Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Reminder from the Past

Blogging this morning takes me to a rewind of a Rangers opinion I have had for years:

Joaquin Benoit is a spare.

Yes, he has a few moments of brilliance that covers up his sparedom, but trust me, the man who has been with the Rangers since 1996 has always been a tease. But far too often, in those rare occasions where the Rangers really need him to deliver, he proves that he is not to be counted on. Sorry, but I have watched him for far too long to be surprised when he takes a great game and makes it frustrating.

He is a fine mop up pitcher when you are down 6-2, but not in a 2-1 game.

But Eric Hurley was solid

Behind the first quality start of Eric Hurley's young career, the Rangers were within a run of Houston going to the eighth. Benoit, who had pitched just once since June 7, was given the ball. The game fell apart.

He walked Miguel Tejada on five pitches. Four of them were fastballs and the other a hard slider. He had plenty of velocity on the fastballs, but he wasn't close to the strike zone.

Once again unable to command the fastball, a problem that has dogged him all season, he tried to fool Lance Berkman with a split-finger pitch. Rather than dive toward the dirt, it gently glided to the bottom of the strike zone. It was a perfect place for Berkman to drop the barrel on the ball and send it into the Houston bullpen for a 4-1 lead.

He got behind Carlos Lee 3-0 and eventually left a full-count fastball up in the zone, which Lee clanged off the left-field scoreboard for a double. After another walk to Ty Wigginton, the Rangers pulled Benoit.

"It just looks like he's pulling off of every fastball and trying to be a little too fine," pitching coach Mark Connor said. "His stuff is good enough that even if it's not 95 mph, he can get guys out at 92 or 93. He just needs to stay on line to the plate and trust it. His location has not been good. That's it in a nutshell."

Since the start of June, what was once an annoying little problem has gotten worse and worse. In 4 1/3 innings this month, he's allowed eight walks and three homers.
The Rangers have asked Benoit time and again if he's healthy. They gave him the extra time (and a cortisone shot) earlier this month. He has not responded.

It's left Benoit all alone and looking for answers, none of which came to him Tuesday. When asked if he wanted to discuss the game, he shook his head and went back to moving food around on his plate.

Hurley’s Pitching Line is impressive. Low Strikeouts (1), but everything else is where you hope it goes:

Eric Hurley (L 0-1) 6.0 6h - 2r - 2er - 3bb - 1k - 0hr - 4.24era

I did get this email on Hurley, though:

Not only does Eric Hurley have a severe case of dumb face, but with a red suit on and blonde hair, he would pass for Mr. Incredible.

P1 Jeff

More from Evan’s Newsletter

Q: Who are the Rangers' top five prospects after the draft? Is Justin Smoak in there now or not? And what about Max Ramirez and what position do you think he will play in the majors?

Mo, Dallas

GRANT: In January, I ranked the top five Rangers prospects as: 1. Elvis Andrus, 2. Eric Hurley, 3. Chris Davis, 4. Michael Main, 5. Blake Beavan.

Davis has to rise because of an incredible first half. So does Neftali Feliz (No. 12 on my January list). And Max Ramirez (No. 11), too. Main would have to fall simply because he hasn't yet pitched this year because of a stress fracture in his rib cage. But some other guys would have to drop also, not because of anything they've done, but because Davis, Feliz and Ramirez have forced their way to the top.

When I did my prospect rankings it was based on a combination of success and projection. To update that list in the middle of the year, you'd have to weigh actual success more heavily.

With that in mind, here's how my top five would look today: 1. Davis, 2. Feliz, 3. Ramirez, 4. Andrus, 5. Hurley.

Notice that Hurley has dropped from second to fifth while still advancing to the majors and having two pretty good starts to his career. That doesn't mean he's become a lesser prospect. It simply means the Rangers' farm system is having a very good year.

Q: Who is the starting catcher in '09: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez or Gerald Laird?

Jason Parks, New York

GRANT: When asked this question a couple of weeks ago, I think I went with Saltalamacchia. Think my reasoning was that Laird would be very tradeable at the deadline and, at the time, Laird was struggling at the plate.

Not so sure that's my answer now. Laird played really, really well leading up to his injury last Friday. He seemed to separate himself from Saltalamacchia in the catching race. Now, Saltalamacchia has at least a month to show the Rangers what he can do behind the plate and with the pitching staff as the everyday catcher. I think his play over the next month will be a significant factor in determining which direction the club goes at catcher. And Max Ramirez's exposure to the big leagues over the next month may help the club determine if he is ready to hit in the majors and whether he's got the tools to be a big league catcher.

What is clear is that somebody is going to have to go. The easy answer is Laird, because he's the closest to free agency. But I don't think there are any easy answers to this situation. I just know the Rangers are going to be very popular with teams desperate for front-line catching.

Only thing I feel fairly comfortable in saying is that I don't think Taylor Teagarden is a front-line, everyday catcher. Oh, he's got the skills, all right. But I think his shoulder is too fragile to hold up for 120 games per season.

And, I may be burying the lead here, as perhaps the lead is that Josh Hamilton might be hurt

When the Rangers traded for Josh Hamilton, they thought it was more likely he'd have a knee or shoulder issue than a relapse into substance abuse.

The knee issue cropped up Tuesday.

Two innings after diving for a ball in center field, Hamilton left the game against Houston with left knee inflammation. It's the same knee on which he underwent arthroscopic surgery in 2006. The Rangers labeled his status as "day-to-day." Asked if the disabled list was a possibility, manager Ron Washington said: "No, no, no. ... no."

Before the game, manager Ron Washington said he was not concerned about fatigue setting in for Hamilton. Hamilton was 2-for-15 with six strikeouts during the Washington series over the weekend. He grounded into a double play and struck out in his two at-bats Tuesday. Hamilton's batting average has fallen from an AL-best .328 on June 2 to .310 after Tuesday.

Hamilton said he felt some soreness after last Thursday's game against Atlanta. He dove to make a catch in that game, then sprung up to throw a runner out at third from right field. Hamilton said the knee bothered him a little while jogging, but not while sprinting over the weekend.

"And it didn't bother me [Tuesday] until I got to the top step of the dugout for my first at-bat of the game," Hamilton said. "I couldn't run out the double play and when I tried to go for the ball in center field, I couldn't ever get going."

Hamilton has started 75 of the Rangers' 78 games this season, equaling the number of starts he had for Cincinnati last year as a rookie. He also appeared in 15 games last year as a defensive replacement or pinch hitter.

Not having Hamilton further weakens the middle of the Rangers' lineup. Cleanup hitter Milton Bradley did not start for the sixth consecutive game Tuesday because of a sore quadriceps.

Top 10 NHL unrestricted Free Agents? …according to some dude…

10. Washington center Sergei Federov—The Russian center is at the tail end of his career but could provide a contender with great playmaking ability and playoff experience. Federov had 13 goals and 41 assists this season with both Columbus and Washington. There are many teams that are interested in him, but I think he stays with Washington.

9. Montreal right-winger Michael Ryder—Ryder is coming off the worst offensive year of his career with Montreal, so his asking price should be lower than otherwise expected. Montreal's right winger could be a perfect addition to a team with an offense in need of a playmaking forward. I see him signing with St. Louis or Edmonton, possibly.

8. Vancouver left-winger Markus Naslund—Naslund can bring a team playoff experience along with 20 goals a year. He is an excellent winger who has great vision and makes precise passes. Naslund has been one of my favorite NHL players for years. Naslund's asking price, however, may be too high for some teams. I see him going to Boston or maybe even his first choice, Detroit.

7. Minnesota center/winger Pavol Demitra—Demitra is a fast skater who can give a team 20 goals and 40 assists a season. He has a good amount of playoff experience with Minnesota and St. Louis. I see Demitra signing with Vancouver in an attempt to replace Naslund, if the Canucks can't re-sign him.

6. Pittsburgh left-winger Ryan Malone—Malone had an incredible year with Pittsburgh and was an important part of the Penguins' playoff run. He posted 27 goals and 24 assists for the Penguins this year. If he can't re-sign with Pittsburgh, I see him going to Columbus, as Pittsburgh and Columbus have already negotiated his rights.

5. New York Rangers right-winger Brendan Shanahan—Shanahan is the guy to have if your team is in need of playoff experience. It seems Shanahan has been to the playoffs every year of his career with Detroit and the Rangers. Many teams will be interested, but I see the Rangers re-signing him.

4. Los Angeles defenseman Rob Blake—Blake is one of the greatest active defenseman in the NHL. He can provide a young contender with terrific experience at the blue line. I think Blake would be the perfect addition for Washington, but that it's more likely he re-signs with the Kings.

3. San Jose defenseman Brian Campbell—Without a doubt the best puck-moving defenseman that is an unrestricted free agent. He can help any power-play unit at the blue line position. The Panthers hinted at acquiring him, but since they shipped out Olli Jokinen primarily for defensive help, it is highly unlikely the Panthers would try for him. I expect Campbell to re-sign with the Sharks.

2. Toronto center Mats Sundin—He would be the best free agent available, if it was not for Montreal receiving his exclusive negotiating rights from the Leafs. You can't go wrong with the 13-year NHL veteran. In my opinion I can't see Sundin in any other jersey besides Toronto. We will have to wait and see on this one.

1. Pittsburgh right-winger Marian Hossa—The best pure talent available in the free
agent market, in my opinion. It seems as if talks between Pittsburgh and Hossa have completely broken down. At this point it is unclear where Hossa may end up, but I don't see it being in Pittsburgh.

July 1 will be a very exciting time for NHL fans. Free agency provides teams with impact players that are ready to play and take their new teams to the Cup.

Ryder is interesting….and the price could be right…

Today! Euro Cup Semifinal #1 – Germany v. Turkey …take Germany 2-0…

In a world that frequently disappoints, there is something refreshing about a sports tournament with four deserving semifinalists of seething ambition. I am referring to the soccer championship, Euro 2008, very much a fixture in the United States, via good old ESPN (and its marvelous addition, the Scottish ex-player with the burr and the enthusiasm, Andy Gray).

Even the shootouts have tended to be compelling rather than miserably anticlimactic. What fan, hyperventilating in den or pub, will forget the great televised close-up of Gianluigi Buffon of Italy tapping Iker Casillas of Spain on the cheek last Sunday before these two worthy opponents went out to take their educated guesses between the fickle posts?

All our American tournaments should be so good, should produce a quartet of teams that willed themselves forward, past favorites, past tradition, past jinxes, past form, beyond exhaustion, beyond injuries? But that has been the drama leading to the semifinals from Mittel Europa — Germany versus Turkey in Basel, Switzerland, on Wednesday, Russia versus Spain in Vienna on Thursday.

Surprise and delight are the legacy of this quadrennial tournament that takes place on the counterpoint of the World Cup. The champions are often squads that did not quite exist in the same shape in the previous World Cup and may never be a factor at the next World Cup — the rollicking Danes in 1992, the gallant Greeks in 2004 and so on.

These semifinals begin with Germany versus Turkey, surely one of the more intimate and complicated relationships in Europe. All of us at the World Cup in 2006 will attest to the kind smiles and hard work of people of Turkish ancestry, scratching to send money back to their families. There are calls for Germans and Turks to watch the match in amity in Germany while the two squads settle matters on the field.

It is hard to ever think of Germany as an outsider, but in 2006, it used its fervent national support to achieve third place, and the team is still not considered back at its old standards. Yet the Germans are among the great constants of world sport. They never quit.

The tooth-gnashing face of German soccer in the quarterfinal was located just below the whitish-blond thatch of the tall Bastian Schweinsteiger, who had been suspended for the previous match and came back with a fury that was almost frightening. He scored one goal and assisted on two while dispatching flashy Portugal.

Turkey outlasted the Czech Republic and Croatia, but is now so depleted by suspensions and injuries that it is said to be preparing its third goalkeeper for potential field duty. Germany should win. Don’t tell that to the Turks.

Matt McConaughey Update

Kige’s Mock NBA Draft

Listen People, This is Not Real (I keep getting this sent to me, and it appears people are buying it). In other news, the Easter Bunny is not real, either.

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