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February 9, 2011
Prospects Will Break Your Heart
What Could Go Wrong with the Rangers' Top 5 Prospects?
Not so long ago, the Rangers' farm system put the sex in sexy, ranking as the top organization in baseball thanks to an assembly line of talent that ran from the lowest complex leagues all the way up to Triple-A. After a few seasons of major league promotion, attrition, and stagnation, the system has lost some of its mainstream shine. As we head into the 2011 season, the overall depth remains impressive, but depth is a drug without immediate effect. However, if you prepare yourself for the developmental hurdles, embracing a system stacked at the lower levels can be a more rewarding high, assuming of course that following the development of minor-league baseball players gets you high, which—believe me—it does.
For this article, let’s move away from the dreams associated with low-level depth, and take a look at the top five prospects in the Rangers’ system, and how their 2011 seasons might end up breaking a few hearts.
Prospect #1: Martin Perez
When I saw Perez in the instructional league in 2008, I was convinced that it was his curveball that was his most impressive offering. At the time, the Venezuelan lefty was only 17, but he already had a breaking ball that I thought graded near fringe-average, with excellent depth and spin, and he showed a mature command of the pitch. Thanks in part to the focus on the development of the changeup, Perez saw his curveball take a step back in 2010; the pitch would get slurvy at times and lacked bite. The quest to rediscover the curve could result in some statistical setbacks, but the pitch isn’t far removed from its former projection as a plus pitch. If everything clicks, Perez could see Arlington at some point during the season, but the likely scenario is that this will be a developmental year, with some heartbreak mixed in with a few highlights.
Prospect #2: Engel Beltre
A gifted athlete, Beltre has excellent hand/eye coordination and bat control, which allow him to make contact, regardless of where the ball is thrown. Recently, I was asked about Beltre’s pitch-recognition skills, and whether or not they are the fatal attribute in his approach. My answer was 'no'; from what I have seen, Beltre has pitch-recognition ability, but his desire to swing the bat intoxicates him enough that he makes poor decisions. This isn’t to say that Beltre never gets fooled, because he does. The point is that I have seen Beltre look fastball in a fastball count, receive a breaking ball out of the zone, keep his hands and weight shifted back, and then fire into the ball even though he had no chance of barreling it with any authority. The result was a weak groundout to the left side, and this kind of thing happened to him a lot in '10. It will happen a lot again in 2011 if he doesn't mature on this front.
So, if the approach is so poor, why is he my second-best Rangers' prospect? Because if—and I admit, it's a big if—Beltre can get out of his own way, he has the tools to be an above-average major-league player. His defense needs some refinement, but the tools are good enough for him to stay in the middle of the diamond, with 60 speed (and excellent first-step quickness), a 60 arm, and a 60 glove. At the plate, the aforementioned approach limits the range of his abilities, but the hit tool is there, and his swing has some power projection. The approach is the only thing keeping Beltre from being considered a legit top-tier prospect.
The book is out on Beltre, and advanced pitchers know how to induce weak contact and weak swings. If the 2011 season is to be anything but heartbreak, Beltre needs to work himself into better scenarios at the plate and give his offensive tools the opportunity to succeed. Without a step forward, the step back might start a slide that ends in flameout.
Prospect #3: Jurickson Profar
With Profar, more than any other prospect in the system, the severity of the heartbreak will be tied to your belief in the hype. Based on the glowing reports, one could easily assume Profar takes another big step forward and becomes a top-tier prospect in all of baseball. If you fit in this box, you might jump off the bandwagon if Profar once again “holds his own” but fails to leave a statistical mark you might associated with elite players. If you go into 2011 looking for positive development rather than statistical explosion, you will no doubt survive the pains of the process.
Prospect #4: Tanner Scheppers
The pitch that could end the starter/reliever debate for Scheppers is the changeup. When he throws it, I don’t see any red flags in the arm itself to suggest it can’t become a 50-grade pitch; the athleticism is there for him to demonstrate repeatability (read: deception), and the arm action looks the part. But throwing a good change is about feel, and that is something that doesn’t develop overnight—sometimes it can’t be developed at all. It’s often quite difficult to develop a finesse pitch in a power arsenal, especially when you don’t trust the result and start to overthink the process. Pitching is all about muscle memory and repetition, and when Scheppers was at his best, he was a grip-and-rip power arm who attacked the zone and dared you to beat him. Watching him nibble around the corners and float changeups just doesn’t look right.
It looks as though Scheppers will continue to be developed as a starter for the time being, so in the short run the issues with the changeup might bleed over into the rest of his arsenal. I think it's only natural for a system or a scout to dream of the prototypical power arm who finds a league-average changeup and settles into a job at the top of the rotation for years to come. But given the limited developmental progress of the changeup thus far, how much longer can you afford to focus on the dream before you start to regret missing out on the opportunities of the present?
Prospect #5 Robbie Erlin
In the immediate future, Erlin is moving up to the friendly confines of High-A Myrtle Beach, where his present arsenal will no doubt find success, especially if he continues to locate his fastball down in the zone. Although not gifted with height or plus velocity, Erlin maximizes his 88-91 mph fastball by creating good angles to the plate and with natural arm-side movement. His curveball is his most impressive secondary offering, nearing a plus grade at present, because it features sharp two-plane break that is effective against both lefties and righties. Thanks to a smooth, repeatable delivery, Erlin’s changeup is another pitch that projects as above-average, with excellent deception and some drop and fade. Factor in the plus command and maturity, and Erlin shouldn’t suffer a major setback in High-A.
Where he will start to run into trouble is against more advanced hitters, and that could happen sooner rather than later, especially if Texas pushes Erlin up to Double-A during this season. At that level, Erlin won’t be able to throw his fastball by opposing hitters, so sequencing and secondaries will start to play bigger roles, and his margin of error will shrink. It might seem like a minor concern, especially given the present arsenal I just described, but if you factor in the limited space for developmental growth, Erlin will reach a point where his arsenal just doesn’t live up to his statistical record. For people hoping for the next hero, following Erlin in High-A might feed your fix, but if you expect the same results in Double-A Frisco, you might need to try another drug.