Minors : : General
Monday, March 05, 2012

Top Prospects: Texas Rangers

David Rawnsley        
Photo: Wikipedia

General Manager: Jon Daniels
Minor League Director: Tim Purpura
Scouting Director: Kip Fagg

AAA: Round Rock Express (Pacific Coast League) 87-57
AA: Frisco Rough Riders (Texas League) 79-61
Hi A: Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Carolina League) 72-67
Low A: Hickory Crawdads (South Atlantic League) 79-58
Rookie Adv.: Spokane Indians (Northwest League) 35-41
Rookie: AZ Rangers (Arizona Summer League) 38-18
Dominican: DSL Rangers (Dominican Summer League) 41-30

System Overview

It’s hard to believe that a little more than two years ago the Rangers were sitting in bankruptcy court with their 2009 first round pick, LHP Matt Purke, headed off to college at nearby TCU because Major League Baseball wouldn’t authorize the organization the money to go over slot to sign him. The team had just had its first winning season in three years, going 87-75, but with broken finances the organization’s future was on uncertain ground.

Now with aggressive new ownership under Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan’s leadership and huge new television revenues guaranteeing the Rangers financial future, Texas has been to the World Series the past two seasons, losing in the seventh game to the underdog Cardinals last year. The Major League talent is solid and deep both in the field and on the mound and the Rangers minor league system ranks among the elite in all of baseball.

In fact, new Astros General Manager Jeff Luhnow, ironically an executive with the Cardinals during last October’s World Series, recently remarked that the Rangers were spending money “like drunken soldiers” after attempting to sign a 17-year old Dominican outfielder Jario Bares in a controversial $4.5 million deal that is now being reviewed by the Commissioner’s Office. Luhnow later apologized for his remarks, but they rang true, especially on the international talent market.

Bares would have been at least the fifth international player, and fourth outfielder, to receive at least $3.45 million from the Rangers just in the last 10 months. Fellow Dominicans Ramon Mazara and Ronald Guzman signed for $5 million and $3.45 million bonuses last July, while Cuban National Team centerfield Leonys Martin signed a $15.6 million major league contract in May.

Those and all the rest of the Rangers signings paled in comparison to Texas out-bidding the rest of Major League Baseball to sign 25-year old Japanese superstar RHP Yu Darvish. Darvish should step right into the Rangers rotation in place of LHP C.J. Wilson, who left to sign a five year, $77 million contract with the Angels in the offseason.

The Rangers will return virtually the same every day lineup for the 2012 season, with Martin having a chance to win the centerfield job and shift All-Star Josh Hamilton permanently to a corner outfield position. The pitching will have to be re-aligned a bit with the addition of Darvish and the potential switch of closer Nefali Felix to the starting rotation and Alexi Obango to the bullpen, but quality and depth won’t be the issue, only roles.

The Rangers will again have to move through the New York/Boston/Tampa Bay gauntlet to reach the World Series for a third consecutive year, not to mention defeat their free spending rivals the Angels in the American League West. But all the pieces are in place to do just that.

2011 Draft

While the Rangers are renowned for their high flying ways internationally, they stick much closer to the ground financially on the domestic scouting front. They have significantly overpaid for slot only four times in the past two years, all on right handed pitching prospects (2010 compensation pick RHP Luke Jackson, 2010 fifth round pick RHP Justin Grimm, 2010 14
th round pick RHP Nick Tepesch and 2011 12th round selection RHP Connor Sadzeck).

In addition, Texas was unable to sign their fifth, sixth and seventh round picks in 2011, although all were high level high school talents who were going to be challenging signs at any point in the draft after the first round.

Just as the Rangers have only been moderate spenders in the draft, they have also gone against conventional wisdom for a number of their top picks the past two years, including their first pick each year. In 2010 the Rangers tabbed the very athletic but relatively inexperienced Georgia high school outfielder Jake Skole in the first round. They followed up by selecting Canadian catcher Kellin Deglan, another physically talented but inexperienced prospect, at the end of the first round.

In 2011 Texas raised eyebrows by choosing 5-foot-11, 180-pound Georgia high school left handed pitcher Kevin Matthews in the first round. Matthews has two very solid pitches in his low 90s fastball and a power curveball, but is projected as a reliever by many scouts.

The rest of the signed 2011 draft list also showed a distinct lean to raw tools and ceiling over present performance and skills.

First round compensation pick (37
th overall) OF Zach Cone played three years of SEC baseball at Georgia but didn’t improve as much as scouts had hoped for after he was a third round pick out of high school, even regressing as a junior. He has top of charts athleticism and defensive ability in centerfield and enough strength and bat speed to become a Major League hitter if his approach and skills improve.

Second round pick LHP Will Lamb spent more time in Clemson’s outfield in college than on the mound but the hard throwing 6-foot-6, 180-pound southpaw was always considered to be a better pitching prospect once he reached the professional level. He had an impressive debut after signing quickly (3-1, 2.75, 62 K’s in 55 innings) and has the physical talent to become a top 10 prospect next year if his command improves.

Third round pick RHP Kyle Castro was one of the more under recognized early drafts, especially given the fact he’s from Southern California, but his athletic resume is impressive. He led the state of California in interceptions as a 6-foot-4, 185-pound safety and was almost as highly regarded as a power hitting third base prospect.

Top 10 Prospects

1. RHP Yu Darvish
Baseball-reference player profile

Darvish falls into a different category than virtually any other pervious Japanese prospect and not just because of his cost, which will put back the Rangers over $106 million over the next six years including his record $51 million posting fee. The reason that Darvish is on this prospect list and stands separately from previous Japanese imports is that he’s still only 25-years old, younger than many prospects included in other organization’s top prospect lists.

Darvish, of course, is far from inexperienced. He has compiled a 76-28 record in Japan over the past five years, striking out 1,078 hitters in 1,024 innings. His highest ERA in those five seasons was 1.82 and he went 18-6, 1.44 with 276 strikeouts and only 36 walks in 232 innings in 2011.

The 6-foot-5, 215-pound right hander throws an incredible array of pitches and figuring out how to prioritize his offerings against the more talented Major League hitters will be a major part of Darvish’s early learning curve. His low-to-mid 90s fastball has plenty enough velocity and movement so that he should be able to resist the urge to pitch backwards with his variety of breaking balls and changeups.

Part of Darvish’s appeal and uniqueness is his ethnic background. He is the son of a Japanese mother and Iranian father who met when they were students in the United States at Eckerd College in Florida.

2. SS Jurickson ProfarBaseball-reference player profile

Profar is five and a half years younger than Darvish and is the top prospect in the Rangers organization under conventional definitions. In fact, if acclaimed 2012 top prospects such as Darvish, Nationals OF Bryce Harper, Angels OF Mike Trout and Rays LHP Matt Moore lose their big league rookie status this year as anticipated, Profar could emerge as the top prospect in baseball by the end of the 2012 season.

A native of Curacao, Profar was named the South Atlantic League’s Most Valuable Player in 2011 despite playing the entire season at 18-years old. A switch-hitter with pure shortstop skills, Profar combines outstanding tools with very mature skills and off the charts makeup. He racked up 60 extra base hits and 23 stolen bases in 115 games as one of the youngest players in Low A ball, but his two most impressive performance numbers were his 65 to 63 walk to strikeout ratio and his absurdly low 22 errors and .955 fielding percentage at shortstop (Derek Jeter made 56 errors as a 19 year old in the same league).

Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus is only 23-years old, is under contract until at least 2014 and is already one of the top shortstops in baseball, so there is no reason to unduly rush Profar through the system. However, he may not give the Rangers much choice.

3. LHP Martin PerezBaseball-reference player profile

Perez remains one of the best young left handed pitching prospects in baseball, but since the Rangers have rushed him continuously over the past three years it’s hard to get the proper perspective on his talents at times. Perez was an 18-year old in the South Atlantic League in 2009 when the Rangers decided to skip him over Hi A altogether after 90 A ball innings and put him in AA. He predictably struggled in AA both as an 18-year old and as a 19-year old in 2010 (5-8., 5.96), but when he started to figure it out in 2011 he was immediately bumped up to AAA and was hammered (72 hits in 49 innings). He has yet to throw 100 innings at any single level in one season.

If Perez, a Venezuelan, was enrolled at a US college he would be a 2012 draft eligible and probably a top 10 draft choice. He has a steady low 90s fastball that will touch 94-95 mph at times and both his curveball and change up, thrown from a high three-quarters release point with excellent angle to the plate, are potential plus pitches as well.

4. 3B Michael OltBaseball-reference player profile

The University of Connecticut received plenty of well deserved notice in 2011 when they had two players, OF George Springer and RHP Matt Barnes, picked in the first round, plus SS Nick Ahmed selected in the second round. That type of talent from a northern tier college program is unusual. But the best player from recent Connecticut programs might have been Olt, who was the Rangers first round compensation pick (49
th overall) a year earlier.

Olt missed the second half of the 2011 season with a broken collarbone but his half season numbers (.267-14-42/.891 OPS, 48 BBs) show the direction he was heading offensively. He came back and put an exclamation point on his offensive potential by hitting .349-13-41/1.197 OPS in 27 games in the Arizona Fall League. The home run and RBI numbers easily led the league. Olt’s defensive tools at third base are considered equal to his power and run production potential.

While Olt is still at least a year away from being ready for a Major League job, the Rangers already have one of the American League’s best third baseman, Adrian Beltre, signed through the 2015 season. Whether the Rangers consider Olt trade bait as a top prospect or consider moving him to another position such as left field or first base over the next year or two will be an interesting story to follow.

5. CF Leonys MartinBaseball-reference player profile

Martin’s $15.6 million big league contract, signed in May, 2011, represents the third largest contract ever for a Cuban defector, trailing only former Cuban National Team outfielder and teammate Yoenis Cespedes ($36M) and Reds LHP Aroldis Chapman ($30M).

The Rangers are hoping that the left handed hitting Martin represents an upgrade on the similarly tooled Julio Borbon in centerfield. He has plus speed that plays up on defense due to his instincts, and his arm strength is an additional plus defensive weapon. Martin has more power potential than Borbon, but the one area that he could represent a significant upgrade would be his ability to reach base and hit at the top of the lineup.

6. RHP Neil RamirezBaseball-reference player profile

Ramirez was a 2006 PG/Aflac All-American out of a Virginia high school and a supplemental first round pick for the Rangers in 2007. His professional career started off slowly as he battled command issues and evolving pitching mechanics, but the pieces came together late in 2010 during his repeat season in the South Atlantic League. He virtually skipped both Hi A and AA in 2011 (23 total innings) and finished strongly in AAA as a 22-year old despite a stint on the DL for a sore shoulder.

Ramirez has two present plus pitches in a 92-94 mph fastball and a big power curveball that he has learned to command much better than he did early in his career. His changeup is also a legitimate third pitch. The Rangers have no shortage of potential starting Major League pitchers and should have no reason to look to Ramirez early in the season, but he is close to ready should the need arise.

7. RHP Cody BuckelBaseball-reference player profile

Buckel’s best friend is Arizona Diamondbacks’ 2011 first round pick and top prospect Trevor Bauer, and the similarities between the two go well beyond being socially compatible 6-foot right handed pitchers from Southern California. The two share basic pitching mechanics and training routines along with their approach to attacking hitters. Buckel doesn’t have Bauer’s plus to plus/plus raw stuff, but has four solid pitches in his low 90s fastball, changeup, big breaking curveball and cutter. The changeup is the big equalizer, especially with the deception from Buckel’s high energy delivery.

Buckel also has Bauer’s strikeout ability. He struck out 120 hitters against only 27 walks in 97 innings while going 8-3, 2.61 in the South Atlantic League. His history is as a starter, but he could have a much shorter path to the big leagues as a reliever.

8. LHP Robbie RossBaseball-reference player profile

Perfect Game compared Ross to a young Mike Hampton while he was in high school and that comparison still has plenty of validity. Like Hampton, Ross is a sub 6-foot left hander with very good athleticism, a deceptive delivery and a very heavy low 90s fastball that forces hitters to pound the ball into the ground when they work low in the strike zone (Ross only allowed 1 home run in 123 Carolina League innings last year). Ross also has Hampton’s signature pitch, a hard slider that can get under right handed hitter’s hands and induce more weak ground balls.

Maybe the best thing that Ross did last year was during his last month transition from Hi A to AA. Many young pitchers change their pitching style and approach when they make that jump, but Ross just got better, improving his command while maintaining his ability to strike out older and more experienced hitters. He allowed a couple of home runs but that was likely from challenging hitters and trusting his stuff rather than from anything else.

Ross is two years older than fellow prospect Martin Perez, and a notch below him on the minor league ladder, but has more mature present stuff. The Rangers already have two of the better young left handed pitching prospects in the big leagues in southpaws Derek Holland and Matt Harrison and look like they have more of the same on the way.

9. 3B Christian VillanuevaBaseball-reference player profile

The Rangers place a huge emphasis on physical tools and there are literally millions of dollars of young prospects sitting behind the 5-foot-11, 160-pound Villanueva on the Rangers prospect list. But Villanueva’s ability to use his physical tools may surpass any other player in the system at this point.

Despite his average build, Villanueva has some serious juice in right handed bat. He hit .278-17-84/.803 with 30 doubles as a 19-year old in the South Atlantic League and has a well controlled swing that squares up ball consistently and shows his potential as a situational hitter as well as a power source. He also stole 32 bases in only 38 attempts, demonstrating plus base-running instincts to make up for only marginal straight-line speed.

If anything, Villanueva draws more positive attention for his defense at third base than his offensive potential. He’s quick and sure handed and has enough arm strength for any position on the field. Villanueva has experience in the middle of the infield and it will be interesting to see if he might develop into an Ian Kinsler-type second baseman, especially given the Rangers glut of third basemen.

10. OF Jordan AkinsBaseball-reference player profile

As if signing multiple Dominican big tool/big money outfield prospects weren’t enough, the Rangers might have found gold in their 2010 third round draft pick, Jordan Akins, although at the somewhat less expensive price of a $350,000 signing bonus. That bonus bought Akins out of a commitment to play both football and baseball at Central Florida.

The Rangers knew that Akins was very raw coming into pro ball and he was the classic two-year rookie ball player, having spent all of the last two years at the Rangers complex in Arizona. But it clicked for Akins late in the Arizona Summer League season, and by all accounts he was a different player during instructional league, showing five potential plus tools, including well above power potential. It will be interesting how the present buzz translates to full season A ball in 2012, but for now Akins is ahead of big dollar Dominicans such as Nomar Mazara and Ronald Guzman.

Others in the Conversation: C Jorge Alfaro, OF Ronald Guzman, RHP Luke Jackson, LHP Will Lamb, RHP Barrett Loux, LHP Kevin Matthews, OF Nomar Mazara, RHP Roman Mendez, RHP Justin Miller, 2B Rougned Odor, SS Luis Sardinas, RHP Tanner Scheppers, OF Jake Skole, RHP Matt West

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