Not long after 22-year-old right-hander Tommy Hunter had finished spinning the best start of his fledgling major league career (a 6.1-inning, two-run effort against the Padres), his 2007 amateur draft classmate, Julio Borbon, received the phone call from Triple-A Oklahoma City manager Bobby Jones that most minor league players can only dream of.
An odyssey that began with the Texas Rangers' decision to tab the University of Tennessee speedster with the 35th-overall pick in the 2007 MLB First-Year Player Draft and later hung precariously in the balance when the 10:59 p.m. CST signing deadline on August 15th, 2007 came and went without a reported agreement -- Texas ultimately brokered a four-year, $1.3 million major league deal with Borbon and announced the pact some 15 hours after the deadline -- has now culminated in the ascension of yet another of the franchise's top young talents to baseball's highest competitive level, albeit under less than sanguine circumstances.
Veteran right-hander Willie Eyre, one of several probable 40-man roster bubble-riders and a superfluous figure with a capable seven-man major league relief detachment already in place, became an active roster casualty on Monday afternoon when general manager Jon Daniels and a front office whose patience has presumably worn threadbare elected to promote Borbon and his dynamic, high-energy skill set from Oklahoma City to Arlington -- an inevitable but nevertheless aggressively paced promotion, one which underscores the Rangers' accelerated developmental philosophy and extreme confidence in their young players and one which, yet again, very few of us saw coming right now.
And while neither Daniels nor manager Ron Washington stated that the coming of Borbon was designed to send a message to a particular player, this sequence of events undoubtedly serves as a tacit warning shot fired closely over the heads of Hank Blalock, Marlon Byrd, Andruw Jones and, yes, even Nelson Cruz -- all four of whom have been extreme detriments to a woebegone Rangers offense in the month of June, each posting sub-.275 wOBAs during that timeframe and inflicting recognizable damage upon the ballclub's fast-descending win-loss record:
"I think what we've done has been just the opposite of panic," Daniels said. "There are a lot of organizations that would have made changes a long time ago with both the lineup and the personnel. We really haven't done anything. But we're sitting here three months into the season and, aside from the first three weeks of the year, we haven't been productive. It's been a two-month slump. We're trying to make adjustments and create a spark without being disruptive."
Borbon's game is largely predicated on the virtues of contact and speed, traits of the "young-player skill set" which could help catapult the 23-year-old center fielder to a long and productive major league career (provided that his lofty baseball intelligence and acumen enable him to implement necessary on-the-fly adjustments, which they should), but the development of his power stroke is not yet complete; however, according to Baseball Time in Arlington's Jason Parks, his limited power projection is the product of his swing mechanics -- which "often make him more of a slap hitter who isn't able to produce the necessary bat speed to hit for much power" -- more so than an inherent deficiency of physical strength.
Perhaps the most exciting element of Borbon's maturation into a viable major league option has been the continuous refinement of his plate discipline, which was nondescript even during his stellar 280-plate appearance run at Double-A Frisco during the second half of the 2008 minor league season -- he hit .337/.380/.459, but with a walks-to-strikeouts ratio of just 0.44 -- but has evolved into a potential asset, thanks in large part to his prioritization of improving his plate approach during the 2008 iteration of the Arizona Fall League:
|Julio Borbon Statistics - Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks (06/30/09)
|Month||PA||BB %||K %||AVG
Borbon's Pacific Coast League walks-to-strikeouts ratio at the time of his promotion on Monday afternoon was a healthy 0.86, good for the seventh-best mark among the league's 46 qualifying outfielders, and his prominent improvement in this respect -- coupled with the defensive aptitude which should help eventually mold him into an above-average major league center fielder from a run prevention standpoint -- only heightens his value as a ballplayer.
Texas has reportedly yet to make a determination one way or another as far as whether the duration of Borbon's major league service will run past the projected return date of disabled center fielder Josh Hamilton (abdominal surgery), and it's pretty safe to surmise that his level of performance -- as well as the level of performance of his struggling teammates -- will be the prime component in the Rangers' decision-making process.
To that end, it's imperative that Ron Washington maximize Borbon's exposure in terms of playing time over the coming days but concurrently minimize the pressure that can be readily exacerbated when young players press too hard; slotting Borbon in the lineup's eight- or nine-hole would seem to make the most sense until he becomes a tad more acclimated with his new role, after which the ballclub could reassess the possibility of moving him into his natural stomping grounds at the top of the batting order if he proves capable of reaching base often enough to make that a feasible option, which admittedly seems a little far-fetched right now.
Then again, the notion of the Rangers being sabotaged primarily by their offense had to seem a little far-fetched as well at the outset of the 2009 regular season. I don't think Borbon is the tonic for what currently ails this ballclub (nor is any other conceivably available player by himself, outside of perhaps free-agent outfielder Barry Bonds), but inaction has proven fruitless thus far, and the post-season dream is beginning to slip away, so this is essentially an instance of seeing whether a fresh face will invigorate the lineup.
Barring some highly ambituous wheeling-and-dealing at or just before the July 31st non-waiver trade deadline (which doesn't seem particularly like to happen), the Rangers will have little outside assistance as they attempt to right the ship before it capsizes, and if Borbon can't help in stabilizing the situation, the focus of this fast-fading season is going to increasingly swivel towards the 2010 calendar year -- and that, my friends, just might be for the best.