Friday, January 28, 2005

The Dean Palmer Comeback 

Since there's little of note to talk about right now, unless we really want to dwell on how much interest the Rangers have in Magglio Ordonez, or obsess over what blackmail material Agustin Montero must have on John Hart in order to get a major league contract...

I thought instead that I'd wax nostalgic, in light of the comeback attempt of former Ranger Dean Palmer.

Palmer was considered an elite prospect about fifteen years ago, despite minor league numbers that on the surface were underwhelming. A career .242 minor league batting average and .414 slugging percentage, plus an unimpressive walk rate and a ton of strikeouts, aren't the sort of stats that normally gets anyone excited about a third baseman who doesn't have much of a glove.

But this was back when the Rangers were being extremely aggressive in their placement of their top prospects, and Palmer was one of their youngest American players, playing a half-season in the Gulf Coast League at age 17, putting in a full season in the Sally League at age 18, and cracking AA by age 20 -- an age when most player are about to start either their junior year in college or their first year of full-season ball. As one of the youngest players in the Texas League in 1989, he hit 32 doubles and 25 homers, putting himself on the map as an elite power hitting prospect at a time when 25 homers in a season was good enough to crack the top 10 list.

The Dean Palmer Era in Texas started midway through 1991, when the Rangers, finding themselves well out of the pennant race, shipped incumbent third baseman Steve Buechele to the Pirates. Pittsburgh was in a position where their window of opportunity was rapidly slamming shut -- Bobby Bonilla would be a free agent at season's end, Doug Drabek, John Smiley and Barry Bonds were eligible for free agency after the next season, and the small market Pirates had resigned themselves to being unable to hold the team together, opting (foolishly, it turns out) to lock up Andy Van Slyke instead of Bonds.

Desperate to shore up a bad situation at third base (Jeff King had played there, poorly, in 1990, and was sharing time in 1991 with Bonilla, who was splitting time between the outfield and third), the Pirates overpaid to land Buechele. They gave up phenom pitcher Kurt Miller, who was the fifth pick of the 1990 draft and was heralded as one of the best young arms in the game, along with Hector Fajardo, another hard-throwing righthanded pitching prospect. When the deal was done, Tom Grieve claimed that, under normal circumstances, there wasn't a player on the roster that could command two pitchers of that quality, and the deal was heralded as a steal for the Rangers.

Buechele, meanwhile, was solid for the Pirates down the stretch, and performed well in an epic NLCS battle between Pittsburgh and Atlanta, a series that featured four shutouts, among which were two 1-0 games. Sadly, Pittsburgh, as always, couldn't get over the hump, and after taking a 3-2 series lead didn't score another run in the series, missing out once again on a shot at the World Series.

Buechele was a free agent after the season, and ended up re-signing with Pittsburgh...despite being a fan favorite with the Rangers, Buechele had been displaced by Dean Palmer, who only hit .187 in 1991, but whose .216 isolated power number was evidence of the raw power potential that had Rangers management so excited.

Palmer was solid, if unspectacular, for the next three years, holding down third base while tantalizing the Rangers with his potential, until he finally exploded in 1995. Over the first six weeks of the season, he started hitting the way Rangers fans had always hoped he would, putting up an incredible .336/.448/.613 line that put him among the league leaders in almost every offensive category. The guy who was described as having the quickest wrists of anyone in the Rangers organization, the guy whose offensive ceiling was thought to be as high as any young player, was finally having his breakout year.

And then on June 3, 1995, it came to an abrupt halt. At home against the Minnesota Twins, facing Kevin Tapani, Palmer took a big swing and then screamed, dropping his bat and grabbing his arm. On that swing, his bicep had torn, ending the All-Star and MVP talk, putting him out essentially for the year, although he did return to play a couple of games in September.

The Rangers, who were 20-16 at the time, two games back of Anaheim and even with Seattle in the A.L. West, went .500 the rest of the way, finishing 74-70 and in third place, four and a half games back, in Johnny Oates' first season as manager. Palmer was replaced by Mike Pagliarulo for most of the season, who represented a big downgrade from Palmer.

Ironically, though, come September, Palmer's replacement Pagliarulo saw his place taken by another promising third base prospect -- Luis Ortiz, a 25 year old who came over from Boston that offseason in one of Doug Melvin's first deals, the trade that sent Jose Canseco to the BoSox for Otis Nixon. Ortiz got an audition that September, and unlike Palmer four years earlier, he didn't show enough to stake a claim. Palmer reclaimed his starting job, and a year later, Ortiz was sold to Japan.

The 1996 Palmer was much like the pre-1995 Palmer...a power hitter who struck out a lot, solid but unspectacular. Still, he was a key contributor on the first Ranger team to ever make the playoffs, and seemed to still be part of the core group that the Rangers would build around going forward. But in 1997, he struggled badly, the team failed to build on the success of 1996, and the Rangers fell out of contention. They had tried to replace Darryl Hamilton, their centerfielder on the 1996 team, with Damon Buford, a Melvin and Oates fave from Baltimore who had come over from the Orioles in exchange for former Loyola Marymount basketball star Terrell Lowery.

Lowery, for what it is worth, is another fascinating could-have-been story...he was on the incredible run-and-gun Marymount basketball teams that were cracking 100 points with ease, teaming with Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers. Sandy Johnson, the scouting director for the Rangers in the late-80s and early-90s, picked Lowery in the second round of the 1991 draft, while lamenting the lack of creativity in his fellow scouting directors who avoided the toolsy types like Lowery...Johnson was anti-Moneyball before anti-Moneyball was cool. That same mentality had led to Johnson passing on Auburn slugger Frank Thomas to take Texas Tech football player Donald Harris with the fifth pick of the first round just two years earlier, because, he claimed, Thomas couldn't do anything but hit. Harris, of course, was a bust, and Thomas is a future Hall of Famer.

Lowery tore up his knee in 1992, which slowed his development and robbed him of his speed, which means that we never will really know if Johnson was right in taking him so high, or if he would have been another toolsy bust like Harris. But when Melvin replaced Grieve as the G.M., he was willing to deal Lowery to bring Buford to Texas, and installed him as his new centerfielder for the 1995 season.

Buford was a disaster, and Melvin started searching desperately for a new centerfielder, someone who had the range to cover the broad expanses of center field for the Rangers (particularly with the plodding Rusty Greer and Juan Gonzalez at each corner), while still hitting enough to contribute to the lineup. As it happened, Kansas City had a centerfielder -- Tom Goodwin -- they were willing to deal, if they could get a veteran third baseman in return.

Palmer, of course, was a veteran third baseman. And coming up behind him in the Rangers system was Fernando Tatis, a guy who was like a new-and-improved version of the 1991 Palmer...22 years old, with power potential, but also with speed and better defense than Palmer. He was lighting it up in AA Tulsa, with 51 extra base hits in 102 games, plus a solid walk rate, and Tatis's development made Palmer expendable. And thus, on July 25, 1997, Palmer was shipped to the Royals for Tom Goodwin, to make way for Fernando Tatis, just as Steve Buechele before him was dealt mid-season to make way for the promising Palmer.

Palmer played well with the Royals, and signed a 5 year, $36 million deal with the Detroit Tigers as a free agent after the 1998 season. The Tigers ended up buying a good season, an okay season, and three injury-plagued, disastrous seasons for their $36 million, as Palmer (along with Bobby Higginson) became the poster child for the Tigers' payroll problems in the early 21st century. And now, having last played in 2003, Palmer is coming back to try to revive his career.

What's sad for someone like me, who started following Palmer's progress back when he was still a teen, is wondering what could have happened if Palmer had stayed healthy in 1995. That was the year he seemed to have put it all together, when it appeared he was taking The Leap, was making himself an elite player. And after the bicep tear, he never got back to that level.

It may very well be that that was nothing but a hot streak, and if Palmer had stayed healthy, 1995 would have just been a performance spike, an outlier year of greatness in what was otherwise just a solid career. Or, on the other hand, it could have been his big step forward, the year that he established himself as one of the best in the game, and the injury and lost year ultimately cost him his place as one of the greats. We'll never know.

The whole saga is a case of could-have-beens...Palmer and Lowery both saw injuries short-circuit them. Kurt Miller had a great 1992 season, after which he was ranked as one of the top 10 prospects in baseball by Baseball America. He struggled mightily in 1993, though, and ended up getting dealt less than two years after he was originally acquired by the Rangers, along with Robb Nen, to the Florida Marlins for Cris Carpenter. Miller flamed out, but Nen -- an injury-plagued pitcher who was out of options, and whom the Rangers had lost patience with -- established himself as an elite closer, causing Ranger fans to curse Tom Grieve whenever Tom Henke or Mike Henneman would blow a game thereafter.

Tatis, of course, was later dealt in yet another deadline deal, this time in 1998 for Royce Clayton and Todd Stottlemyer. Tatis had one season of greatness, which caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth for Rangers fans, before sliding back into mediocrity and, now, oblivion, another tale of what could have been.

Tatis was replaced by Todd Zeile, who ended up getting replaced by Mike Lamb, who was pushed aside by Hank Blalock, who, finally, has staked a firm claim to the third base job in Texas, fending off Mark Teixeira, who ultimately was moved to first base.

And for those of us who are hoping for greatness from Blalock, who are looking for him to be the next George Brett, we can look back at Palmer, and Tatis, and what might have been for them...and hopefully, we can be happy with whatever we get from Hank...

Actually, before Hank Blalock the starting 3B job went to Tom Evans.
Great read, Adam. Most enjoyable.

Anaheim Angels in 1995 were California Angels, no?

And Mike Pagliarulo. Never thought I'd hear his name again. Immediately brought to mind an audio memory of Steve Busby and the other guy saying his name over one of the old television broadcasts.

Thanks for that, Adam...

Great read, absolutely. My only question is how much of that came from the top of your head, or if you actually looked up some of the information--Cody
Thanks for the kind words.

Most of that stuff I know/knew...the things I had to look up were specific stats and specific dates, plus the details of where the Rangers were when Palmer got hurt, and where they finished.
Great writing. I haven't been a Ranger's fan since the early 90s but I still enjoy reading your writing. You must have a lot of time on your hands at work - does Lindsey read this? Divorces slow down around Valentine's?
Excellent piece of writing. Brought back some memories.

hey i know your sun shane he goes to my school and he is in the same grade as me but i am not in the same class lololololololollololololol
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