 international class -- that the opportunity to see so many key new players in one place for a few days was one I felt like I had to take advantage of.
Among position players, there were trade acquisitions like Elvis Andrus, Engel Beltre, and Max Ramirez and draftees like Julio Borbon and Mitch Moreland, but the real strength of that fall's group was on the mound, where the pitchers who'd joined the system since spring training included Derek Holland, Neftali Feliz, Tommy Hunter, Blake Beavan, Neil Ramirez, Michael Main, Beau Jones, Evan Reed, and a 16-year-old kid from Venezuela coming stateside for the first time, named Martin Perez.
It seems so long ago, because even back then there was a buzz about Perez, and his stuff and his makeup and his competitiveness and his potential for Johan Santana-dom.
I would see Perez at Fall Instructs in 2008, too, and again in 2009, and in 2010 as well.
It's sort of shocking that he's still only 21.
Perez is a tremendous pitching prospect, one who's consistently been among the youngest at whatever level he's pitched and flashing (inconsistent) streaks of success.
But even the best young players hit potholes. Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes you balk.
I saw something Monday afternoon that, while unrelated to the Rangers' present push to put itself in the best possible playoff position, served as a reminder that, in baseball, you can't just roll the balls out there and count on a certain result.
The Rangers' FIL squad traveled to Glendale yesterday to face the White Sox. A team of prospects from a top five farm system against a team of prospects from a bottom five farm system.
This was the Rangers' lineup:
CF Lewis Brinson
SS Luis Sardinas
RF Nomar Mazara
C Jorge Alfaro
3B Joey Gallo
1B Ronald Guzman
LF Jairo Beras
DH Nick Williams
2B Luis Marte
I mean, c'mon.
Chances are none of those players will be ranked among the Rangers' top three prospects this winter. And yet I would submit that at least seven of them would be Chicago's number one prospect right now.
Surely I was about to witness a hide-tanning.
White Sox pitchers Todd Kibby and Yelmison Peralta, the first of whom is a 21-year-old drafted in the 37th round in 2011 who spent his first two pro seasons in the short-season Appalachian League, the other the owner of a 0-5, 7.26 record in the Dominican Summer League this year, were perfect through three innings.
Facing that vaunted Rangers nine in those three spotless frames, Kibby and Peralta struck seven of them out.
And though Brinson and Sardinas singled to start the fourth, Mazara and Alfaro and Gallo proceeded to go down on strikes.
Twelve outs (14 at-bats), 10 strikeouts.
None of the Chicago prospects carried themselves as if they were part of one of baseball's worst minor league systems, and I'm guessing few of them bothered thinking about the likelihood that if they were in the Texas system, many of them wouldn't have been invited to Fall Instructs, or maybe even back for 2013.
For four innings at least, in front of a crowd of 100 (that large only because Scout School was in Glendale for the day), the White Sox were the Arizona Fall Instructional League mini-version of the playoff-bound Oakland A's. And the obscenely talented Brinson-Sardinas-Mazara-Alfaro-Gallo-Guzman-Beras-Williams-Marte assault team had as much chance against something called Todd Kibby and Yelmison Peralta as Michael Young, David Murphy, and Mike Napoli had against Grant Balfour 10 hours later.
Most of the guys in that FIL lineup will be fine, of course -- Texas ended up winning the game -- and while it's silly to ever suggest that a sample of teenagers like that is going to produce more big leaguers than not, that's a limb I'd have plenty of company on. They just looked awful their first time and a half through the order, and that happens in baseball, the game of failure.
Martin Perez will be fine, too. He bounced back after the brutal first. While convenient, it's hard to pin Oakland 4, Texas 3 all on him, especially being asked at age 21 to win a game that big in hostile territory against a team playing with extraordinary swagger and momentum. He kept the team in the game. The offense, once again, had almost no life.
I'm not sure it qualifies as irony, but the fact is that Napoli virtually ended the Angels' season on Sunday with his six-RBI performance that ended with him squeezing a foul pop-up -- and he ended the Los Angeles season once and for all last night when he swung through strike three, emptying the Oakland dugout and bullpen.
I have a handful of notes I was pumped to share about what happened in the Rangers-White Sox game -- including a conclusion I've reached that one player in particular, who probably won't show up on anyone's off-season list of the Rangers' top five prospects, would be number one in at least 10 other organizations -- but I'll dust those off another day.
At the moment, while the morning talk shows are 100 percent Cowboys, I woke up with the same thought in my head that I fell asleep with.
Yesterday I wrote, in the context of the Rangers choosing not to over-celebrate their playoff clincher Sunday night: "Hand the ball to the referee. Act like you've been there."
But now I'm thinking about that comment in a different context.
Two years ago, the Rangers clinched their first AL West title since the '90s in O.co Coliseum (or whatever it's called now, or then). They have two chances to do that again, tonight or tomorrow, with Matt Harrison and Ryan Dempster getting the ball.
I hate this, and it's overstating things a good bit, but this feels a little like going to St. Louis for two, needing to win just one.
As T.R. Sullivan pointed out this morning: "If the Rangers don't win one of their next three games, their season is over."
Yesterday: "Hand the ball to the referee. Act like you've been there."
Act like you haven't been there, are urgently and relentlessly determined to get there, and spike the damn ball so hard that Grant Balfour has an entirely different reason to fire off a raging fusillade of F-bombs.