The Texas Rangers organization has arguably the best system in all of Major League Baseball, thanks to astute trades and solid drafting practices. The club could hand the starting-catcher chores to one of its impressive rookies this season, and fans could finally get glimpses of two of the key trading chips received from Atlanta in the Mark Teixeira deal.
Right-hander Neftali Feliz was part of the Teixeira deal with Atlanta. The 20-year-old split his first full season in Texas between High-A and Double-A. At the senior level, Feliz allowed 34 hits in 45.1 innings of work and posted rates of 4.57 BB/9 and 9.33 K/9. In total, he struck out 153 batters in 127.1 innings in 2008. Feliz features a 91-96 mph fastball that can touch triple digits, as well as a good curveball and change-up. Once he improves his command, Feliz could be an absolute monster on the mound – if the Texas pitching curse doesn’t get him.
Southpaw Derek Holland doesn’t throw quite as hard as Feliz, but he rocketed through three minor league levels in his first full pro season after being drafted in 2006 (He was signed as a draft-and-follow prior to the 2007 draft). Holland spent the majority of the season in A-ball and allowed 77 hits in 93.2 innings of work. He posted rates of 2.79 BB/9 and 8.74 K/9. He also made five starts in High-A and four starts in Double-A. The 22-year-old hurler can touch 96 mph with his fastball but he’s really a one-pitch pitcher at this point. Holland’s change-up is usually pretty good but his slider needs a lot of work.
Taylor Teagarden and Max Ramirez could both see time behind the dish for the Rangers in 2009. Teagarden is the far superior defensive catcher, but Ramirez (who could end up at 1B or DH) is the better all-around hitter. Teagarden’s biggest issue is the lack of consistent contact, although he has above-average power when he connects with the ball. Ramirez has a chance to hit .300 in the Majors with 20 home runs. With Jarrod Saltalamacchia playing well this spring and veteran Adam Melhuse also hitting well, both Ramirez and Teagarden could be headed for some extra work in Triple-A.
Julio Borbon could be a long-term fixture in center field for the Rangers. Drafted in the supplemental first round in 2007 out of college, he split 2008 between High-A and Double-A. At his second stop, Borbon hit .337/.380/.459 with 17 stolen bases in 255 at-bats. In total, he nabbed 53 bases in his first full season. Borbon still needs to tweak his approach at the plate as he walked just 5.2% of the time, which is too low for a lead-off hitter. He also has just enough power to mess with his mind, which causes him to over-swing and move away from the slash-and-run mentality that he should have.
There has been talk that Elvis Andrus, 20, could be the opening day shortstop for the Rangers. Like Feliz, Andrus was obtained from the Braves in the Teixeira trade. He spent all of 2008 in Double-A where he hit .295/.350/.367 with 54 stolen bases in 482 at-bats. Like his second-half teammate Borbon, Andrus has a ton of speed but he does not walk enough, after posting a rate of 7.3 BB%. Defensively, he has the makings of an above-average infielder, but he made more than 30 errors in 2008. In 17 games this spring, Andrus is hitting .250, which is about what the Rangers should expect from him at the MLB level in 2009. Veteran Omar Vizquel was brought in this past winter as a free agent, which could buy Andrus some more development time in Triple-A.
A solid two-way player in high school, Michael Main was allowed to pitch and hit in his 2007 pro debut. However, the Rangers organization had him focus on pitching in 2008 in short-season ball. The now 20-year-old right-hander was slowed at the beginning of last year by a cracked rib but he still pitched well in the second half of the season in A-ball. Main allowed 38 hits in 45.1 innings, along with rates of 2.58 BB/9 and 9.93 K/9. His fastball can touch 96 mph and he also features a curveball and change-up.
The club’s 2008 first-round draft pick, Justin Smoak managed to get in just 14 games last year after signing. The 22-year-old switch-hitter slugged three home runs in 54 at-bats and batted .304 in A-ball. Smoak also hit well in the Arizona Fall League, with an average above .300. He should open 2009 in High-A ball and could see the Majors by the end of 2010. He is at least an average defender at first base.
Engel Beltre was acquired from Boston in the 2007 deal for closer Eric Gagne. The deal went sour for Texas after the organization foolishly chose Kason Gabbard over Michael Bowden but Beltre could help fans forget that fact. The athletic outfielder hit .283 with 31 stolen bases in A-ball in 2008, but his plate discipline is terrible and he posted a walk rate of 2.6 BB% in 566 at-bats (15 walks vs 105 strikeouts). That approach is obviously not going to cut it at the upper levels of the minors, or the Majors, but Beltre is just 19-years-old and has plenty of time to improve the rougher aspects of his game.
Martin Perez, 17, spent 2008 in short-season ball and allowed 66 hits in 61.2 innings of work, along with rates of 4.09 BB/9 and 7.74 K/9. The southpaw can touch 94 mph with his fastball and is working hard to improve his curveball, which has plus potential, and his nascent change-up. He should move up to A-ball as an 18 year old for 2009.
Neil Ramirez was one of the Rangers’ supplemental first-round picks in the 2007 draft. He signed late and did not make his pro debut until 2008 as a 19 year old. The right-handed hurler allowed just 25 hits in 44 innings of work. He had a hard time finding the plate at times with a walk rate of 5.93 BB/9, but he also posted a strikeout rate of 10.64 K/9. Ramirez can touch 95 mph with his fastball and he also has a solid curveball and change-up.
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