More Surprises

SURPRISE, Ariz.–Though Surprise is a pain to get to, at least you get two teams to for the price of one drive on as the Royals share the complex with the Rangers. Texas ranked No. 28 in our recent organizational rankings, but farm director Scott Servais is confident that a lot of players who seemed overmatched last year will emerge in 2007.

Servais explained that the Rangers purposely tested their players with aggressive assignments at Class A, with many of them young for their levels. It showed in their records as high Class A Bakersfield and low Class A Clinton combined to go 103-176.

“We had the youngest team in (low Class A) ball,” Servais said. “This year we are going to have a lot of those guys repeat those levels and put a much greater emphasis on winning.”

The second-year farm director used righthander Omar Poveda as an example. The 19-year-old righthander had a 133-37 strikeout-walk ratio in 149 innings for Clinton, but was 4-13, 4.88.

“He had some good secondary numbers, but he had a young team behind him and didn’™t win many games” Servais said. “Now we’™ll probably send him back there and say, ‘˜OK, let’™s see if you can win 10 games.’ ”

Another player in a similar boat to Poveda is third baseman Johnny Whittleman. The 2005 second-rounder out of a Kingwood, Texas high school hit .227/.313/.343 in his full season debut for Clinton, but the raw tools are still there.

“Between the season, instructional league and Hawaii Winter Baseball he had about 750 plate appearances,” Servais said. “He did not wear down mentally or physically which reflects well. As far as makeup, I played in the big leagues a long time and he is the kind of guy that plays in the big leagues.

Should that duo repeat low Class A, they will likely be joined by 2006 first-rounder Kasey Kiker who Servais sees as someone who needs an aggressive assignment. After being drafted in the first round last year out of an Alabama high school, the lefthander was sent straight to short-season Spokane without ever playing rookie ball.

“I wanted him to be around the older player, the more mature player,” Servais said. “I thought it would help his development.”

Their were murmurs about Kiker’™s lack of maturity entering the draft, so this kind of treatment does not come as a major surprise.

Catch Some Rising Stars

Finding catching is as hard as any position, but the Rangers think they have some lower level guys coming off injury who are ready to make an impact. Manny Pina and Christian Santana both missed all of last season due to injury, but both have looked fit in camp. Pina, 19, had Tommy John surgery while Santana, 18, had shoulder surgery.

The Rangers only got 20 at-bats from Taylor Teagarden last year so this trio fortifies their depth. Teagarden is likely head to Bakersfield while Pina has a shot at breaking camp with Clinton.

Another potential sleeper that Servais raved about was righthander Doug Mathis. A 13th-round pick in 2005 out of Missouri, Mathis has slowly developed a solid four pitch mix.

“He has crept up the prospect board with his performance,” Servais said. “He has command of all four pitches and he came to us with really just a fastball and a slider and has added a curve and a changeup.”

Mathis went 10-7, 4.18 with a 109-47 strikeout-walk ratio for Bakersfield last season before a late-season callup to Double-A Frisco. He looks bound for Frisco to open 2007.

Jaeger Bombed

After a long day at the park, I took in a Phoenix Coyotes-Chicago Blackhawks game with Alan Jaeger, a pitching instructor who runs a camp and clinics in Los Angeles. There is nothing quite like catching a late season NHL game between two teams with no shot at the playoffs. I can now cross that off my list of things to do before I die.

Jaeger, who counts Barry Zito and Joel Zumaya as clients, is adamant about the way most pitchers are treated by their clubs and believes most professional pitching coaches are doing more harm than good to today’™s pitchers.

Though his techniques focus as much on the mental aspect of pitching as the physical, Jaeger is a large proponent of long tossing in preparation for starts. When I say long tossing, I mean long tossing. Most clubs today have their pitchers play catch at 120 feet and let them stretch up to 150 or 180 feet if they feel comfortable. Jaegers’™ students play catch at anywhere from 250-350 feet.

“If you throw a 90 mile per hour fastball at a 30 degree angle, it will travel 300 feet,” Jaeger explains. “120 feet is 40 percent of that. Why are we training at 40 percent?

“You can’™t argue with nature. If you are a sprinter operating with only 40 percent of your hamstring, you’™d never make it.”

What I got out of it is that Jaeger believes that in order to fully prepare to throw at full strength for a full season, pitchers need to truly stretch out their arms. His students will long toss for as long as they want until they feel comfortable. According to Jaeger, Zito long tosses at 300 feet before his starts.

“These bullet throws at 120 feet for 10 minutes to prepare for a bullpen session is like doing 10 sprints of 100 yards to train for a marathon,” he said.

Jaeger is nothing if not passionate, and he makes a convincing case. To this point no one has developed an injury proof method of developing pitchers and it is doubtful anyone can, but many of his arguments make sense. Not letting pitchers play catch at more than 180 feet certainly seems counterintuitive.

As for the hockey game, it was awesome. In the first 20 minutes we saw eight goals, three fights and one marriage proposal on the Jumbo Tron (she said yes). Later in the game Blackhawks good Dave Koci scored a hat trick when he received his third penalty for fighting, which results in a game misconduct. That means an ejection for all you non-hockey fans.