Rangers Review: Minor League Starters

The Rangers minor league system had a mixed bag of results in 2007.  Overall the seven teams (AAA Oklahoma, AA Frisco, A+ Bakersfield, A Clinton, Rookie Spokane and Arizona, and the Dominican League team) combined for a .491 winning percentage, but that was significantly influenced by the Roughriders going .607, the only team above .511.  Without the Roughriders, the rest of the teams went .465, almost in line with the big club’s .463.

Now, one argument is that teams don’t care about how their minor league teams do, because it is more about development of individual players than it is of winning.  Another argument is that a winning team in the minors develops into a winning team in the majors, because winning is a function of the quality of the players available.  So with that in mind, it’s interesting that Frisco has the best results, because when looking at all the players available in the minors for the Rangers, it seems like Frisco has shown up again and again as the place with the best prospects.  This in turn leads to the hopeful thought that the guys in Frisco this year are the guys who will be in Arlington in 2008 and 2009, beginning a renaissance for the Rangers.  One of the problems with Frisco is the closeness to Arlington, which is useful for rehabbing players nearby, but there has been a tendency for the Rangers to skip over AAA players and go with the guys they’ve presumably seen more often in AA (Travis Metcalf, Armando Galarraga, Bill White and Luis Mendoza are examples this year of guys who started the year at AA and spent most of their time there before coming up to Texas, with either cameos or no playing time in Oklahoma), not necessarily helping those guys developmentally or other players who may feel they’ve been skipped unfairly (Eric Hurley).

Minor league hitters were covered with each position during this review of the system.  Here we look at starting pitchers in the minors.  Due to the quantity of them, I kept them separate from the major league starters.  Minor league relievers, however, will be covered with the major league bullpen, because there aren’t that many good minor league relievers.  In most cases I am only going to mention pitchers who started a reasonable number of games, unless they are particularly interesting for some other reason.  I will also cover them on the team they pitched the most for, although that rule will also be broken in certain cases (e.g. Eric Hurley, who pitched a little more in AA than in AAA, but clearly has a bright future and deserves coverage at the higher level).

AAA Oklahoma City summary: Several guys shuttled back and forth to Texas, getting small chances here and there as fill-ins during each injury crisis the Rangers seemed to have.  Of them, Edinson Volquez was the star of the system, as mentioned in the major league rotation review.  John Rheinecker was a very good starter in AAA, but struggled in the rotation in Arlington and went to the bullpen where he managed to succeed.  Mike Wood pitched well in AAA (9-3, 3.24), but couldn’t quite translate that to the majors, ending with a 5.33 ERA at the big league level.  He has the stuff to be a decent #5 or possibly #4 pitcher, but he’d be battling several people for a spot at the end of the rotation or as long man in the bullpen for the Rangers, which is why he elected free agency at the end of the year.  He’ll go somewhere on a AAA deal and try and make a major league rotation instead.  John Koronka could be considered a classic 4-A type of pitcher, too good to keep down, but not good enough to stay up.  Right now I believe he’s a free agent, having spent some time in the Cleveland minors after the Rangers released him earlier this year.

AAA Prospects: Eric Hurley has been the best pitching prospect for a year now, and this year made the step up from AA to AAA, although not without some teething problems.  After a 7-2, 3.26 first half in Frisco, he had a 4-7, 4.93 second half in Oklahoma.  It didn’t dim his star too much, as there was still talk of bringing him up at the end of the season.  That didn’t happen due to highly technical rules reasons, but he will go into spring training with an outside shot at making the team.  He should instead spend another half year to a year in AAA, before coming up for good in 2009.  Just 21, he will hopefully bring good things to the team when they return to contention.  Josh Rupe was a top prospect a few years ago, but now is getting a little older (24) and battling a lot of injuries.  He needs to step up in 2008 to keep his career going.

AAA Suspects: Chris Baker had a couple of starts in AA, but spent most of his time at Oklahoma, although at 29 his 6.64 ERA is not good, and you’d have to say no prospect.  Alfredo Simon had a poor year (6.43 ERA) and at 26 he may be reaching the limits of his ability.  Mark Redman was a waste of space.

AA Frisco summary:  The most successful level in terms of performance, but surprisingly few regular starting pitchers to mention, as the good ones moved on too soon, like Eric Hurley, or were rehabbing major leaguers (11 starts between them).  Of those left,  Armando Galarraga was the highlight, getting some time in AAA and in Arlington this year, although perhaps a little sooner than you would have thought he should have.  He’ll be headed back to AAA for a full season next year.  Same with Luis Mendoza, who performed almost as well as Galarraga, but skipped AAA before his cup of coffee.  Mendoza is two years younger, so probably has a brighter future, but expect both to anchor a good Oklahoma rotation for 2008.

AA Prospects:  Doug Mathis did just as well as Mendoza and Galarraga, but struggled in a very short stint in AAA.  Doesn’t have the publicity the other guys got.  Had a high BABIP in AA, expect that to regress to the mean next year and he might propel himself into the top of the prospect pile.  Matt Harrison came over in the Teixeira trade, never pitched in the Rangers minors due to injury, but immediately became one of the Rangers top pitching prospects.  At just 21 he was young and good in AA, and has a big upside.  Will be back at AA next year, but expect him to move to AAA quickly, and possibly be contending for a major league spot by 2009.

AA Suspects:  Hard to tell what Scott Shoemaker is, but he gets in here just so I can put someone in.  Pitched at three levels (High-A, AA and AAA), but spent most of his time in Frisco.  Only 11 starts out of 34 games at all levels, and his numbers did not stand out much.  May be on the track to go to the pen, in which case he may have peaked here.

High-A Bakersfield summary:  High-A should perhaps be called High-ERA, as the team averaged a 5.39 for the year.  I seem to remember reading once that the California League is a hitter’s league, so the numbers may be inflated.  The Bakersfield staff had an ERA half a run higher than the league though, so they might be doing it to themselves.  As players go through the system, they enter what could only be considered a funnel, where the best keep moving up and the remainder get pushed aside.  A-ball seems to be the level that does most of the judging, where a lot of players find themselves overmatched and discarded.  If you make it past here as a starter, you’ve got a decent chance of making the majors (and by decent I mean maybe as high as 20%).  If not, you better hope they keep you on as a reliever, and even then your chances are much less than good.

High-A Prospects:  Kendy Batista was the best starter in Bakersfield, and got one start in Frisco.  Should be at AA next year, although at 25 he is starting to age out.  Michael Schlact spent most of his time at Bakersfield, but also had a short stint at Frisco, and didn’t impress much in either place.  His only advantage is his age, in that he was at least a couple of years younger than most of the people he was playing against.  Likely to be back at Bakersfield to start the season, we’ll see if he’s any better the second time around.  Ronald Bay didn’t have a great year, it was just about average, but he struck out 71 in 74 innings so he’ll probably be back, but whether he’ll move up or not will depend on if there’s no-one else they want more.

High-A Suspects:  Michael Ballard split his season between Low-A Clinton, where he pitched reasonably well, and High-A Bakersfield, where he was just okay.  His walk rate is pretty good (36 in 153 innings), but he gives up too many hits.  At Clinton he was older than most, at Bakersfield he was the right age, so he might be a late bloomer.  I don’t know JB Diaz’s splits, but he had 12 starts and 26 relief appearances, with a combined 7.11 ERA.  He didn’t really do anything good, so he may have peaked.  Andrew Walker didn’t put up good numbers in any way, and given his age (24) he might have reached his limit too.

Low-A Clinton summary:  The first exposure to a full season in the minors, this is where players begin to sort themselves out.  Probably the most critical thing to look at here is the player’s age, it can tell you a lot about what the organization thinks of a person, more even than the numbers.  The average age here is 21.5, if you’re much younger than this then you’re a potential star (the two 19 year old pitchers at Clinton were Kasey Kiker and Omar Poveda), if you’re much older then your career is in trouble (the oldest starter here was Michael Ballard, mentioned above in the High-A Suspects list).  Clinton had the distinction of being the Rangers farm team with the best ERA (3.52), although in a league that had a 3.79 that’s not as impressive as it sounds.  But with three starters having ERAs under 3.00, the signs of good things to come are there.  I already mentioned the number of good prospects at Frisco, it’s possible there’s another wave at Clinton that are two years behind them, all of which signals a hopefully bright future in Arlington.

Low-A Prospects:  Kasey Kiker is one of the stars of the system, a first round pick from a couple of years ago who so far is living up to the hype.  Had very good numbers overall, especially for someone two or three years younger than the league, and should advance another level next year.  If the Rangers move him slowly, he’ll spend the year in Bakersfield, if they move him more quickly he could be in Frisco by the end of the year.  Will be a candidate to make the Rangers as soon as 2009 or as late as 2010.  Zach Phillips performed just as well as Kiker, but didn’t have the hype.  Only one year older, so age is not a problem.  He will move up to Bakersfield to start 2008.  Omar Poveda was the third stand-out performer at Bakersfield, he did just as well as the others.  Another 19 year old, he should progress quickly, although not as quickly as Kiker.  If the Rangers can keep these three together, they might begin to have some dominating prospects moving into Arlington in 2010.  Reality check says they’ll be happy if one of the big three makes it to the big leagues.

Low-A Suspects:  Broc Coffman was probably the worst of the regular starters at Clinton (4.24 ERA), but will probably get another chance there to see if he can progress any.  Jeremiah Haar split time between the rotation and bullpen in Clinton, and didn’t show much overall to make him stand out.  Glen Swanson had seven starts in Clinton and seven in Bakersfield.  He was age-appropriate for Bakersfield, which explains why he pitched well at Clinton and average at Bakersfield.  Probably beginning to top out, his strikeouts (83 in 83.2 innings) should keep getting him chances, although a move to the bullpen is likely.

Short-Season Spokane summary:  This is the place where many draftees go, especially if they were drafted from college, and get their first taste in the minors.  Not too many get elevated from here in their first season, since it’s only a half-season team and there’s often not enough time to prove themselves.  On the other hand, there are a few promotions from the Arizona rookie ball team.  For many, this is their first time in pro ball and it will be their last time.  They’ve spent their lives being the star of their teams, their high school, their college, their various leagues, dreaming of being in the big leagues, and getting here and failing is a rude shock, and now they have nothing to turn to.  Depending on what round they were drafted in, they may get another shot, but if they’re a low-level pick, or a undrafted player, this may be all they get.  So impressing here is good, but not impressing is quite possibly death to their careers.  For that reason it’s hard to look just at numbers and tell who is or who isn’t going to make it.  The more playing time they get, the better, and if they don’t get much, well, the team might already have given up.  Either way, by the time it all washes out you could have ten great pitchers at this level and you’ll be doing very well if a couple of them make it to the big leagues.  There’s just too far to go for more than a few to make it.

Short-Season Prospects:  Michael Main was a first round pick, pitched five games and dominated in Arizona, then came to Spokane and did well, but not as well as earlier.  Another top prospect, but every time I mention him I have to tell the Rangers to stop letting him hit as well as pitch.  It’ll only slow his development.  Jacob Brigham had a good ERA, probably gave up too many walks, but he’s only 19 so he’ll move on up the chain next year.  Derek Holland struck out 83 in 67 innings, and that’s the kind of thing stats freaks love to see, especially with only 21 walks to go with it.  Evan Reed had eight starts between Spokane and Clinton, and looked good in both places.  Neftali Feliz has to be mentioned here, although he relieved more (7) than started (1) while in Spokane.  Came over in the Teixeira trade, and overall for the season started 8 and relieved 8, but pitched well, is now one of the top prospects in the Rangers system, and will be given every chance to succeed as a starter.

Short-Season Suspects:  Fabio Castillo is only 18, but he struggled, so is likely to get another go round in Spokane in 2008.  Ryan Tatusko had bland numbers for the league.  If you fail here you’re in trouble for your career, so he better hope to get another chance.

Rookie Arizona:  This is really scraping the bottom of the barrel to be projecting people here.  There are three types of pitchers in the Arizona league:  kids just drafted and getting a taste of pro ball before beginning their first full seasons, kids working out in Arizona while waiting for a slot to open somewhere else (which means they’re probably not legitimate prospects in the first place), and older players coming back from injury who are getting a few innings in before going back to their regular club (Josh Rupe was probably the most famous of these this year).  So again, just like in Spokane, putting names up as successful is a stretch.  Most of the guys pitching at this level will get a couple of innings per game, and in general there are not defined starters (most starts, 12 by Carlos Pimentel, and he only pitched 42.1 innings overall).  It’s really about getting people going, getting them in the swing of things, and doing a quick judge of character for some of them.

Rookie Prospects:  Wilmer Font pitched the most innings, but that was only 45.2 of them, so not much to judge on.  Struck out 61 in that time though, so we’ll see him again.  As noted, Carlos Pimentel had the most starts, he wasn’t good but had 59 strikeouts.

Rookie Suspects:  Who cares?  If they sucked here, you’ll never hear of them again.  Unless they were a top draft pick, in which case they’ll get more opportunities anyway.  Okay, a couple of names to forget:  Benjamin Henry struggled in his six starts.  Robert Wilkins put up just about the same numbers as Henry, but struck out only half as many.

Dominican League:
Here’s a list of names:  Kelvin Borjas, Wilfredo Boscan, Ovispo De Los Santos, Juan Grullon, Anyenil Mendoza, Amaury Sepulveda.  Why do I list them?  Just so one day I can go back and show how brilliant I am at picking young players to be stars.  No, seriously, there’s even less point looking at guys in the Dominican Summer League, because 99 out of 100 are never going to make it off the island.  Most of the players there are 16-20 years old, so it’s like projecting high school and early college kids, with an extra barrier of having to get through their compatriots and then get a chance to go to the US.  Of these names, who are the guys there with the most starts, Boscan had the best peripheral numbers.  There is one other name to remember from the Dominican though: Omar Beltre.  Supposedly a top prospect, he screwed up a couple of years ago in an immigration scam (don’t remember the details, he might have used a false passport), and ended up getting barred from the US.  While the Rangers try and get him reinstated, he sits down in the Dominican doing nothing but dominating the kids to the tune of a 1.19 ERA with 38 K’s in 30 innings.  He is 25 though, so should be able to blow them away.  But he’s running out of time to make it back to America.

Final point:  How many names have I mentioned today?  If you’re a casual Rangers fan, forget most of them.  Jamey Newberg may know all of them by heart, and he’s a much better evaluator of minor league talent than I am, but as I have said throughout this piece, most of them will never make the big club, so they won’t mean anything to most of you.  If you are that casual fan, just read the AAA section, and maybe the AA, because those are the guys who may be in Arlington next year.  Come back this time next year and see who I mention then, and compare it to now.  My guess is that half of the names here will have disappeared by next year, and there’ll be a whole new crop to dream about.  Remember the old saying: TANSTAAPP.  There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect.

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