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June 30, 2010

Future Shock

Org Watch: Rangers, Athletics, Angels

by Kevin Goldstein

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Today we're going to look at three teams in the American League West: the Rangers, Angels and Athletics; since the Mariners are essentially 15 games off the pace and everyone seems to think Cliff Lee is headed to a contender by the end of July, those three squads are the primary contenders out west, with the Rangers holding the current edge.
 
Some quick snapshots:
 
• The Rangers, potentially destined for the playoffs, could have a really deep bullpen come October—although they're making decisions towards a different end.
 
• The A's have the No. 11 offense in the American League; no one has an OPS over .800 on that squad. That's not good. And, um, it's not going to get better.
 
• The Angels, one of the better-run teams in baseball, have decidedly more in the pipeline than just Mike Trout.
 
The Rangers: Doing The Right Thing (We Think)
These guys could have the nastiest bullpen in baseball right now—but they don't, due to some decisions down on the farm that seem to be more aimed at the future (if one tries to rationalize them at all) rather than at taking advantage of a golden opportunity in the present.
 
Last year, with the team hunting for a spot in the playoffs, the Rangers had no problem converting Neftali Feliz to a closer, yet this year, with our Playoff Odds Report giving the team an 80-something percent chance to reach the postseason, the club is suddenly trying to turn relievers into starters, as opposed to strengthening the club for a postseason road that almost assuredly goes through an American League East powerhouse.
 
They should be lauded for their patience when it comes to Alexi Ogando and Omar Beltre. The pair of Dominican power righties missed half a decade with visa issues, but Ogando has already given Texas a power arm in the bullpen, while Beltre makes his big-league debut tonight. The issue here is that Beltre is making his debut as a starting pitcher. The 28-year-old began the year in the bullpen for Triple-A Oklahoma City, but began to stretch out his arm in mid-May as a starter. With a 93-95 mph fastball and outstanding splitter, he has the two-pitch combination to succeed in short stints, but in longer outings, scouts fear that his lack of a big-league breaking ball (his slider is fringy) and traditional changeup could catch up to him.
 
That said, there are more power arms coming, like 2009 draftee Tanner Scheppers, who brings upper-90s heat to the table. Scouts see Scheppers as big league-ready now as a potential set-up man for Feliz, but once again, the Rangers are altering his development in an attempt to turn him into a rotation piece. After dominating Texas League hitters for the first month of the season, Scheppers moved up to Triple-A as part of his anticipated ascension to Arlington, but he's hit a fork in the road of late. Check out these two lines.
 
Out of the bullpen at Triple-A, Scheppers was hurling to the tune of a 1.89 ERA, whiffing 27 in 19 innings; since mid-June, when he began working as a starter, he's got a 4.02 ERA and has struck out 12 in 15 2/3 innings.
 
He has a history of arm troubles, so most think the best plan is to get him to the major leagues as soon as possible; every pitch he throws could possibly be an injury-causing one.
 
"He could dominate in the big leagues right now as a seventh/eighth inning guy," said one pro scout who has seen Scheppers on multiple occasions this year. "I'm not really sure I understand what Texas is doing with him. They're going to be in the playoffs and they have upgrades over guys like Chris Ray and Dustin Nippert ready to go, but instead, they're trying to turn these guys into something they aren't."
 
Where will Oakland's runs come from?
With an offense that currently ranks No. 11 in the American League, the A's have a lineup that lacks firepower. No one on their roster has an OPS over .800. Of greater frustration is the performance of the organization's top two prospects entering the season. First baseman Chris Carter and outfielder Michael Taylor have both struggled at Triple-A, and the duo that many saw as future middle-of-the-order run producers have seen their big league timetable delayed.
 
Carter, who led the minor leagues in total bases in 2008 and tied for the lead last year, still has plenty of positives in his batting line of .237/.340/.481 (note the OPS above .800). He continues to draw walks at a healthy pace, and there's been no loss of power, as more than 55 percent of his hits have gone for extra bases, including 20 doubles and 15 home runs in 283 at-bats.
 
"He has as much strength as any hitter I've seen this year," said one West Coast scout. "But at the same time there are a number of exploitable holes in his swing, and I'm not sure how much he can close them." Always the type of prospect who has struck out a lot due to his power, Carter has already racked up 91 whiffs this year, but this is the first time he's failed to hit for average, and it's come at the worst time.
 
Of far greater concern is Taylor, who the A's traded for in the offseason by sending first baseman Brett Wallace to Toronto. A 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, he's a monster who hit .320/.395/.549 last year at the upper levels of the Phillies system. This year, Taylor has been hampered at times by a calf strain, but that alone can't explain away a .249/.318/.384 performance that is well below expectations.
 
"I've never seen him before, so I never saw the guy who put up big numbers," said the same scout who chimed in on Carter. "He certainly looks the part, he's huge while still being lean and athletic, he seems to have some feel for contact, but he's not really squaring anything up. I still like him, but he can look lost at times, and I wonder if the slump is getting to him."
 
Angels: More Than Just Mike Trout
While center fielder Mike Trout has been the talk of the Midwest League all year for his power, speed and mind-blowing .372/.453/.551 batting line, he's overshadowed some other players for the Kernels. Of greatest note is the rotation, which features a number of highly-regarded prospects, including 2009 draftees Tyler Skaggs and Garrett Richards, but it's an international signee that's been generating the most buzz.
 
Fabio Martinez Mesa, a 20-year-old Dominican signed in 2007, led the Arizona Summer League in strikeouts last year during his state-side debut, and is doing the same so far with 100 punchouts in just 70 innings. He arguably has the best stuff in the league, with a 93-97 mph fastball as noteworthy for its movement as its velocity, and a true plus slider that has been giving hitters fits all year. In addition— and unlike most young, inexperienced pitchers—he has a very real mid-80s changeup with late drop. The only knock against Martinez is his control. His mechanics are solid and his arm action smooth, but he has trouble repeating his delivery, leading to inconsistent release points and a league-leading 54 walks. He's young enough to figure it out, and if he does, he gets moved into that 'special' category.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

2 comments have been left for this article.

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