Pina and Smith for Gutierrez.

From my Draft Day report:

"But an added benefit of the tremendous health that the Texas minor league system enjoys is that risks like [drafting Tanner] Scheppers make more sense to take. If he doesn't work out, it certainly won't cripple the system."

It's a different set of circumstances, and less flashy, but the Rangers' Thursday acquisition of Class A righthander Danny Gutierrez from Kansas City falls perhaps in the same category. Texas traded two players who are arguably better bets than Gutierrez to fulfill their potential, but by all accounts the pitcher they got in return, while a riskier proposition, has measurably greater upside.

Tim Smith (.300 at Clinton last year, .333 at Bakersfield this spring, .309 at Frisco this summer) has proven that he has a hit tool that ought to play at higher levels. But the rest of his tools project as solid-average. If everything were to fall into place, think Rusty Greer or Frank Catalanotto with higher strikeout totals. But he could also be Vincent Sinisi. A prospect, to be sure, but with limitations.

Manny Pina was the Rangers' minor league player of the month in April, hitting .481/.518/.731 for Frisco as he posted the highest batting average in the minors for the month. It was a stunning offensive breakthrough for the defensively advanced catcher, who came into the season as a career .248/.306/.322 hitter in four pro seasons. But he regressed offensively after that, hitting .216/.274/.327 the rest of the way. He's a prospect because of his catch-and-throw skills. But his limitations - both with the bat and in his development as a game-caller - are evident as well.

Given the crowd that Texas has in the outfield - Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, and Julio Borbon are all under team control through at least 2012, and if Texas signs Marlon Byrd this winter, something there appears to be mutual interest in, he will be under control that long as well - and Smith's skill set, his upside as a Ranger was probably going to be as a bat off the bench, a National League type of player without the defensive versatility to figure in here as much more than a shuttle player. While Smith might project to hit for better average than Brandon Boggs (one option left in 2010), Greg Golson (two options), or Craig Gentry (three options), those three are stronger defenders and run better, and that's what you want from your backup outfielders. Engel Beltre and Mitch Moreland are on the way with higher ceilings than Smith, and David Paisano leads a pack of lower-level prospects who could enter the picture before long.

And given the club's catcher situation, Pina's future here - if not as a big leaguer regardless of franchise - was going to be as a once-a-week backup, and not for another couple years at least. The way his 2009 season went, Texas was probably not going to add him to the 40-man roster this winter, which will be his first as a Rule 5-eligible (though Kansas City will presumably put him on the roster in November to protect its investment). It's too soon to say that Leonel De Los Santos or Tomas Telis or Jose Felix had supplanted Pina as the franchise's top catcher prospect, but there is depth in this system, and even if Pina remained at the top of the depth chart, this is a club with five catchers on the 40-man roster at the moment.

Coming into the 2009 season, I had Pina ranked as the Rangers' number 39 prospect, and Smith number 52. Yesterday, in my latest column ranking the Rangers' top prospects, I had Smith ranked number 16 in the system (though, to be fair, I cheat a bit by ruling out anyone in the big leagues so I can feature more minor leaguers in the column - at season's end, based on big league service, players like Neftali Feliz and Julio Borbon and Guillermo Moscoso and Pedro Strop will again show up on prospect rankings) and didn't have Pina in my top 40. Texas, because of its depth, is likely to survive their loss, even if they reach their potential.

Gutierrez's potential is why Texas made this deal. While neither Pina nor Smith made Baseball America's list of the Rangers' top 30 prospects over the winter, BA had Gutierrez as Kansas City's number seven prospect, and Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein had him at number six. Despite an early-season elbow injury in 2008 (possibly dating back to an elbow fracture he sustained as a high school sophomore), the righthander saw his velocity jump from 88-92 to 90-95 with movement that summer, complemented by a power curve (cited by BA, along with his control, as the Royals system's best) and developing change. According to BP, by the end of 2008 (a 4-4, 2.70 season for Low A Burlington [104 strikeouts and 25 walks in 90 innings] that he capped with 17 strikeouts and two walks in 12 Midwest League playoff innings, yielding two runs), "the Royals felt he was by far the best pitcher they had at any minor league level."

So what happened in 2009?

Nobody is really saying. According to BP co-founder and Royals fanatic Rany Jazayerli in a blog piece he wrote just three weeks ago, Gutierrez "had a fight with the organization over his rehab process" following another arm issue, this time shoulder inflammation, that delayed the start of his 2009 season. (Jazayerli, a dermatologist, added: "One way to look at this is that Gutierrez has some growing up to do. Then again, given my opinion of the Royals' training staff, it's hard to be too upset with the kid.") The 22-year-old reportedly did at least some of his early season rehab work with the Boras Corporation (which he'd switched to as his agency) rather than with the Royals.

There are rumors of other off-field issues that have gotten no mainstream media play that I could find, and that are all over the map if you spend time sifting through blogs whose credibility I can't vouch for. The conclusion I cautiously draw from them, with some amount of uncertainty, is that the reason Gutierrez has logged only 27.1 innings in 2009 may not be strictly physical, and without which the Royals probably don't begin to entertain trading him.

Call it a change of scenery. A slap in the face. A second chance. However you characterize it, the fact that Gutierrez was traded for what certainly seems to be less than 100 cents on the dollar might just result in a chip on his shoulder, a boost in motivation, that centers his career in exactly the right direction. The Rangers' prospect depth allowed them to bet that he'll do just that, in his second organization.

Whatever the reason, or reasons, Gutierrez didn't show up with a minor league club this year until July 28, and his ramp-up has been methodical: one inning, then two, two again, three, four, 4.2, 4.2 a second time, and, a week ago today, six innings of work. His first four appearances came out of the High A Wilmington bullpen: eight scoreless innings, three hits, one walk, 10 strikeouts. His next four outings were Blue Rocks starts: four no-hit innings on August 12 (one walk, three strikeouts), a poor 4.2-inning effort on August 18 (five runs on five hits and a walk, four strikeouts), 4.2 scoreless frames on August 23 (three hits, two walks, four strikeouts), and six zeroes last Friday (six hits, two walks, four strikeouts).

All told, he's held the Carolina League to an anemic .173/.229/.204 slash line, fanning 25 and issuing seven walks in those 27.1 innings of work. And I love this: after left-handed hitters (.261/.360/.377) soundly outproduced righties (.235/.274/.360) against Gutierrez in 2008, he reversed things in 2009, crushing lefties at a .128/.226/.170 rate (righties: .216/.231/.235), suggesting his changeup has made significant progress, or perhaps that he's developed significant cut action on his fastball.

Standing just 6'1", the Los Angeles native doesn't have a prototype, projectable pitcher's build, which may help explain why he fell to the 33rd round in 2005 (signing as a draft-and-follow in the spring of 2006),

Like Smith (and unlike Pina), Gutierrez is a year away from 40-man roster consideration (joining a class that includes, among others, Wilmer Font, Wilfredo Boscan, Beltre, Moreland, Kasey Kiker, Carlos Pimentel, Kennil Gomez, Miguel De Los Santos, Marcus Lemon, and Leonel De Los Santos). Presumably he'll join Bakersfield as the Blaze motors toward the post-season.

As for the off-season, he was already delegated by the Royals to pitch for the Arizona Fall League's Surprise Rafters next month, which he still might do, as the Rangers feed players to that same AFL club. Texas has a designated pitching spot it can still fill - and might have two, if Thomas Diamond ends up with another organization within the week, following his September 1 designation for assignment. Gutierrez could use some innings, and Texas will probably see to it that he gets them in the AFL.

Diamond is a classic example of how routinely a blue-chip pitching prospect's fortunes can change. More than any other position in sports, for various reasons the development of frontline pitching can be maddeningly unpredictable, and because of that you can never have enough arms with upside.

Trading two position players whose ceilings, at least with this franchise, were probably as bench players in exchange for a young pitcher with the chance be an impact arm is something you do every chance you get, and though there's possibly added risk with this particular pitcher (without which he probably would have never been available), Texas has deepened its farm system so effectively that it's a risk it can afford to take, with an exciting potential reward tied to Gutierrez's right arm.


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Jamey Newberg

Dallas attorney Jamey Newberg has been commenting on Rangers from the big club down through the entire farm system since 1998.

Scott Lucas

Scott Lucas was born in Arlington, Texas, to Richard and Becky Lucas. He lived mostly in Arlington before moving to Austin, where he graduated from The University of Texas. Scott works for Austin Valuation Consultants, Ltd., and has published several boring articles about real estate appraisal and environmental contamination. He makes a swell margarita and refuses to run longer than ten kilometres.

Eleanor Czajka

Eleanor grew up watching the AAA Mudhens in Toledo, Ohio. A loyal Ranger fan since 1979, she works "behind the scenes" at the Newberg Report.

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