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April 19, 2011

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

An Embarrassment of Riches: The Texas Rangers, Part I

by Jason Parks

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As much as I’d like to keep writing like a man with substantial drug and alcohol problems who lives alone and talks to his furniture like it was a member of the family, it’s time to return to reality (…) and focus on what I get paid to focus on: prospects.

I write about what I see, and so far this year I’ve seen the Rangers’ farm system more often than I’ve seen my own face. Like I did with the Royals, I want to highlight some of the under-the-radar talent, talent that has a chance to emerge on the prospect landscape during the season. For this exercise you will be provided a meat and a starch, so unless I can find a way to sneak in a meth reference or two, this article will be straight-up meat-and-potatoes scouting. I know, I’m disappointed as well. Take a deep breath. We will get through this together. 

Coming into the 2011 season, national prognosticators were in agreement that the Rangers had fallen off their lofty talent perch, sliding down from the top tier to the top third in all of baseball; Kevin Goldstein and his magic fedora ranked the Rangers’ system 10th, Keith Law ranked them 12th, and Baseball America inexplicably ranked them 15th overall. While I can certainly understand the argument for the systemic regression, at least as far as upper-level talent is concerned, I think the overall depth of the system—especially at the lower levels—might be the most impressive in the game. If the players I’m about to champion step up like I believe they can, the Rangers will once again emerge as a premier force in the minor-league world. 

C Jorge Alfaro
Who: The Legend. He’s a 17-year-old Colombian catcher who signed for $1.3 million in January 2010. 

Why He’s Next in Line: Tools/Projection. Not many catching prospects can boast two 70-grade tool futures, or the ultimate ceiling of an All-Star at the major-league level. At the plate, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound backstop has tremendous raw strength, sending ropes over the fence with a twist of the hips and a flick of the wrists. If you ever have the opportunity to see him hit in the cage, you will notice that the ball makes a unique sound coming off the bat; it sounds like a canon blast, with incredible exit velocity. In the box, Alfaro is balanced, with a quiet load, good weight transfer, and explosive leverage in his swing. He shows major league-quality opposite-field power at the present, getting good extension in his swing and generating power from his core. The swing itself isn’t especially short, but he has a fluid path to the ball, with the necessary loft to create backspin. The hit tool will allow the plus-plus power to play, but I only project him to be an average hitter at his peak.

Behind the plate, Alfaro is raw but showing improvement; his footwork is getting better and his overall comfort at the position has noticeably improved since last season. The 17-year-old can already pop in the 1.90 range, no doubt on his way to being a well above-average weapon in quelling the running game. His best attribute on defense is a 70 arm, which is capable of delivering lasers on a line across the diamond. Last season, I watched a then-16-year-old back-pick a runner at second base with a Pudge Rodriguez-esque rocket, surprising the second baseman, who was expecting a throw but wasn’t expecting his hand to swell from the sting.

Statistically speaking, 2011 might not look sexy on paper, but development is what we are looking for here. Alfaro is still raw and can be susceptible to breaking balls, especially when he gets power hungry and starts sitting dead red on every pitch. That’s to be expected from a player with a limited professional record, so its not a major concern now. Alfaro will make his stateside debut in either the Arizona League or in the college-heavy environment of the Northwest League. If he can continue to take developmental steps he will emerge as a top-10 talent in the Rangers system, and he could go even higher if the power arrives in game action. Alfaro has the potential to be a superstar, but it’s going to take time.

RHP Luke Jackson
Who: A supplemental first-round pick in the 2010 draft, this 6-foot-2 righty signed for a well above-slot bonus of $1.545 million.

Why He’s Next in Line: Stuff. Nasty stuff. The 19-year-old Jackson has yet to throw a professional pitch, but I can safely say that he will be a name every fan of the minors will know before the season is over. Jackson already possesses a plus fastball, sitting 92-95 in bursts, and touching as high as 98. He throws from a three-quarters arm slot, but he’s able to stay on top of the ball and create a good plane to the plate. His arm is extremely fast, giving his fastball some sneak to it, with a little late explosion as it enters the zone. The command isn’t there yet, but with present velocity and movement, it has a chance to be a very, very good pitch.

His best secondary pitch is a promising curveball that holds at least a 60 projection. Thrown effectively off the fastball, his 11-to-5 breaker comes in on the same plane and has late vertical movement in the 76-78 range. The pitch is nasty; Jackson already shows the ability to drop it for strikes as well as in the dirt when he needs a chase pitch. His changeup is immature, but he can already flash a promising one, thrown with good arm speed and some late arm-side fading action. His delivery helps with overall arsenal deception, as he comes high on the front side, has a big leg kick, and features a glove drift from the waist to the eye line before breaking his hands late as they slowly drift back below the letters. Jackson is very athletic, which will help him repeat his mechanics despite many moving parts in his delivery.

Jackson will start in extended spring training before moving on to either short-season Spokane in the Northwest League or full-season Hickory, where his raw stuff would keep him above water. Regardless of where he makes his professional debut, Jackson is going to miss bats, but he has the stuff to dominate if he can locate his pitches. I see good command down the line, but I’ll settle for good control at the present with positive steps toward refining his command. He’s going to be a very good pitcher, and it might not take long to flash his second-starter ceiling.

RHP David Perez
Who: The milk carton face of projectability, Perez signed for the equivalent of third-round money out of the Dominican Republic in 2009. 

Why He’s Next in Line: Projection. What if I told you that David Perez could end up a better prospect than his namesake, Martin Perez? Well, I’m telling you that, and yes, I’m sober. This 18-year-old has a chance to be very special. Many national voices acknowledge that the righty is already a borderline top-10 prospect on the Rangers farm, but after the 2011 season, he could reside in the top five. Before I tell you about the stuff, I want to bring up the biggest reason Perez stands out to me: fastball command. When you frequent the back fields, you don’t expect to see many 6-foot-5, 200-pound teenagers that have such an advanced feel for throwing strikes. Normally, with the body still growing and the present coordination suffering from the awkwardness of adolescence, repeatability is a stranger. However, Perez knows the strike zone like I know the inside of a psychiatrist’s office. I can’t articulate how smooth and comfortable his delivery is, or how unusual that is for a guy his size and age.

The stuff is equally impressive, with a fastball that already sits in the lower-plus range (and can touch the mid-90s) and a curveball that should end up as another above-average pitch. The lanky Perez is able to generate excellent angle on his fastball, with so much extension in front that hitters must think he could reach out and slap them. The curveball is behind the fastball at present, but I think it has a chance to stand side by side with it when his development is complete; the pitch already shows excellent depth, and he can throw it for strikes.

I’ve never been in the box against him, but I’ve spoken to some who have been, and they say it’s difficult to recognize the difference in Perez’s offerings until it’s too late; every pitch comes out of his hand the same. In theory, one could argue that Perez’s changeup might end up as his best pitch just based on the deception his repeatability creates. At present, he shows some feel for the changeup, but he hasn’t needed the pitch much so far. Instead, he has focused on establishing his fastball command and finding comfort with his breaking ball. Now that he is set to make his stateside debut, most likely in the advanced Northwest League, Perez will no doubt start working the changeup into his arsenal, adding yet another wrinkle to his advanced repertoire.

With his combination of present command, raw stuff, and projection, it’s not hard to dream of what this 18-year-old might become. If he can maintain the fluidity of his delivery and overall coordination as physically matures, the stuff will improve without sacrificing command. If that happens, Perez could be the top pitcher in the Rangers system in short order, and one of the best young arms in all of the minors. Okay, I might not be sober after all. 

---

Coming up in Part II: SS Hanser Alberto, IF Rougned Odor, 2B Odubel Herrera, and LHP Victor Payano. Who? You’ll see.    

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

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