Part 13 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Rangers' Minor League system.
It was 2009, Jarrod Saltalamacchia's first full season in the big leagues. His offense had regressed since his first two half-seasons with Texas after coming over from Atlanta in the 2007 Mark Teixeira trade, and his defense hadn't developed like the Rangers had hoped, but the club was committed to the 24-year-old, who would go into the following season without any remaining options.
But in early August of that year, Saltalamacchia's shoulder began bothering him. He was having difficulty throwing not only to the bases but also back to the mound, and what was first described as a "dead arm" eventually led Texas to place the catcher on the disabled list in the middle of the month.
Second-string catcher Taylor Teagarden was elevated to the starting lineup but was hitting under .200. To back up Teagarden, Texas passed over Max Ramirez, who was rehabbing a wrist injury, and purchased the contract of 28-year-old organizational soldier Kevin Richardson. The Rangers were 4 1/2 games out in the AL West but only 1 1/2 games back in the Wild Card chase and, unsure of Saltalamacchia's timetable, decided they needed to upgrade their situation behind the plate.
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
There were sentimental reasons to bring Astros catcher Ivan Rodriguez back to Arlington as a shore-up solution, but there were other factors that made trading for Pudge an especially attractive option. He had a little left in the bat, still had life defensively, would earn less than $500,000 the rest of the season, wouldn't cost any top-tier prospects to acquire, and would come without any contractual obligation past 2009. And there was an added bonus in the cost analysis.
Rodriguez stood to be classified as a Type B free agent, a designation that meant Texas could offer him salary arbitration in the winter and, if he declined the offer and signed elsewhere, the Rangers would receive a supplemental first-round pick in the following June's amateur draft as compensation.
When Texas agreed to trade second baseman Jose Vallejo and right-hander Matt Nevarez to Houston for Rodriguez, the club figured on getting more than a local icon and a capable stand-in for Saltalamacchia. The Rangers were confident that they might be able to effectively turn Vallejo and Nevarez, neither of whom was a core prospect at the time, into a supplemental first-round pick, getting a month and a half of Rodriguez in the interim as they made a push for a playoff spot.
For whatever reason, Texas has had arguably better results in the supplemental first round than in the first round itself in the past several years. Since 2007, the Rangers have drafted Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Justin Smoak, Matt Purke (who did not sign), Jake Skole, Kellin Deglan and Kevin Matthews in the conventional first round -- but in the supplemental first, the list includes Julio Borbon, Neil Ramirez, Tommy Hunter, Tanner Scheppers, Luke Jackson, Mike Olt, and Zach Cone, a group that at least compares favorably.
The Rangers place tremendous value on those compensatory picks as a big part of the effort to steadily refuel the farm system. "It's the start and finish of the life cycle, so to speak," says Rangers general manager Jon Daniels. "You lose a big leaguer, but add the chance for your scouts to bring impact talent back into the pipeline. It's a real part of the decision process -- whether to sign a free agent or resign one of our own, and in making trades. The extra picks are often built into the 'ask' in deals."
In other words, the Rangers were moving two fringe prospects for a fairly reliable big league reinforcement in a pennant race -- plus a supplemental first-rounder, assuming Rodriguez turned down the eventual arbitration offer (which he did in order to sign a two-year deal with Washington).
Texas used the supplemental pick it received after Rodriguez's departure for the Nationals on Jackson, a high school right-hander out of Florida, and while Vallejo (now a backup Triple-A second baseman) and Nevarez (whom the Astros have released) are well past their prospect peaks, Jackson has had a promising pro debut season and figures to move up in the Rangers' prospect hierarchy as he continues to develop.
There were rumors going into the 2010 Draft that Texas was considering Jackson with its two conventional first-round picks (No. 15, used on Skole, and No. 22, used on Deglan). The Rangers jumped on him when their compensatory pick at 45th overall came around, and eventually signed him for $1.545 million on the Aug. 16 deadline to do so, convincing him to forgo a commitment to the University of Miami.
Ironically, there were suggestions that when Texas, finally ready to move on once and for all from Saltalamacchia, traded him to Boston on July 31, 2010, for three Minor Leaguers plus $350,000, the cash put in the deal was earmarked to help Texas get Jackson and a couple other draftees (fellow right-handers Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch) signed in mid-August.
Because Jackson signed so late last summer, the Rangers didn't put him on a mound until Fall Instructional League. This spring, after an extra five weeks in extended spring training, Jackson was assigned to Low Class A Hickory, where he's more than held his own as a member of the Crawdads' starting rotation.
In 10 starts, the 19-year-old has held South Atlantic League hitters to a .238 batting average, fanning 54 in 41 1/3 innings -- a strikeout rate that would lead all starting pitchers in the 14-team league if he had enough innings to qualify. Complementing a mid-90s fastball with the makings of a sharp curve and developing change, Jackson is a pitcher with now stuff and projection for more.
It's far too early to tell what Jackson is going to be. On the one hand, he has the potential to develop an arsenal that could fit near the top of a rotation. On the other, there are far more Jackson types who never make it to the big leagues than those that make playoff starts. Saltalamacchia (a former supplemental first-round pick himself) has failed to live up to his minor league expectations, while Rodriguez has exceeded his, and the beta is always greater when you're talking about evaluating young pitchers and projecting their futures.
But that gets back to the pipeline that Daniels talks about. Some trades are whiteboarded for months, while others -- like the August 2009 deal for Rodriguez -- come together very quickly, driven by necessity. Some deals are made in selling mode, as teams attempt to get younger by replenishing the farm system, but even the ones made with the opposite objective in mind, to move prospects in order to help the big league club immediately, often have a future compensatory payoff on the back end, and if engineered right, you might just end up with a better prospect than the one or two you dealt away in the first place.
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.