Newberg: The importance of Mark Teixeira.

Mark Teixeira mug

I’ve been doing this for more than 18 years.  I started before Mark Teixeira was a professional baseball player, and there’s at least a decent chance I’ll be doing it after that, too.

Strange feeling.

He and a fellow Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket are the two greatest first-round draft picks in Texas Rangers history, but Teixeira, for me, gets the nod over Kevin Brown not just because of his exceptional career but also because of how he impacted the Rangers in the way that, fair or not, most of us will remember him.

Back when the Newberg Report started in 1998 (the Newberg Minor League Report, actually), I committed to writing seven days a week, mostly about the Rangers’ farm system, and kept that up for years, as we had no kids yet (a poor justification since Mike Hindman and then Scott Lucas would take the minor league recaps on and keep going well into fatherhood).

Mark Teixeira was the first Rangers minor leaguer who truly justified the floor-it hype that I’d habitually dispensed on the likes of Cesar King and Jovanny Cedeno and (sigh) Ruben Mateo.

Texas had been a playoff team, finally, in 1996 and 1998 and 1999.  Each October the club had been stepped on and over by the Yankees, and in fact after winning their first-ever playoff game on October 1, 1996, the Rangers dropped the next nine to New York over those three post-seasons.

A month after the 1999 playoffs ended, Texas traded Juan Gonzalez because he wouldn’t take the Larry Walker-like contract (six years and $75 million) the Rangers offered him.  Aaron Sele was gone, John Burkett was gone, and so were Tom Goodwin and Todd Zeile.  The Rangers finished last in the division in 2000 (as they would in 2001 and 2002 and 2003 as well: the A-Rod Years), and as a result of having baseball’s fifth-worst record they were awarded the fifth pick in the June 2001 draft.

Minnesota took Florida State quarterback recruit Joe Mauer first.  The Cubs selected Mark Prior.  Tampa Bay chose Dewon Brazelton and Philadelphia went with Gavin Floyd.

The Rangers chose Mark Teixeira, and just before the minor league seasons ended that summer, inked him to a big league, four-year, $9.5 million contract, $4.5 million of which was his bonus for signing.  He would play 86 minor league games — all in 2002 — before debuting in the big leagues the following April, ranked universally at the time as the number one prospect in baseball.

On April 9, 2003, Teixeira doubled down the left field line off Oakland lefthander Mark Mulder.

He’d been 0 for 16 as a big leaguer going into that at-bat.

It was an inauspicious start to a spectacular five-year Rangers run that ended with a .901 OPS (.283/.368/.533), 153 home runs, 499 RBI, two Gold Gloves, and two Silver Slugger awards.

And a monumentally important trade.

Though Teixeira helped breathe new life into a franchise that was fully retrenching after the late-90s playoff years, the Rangers hadn’t finished better than third in the West in his four full seasons here.

In his fifth, which began with Ron Washington newly at the helm and a teardown blueprint in place upstairs if the season had gotten off to a certain type of start, Texas was 13 games under .500 and in last place in the division on July 31, 15.5 games back, when Jon Daniels, in his second season as Rangers GM, traded Teixeira — even though he was still more than a year away from free agency — to Atlanta, where he’d played his college ball.

Texas, which sent veteran reliever Ron Mahay to the Braves as well, got 18-year-old Class A shortstop Elvis Andrus, 18-year-old Rookie-level righthander Neftali Feliz, 21-year-old AA lefthander Matt Harrison, 22-year-old big league rookie catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and 20-year-old Class A lefthander Beau Jones in return.

The Trade.

A year later, the Braves traded Teixeira badly (to the Angels for Casey Kotchman and Stephen Marek), and five months after that he left Los Angeles for the Yankees, the culmination of a fascinating bidding war between New York (where his father John’s high school teammate Bucky Dent had played) and Boston (which had drafted Teixeira out of high school but failed to sign him in what was apparently an ugly negotiation that went public).  The Yankees agreed to pay him $180 million over eight seasons, the eighth of which is this one.

Teixeira’s Yankees reached the playoffs the first four of his eight seasons there.  He was an iron man, missing almost no time until the final month of that fourth year (2012).  Since then, he has struggled with his health, having played just 327 games over the ensuing three-and-two-thirds seasons.  He didn’t play the one time New York has reached the post-season in that time, which was last year’s Wild Card Game.

Meanwhile, over those same eight years, the Rangers have also reached the playoffs four times.  In the first of those, they slew the Yankees to get to the World Series, in an ALCS whose symbolic weight had more to do with those 1990s playoff series and with Alex Rodriguez than with Teixeira.  In the second of those seasons, Texas reached the World Series again, eliminating the Tigers, who had eliminated New York.

Two straight World Series, with Andrus and Feliz and Harrison at the core.

The Rangers haven’t had as high-profile a drafted player since Teixeira was chosen in 2001.  Justin Smoak (2008) came closest, and he was traded well, too.

The Mark Teixeira Trade headlined this franchise’s turning point.  It epitomized the concept of the window, which Daniels and his inner circle knew wasn’t going to arrive until after Teixeira had likely moved on via free agency.

The trade didn’t work out for Atlanta, which missed the playoffs in 2007 and would in 2008 as well, after moving him to the Angels.

Things worked out just fine for Los Angeles, which won 100 games and the West with Teixeira on board (.358/.449/.632) before falling to the Red Sox in the ALDS, a series in which he went 7 for 15 (.467/.550/.467).

The Angels recouped a draft pick when Teixeira left that winter for the Yankees.

With that pick, 25th overall in 2009, Los Angeles drafted Mike Trout.

Teixeira will be remembered as a Yankee.  And like fellow former Yankees Mickey Mantle, Carlos Beltran, Tim Raines, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada (OK with you if I don’t include Lance Berkman?), he’ll be remembered as one of the great switch-hitters the game has ever seen.

Along with Eddie Murray, his childhood hero.

I would have bet that Teixeira would eventually play in Baltimore, his hometown team, reunited at some point with his first big league manager, Buck Showalter.  But Teixeira announced yesterday that he’s not going to play baseball anymore once the 2016 season ends, and so if he does go back home to Baltimore this winter, it’s going to be for good, with Leigh and their kids Jack, William, and Addison.

Because two Larry Walker references are better than one, here’s another: In 2004, when Teixeira was in his second season as a Ranger and on his way to a top 20 MVP vote (.281/.370/.560, 38 home runs, 112 RBI), the club was good, and — if you listened closely enough to Showalter and John Hart — perhaps illusorily so.  Hart made an effort in July to bolster a division lead that had dwindled from 4.5 games to half a game, agreeing to send AA shortstop Ian Kinsler and AA righthander Erik Thompson to Colorado for Walker.

But Walker vetoed the trade.

Without which I would never have been able to put together my favorite (non-World Series season) Bound Edition book cover ever:

Rangers 2007

Two have retired (one on his own terms), a third is about to, and that leaves Kinsler, whom the Rangers traded twice, saved from doing so only once.

All that makes me feel old.

But not as old as this photograph does:

Texiera

That baby in the corner?  She watched a minute of Teixeira’s emotional press conference with me yesterday.  She’ll be a junior in high school in a couple weeks.

Next to my wife, of the people in that photo, taken at a Newberg Report event when he had yet to play his first minor league game, Teixeira has aged the least.

Like Kevin Brown (drafted fourth overall), Teixeira (drafted fifth overall) won one World Series.  Not here, obviously.

But he helped Texas get to two of them, their only two to date, and if Texas hadn’t drafted him and signed him and gotten crazy-great production out of him, not even the team in the town where he played his college ball would have loaded up to make that kind of trade for him, a trade that didn’t work out on one end but, man, did it ever work out on the other.

He’s had a tremendous 14-year big league career.  Though the relatively recent introduction of the Gold Glove may warp the note a bit, MLB Network pointed out yesterday that Teixeira is the only first baseman in big league history with at least 400 home runs, 1200 RBI, 900 walks, a .500 slug, and five Gold Gloves.

Singular or not, that’s an extraordinary set of bullet points.

The Rangers’ “Mount Rushmore” has on it one player who was traded for, two others who signed as big league free agents, and one who signed as a teenager out of Puerto Rico.  None were drafted by Texas.

Mark Teixeira wouldn’t get votes himself, and if Cooperstown is in his future, the Rangers will be mentioned in the speech (as they were yesterday) but not depicted on the plaque.

But his importance to this franchise cannot be overstated, and regardless of what’s next for the Rangers’ 2001 first-round draft pick, he’ll be well remembered here, including by a blogger who’s been plugging away at this for Teixeira’s entire career — and then some, with all luck, on both ends.