The first half of the 2011 MLB season was a struggle for the Rangers. Only their seven-game win streak leading into the all-star break spared it from being a big disappointment, as they passed on several chances to separate from the Angels and, despite the fast finish, sit just one ahead of their long-time rivals.
The Rangers expected their outfield to be a team strength, but Josh Hamilton's over-analyzed head first slide into home in the eleventh game of the season cost him six weeks and Nelson Cruz, David Murphy and Julio Borbon were all disappointing (Adam Morris gives those three C-, F and D+ grades for their first halves).
They expected dominance from their closer, but Neftali Feliz does not look like the same guy from 2009 or 2010. The middle of the bullpen terrified writers, bloggers and talkers, and it turns out that they were somewhat right. The Texas bullpen has blown 13 of 36 save opportunities, fourth most in the AL (LA has blown 17, by the way), after saving 46 of 66 opportunities last season. That equates to a drop from 70% success to 64%, and the league average has dropped from 70% to 68%, so you're talking about going from being league average to a little below.
Coming off of a dream pennant winning season that all seems like a letdown, but a look at the full picture makes it hard to not be a Rangers optimist. A very good first half for the farm system and more high profile activity in international free agency has the organization once again among the elite organizations in baseball talent-wise, and unlike one year ago we know that the Rangers have owners who can and will support the team financially.
Building A Rangers Rotation
After they failed to sign Cliff Lee to a new deal over the winter and did not opt to unload their system for a Zack Greinke or Matt Garza, the Rangers' 2011 season was always going to be about what their entirely home grown rotation would produce. C.J. Wilson and Colby Lewis both pitched well in 2010 and seemed at least somewhat reliable entering their second full seasons as major league starters, but Matt Harrison, Derek Holland and Alexi Ogando had proven almost nothing, and other alternatives like Feliz, Scott Feldman, Tommy Hunter, and the one free agent signee, Brandon Webb all offered big question marks themselves.
Wilson has been really good, while Lewis has had a rough first half, almost exclusively because of the 23 home runs he's allowed. That's not too far from what we should have expected from the pair overall. Ogando and Harrison are this team's biggest stories and are on a path whose importance can't be overstated. Ogando in particular has been one of the 10-15 best starters in the league in his first full season of this - starting, in the majors, you name it. His long, wiry strong body has thus far withstood the transition to starter innings, and he's shown the stuff, command and aptitude to suggest that he can be really good as a starter for years to come. Harrison has battled through the first half and posted less impressive secondary numbers, but the end result has been 103.2 innings with a 3.04 ERA. Since a little hiccup a month into the season he's been shockingly (for me) consistent. He's allowed more than three earned runs once (more than two just three times) and has failed to complete at least six innings just once in his last 11 starts. He's also currently working on a stretch with a 24:5 K:BB ratio.
Holland has been a different story. He's made 18 starts (109.2 innings) and has allowed at least five runs seven times. He's failed to complete six innings six times. Ten of his 13 home runs allowed have come in five starts. He's also thrown two complete game shutouts and has been dominant a few other times. He's shown glimpses of high end talent but has so far been the stereotype of pitching inconsistency. On the other hand, he's 24. Cliff Lee was just reaching the major leagues at 24 and was still five years from his first dominant season. When Roy Halladay turned 24 his career ERA was over five, his home run rate was about 50% worse than Holland's, and his walk-to-strikeout ratio was about one. The media won't want to hear this, but Justin Verlander, Josh Beckett, James Shields, John Danks, Ervin Santana and Tim Hudson have all had seasons as bad as or worse than the one Holland is having after the age of 24. He's been maddening, but the makings of a quality starter are still there.
All in all, the Rangers have three of the 19 AL starters with ERAs of 3.20 or better and have kept the same five starters in the rotation until the all-star break for the first time in, well, I haven't researched it, but I wonder if it's decades. Their two relative disappointments are not staggering to the break, ready to be replaced as soon as possible. They're just lacking the consistency of the other three. With Feldman and Hunter around as well, there are seven worthy, homegrown starters here who should keep the rotation stabilized through this season and, with everyone but Wilson under contract for 2012, provide adequate building blocks moving forward.
Trade Pieces Are There
One of the things we've learned about Jon Daniels is that he does try to improve his team at the trade deadline. He was active in his first season in 2006, and the number of deals he made last summer with next to zero dollars to spend became a bit of a running joke around baseball. This version of the Rangers doesn't have the lead that the 2010 group had at the break, but it lacks the glaring positional holes present last July. Daniels has also said that he doesn't expect any starters of the quality of Lee, Dan Haren and Roy Oswalt to be available. He will try to something, though, and he has the ammo to back that up if the right deal is available.
The Rangers' primary trade strength is on the mound. They began the season with one elite Double-A/Triple-A arm in Martin Perez, and they currently boast three, as Robbie Erlin and Neil Ramirez have broken out. Ramirez was one of five first and supplemental round choices by the Rangers in 2007 (Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Borbon, Hunter), and he was the only one who didn't contribute to last season's World Series team in some fashion. He may be the best of the five, though, after turning the corner in A-ball and holding his own after a two-level jump to Triple-A at age 21. He's a physical righty who currently projects as a sturdy middle-rotation guy. Erlin has posted some of the flashiest numbers in baseball over the past two seasons and hasn't slowed down much since his promotion to Frisco. He appears to be a safe bet - if there is such thing - to pitch in the middle of a rotation himself. Upper level, high quality arms like Perez, Erlin and Ramirez are usually what teams require in return when they trade major league pitching. Even in a case like Lee, where the Rangers' primary ammo was Justin Smoak, a first baseman, they backed that up with Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke, both of whom have already pitched for the Mariners this season.
Texas can back up those premier guys with more upper level revelations from this season - Joe Wieland, Barret Loux, Justin Grimm and Robbie Ross. Ross and Wieland have moved steadily through the system since being picked high in the 2008 draft, while Loux was signed as a free agent last fall after being drafted sixth overall and then being declared a free agent by the commissioner after an injury dispute with the Diamondbacks. They still have Tanner Scheppers, Michael Kirkman and Eric Hurley in Triple-A, and Wilmer Font and Miguel De Los Santos are still around as well, battling back from arm issues.
A new crop of prospect to dream on have emerged at Low A Hickory and Short Season Spokane. Luke Jackson and Cody Buckel were supplemental and second rounders last summer and have impressed in Hickory. Roman Mendez has led that rotation all season after being obtained for Jarrod Saltalamacchia. His Dominican countrymen David Perez and Victor Payano have jumped from the Dominican Summer League to Spokane. That quintet will all be among the Rangers highly ranked prospects moving forward. Lower level arms are always difficult to fit into big deals, but Feliz being a key part of the Mark Teixeira deal does set a precedent.
The Rangers's first rounder this summer - Kevin Matthews, a high school lefty - is already pitching for their rookie club in Arizona, and Will Lamb, their second rounder, is with Spokane. Venezuelan lefty Yohander Mendez will reportedly add to the inventory after signing a seven figure bonus deal.
Positionally, the Rangers are weighted much more heavily toward the lower levels. Major league veterans Chris Davis and Julio Borbon both have value, though Borbon's was mitigated by a sprained ankle over the weekend. Highly regarded Leonys Martin was promoted to Triple-A Round Rock to replace him. Martin is more likely to become the Rangers' center fielder this fall than to be dealt. Engel Beltre has been arguably the most disappointing player in the system this season. Now 21, he had tastes of Double-A the past two years, but progress is not apparent. He is hitting .246 with just eight walks and no home runs in 66 games.
Mike Olt appeared to be the Rangers' best positional asset moving toward trade season, but he broke his collarbone in a collision in June and figures to just be returning to the field at the deadline, rather than having already earned a promotion to Frisco. The supplemental pick from UConn last June had been excellent in Myrtle Beach (.286/.395/.508 in 54 games) and handles himself well at third. Tommy Mendonca, a second rounder the previous draft, is also solid at the hot corner and has been a bit of a revelation offensively in Frisco (.319/.379/.563, but with 24 walks and 92 strikeouts).
Unless the Rangers decide to include 18-year-old shortstop phenom Jurickson Profar in a deal for a superstar, Davis, Borbon and Olt figure to be the only appealing positional options to key a deal. In particular, Olt, Erlin and Ramirez should be the key names to watch if the Rangers do decide to add a quality reliever. As we saw last season, the Texas system is deep enough that the Rangers could make a minor deal or two without moving any of their top 30 or so prospects, but as we also saw, those kinds of veterans aren't likely to help a whole lot.
Built For Long Term Success
While the top three levels are still quite thin in positional talent after a few stand-outs, the lower levels have been buoyed by additions and players performing at new levels. Last season's two first rounders join Profar at Hickory, and last year's fourth rounder, Drew Robinson, and this year's supplemental pick, Zach Cone, are in Spokane, while last year's toolsy third round pick Jordan Akins leads the domestic products in rookie ball.
The majority of the impact talent, though, has come from international work. Despite their worsening finances, the Rangers found the cash to pay Profar, shortstop Luis Sardinas and catcher Jorge Alfardo seven figure bonuses before last season. Sardinas has overcome a shoulder injury to return to the field in Arizona, and Alfaro has the best set of tools of any prospect in the system. He started the season at 17 and is now 18, but he's succeeding (.328/.375/.478) against college players at Spokane. The middle infield pair at Spokane - Roghned Odor and Hanser Alberto - both figure to wind up at second base, but their bats are among the most promising in the system. Odor has followed Profar's and Martin Perez's lead in debuting professionally as a 17-year-old at Spokane, and he's outhit Profar thus far (.321/.382/.420 in 18 games). Not to be left behind, catching prospect Tomas Telis has bounced back from an arm injury to hit .305 with solid secondary numbers as a 19/20 year old in Hickory. He's also made progress behind the plate.
Many of us were baffled by the Rangers' conservative draft in which they chose players who were certain to sign for reasonable money, rather than investing in riskier, higher dollar talents. They said that the appropriate players simply weren't there when they picked, but along with the Martin signing, we saw the other part of the seasonal plan unveiled on July 2, when the Rangers paid out the biggest and third biggest signing bonuses ever given to entry age international players. Outfielder Nomar Mazara trumped Michael Ynoa's record by signing a $4.95 million bonus, and Ronald Guzman exceeded any bonus previously given to a position player when he received $3.45 million. Once they're finished, the Rangers will spend over ten million internationally, and that doesn't include Martin's $15.6 million major league deal. It hasn't come cheap, but the Rangers appear to have rejuvenated their positional ranks primarily through the international market.
After failing to turn the Rangers into an immediate winner in his first year on the GM job, facing a constricting budget, and in reality after setting them back with a pair of near catastrophic trades that saw Adrian Gonzalez and John Danks go away for little return, Daniels returned to building the club internally with young, cheap players. His renaissance that began in the summer of 2007 not only brought Josh Hamilton to the club but accelerated an improving farm system that ranked at the top of Baseball America's organizational rankings before the 2009 season and then second behind Tampa Bay's system before the 2010 season. With several of the key players - Feliz, Holland, Andrus, Borbon, Hunter, Ogando, Mitch Moreland and others who were dealt away for contributors - responsible for those rankings, the system dropped to 16th in those rankings prior to this season.
The system still had a lot of talent, but the higher levels had been largely cleaned out. Successful promotions and additions have returned it to the top echelon. Ironically, as Moneyball hits theaters this September and we're all shown what a genius Billy Beane is, his A's will be trying to climb out of last place. Oakland last won the division - or even finished above .500 - in 2006, while Daniels' Rangers are on their way to a third straight winning season and possibly a second straight division title. Daniels also has an American League pennant to show for his five years in charge. Beane has just one playoff series win.
As Daniels lays the groundwork for a sustained run that he hopes mirrors the regular season success Beane saw in his first eight years, Beane appears to be struggling to rekindle the magic. Baseball America recently published a midseason update to their top 50 prospects. While the Rangers provided four members of the list (Martin Perez at 6, Profar at 12, Martin at 25, and Erlin at 34), the A's were one of five clubs without anyone. Considering that Oakland was ranked at 28 entering the season by BA, Beane might have a difficult building job ahead, while Daniels appears to have the Rangers set to compete for years to come.
A Premium On Upside
The Rangers seem to have adopted an approach that aims for stars and players with star tools. Here is a prospect ranking heavily favoring players with greater potential to be upper division starters or more. Stated another way, the list is ordered by who would sting the most if they're traded away.
1. Jurickson Profar - He may not beat you with elite bat speed yet, but he's gaining regard as the top shortstop prospect in baseball and despite early questions over upside, he's improved quickly.
2. Martin Perez - The lack of domination of Double-A hitters in his second go-round is a growing concern, but he has three quality pitches, athleticism, brains, a solid delivery, and sometimes command.
3. Leonys Martin - He could be a solid two-way starting center fielder soon. Questions about his bat tool seem to be going away, and the defense is there.
4. Jorge Alfaro - If the list is 100% upside he probably jumps to the top. Has high end power potential, great arm and excellent athleticism for a catcher, and has made an enormous jump with the bat since last summer. He's going to take time, but the tools are special.
5. David Perez - He's fighting his mechanics and command right now as he faces college players at age 18, but once that comes together for him the package is fantastic. Oozes projection and he already throws mid-90s at times with a couple of secondary pitches.
6. Neil Ramirez - He has the body, the pitches, and it appears that he's unwilling to be outworked. The jump forward he's made over the past season or two is a tribute to his aptitude and work ethic - two things that don't go away.
7. Robbie Erlin - This ranking is probably unfair, considering how close he is at age 20 to being a major league starting pitcher. As good as he is, he's going to learn to ensure that his mistakes don't wind up 360 feet behind him or taking off his third baseman's head, or at least to further limit them.
8. Mike Olt - He's not that flashy, but he combines tools and polish into a package that has a good shot at being a starting third baseman. His approach at the plate is solid, but he will need to keep adjusting against righties.
9. Tanner Scheppers - Like with Erlin, this may be unfair. Scheppers was a top 100 prospect this spring, and his only downfall, really, is that back problems have kept him off of the mound until June. Nolan Ryan has called him a potential top-of-the-rotation starter, but he's relieving in Round Rock right now and could still help the bullpen before the year is out.
10. Luis Sardinas - True shortstops who can hit are maybe the rarest thing in baseball right now, and the Rangers may have signed two of them in one summer. Sardinas lacks home run power, but he will get stronger and the rest of the package is really strong.
11. Nomar Mazara - A list like this wouldn't be very genuine if someone who just signed for $5 million with almost no game action, who some scouts project to 80 power at age 16 isn't given due props. He could need every year allowed by MLB to develop, but the Rangers obviously saw something they've never quite seen before in their time in Latin America (i.e. since 2005).
12. Ronald Guzman - Likewise this guy, who is also a tall, left-handed hitter with high end offensive potential. He was regarded by many as the best pure bat internationally this summer, and the fact that he was the top target for teams like Boston and Oakland and the Rangers came home with him is exciting.
13. Rougned Odor - He gives the impression that he came out of the womb hitting. What he's done in the Northwest League so far is incredibly impressive for someone who doesn't turn 18 until next February and hadn't played a professional game yet. Talented second basemen are underrated throughout baseball until they reach the majors and everyone remember how valuable and rare they can be.
14. Jake Skole - The Rangers have drafted several athletic outfielders in the past few drafts, some are more explosive athletes and several are outperforming Skole - including this year's second rounder Zach Cone. Skole has quietly gotten hot for Hickory and only needs to unlock some of his power potential, particularly against right-handed pitchers (he bats lefty), to show why he came out of nowhere to be the 17th pick in the draft last summer. He could be the best bet of that group to become a major league starter.
15. Wilmer Font - He'll be back soon from elbow surgery. He's a monster physically and before his injury he had made progress in refining his great talent. The setback was a real shame because he was already playing regular season games at age 16 and will therefore be pressed by roster rules (he's already on the Rangers' 40-man roster despite the missed season and lack of experience).
16. Luke Jackson - He's behind his classmate Cody Buckel in terms of polish, but he's somewhat like Ramirez in that he could come fast once he figures some things out.
17 - Roman Mendez - He might have the best arm among the Rangers' starting prospects right now. That and slowish development could lead to a future as a reliever, but if he continues to put things together he could easily shoot up all prospect lists.
18. Cody Buckel - A whole slew of pitchers could go here - Robbie Ross, Joe Wieland, Barret Loux, Miguel De Los Santos, Will Lamb, Michael Kirkman, Victor Payano, Kevin Matthews and Justin Grimm to name a few. The depth of the Texas system really shows up here, but Buckel has really dominated pro hitters so far with present stuff and polish. Like Erlin, he probably won't be challenged until he reaches Frisco.
19. Hanser Alberto - He hasn't hit at Spokane since returning from an injury, but it's only a matter of time for this guy. He will hit, and he'll need to hit since his defense won't carry him.
20. Christian Villanueva - He doesn't have any one tool that jumps out, but he's a good all-around player who could play beyond the sum of his tools. One question has been how much juice is in his bat, but he's shown some power at a young age in Hickory. Tomas Telis is a similar kind of player at the catcher position. He needs more work defensively but has always hit.