I have a few friends that are Red Sox fans, more that are Yankees fans, and even more that are Rangers fans. I play in a 15 team fantasy baseball league based out of Texas and ten of those owners are all Rangers fans and I’ve heard from all of them already this week. While we may not agree on who is the best team in the series, we all agree that Jamey Newberg and his site, The Newberg Report, is an incredible Rangers community. Jamey was kind enough to answer some questions I sent him earlier this week and both Hanselman and I are very appreciative of him taking time out of his busy schedule traveling to St. Pete to cover and watch the game to answer our questions.
Both the Rangers and the Rays feature batters in the middle of their lineup with unique stories. Dan Johnson spent most of the last two seasons in AAA and Japan. While Johnson’s home run heroics in certain games have been vital, it pales in comparison to what Nelson Cruz has gone through in the Rangers organization. In 2008, Nelson Cruz was spending a fourth straight season in AAA as he tried to shake off the dreaded AAAA label many were quick to slap on him. How does a guy that nobody else wanted in April 2008 go onto become an all-star in 2009 and a key run producer for a division winner?
Cruz was a basketball player with very little baseball experience when he signed with the Mets out of the Dominican Republic. The Rangers felt he had the potential to bloom late when they insisted he be tacked onto the Carlos Lee trade in 2006, and to their credit stuck with him through his final option. He slid through waivers at the end of spring training in 2008 – a time when lots of players slide through as teams are making their own tough roster decisions – and had an almost identical AAA season (.342/.429/.695) to the line he put up in 2007, with one major difference. He opened his stance up while with Oklahoma City, and when he came back he wasn’t nearly as susceptible to the breaking ball away.
Speaking of Japan, what did Colby Lewis learn over there that allowed him to come back to the big leagues here and perform at the high level he has in 2010? He showed signs of this kind of performance in AAA with the Athletics but for whatever reason, it did not work out with the Athletics. Personally, I think it was one of the best high risk/high reward moves by a front office and a testament to the Rangers scouting group.
It’s interesting – while Texas is getting credit for having pulled Lewis out of nowhere, there were actually 14 or 16 teams reported to be in on him, based on the transformation he’d made in Japan. The Rangers were one of only two or three to offer two guaranteed years, though, and of course it turned out to be one of the best moves any team made last winter. His command and ability to spin the ball in any count is dramatically different from his first run through the big leagues.
The Rays have benefitted from their own high risk/high reward move by signing former Rangers pitcher Joaquin Benoit to a minor league deal and watching him blossom into one of the best shut down set up men in the American League. The Rangers had him both as a starter and a reliever before letting him go due to injury. Having seen him this year, what has changed with him from his time with the Rangers to allow him to pitch with this much success?
Command. Benoit always had this ability, and would produce in spurts, but also fell into stretches where he simply couldn’t locate, and he never seemed to pitch with sustained confidence. That signing fits on the same list as the Rangers’ move to bring Lewis back.
The Rays have had a strong bullpen all season but the body of work done by the Rangers relievers has been quite impressive from an outsider’s point of view. Talk about how the nice mix of experience and youth have blended together to help shorten games in 2010
The addition of Darren Oliver was huge. Taking him away from the Angels (same with Vlad) and bringing his leadership, steadiness, and quiet effectiveness was an upgrade on Eddie Guardado, and necessary with the youth of this team’s bullpen. Before the season, I think most folks expected Tanner Scheppers to come in and make the kind of impact Alexi Ogando has; the poise that Ogando has shown, given his incredible backstory, has been an overlooked surprise of the season. Darren O’Day’s steadiness has been big as well, but the absence this series of Frankie Francisco could hurt.
C.J. Wilson has made a successful conversion from dominant reliever to a very good starting pitcher and has been outright filthy against left-handed batters in 2010. Talk about his transitioning to the rotation and how he has been able to hold up despite seeing his innings nearly triple from 2009 to 2010.
He’s a premier athlete, particularly among pitchers. Wilson conditioned himself in the off-season by training with World Class sprinters to build stamina, with the opportunity to start in mind. To his credit, he’s toned things down and his command improved as a result – even though he still walks too many batters and has maintained the nastiness of his stuff, he’s consistently gone deeper in games than I think most people thought he’d be able to.
Cliff Lee’s overall numbers are a step down from what he was doing with Seattle, but he has also struggled through some back issues. How much has his acquisition influenced the attitude with the Rangers and the fanbase?
He’s been huge. He’s saved the bullpen most nights, he’s rubbed off on others in the rotation, he wants the ball, he doesn’t make excuses. The acquisition – particularly since the club was handcuffed financially at the time – sent a huge message to the clubhouse that the front office was all in, and believed in the players. Take away the three or four starts he made with those back issues, he’s been dominant. All that said, he was acquired with one primary objective in mind – taking the ball to open this series.
Any chance Washington has Lee go on three days rest if Game 4 is a must win or a clinching opportunity despite the fact Lee has never gone on three days rest in his career?
I think so. Game Four, by definition, is an elimination game, one way or the other. I think when we get to that point, the team will strongly consider going back to Lee, depending on how hard he was worked in Game One.
Josh Hamilton is the presumptive MVP in the eyes of most Rays fans who are glad to see their former top draft pick succeed but aren’t happy about facing him in the post-season. His 2008 season was special but 2010 has been out of this world after a disappointing 2009 season. What has Hamilton done differently to take his game to this unique level this season?
Amazingly, if you were to ask Hamilton, he’ll tell you it wasn’t the on-again-off-again toe tap mechanism, but instead a change in approach (helped along by Clint Hurdle) during batting practice. Hamilton, as we all have seen, can hit the ball as far as anyone in the game, and he used to treat BP as an opportunity to prove it. This season he’s toned BP down and worked on moving the ball around the park. The results have been obvious. He’s just not nearly as easy to pitch to as he was in 2009, when he never seemed in sync.
Joe Maddon loves to press the pedal to the metal when it comes to the Rays on the basepaths. How worried are you about the Rays’ running game given the fact the collective group of Rangers catchers this season threw out 23% of all base stealers while the league average was 26%?
Worried. And it’s not all on the catchers. Several Rangers pitchers don’t hold runners well. That’s going to be a key factor in this series.
Rays fans have been a bit bitter regarding Pat Burrell but I see Dan Haren’s name mentioned quite often lately on your site in a mocking manner. Explain the back story there for our readers.
The backstory goes back just a few days. After Texas pulled several veterans off the field during Sunday’s regular season finale, so that the fans could recognize them, the club then did the same with Vladimir Guerrero – who was DH’ing – after he stepped up to bat in the sixth inning. Wash put Matt Treanor in to hit for Vlad. Haren proceeded to throw the first pitch to Treanor behind his back. Haren then shouted at the Rangers dugout, half a dozen times, “Your f___in’ fault!” Childish.
In what area(s) do you feel the Rangers have an advantage over the Rays?
They may not. The teams are fairly evenly matched, I think. I do trust Lee, who has obviously been outstanding on this stage before, a little more than Price, if only because of October experience, and Wilson-Shields seems to favor Texas. If a guy like Hamilton or Cruz stays hot, either one can carry a team (as can Vlad), but Rangers fans remember Juan Gonzalez going crazy against the Yankees in the playoffs years ago and still seeing the team bow out weakly.
How would you best describe Ron Washington’s tendencies as a manager regarding bullpen usage, lineups, and on the basepaths?
He admits to managing by gut feel at times, but Mike Maddux is relied on heavily in terms of managing the pen. He gives the offense lots of leash on the bases, which has its pros and cons. As for the lineups, Jorge Cantu and Jeff Francoeur will start Wednesday, a concession to the left-handed Price being on the mound. Wash trusts veterans, though that doesn’t make him different from most big league managers.