It was Wednesday morning, October 26, 2005. The Rangers’ 28-year-old general manager had been on the job three weeks and had just offered this comment to Baseball America’s Alan Schwarz, who asked if there were any advantages to being a GM at such a young age: “Not just myself, I think that there is an energy level, a creativity, maybe a little bit of a . . . I don’t want to come across as cocky, because that’s not me, but maybe a little bit of a fearlessness as far as taking chances.”
Oh, man. Baseball adrenaline.
I got a phone call that Wednesday morning to drop everything. A buddy had four tickets to that night’s World Series Game Four in Houston, with the White Sox able to wrap up a sweep with a victory.
Maybe I’d have been on board even if I wasn’t baseball-rejuvenated at the time.
Or maybe, having never been to a World Series game – or even a playoff win – I’d have jumped on it no matter what.
It was a crazy-great ballgame. Starters Brandon Backe and Freddy Garcia were locked up in a scoreless battle through seven, giving way to pinch-hitters and bullpens at that point, and Chicago was a bit better in relief, holding the Astros scoreless as the Sox scratched out a run in the eighth and held on for the 1-0 win and a pile-on at the mound before a stunned, silent Houston crowd.
In that same Baseball America piece, Schwarz asked Daniels what the first order of the business was for his reshaping of the Rangers roster. Said Daniels: “Our bullpen is a focus. That was probably the biggest difference from the quality run we made in 2004 and this past year.”
In 2004, the club’s seven busiest relievers (Carlos Almanzar, Francisco Cordero, Ron Mahay, Doug Brocail, Frankie Francisco, Brian Shouse, and Erasmo Ramirez) posted a collective ERA of 3.12. But in 2005, Tommy John surgery wiped out Almanzar and Francisco’s seasons. Brocail and Shouse appeared more than anyone other than Cordero and were awful (5.41 ERA), and Mahay (6.81 ERA) pitched himself out of a defined role. Joaquin Benoit emerged as a bright spot in the pen, and so did Kameron Loe, but the club wanted to look at him as a starter.
Mahay and Shouse, while not overpowering, had given Texas an effective look out of the pen from the left side in 2004. The club had no such weapon in 2005. The White Sox did.
Neal Cotts was a key starting pitcher prospect in the Chicago system as soon as the White Sox acquired him from Oakland (where Grady Fuson had drafted him in 2001’s second round) in the 2002 deal centered around Keith Foulke and Billy Koch. He’d posted a 2.16 ERA in his first look at AA hitters in 2003, fanning 133 in 108.1 innings, and when Texas traded Carl Everett to Chicago that summer, the Rangers (whose Assistant GM by that time was Fuson) asked for Cotts but Chicago refused to put him on the list of eight that Texas was allowed to choose from (righthanders Frankie Francisco, Josh Rupe, Felix Diaz, Wyatt Allen, and Enemencio Pacheco, lefthander Corwin Malone, outfielder Anthony Webster, and second baseman Ruddy Yan).
At the time of the Everett trade, Baseball America called Cotts one of the 40 hottest prospects in the game – in an article written by current Rangers Director of Pro Scouting Josh Boyd.
Cotts got four late-season starts for the White Sox (two against Texas) and was brutal (12 runs on 15 hits and 17 walks in 13.1 innings), but he made the roster in 2004, pitching well in relief for six weeks before faltering, finishing the season with a 5.65 ERA despite passable peripherals.
Things fell into place for Cotts in 2005, as he held opponents to an anemic .179/.286/.241 slash line (even better against right-handed hitters than lefties) and posted a 1.94 ERA as a key part of what would be a stalwart relief corps for the last team standing. In that World Series sweep of the Astros, Cotts appeared in all four games, throwing 31 pitches (all to A.J. Pierzynski) over 2.1 scoreless innings and allowing only one hit (a Lance Berkman single) while punching out two.
He was never the same.
Truth be told, in looking back at the Illinois native’s seven big league seasons with the White Sox and Cubs, 2005 stands out as the outlier. In his other six seasons, his ERA was 5.46. He had half as many walks as innings pitched and was too homer-prone.
The seventh of those seasons (2009) lasted less than two months, as the lefthander needed mid-season Tommy John surgery.
Then, while rehabbing a year later, he needed surgery to repair a torn hip labrum.
And then three more hip operations to get rid of an infection that wouldn’t go away, wiping out not only his 2010 season but 2011 as well (after the Yankees took a look that spring and released him because they didn’t think he could pass a physical and didn’t want to be on the hook indefinitely for his medical, and the Phillies reportedly shied away for a similar reason). There was no real good reason to think Cotts wasn’t done.
As Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports tells the story, Cotts’s agent Joe Bick approached Daniels before the 2012 season and asked if he’d be interested in a look at the then-31-year-old who hadn’t pitched since posting a 7.36 ERA three years and five operations earlier. Rangers pro scout Scot Engler, whom we discussed a couple days ago as the engine behind the Ross Wolf signing, had a history with Cotts and recommended that Texas kick the tires.
Said Bick to Daniels, according to Rosenthal: “I will tell you right now — there is no way in hell he can pass your physical because of his hip.”
Said Daniels to Bick: “I don’t care. If he’s good enough, we’ll find a way.”
Maybe a little bit of a fearlessness as far as taking chances.
Bick told Rosenthal that Cotts’s physical amounted to heart rate, blood pressure, let’s roll.
Texas gave Cotts a minor league deal – no surprise – but didn’t even extend an invite to big league camp, something that journeymen like Mitch Stetter and Sean Green and Greg Reynolds and Joe Beimel were able to land that spring.
A week into camp, Cotts was throwing so well on the back fields that Texas moved him over to big league camp, and before long fellow lefthanders Stetter and Beimel and Ben Snyder had fallen out of the competition for a final job on the Opening Day staff, with Cotts and Robbie Ross battling until the veteran strained a lat muscle with a week to go in camp.
He wouldn’t pitch again until June. And when he did, his velocity was down and he wasn’t very effective, and when Ross was placed on the disabled list at the end of August, Texas didn’t take the opportunity to add Cotts to the expanded roster in September.
Texas offered Cotts an opportunity to come back in 2013, again on a non-roster deal but this time with an official invite to big league camp. In October, I haphazardly predicted that he would make the Opening Day staff in April.
Camp didn’t go particularly well (16 hits in 7.1 innings, though he did fan 11), and Cotts put up less of a bid than longer-shot Nate Robertson for the left-handed relief job that Joseph Ortiz ultimately seized.
Assigned to the Round Rock bullpen, Cotts got ripped in his third appearance of the year, giving up three runs on two hits and two walks in two-thirds of the fifth inning against the Iowa Cubs, and – as recounted in detail by Express pitching coach Brad Holman in an excellent interview by Lone Star Dugout’s Jason Cole – Holman pulled Cotts aside and had him tweak one timing mechanism in his delivery. The results since then have been ridiculous.
In a dozen subsequent AAA appearances and then three this week with Texas, Cotts has thrown 23 innings, allowing zero runs on 12 hits and three walks, and setting 41 of 80 hitters down on strikes. His rate of 16.43 strikeouts per nine innings while with Round Rock leads AAA baseball.
After exactly half of those final 12 Express efforts (an April 29 win in which he faced those same Iowa Cubs – who had scored nine runs earlier in the game – and punched out six in three perfect innings), I texted a Rangers official:
“I take it Cotts doesn’t have an out?”
I asked because when veterans sign non-roster deals, they're frequently able to negotiate in a specified date – often the 1st or 15th of a particular month, if during the season – on which they can opt to take instant free agency if not in the big leagues. I also asked because there’s no way Texas would have been able to prevent Cotts from exercising such an out if he had one and if the Rangers didn’t bring him to Arlington.
A couple weeks later, Nick Cafardo wrote in the Boston Globe, citing the freakishly strong roll the lefthander was on: “Cotts could be had, as the Rangers have a team policy that they will let go of players such as Cotts if they are unable to put them on the roster.”
Daniels told Rosenthal that three or four teams called him about Cotts after that note ran, wanting to give the 33-year-old a big league job. Daniels refused to discuss the reliever. He was about to give him a job here.
Texas purchased Cotts’s contract, something the club hoped for a year and a half it would be persuaded to do, on Tuesday. He pitched that night, getting Oakland’s John Jaso and Luke Montz to ground out and Yoenis Cespedes to strike out in the ninth inning, all in the space of six pitches in what would be a 1-0 loss.
He pitched again the next afternoon, relieving Wolf with Cespedes and Jaso on first and second with nobody out in the sixth inning of what was then an extremely precarious 3-1 Texas lead.
Brandon Moss, five-pitch strikeout.
Josh Donaldson, four-pitch strikeout.
Seth Smith, three-pitch strikeout.
Cotts then worked the seventh. After surrendering a leadoff double to Derek Norris, he got Eric Sogard to ground out to second, Adam Rosales to line out to second, and Coco Crisp to foul out to first, preserving that 3-1 lead that would stand up as Texas avoided getting swept at home.
Getting Thursday off with the rest of the team, Cotts was summoned again last night, relieving Justin Grimm in the seventh and inducing a comebacker before putting two on (walk, single), but then he got Kendrys Morales to fly out to end the inning and keep the Rangers’ lead at 9-3.
Whether Texas will have Cotts available tonight after last night’s 18 pitches is unknown, but he’s clearly one of Ron Washington’s go-to relievers at the moment, with a short-term track record as well as a long-term dues payment that the manager admittedly places a lot of importance on. At this point, if the Rangers decide to go back to just three lefthanders in the bullpen, Ross and Cotts – who battled a year ago for one spot – are almost surely the two whose jobs are most secure, with an Ortiz option or even a Michael Kirkman designation for assignment more likely right now.
My baseball adrenaline being what it is, and perhaps spoiled as I now am, I’m dying for this club to get back to a World Series. I’ve now been in the stands for two season-ending pile-on’s, one that I had no real emotional investment in and one that sucked, and I’m craving another.
And my vision of what that will look like has Neal Cotts showing little regard for a hip issue that almost cost him a career and heaping himself on top, just like he did eight years ago as I froze my tail off in Houston, Texas, watching a baseball season end and imagining what that would look like as my own team’s new General Manager was setting a long-term course built on scouting, player development, and maybe a little bit of fearlessness as far as taking chances is concerned.