Quite obviously, the reasons the Rangers find themselves so highly ranked is because of their strength in this section of our analysis. No organization has re-committed themselves in the last 5-10 years as much as the Rangers, who backed away from nine figure payrolls and found a better marginal expense in player development. The compilation of young talent both at the Major League and minor league levels are unparalleled among the 30 organizations, and I think Texas has put themselves in a position to be a playoff contender for the indefinite future.
To start with the oldest and move backwards, we begin with players like Ian Kinsler and Josh Hamilton, a pair of players essential to the Rangers hopes in 2010. Kinsler is very interesting, because he’s had such variance between his BABIP and UZR numbers in the last two seasons, and while he arrived at it in very different ways, came out about equally as valuable in both. If we regress both those numbers back to average, Kinsler is still a four-win second baseman that has shown all five skills (for my money, he’s one of the best baserunners in the league). Hamilton’s offensive drop-off is well documented, and for the most part, seemingly discarded by people smarter than I. At the very least, returning to a 3 WAR player shouldn’t be difficult for someone this talented. Nelson Cruz fits into this discussion after his 2009 breakout, and he certainly is who we thought he was: a lot of power, a solid corner glove, and not a lot else.
The next group of young talents are the sophomores and rookies, the best proof to fans in Dallas that this new strategy is paying dividends. They saw it last year with Elvis Andrus, likely a treat to watch everyday with his highlight reel plays in the field and consistent offensive contact. He should be that player for a long time. The two great pitching prospects made their debuts, Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz, with encouraging results. Feliz was dominant in his set-up role, lighting up the radar guns but showing solid command, too. It takes a bit of a sabermetric eye to see the positives in Holland’s debut, the nearly 2 point difference in ERA and xFIP, but Dave Cameron sold it pretty well already. With better luck, big results are in store for the hard-throwing southpaw.
The rest of the young players on the Major League roster must use this season to prove they belong for the long term. Chris Davis doesn’t have a lot of time with Justin Smoak knocking on the door, so he’ll have to start drawing some walks and making contact a little more often. If he’s good, the DH spot will be waiting for him in 2011. Julio Borbon has earned centerfield and leadoff duties, and the hope is he can turn his blazing speed into plus defense in center and plenty of steals. Finally, there’s Tommy Hunter, who must claim his stake in the rotation before it becomes dominated by the likes of Feliz, Holland, and Martin Perez.
A couple names in that paragraph bring us to the top prospects that have yet to make their debuts, but will dazzle soon enough. Smoak is a slick fielder and a switch-hitting power guy, so we’ll forgive Texas fans for confusing him with Mark Teixeira. Keith Law spoke recently about the comp Martin Perez is prone to receive while on Bill Simmons’ podcast, talking about the similarities in stature and stuff between Perez and Johan Santana. High praise, indeed. But little left-handers with plus velocity and three pitches don’t grow on trees, so the list of comparable pitchers is pretty limited.
Texas has a lot of depth in the farm system, too, especially on the pitching side. This seems an apt place to mention my affinity for Robbie Ross, who I think becomes the next five-star Rangers prospect. The team just has a ridiculous amount of pitchers that can throw 94 mph, and just need to learn a little bit of command (Ross already has it, which is why I’m touting him). If the Rangers player development team can teach to control the fastball, then the hitting-friendly environment of Arlington won’t matter very soon.
More than anything, the Rangers impress me because they understand the value of building a farm system. They understand how to maximize the sale of your veteran assets, and they understand the value of reinvesting in the draft. The team has found its footing on the international market again, and should be considered a player for every top prospect in that scene. Some tough lessons have shown them the light — sustained success isn’t found on the free agent market, but in developing stars yourself. The fruits of this newfound labor will be felt in Texas for a long time.