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Thursday, August 14, 2003

Farming the Depths - Texas Rangers

Deric checks out A-Rod’s future teammates.

The Rangers, possessing the highest-paid player in the game in Alex Rodriguez, along with one of baseball?s higher payrolls, might be considered a large market team.  They do have the advantages of drawing from the Dallas/Ft. Worth Metroplex, The Ballpark at Arlington, which is a beautiful, revenue-generating park, and an attractive cable television deal, but there is the realization that they cannot buy their way to a championship and that the most intelligent way is to build from within.


2002 ushered in a new era in the direction of the Texas Rangers.  John Hart was hired as GM and brought with him a reputation of building a team with homegrown talent, developing a strong offensive team, and avoiding salary arbitration by locking-up young talent to attractive contracts.  Hart did not necessarily get off to a good start as he handed out lucrative contracts to pitchers Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes, Jay Powell, and Todd Van Poppel, with only Valdes coming close to earning his keep.  The contracts tied-up monies that could have been used for quality players and cost the Rangers picks in the second through fifth rounds in the 2002 Draft.  Texas was able to get out from under the contracts of a pair of 2003 free agents signs (Ugueth Urbina and Doug Glanville) by trading them last month.


What Hart has shown in Texas that he did not in Cleveland was the ability to make astute trades.  Facing the loss of LHP Andy Pratt due to roster considerations in 2002, Hart was able to trade him to Atlanta for a better prospect, LHP Ben Kozlowski.  Recent trades of Carl Everett and Ugueth Urbina netted the Rangers some decent prospects, including a potential impact hitter in Adrian Gonzalez.  Many industry personnel believe that Texas came out on top in both of those deals.


Perhaps just as important as nabbing Hart, was luring Grady Fuson from the Oakland Athletics, establishing him as scouting director and thus laying the groundwork for the future of the franchise.  Fuson was partly responsible for the recent emergence of the Oakland Athletics and brought some of the same philosophies from that organization, such as a heightened focus towards college players, the desire for hitters to see more pitches during an at-bat, and the need for pitchers to command the plate.  His input over the direction of the Rangers goes far beyond the scouting end of the operation, having assistant GM added to his title.


The past two drafts are perfect examples of Fuson?s influence, as college selections were strongly prevalent amongst the early picks.  In 2002, Chris Wilson, a third baseman from California, was the first high school player selected (17th round) by Texas and he chose not to sign.  The 2003 Draft in June saw the Rangers take prep-lefthander John Danks with the first pick, but waited until the 16th round to choose another high school player, California right-hander, Kevin Altman.  Texas? philosophy should not be confused with what Oakland is trying to accomplish, as Fuson and the Rangers put more emphasis on tools and traditional scouting than statistical analysis.


Player Development has arguably been the problem area for the Rangers.  They have done a fantastic job of developing hitters, ones that can hit for both power and batting average, while showing plate discipline.  Hank Blalock, Mark Teixeira, and Kevin Mench are three of the better young hitters in the game, and credit should be given where it is due.  However, pitching is a different story, as the Rangers have failed to develop a pitcher of significance in the last six years. 


Whether the minor league instructors, scouting department, or the head of Player Development is to blame remains to be seen, but the fact that Texas has gone through three Player Development Directors in the last three years (Reid Nichols, Trey Hillman, and now, Bob Miscik) speaks volumes.  Fortunes appear to be changing, as all of the Rangers? minor league affiliates have been competitive, if not winning, and several minor league prospects are developing quickly into quality players.


In comparison to the other 29 organizations, Texas is routinely at the upper echelons when it comes to minor league talent.  Hitters have outweighed pitchers for the past several years, but with the emergence of some lower level pitchers and pitching dominating four of the first five players selected in the 2003 Draft, that could turn around in a hurry.  Overall, there is plenty of balance within the system.


Laynce Nix and newly acquired, Adrian Gonzalez are the only two impact hitters in the system.  Nix, who is currently hitting .263 with four homers for the Rangers, is a muscle-bound athlete with a solid power stroke from the left side and a future, middle-of-the-order hitter.  He stays back on the ball well, but can become too pull-conscious.  At Frisco (TL), he hit .284/.344/.487 with 15 HR and a 34 BB/68 K ratio.  He runs well (4.1 seconds) and has good arm strength, though he may not have the range to handle centerfield on a regular basis.  Gonzalez has been hampered by a wrist injury and the Marlins? aggressiveness in promoting him when he was not ready.  His left-handed swing is picturesque and is more of a gap-to-gap hitter.  He should be able to maintain a solid batting average and his power will develop.  Overall, he is hitting .271/.335/.370 at two (Triple and Double-A) levels.  Factor in his outstanding defense at first base and makeup, and he has some upside.

Ramon Nivar is a quality athlete, with plus speed and wiry strength, and has made the biggest leap in the system.  Between Oklahoma (PCL) and Frisco, he was hitting .345/.389/.466 with 15 SB, showing a solid batting eye (25 BB/28 K), before a recent promotion to Texas, where he is starting to hit with regular playing time.  His speed (4.1 seconds from the right side) is disruptive and can hit for average, but could struggle driving the baseball.  A middle infielder for most of his career, the Rangers moved him to centerfield where is speed is an asset, but his lack of arm strength hurts.  Second base is his best position, but may profile as a utility player as opposed to a regular outfielder.  Anthony Webster, acquired from the White Sox, is a projectable athlete, with speed and defensive ability.  He is more of a pure centerfielder than Nivar, though he is not as polished with the bat.  He is hitting .278/.332/.356 with 22 SB for two low Class-A clubs, but should hit for more power as he matures.  Corner outfielder Patrick Boyd, an outstanding collegiate (Clemson), improved his approach at the plate and is finally hitting for power (15 HR/.487 SLG) between Frisco and Stockton (CAL).  2003 Draftee, Jeremy Cleveland has been one of the hottest hitters in short-season baseball, hitting .327/.449/.583 with 15 doubles at Spokane (NWL).  His bat will have to carry him, as he has little speed or defensive value in the outfield. Vince Sinisi (Rice) is a projectable power hitter who signed a contract on 8/11 and will used in the corner outfield at Stockton.

Jason Bourgeois is a lesser version of Nivar, having good strength for his size, but does not drive the ball with authority and shows just average arm strength.  He is hitting .303/.379/.456 with 25 doubles, 18 SB and solid plate discipline (47 BB/66 K) between Frisco and Stockton and is a quality fielder at second base.  Jason Botts has intrigued scouts with his size (6?6"/240#) and speed (4.2 seconds).  His power is just starting to manifest itself (12 HR/.426 SLG) and has always shown patience at the plate (59 BB/89 K).  Between Frisco and Stockton, the switch-hitter is batting .279.  He has played mostly at first base due to organizational outfield depth and a sore shoulder, but could easily handle the outfield corners.  2002 first-round pick and shortstop Drew Meyer was an odd choice considering the presence of Alex Rodriguez.  Regarded as one of the top college infielders, there are some flaws in his game (hitting mechanics and first-step quickness) and struggled at the plate and on the field in 2002.  His hitting is much-improved (.286/.346/.399 with 24 SB between Stockton and Frisco), though he has struck out 100 times.  His 30 errors and marginal fielding mechanics may preclude a move off of shortstop.  Gerald Laird has the tag of "catcher of the future" for Texas.  He moves well behind the plate and can stop the running game, but his bat may be too long and slow to cut-it in the Majors.  He is currently hitting .249/.313/.395 at Oklahoma. 


The Rangers, in an effort to effectively develop pitching, have turned to a novel idea at levels up to high Class-A.  Instead of having a conventional five-man rotation, they employ an eight-man rotation, in which pitchers are paired together, working every fourth day, alternating starts.  Pitchers have a pitch-limit of 75 innings early in the season and that number may be adjusted upwards on an individual basis.  When pitchers reach the Double-A level, their roles become more defined.


Juan Dominguez is the class of the organization, despite the recent revelation that his name is not Jose and he is two years older (23). The right-handed Dominican utilizes a plus, 78-80 MPH circle-change, along with a 90-95 MPH two-seam fastball from a deliberate, high ? delivery to keep hitters off-balance. His command has improved with more consistent mechanics, though he needs to tighten the spin on his slider. He can both finesse hitters and overpower them, and is 10-0 with a 2.87 ERA, 9.4 K/9, and a .212 opponent average at three levels. He made his Major League debut on 8/12, taking the loss. Things looked bright for power-lefty Ben Kozlowski, as he made two starts with the Rangers in 2002.  He struggled from the onset (5.43 ERA in Double-A) and was later found to have a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, requiring surgery.  When healthy, he offers a nasty curveball and an 89-93 MPH sinking fastball, but needs to throw more strikes.  Kelvin Jimenez has struggled in the California League (4.87 ERA), but the right-hander has tremendous arm action (90-95 MPH fastball), the ability to work hitters, solid command (93 K/33 BB), and has pitched better of late.


Texas acquired two quality pitchers in July trades.  Right-hander Josh Rupe projects as a reliever, with an intimidating curveball and a solid, 90-94 MPH fastball, even though the White Sox had used him as a starter.  His command comes and goes, which comes down to repeating his delivery, and needs to be more efficient.  Between two, low Class-A teams, he is 8-5 with six saves, a 2.87 ERA, 9.5 K/9, and a .209 opponent average.  Ryan Snare is a finesse left-hander who changes speeds well, possesses two types of curveballs, and sinks his fastball.  His stats are marginal, going 7-7 with a 3.56 ERA, 91 K/45 BB, 6.1 K/9, and a .268 opponent average for two Double-A clubs.  Stamina remains an issue and may force him to middle relief, as he has to bring his A-game to be effective.


Having breakout seasons in the Rangers? organization are two emerging pitchers.  Right-hander Justin Echols posted a 2.85 ERA with 9.0 K/9 and a .206 opponent average for Stockton, but has been roughed-up in four Double-A starts (6.30 ERA).  He has an impressive, 80 MPH slider and an 81 MPH split-change, but needs to command of his 88-91 MPH fastball better.  Kameron Loe has impressive size (6?8"), but pitches as a finesse left-hander.  He shows plus command (105 K/21 BB) of four pitches from a deceptive delivery, but doesn?t have much velocity (86-89 MPH).  He has a 0.92 ERA in 5 games at Stockton, having received a recent promotion from Clinton, where he notched a 1.95 ERA and 8.7 K/9.  This type of pitcher usually hits a wall at the upper levels, so 2004 will be an important year for him.


The early returns from the 2003 Draft are encouraging.  John Danks was the top prep pitcher available when Texas chose and they could not turn him down.  His 78 MPH curveball is a true gem and offers both two and four-seam fastballs, topping-out at 92 MPH.  There is plenty of projection with his arm, so he likely will throw harder and the Rangers love the way he attacks hitters with precision.  He has a 1.00 ERA and sixteen strikeouts in nine innings for Surprise (AZ).  John Hudgins (Stanford), who belittled hitters in the College World Series, is a polished pitcher who can throw four pitches (88-91 MPH sinker, slider, curveball, and change) for strikes. His change is his top pitch, but has been shut-down with shoulder discomfort after throwing two scoreless innings for Clinton (MWL). Wes Littleton (Cal State Fullerton) was moved to relief this season with impressive results.  His 89-93 MPH sinker and slider from a low ?, whip-like delivery raise havoc to right-handed batters.  He has been very impressive at Spokane, going 4-0 with a 2.08 ERA, 10.1 K/9, and 34 strikeouts versus seven walks.


The Rangers? minor league system should rank in the top third of all Major League clubs coming into the 2004 season.  A string of solid drafts, a better crop of pitchers, and a knack for developing hitters should keep the pipeline to the Majors open for the next several years.  If things break right for this organization, they may begin to compete with the other clubs in their division.

Deric McKamey is a minor league analyst for Street & Smith’s and Baseball HQ


Deric McKamey Posted: August 14, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 5 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. mike green Posted: August 14, 2003 at 02:34 AM (#612579)
Very interesting that Texas is using a "8-man rotation", really a 4-day rotation with 2 pitchers per day, through high-A. I am waiting for the revolution when a team will try this in the majors. That's probably at least 20 years off.

Laynce Nix may have a conscience, but I'm quite sure he's trying to avoid being "pull-conscious".

   2. Vance W Posted: August 14, 2003 at 02:34 AM (#612580)
John Hart seems to have had a pretty good '03, apart from having Juan Gonzalez's no-trade blow up in his face. Pity the Rangers didn't evaluate better and begin the rebuilding/youth process last year.
   3. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 14, 2003 at 02:34 AM (#612587)
Great article.

Very interesting that Texas is using a "8-man rotation", really a 4-day rotation with 2 pitchers per day, through high-A.

The Braves have done something very similar for a number of years. It
ensures that your prospects get enough innings to give you a fair
chance to evaluate them without overworking any one of them.

I saw a lot of Adrian Gonzalez while he was playing here in Zebulon.
I don't know where the "outstanding defense" stuff comes from; his
footwork around the base isn't particularly good, he's often in a bad
position to take/scoop throws, and his range appears to be limited,
especially when he's playing off the base and moving toward the line. At bat his approach is very similar to that of Mark Grace, and I really think that's the type of player that he will turn out to be.

-- MWE
   4. Richie Posted: August 14, 2003 at 02:34 AM (#612591)
Can you expand on the 8-man rotation idea?

Does this mean that BOTH pitchers pitch every fourth day? One guy pitches innings 1-4 and the other innings 5-8?
   5. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 14, 2003 at 02:34 AM (#612595)
Can you expand on the 8-man rotation idea?

Does this mean that BOTH pitchers pitch every fourth day? One guy pitches innings 1-4 and the other innings 5-8?

The way that the Braves did it is that they would have a designated group of pitchers - including both starters and relievers - who were definitely going to pitch on any given day (usually the relievers were on two-day or three-day rotations), and their work was based on innings and/or pitch counts. The starters, for example, might be told that they were going to work either five innings or 75 pitches, whichever came first, and the relievers might be told two innings or 30 pitches. Atlanta didn't do it all season, just for the first couple of months, because eventually they wanted to stretch the workloads for their key prospects. But they've developed a fair number of good pitchers and haven't lost nearly as many to arm problems as some other organizations have.

-- MWE

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