#40 on the list of the all-time greatest Rangers is a Ranger original, a guy who came up during the time when Sandy Johnson had turned the farm system into one of the best in baseball. He was viewed as a guy with incredible power potential, a potential cleanup hitter for years who was coveted by numerous teams. While he didn't become a great player, he was a very solid major leaguer for a number of years, a guy who was a solid contributor before injuries ended his career.
The fortieth greatest Ranger of all time is third baseman Dean Palmer.
Palmer was a 3rd round draft choice of the Rangers in 1986, and was a young draftee, still over six months away from his 18th birthday when he signed with the Rangers. 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 in each level from the time he signed with Texas.
Palmer played a half-season in the Gulf Coast League at age 17, logging just a .209/.308/.264 line, but that didn't faze the Rangers, as they promoted him in 1987 to the full season Sally League at age 18. Once again, Palmer's numbers were uninspiring -- .215/.275/.304, with strikeouts in over a quarter of his at bats - but the Rangers were encouraged by his progress, and promoted him again to start 1988, this time to high-A Charlotte, where his .266/.305/.351 showed some progress.
The power potential that had the scouts so excited about Palmer finally showed itself the following season, when he debuted in AA, and posted a 251/.313/.486 line. Again, what made this so remarkable was that he was just 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, 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.
Palmer also made his major league debut in 1989, getting his first major league appearance as a pinch runner on September 1, 1989, against the Royals. He came in for Harold Baines in the bottom of the 10th inning, and had his first major league at bat in the 11th, striking out against the immortal Rick Luecken. Palmer was limited to pinch hitting, pinch running, and defensive replacement duty for most of his stint, starting just four games, with his first start coming on September 5, 1989, in the second game of a double header against Baltimore. Batting 8th, sharing the infield with first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, second baseman Julio Franco, and shortstop Fred Manrique, Palmer went 0 for 2, striking out both times at bat against Pete Harnisch, until being replaced by pinch hitter Thad Bosley.
Palmer was clearly overmatched in his cup of coffee stint, hitting .105/.100/.201, with just two hits, both doubles, one off of Larry McWilliams, and the second off of Chuck Finley in his final at bat of the season, in which he ended up getting gunned down trying to stretch it to a triple. Still, he was well regarded, and BA had Palmer as the #33 prospect in baseball.
But 1990 was a disappointment for Palmer, as injuries limited his playing time in the minors, and he struggled in his first exposure to AAA pitching, posting a .218/.271/.411 line in 88 games. Palmer did not play in the majors in 1990, and BA acknowledged that his prospect star had fallen a little, as he was ranked #60 by BA before the 1991 season.
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.
Palmer had made that option attractive for the Rangers by tearing up the American Association in the first half of the 1991 season. On a team chock-full of disappointing Ranger first round picks (Monty Fariss, Bill Haselman, Brian Bohanan, Dan Smith, and Mark Petkovsek all spent a fair amount of time in Oklahoma that season), Palmer was a terror, throwing up a .299/.358/.645 line with 22 homers in just 60 games.
Dean Palmer showed flashes of the power that had the scouts so excited when he came up, homering twice in his first three games and going 5 for 12 in his first three games, but major league pitching once again proved to be problematic for Palmer. Despite some highlights - including four homers over a two day stretch on September 19-20 - Palmer ended the season with a .187/.281/.403 line, good for a .254 EQA.
Palmer was solid, if unspectacular, for the next three years, holding down third base while tantalizing the Rangers with his potential, posting a .280 and .289 EQA in 1992 and 1993, then slumping in 1994, hitting just 2 homers over the last month of the season (a season cut short by the player's strike), and registering just a .261 EQA for 1994.
Palmer finally exploded, though, 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, putting up a .286 EQA on the strength of a .280/.348/.527 line (albeit with bad defense at third base), and seemed to still be part of the core group that the Rangers would build around going forward. And like the rest of the team (other than Juan Gonzalez), he didn't do much in the ALDS, posting a .211/.211/.421 line as the Rangers fell in 4 games to the Yankees.
In 1997, though, Palmer 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. Palmer made an attempt at a comeback, couldn't make it back, and now appears to have retired for good.
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.