Mendoza locks up 5th starter spot, the Rangers “explain” their philosophy?

Ron Washington said back on March 16th that the Rangers wanted to know who the 5th starter would be before spring training is over. Well, it didn’t take them long to come to a decision.

With a strong outing yesterday against the Oakland A’s Luis Mendoza has seemingly all but locked up his spot as the Rangers 5th starter come April 12th. The 24 year-old Mendoza tossed 5 innings Tuesday, the longest outing by a Ranger starter this spring, and gave up one run on just two hits while walking no one and striking out one. Mendoza said the key to his success was using his changeup more against the A’s predominantly left-handed lineup: "I have been struggling against left-handers, so I mixed in my changeup, and my sinker was down."

That’s an interesting (and encouraging) development, as lefties have been a bit of a problem for Mendoza in the past: they hit .283 against him at AA Frisco last year, as opposed to the .233 line he held right handed batters to. Going back even further, lefties hit .327 against him in 2006 as well (.307 for righties), so this appears to be a bit of an established trend for Mendoza. Not that this is that much of an aberration for a right-handed pitcher, but Mendoza obviously needs to continue to use that changeup against left-handed batters if he’s to be successful in the Majors.

That’s why it’s a very encouraging development that he seems to have figured this out – mark this as perhaps a minor epiphany for Mendoza, who is probably going to get his best shot at establishing himself in the Majors this April. With the caliber of some of the pitchers behind him, such as Eric Hurley and Matt Harrison, Mendoza could find himself quickly passed up if he doesn’t make the most of this opportunity – it appears that he may have just made an important adjustment to do just that.

Now we come to this. I’m frankly not too sure what to make of this latest attempt by the Rangers to outline their "plan" (something I thought Jon Daniels did in this recent MLB.com piece). TR Sullivan tells us there’s two different philosophies at work here, JD’s "3-5 year plan" and Ron Washington, who "tries to think of ways to beat the Mariners on opening day." And yet Sullivan alleges that these two lines of thinking don’t conflict – in fact they mesh, as part of "A two axis attack" as a "mid-market team that that can’t afford to go checkbook to checkbook with the Yankees or the Red Sox, but also isn’t willing to scuttle all hope for winning now."

That, right there, is one confusing statement. What does that even mean? We’re not rebuilding? We can’t compete with the big market teams… but we’re not scuttling all hope of winning now? Huh? Well unfortunately for me, TR does nothing to explain that. He instead moves on to a quote from JD:

"We’re going to continue to give opportunities to young players. But we want them to be ready for it. We want them to earn a job, and not have it given to them. We’re not going to go with young players before they are ready. We want them to be able to come at their own pace."

So that’s what this article is about now? Not bringing guys up too fast? But that’s not what we where just discussing really… but okay, let’s try and roll with it…

Next TR writes "The Rangers will go with young players. But if they don’t feel there is a young player who will fill a particular hole, they will look elsewhere besides the farms system." He talks about how none of the "veteran players" Jennings, Ponson, Bradley, ext got multi-year contracts. He talks about how having Jennings fills out the Rangers pitching depth, and allows Eric Hurley to start the season at AAA.

He talks about how the Rangers wanted Luis Mendoza to "win" the 5th starters spot, and how Sidney Ponson was the insurance if he didn’t (this here is about the only time TR actually touches on a real issue of discussion – and he’s only half right on it too, as the Rangers had options that are arguably as good as or better than Ponson). He uses this to illustrate his point about the Rangers bringing guys up only when they’re ready. Which is feasible. I don’t really agree that Ponson was the solution, but I see his point. But next, he starts reaching.

He tells us about first base prospect Chris Davis and how he has only 109 at-bats in AA, and why it’s necessary that the Rangers have Ben Broussard keep his seat warm. He tries to tell us "A small market team might have pushed him into the opening day lineup. A large market team might have signed or traded for a big-name first baseman like Mark Teixeira, and forgotten about Davis."

Huh. Really. I don’t think there’s too many teams, no matter how desperate they are, that would have slotted a guy with only 109 AA at-bats under his belt into the opening day lineup. Furthermore, I don’t know of many people that would have wanted to see that. It seems to me, TR is trying to defend things that don’t need defending here, instead of addressing the actual issue that he brought up at the beginning of the article: the difference between the philosophies of JD and Ron Washington.

No, it’s not wise to rush your young players. I don’t want that, I don’t think anybody really does. But what you don’t want to do is sign veterans, trick yourself into thinking you have a team that can compete, and then ignore your younger talent when it is ready. The Rangers have a track record of doing that. And with Ron Washington at the wheel, thinking he’s going to try and compete this year, the prospect of that happening is a very real one.

That’s what I’m concerned about here, is watching that history repeat itself. I have no problems with the stopgap veterans – just so long as we don’t fall in love with them, and they don’t take the place of players that are in fact ready for the majors (like Jarrod Saltalamacchia – who by the way, is conveniently omitted from this article). That’s the real issue here – the Rangers refuse to let go of that forlorn hope of winning. They want to rebuild, but they also don’t want to hit rock bottom, and scare off all the season ticket holders – so they have their beat reporter write articles like this, and try to duck the issue. That’s the one thing that’s holding the Rangers back – and if they can’t get past that hurdle, they’re never going to go anyplace.

Happy St. Patricks day!

Well, a happy St. Paddys day to everyone – I hope you’re all wearing your green shirts. Apologies for the lack of posting this weekend – let’s get things back in gear, shall we?

First up, I have some required reading for you: Joey Matschulat, over at Baseball Time in Arlington recently penned his take on the Rangers catching situation – and as usual, his stuff puts mine to shame. Great read – be sure to check it out.

Now, a few notes of the encouraging kind: Kevin Millwood, CJ Wilson and Joaquin Benoit all pitched in a minor league game on saturday, and threw without any problems – Millwood will start his first "A" game of the spring on thursday, while Wilson and Benoit will appear in a minor league game on Tuesday. Vicente Padilla also threw in an intersquad game Sunday, and had no problems – he’s scheduled to pitch again Friday, probably in a minor league game, but that’s because the Rangers don’t want him facing the LA Angels, who he will pitch against in his second start of the season. All of this is incredibly good news – the Rangers obviously need their pitchers healthy, and it looks like everone is finally on the road to recovery.

There’s an interesting article up on the Rangers website today, by MLB.com writer Mike Bauman. In it, Bauman talks about the Rangers recent talent accquisitions, and the direction Jon Daniels wants to take the Rangers. This seems to be the first time I’ve actually seen the Rangers publicly say they are actually committed to developing their young players – which is good news, I suppose, even though some of the club’s recent actions might suggest otherwise.

The key qote from Daniels that caught my eye in the article was when he said "At some point, you have to commit to people you beleive in. The only way young players are going to develop is if you give them a chance to learn, and sometimes they learn through failure, a little bit."

That of course, is dead on the mark, something I’ve been preaching myself both on this blog and elsewhere – but so far, the Rangers have yet to actually realize that philosophy. The catching situation is a perfect example of this – not to beat a dead horse, but playing Laird over Saltalamacchia contradicts JD’s above statement in just about every way fathomable – unless, of course, the Rangers don’t believe in Salty. That seems to be the Rangers problem right now, deciding exactly who among their young players they do believe in. You can preach about playing your young guys all you want, but until you actually do it, you won’t know who among your younger crop of talent you can rely on – and playing spares like Laird, Kevin Mench and Sidney Ponson in their stead isn’t going to help you figure that out.

I appreciate the stance JD’s trying to take here – I just wish the actual on-field squad would actually be shaped according to the same philosphy. Because otherwise, it just seems like more hot air from the Texas management.

Robbie and the Lizard for the rotation

Well, no news was good news from Surprise, AZ today (which is now really yesterday, as I write/type this here at 1 AM). The Rangers managed to make it through a game without losing another man to the accursed "injury bug".

Josh Hamilton, who I am convinced is from the planet Krypton, registered another mulit-hit game as the Rangers offense steamrolled the Royals, 10-8, and overcame yet another sub-par effort by Kason Gabbard, who got lit up for 7 runs in 3.0 innings.

Perhaps one of the most concerning things about the Rangers rash of pitching injuries has been the fact that many of those that are still healthy have had more than their share of trouble getting outs. Gabbard, unfortunately, is the perfect example of that, now having surrendured an eye-popping 15 runs on 22 hits (including 3 home runs) in 10.2 innings this spring – his ERA now stands at 12.66. The Rangers keep trying to convince themselves that nothing is wrong, but it’s obvious that healthy or no, Gabbard has just not pitched well this spring.

The guys who could be in line for his (and the 5th starters) job have not performed either – Luis Mendoza has a 12.15 ERA (having surrendered 9 runs in 6.2 IP) and AJ Murray, who was just demoted to minor league camp, meaning his run at a rotation spot is all but over, has a 10.80 ERA (6 runs in 5.0 IP). Eric Hurley, who is scheduled to start later today against the Rockies, has a 4.70 ERA, but the Rangers would ideally like to get him more time in AAA before throwing him into the big leagues. That leaves the Rangers focusing on Sidney Ponson as the fast-emerging leader in the rotation race. But as I’ve already made you aware, Ponson has probably been one of the worst pitchers in baseball over the past 4 years, and it is probably an extraordinarily bad idea to rely on him to pitch at the Major League leavel.

For those reasons, I’d like to introduce you to a couple options for the rotation not named Sidney Ponson.

First up is Elizardo Ramirez (who has been recently christened as "The Lizard" by the posters at Lone Star Ball Edit: as pointed out by Jason Parks in the comments below, "The Lizard" actually orginated over at redreporter.com), a former Phillies and Reds project, in camp as a non-roster invitee. He has been more than impressive this spring, having not surrendured a run in 8.0 innings so far this spring while walking just one and punching out 6, including 4 in today’s game. A command and control pitcher, he sports a fastball that hovers around 90 MPH, along with a fairly good breaking ball and changeup. He doesn’t have such a great Major League track record, but he’s put up some decent numbers in the minors, and Mike Hindman says he’s got pretty good stuff this spring, comparing him to "a Dominican Brian Corey" today on LSB. Of course, it’s hard to judge just based on six spring outings, but it appears Texas may have caught some lighting in a bottle with Elizardo. Hey, he’s outpitched just about everyone else in camp this spring – a starter in the past, he at least deserves some consideration as an option to fill the 5th starter role this April. Because anyone’s better than Sidney Ponson.

The next pitcher here probobly doesn’t need much introduction – remember Robinson Tejeda? The guy who did this in the home opener last year? The guy whom TR Sullivan says has the best fastball on the Major League club? Yeah, him. He fell out of favor with the organization with a May/June meltdown after his hot April last year, got sent to AAA in July and never returned. He is out of options however, and the Rangers plan was to convert him to relief this spring in an effort to keep him on the roster. Which would probably make a good home for Robbie, considering his blazing fastball and his past control issues – in fact, I wasn’t even in favor of putting him back in the rotation at all earlier this spring – but that was before Rangers starting pitching went on the endangered species list.

Tejeda sports a 6.43 ERA this spring, but has not allowed a run in his last three appearances since giving up three on March 7th against the Brewers. Considering the sub-par performances (and youth) of the pitchers "in contention" for the rotation, it only makes sense to give Tejeda another shot as a starter. He’s proven he has the stuff to start in the bigs if he can control it, so choosing him to fill in for McCarthy is actually probably the Rangers best option right now. And, again, anyone is better than Sidney Ponson.

Neither of those two are officially being considered by the Rangers as options for the rotation (they’re too busy fawning over Ponson) but they sure as heck should be. Even though I doubt my dream will come true, I’m making it official: the "Robbie and the Lizard for the rotation" bandwagon starts here. Because, as I may have mentioned, anyone is better than Sidney Ponson.

I’m depressed

Okay, I might as well admit it. I’m depressed. I figured this would happen sooner or later at some point in the season, but not now. Spring training is supposed to be a time for optimisim, and high expectations, right? Not this year.

This year, following the Rangers spring training camp has been more like watching an episode of "Survivor" than a baseball team (and for the record – I hate Survivor). The spring injuries, mainly those to the pitching staff, have come at a relentless pace – it’s almost to the point where it’s something I count on like the buzzing of my alarm clock in the morning: "gee, I wonder who it’s gonna be this time when I fire up the computer."

Today, it was Frank Catalanotto, removed from todays game after one at-bat today with back spasms. Yesterday, it was Eddie Guardado, straining a tendon in his knee. The day before that, Vicente Padilla was removed from his start against the White Sox with a strained muscle in his posterior.

Fortunately, those injuries are not being termed as serious by the Rangers, but you still have to wonder exactly what is going on. The condition of the Surprise Stadium pitching mound is being blamed for some of the more recent injuries such as Guardado’s, while some have perhaps been due to a lack of conditioning during the offseason (like Joaquin Benoit) but it’s absolutely dumfounding the amount of bad luck the Rangers have had this spring. Some of the more serious injuries:

  • Brandon McCarthy – I’ve already documented his elbow problems. The ETA of his return was recently revised from 4-6 weeks to 4-8 however, so the chances of him pitching in April are probably nill.
  • Kevin Millwood – He’s scheduled to pitch on saturday for the first time since he "tweaked" his hamstring earlier this spring, but the fact that the Rangers still haven’t decided if it will be in a Major League game or the controlled circumstances of a minor league game suggests he may not yet be at 100%.
  • CJ Wilson, with his biceps tendinitis, and Joaquin Benoit, with his "sore arm" are also scheduled to pitch in a minor league game on saturday, but there’s been no timetable set to when they might be available to see action in an "A" game again.
  • On the bright side, however, the injury bug has (so far, at least) steered clear of some of the more important health risks in camp, like Jason Jennings, Josh Hamilton and Milton Bradley (hopefully, I haven’t jinxed anyone by mentioning that). In fact, the injury to Catalanotto, while not serious, could turn out to be a blessing in disguse if it can get Jason Botts (who is getting absolutely no love right now, despite his red hot spring) a spot on the opening day roster.

    But the Rangers need their all guys healthy, particularly their pitchers. With Guardado sidelined for now, the bullpen now lacks a healthy left-handed pitcher, and the starting rotation is still a mess, as TR Sullivan points out in his latest peice. Hopefully, this insane "injury curse" will end here and now, and the Rangers can get on with their actual recovering from it. Because if it doesn’t, I may have to consider driving out to Surprise, and dynamiting the stupid pitching mound. Hey, somebody’s gotta take some action.

    Don’t worry Gerry, we still love you (well, I don’t, but the Rangers sure seem to)

    Anybody remember earlier this spring? When Gerald Laird was whining about how he shouldn’t have to compete with Jarrod Saltalamacchia for the catching job?

    Well, it looks like Gerald needn’t have worried. The Rangers are now loudly trumpeting that he will indeed be their opening day catcher, over the young offensive phenom Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

    Laird, 28, is coming off the worst offensive season of his career last year, when he hit .224/.278/.349, and posted an OPS of 627. This came after his best offensive season in 2006, in which he hit .296/.332/.473 and posted an 805 OPS, platooning with Rod Barajas. Those numbers, however, where largely skewed by the fact that he hit .400/.414/.600 against left-handers – an impressive line to be sure, but his .241/.291/.405 line against righties that year was far more indicitive of what Gerald’s limits are.

    He’s a career .221/.277/.339 hitter against right-handed pitching with a 616 OPS. He may be able to mash the lefties (.307/.348/.467 career, 815 OPS)but unless he has a platoon partner to protect him against the right-handers (like Barajas in ’06) offensive years like 2007 are going to be a recurring theme for Gerald.

    The Rangers, however, despite the fact that they now have one of their weakest offensive clubs in years, don’t seem to care. Instead, they sing the praises of his defense, and his 40.2% success rate at throwing out baserunners:

    "He’s got a great arm, quick release, and athleticism behind the plate" says former Major League catcher and now third base coach Matt Walbeck. He’s able to pick up balls, make sidearm throws, throw behind the runner – stuff you can’t teach."

    That’s great. No, seriously, that is. Gerald is a fine defensive catcher. But the Rangers seem to be forgetting what’s at stake here – and it’s a heckuva lot more important that Gerald Laird’s throwing abilities. It’s called development. The Rangers have a farm system loaded to the gills with catching prospects (Mike Hindman can tell you all about that better than I can) – plus Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the offensively lauded, but defensively decried catcher accquired in the Mark Teixeira trade last year.

    Salty ‘s bat is defintely projected to be elite among catchers – Baseball America ranked him as the Braves top prospect in 2007 and the second-best in 2006, while ranking him as the organization’s best hitter for average in both years. In his time in the big leagues last year, he hit .266/.310/.422, with 11 HR and 33 RBI, stats that probably would have been much better if he hadn’t been made to play the unfamiliar position of first base by the Rangers, where he hit a miserable .203/.236/.346 at, while also commiting 10 errors (in 38 games). When playing as a backstop, however, Salty flashed his offensive potential, ripping .325/.373/.503. Taking that into consideration, one would only expect a player of his talent to improve those overall numbers this time around, if allowed to remain behind the plate.

    But that’s what Texas needs to find out: will Saltalamacchia’s bat and be enough to keep him behind the plate at the major league level? Within a year or so, Taylor Teagarden, who could turn out to be a fine offensive catcher in his own right, with better defensive capabilites than Saltalamacchia, should be knocking at Arlington’s doorstep. That means now is the time for the Rangers to let Salty get consistent, full time at-bats behind the plate, at the Major League level, and evaluate whether or not his offense will be enough to outweigh any defensive shortcomings. He’s never going to be the strongest defender wherever he plays, although his defense should become servicable in timebut it’s his bat that needs to be evaluated, and allowed to develop on the Major League level. Offensively, he’s already proven he can hold his own with the big boys – now the Rangers need to find out if he’s good enough to carve himself a niche.

    Because come 2009, there’s going to be another battle behind the plate in Texas – one that won’t involve a certain 28 year-old catcher who is all but expendable to the organization in the grand scheme of things. It’ll be the two young catchers, Salty and Teagarden, slugging it out for playing time – and Texas is going to have a decision to make. One will have to move to make room for the other – and with the Rangers now commited to developing the powerful Chris Davis as their future at first base, that could mean that one will be departing the organization. But the Rangers aren’t making that decision any easier on themselves by insisting that they somehow "need" Gerald Laird and his throwing arm.

    With his offensive limitations, Laird is on the fast track to nowhere – especially considering the depth the Rangers have behind him. But why the front office continues to cling to this guy like he’s some kind of key defensive catylist in their plans is beyond me. They should be entertaining the offers they are getting from other teams right now, not rebuffing them. Because sooner or later, the Rangers are going to have to break down, and throw Laird aside for the younger player, be it Teagarden or Salty. Why not do it now, and allow Salty to get a jump on his development? A move like that would not only be the better path for Salty, but for the organization – so what’s the holdup? Oh wait, that’s right – the throwing arm. Gotcha.

    We just want to pump you up!

    You know, I hate it when my sense of foreboding is right: the Rangers are now taking special care to pump up their latest washed-up spare, Sidney Ponson:

    http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080310&content_id=2417708&vkey=spt2008news&fext=.jsp&c_id=tex

    I’m frankly speechless. This might be one of the worst attempts at justifying a horrible signing I have ever seen. Sidney Ponson has arguably been one of the worst pitchers in baseball over the past 4 years – but we’re supposed to feel better because Frank Catalanotto and Michael Young say every at-bat against him was "tough" and "a grind". Oooookay.

    McCarthy out 4-6 weeks, Rangers panic, sign Ponson

    It’s now official: the Rangers have determined that Brandon McCarthy will be out for 4-6 weeks, which means he will open the season on the 15-day disabled list. Of course, this comes as no suprise to me or anyone reading this blog as I’ve followed McCarthy’s situation very closely over the past couple days.

    Tomorrow, he will fly back to Dallas, and receive an injection that will "spin his blood and inject platelets back into the elbow". I’m sure that sounds a lot worse that it really is, and it’s certainly not the worst that could have happened – but I think Brandon himself sums things up quite nicely in the following quote:

    "Not having surgery is good, but the situation overall still stinks."

    Brandon, you have no idea how true that is.

    Now that the Rangers know a little more about how long McCarthy will be out, they now have time to get a look at their younger options for the rotation when the season starts – as I documented when the news of McCarthy’s injury first broke, Luis Mendoza, AJ Murray and Eric Hurley are all seemingly in the running for the vacated rotation seat. Also included in that list was mention of a guy that I seriously hoped would mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. Looks like I was wrong.

    The Rangers signed 31 year old right-hander Sidney Ponson to a minor league contract today, and added him to the spring training roster. Ponson, who will be entering his 10th big league season this year, saw his career year way back in 2003, when he went 17-12, struck out a career high 134, and posted a career-best 3.75 ERA. Since then, things have just gone downhill for Ponson, on and off the field. He was arrested in his native Aruba in 2004 for assault, and battled a drinking problem that got him picked up for 2 DUI’s in 2005 before he went through rehabilitation. Thanks to the drinking, he has had trouble keeping his weight down and staying in shape in the past, and the results of that where obvious on the field, as his ERA has increased every year since and his WHIP shows a similar trend, if you check out his page on baseball reference:

    http://www.baseball-reference.com/p/ponsosi01.shtml

    And yet the Rangers seem to think they have some kind of low risk/high reward signing here in Ponson, who has never been better than a fringe-average starter in his best years: "He’s thrown all winter, and we’ve seen him a few times" Says Rangers GM Jon Daniels "He’s down 20 pounds from what he was when he struggled the past couple of years. We talked with him about our expectations, and he understands where he is at this point of his career. He feels he has something to prove."

    Well, that’s nice, I’m glad Sidney Ponson wants to prove he can pitch again. But does he have to do it here? What happened to the youth movement Texas supposedly undertook this winter? It seems that for every youngster we have, we manage to pick up a fringe-average veteran who "has something to prove". When does it end?

    Development is all about making the young players step up. Sometimes during development, those players have to step up sooner than expected – but that’s when you find out who’s got the stuff to succeed, and who needs more time in the minors. But if young players never get that chance to learn and adjust, then they’re not going to succeed in the Majors. It’s really that simple.

    Luis Mendoza and AJ Murray are being presented with a shot here. They should get their chance to run with it – without the added pressure of having a useless spare like Ponson around to muddy the waters. After all, even if they fail, at least the struggles of Mendoza, Murray, or even Hurley would mean something in the long run. The struggles of Ponson, however, would mean nothing but Ranger fans having to watch another bad signing rolling through Arlington.