The Rangers are one win away from the World Series, and they wouldn’t be where they are without the contributions of young talent raised on the Texas farm. Several key players are homegrown, including a pair of 22-year-olds, Elvis Andrus and Neftali Feliz, who arrived via trade but blossomed under the watchful eye of Rangers director of player development Scott Servais. Servais talked about the club’s precocious youngsters, and the Texas youth movement, prior to Game Five.
What is it like seeing so many players that came through the system making such a big impact in the postseason?
Scott Servais: It’s very gratifying, obviously. It speaks volumes to our scouts identifying guys, and also to the impact that our coaches and my staff have had on each guy who is contributing to a team that has a chance to go to the World Series.
There are a group of guys contributing. There is Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland
, Mitch Moreland… there are quite a few of them that have been in the system. There are also guys that we acquired from other organizations and kind of got on the right track, like Nelson Cruz
. All of those guys are gratifying, because our minor-league staff had their hands on all of them.
DL: How were you able to get Cruz onto the right track?
SS: We made some adjustments with him. The biggest thing for Nelson was that he was open to it. He was a guy who had a very closed-off stance and he had some issues with his swing path. We talked, and he was kind of at, I think, the breaking point to where he was ready to listen and try some different things. We threw something at him, and he bought into it.
Nelson opened up his stance, which allowed him to see the ball better, and there were a number of drills, and the routine he did, to kind of flatten out his bat path. He has tremendous power and he’s a really good athlete, but he just wasn’t making enough contact. We addressed those things, and to Nelson’s credit he got on a program. He bought in, and he still does the program today.
DL: When I interviewed you in February of 2009, you said that Elvis Andrus was ready to jump from Double-A to the big leagues. A lot of people doubted it at the time, but you were proven to be right.
SS: Yeah, it’s amazing how that stuff works out, isn’t it? But no, Elvis is a special player, and not just from an ability standpoint, but also makeup and leadership. He’s a winning-type of player. His instincts just jump off the chart, everything from… he makes a great play [on Tuesday night]. He doesn’t panic; he makes a great throw to third base and limits what could have been a very big inning for the Yankees. He does all those little things. He’s a winning-type of player.
DL: Is Andrus developing any differently at the big-league level than you expected?
No, I think it has pretty much gone as planned. I think that the biggest thing is that there are veteran players on the team, like Michael Young
and Ian Kinsler
. The veteran guys on our club have taken him in. They got him very comfortable his rookie year, and now we’re even starting to see Elvis taking more of a leadership role.
DL: Can you talk a little about Neftali Feliz?
SS: With Neftali, a number of people kind of split camp: is he a starter or is he is a reliever? I think that with the big plus fastball, and the ability to come in for one inning and let it fly, his spot as a closer has probably come a little bit faster. The one thing with Neftali is that he has a very calm demeanor, which you need in that role. As things get a little hairy and crazy, and 50,000 people are screaming at you… his heart may be pumping pretty hard, but outwardly, for a younger guy, it’s very rare to see him get [shaken] out there on the mound. In that role, he’s handled it very well for how young that he is.
SS: I think that when our scouts originally drafted him, they nailed him. I mean, he was a guy who was going to be able to log a lot of innings. He was going to throw strikes, he had a good curveball, his fastball had a little cut and movement to it. There are days when Tommy is very good and there are other days when he’ll get the ball up and struggle, like a lot of other pitchers do. But the big thing with Tommy is that he’s a strike thrower and he’s a horse. He can log innings, and you need that over the course of the season. I thought that his stuff in [Tuesday] night’s game was good. The Yankees really battled him, and they hit some good pitches against him.
DL: What have you seen from Derek Holland this year?
SS: Derek has had an up-and-down year. He got hurt a little bit in spring training, and then got off to a very good start in Triple-A. He was our sixth starter coming out of camp. He had a little knee issue and missed some time in May and June, and he came back from that. One thing about Derek is that he’s fresh right now. What you saw [Tuesday] night is not typical pitching in October, because he didn’t have a huge number of innings on him throughout the course of the season. We needed a shot in the arm, he’s left-handed, and that helps us out a lot.
DL: Do you see Holland as a starter down the road?
SS: Yeah, I think we all do. His secondary pitches… his breaking ball has gotten better this year. It has certainly gotten better in probably the last three or four weeks. But I do, and I think that a lot of people see him as a starting pitcher, because he can log innings and he can carry velocity throughout the course of a game. So that’s where we’ll see him in the future, but he’s obviously playing a big role for us right now in the bullpen.
DL: A number of fans around the country have probably tuned into the postseason and asked, “Who is Mitch Moreland?”
SS: For me, Mitch is a great development story. We didn’t draft him particularly high, but when we got him in the system, I think that the people who were around him… when you talk about makeup and competitiveness, Mitch is one of the most competitive players we’ve had in our minor-league system in quite awhile. And he’s got the ability to drive in runs. He’s gotten some big hits in this series. As his career progresses, I think you’re going to see a very productive player unfold, especially in terms of driving in runs. He’s also got the ability to make adjustments, which is huge for a young player. He’s still got some work to do at first base, but the No. 1 thing that sold everyone on Mitch was how competitive he is.
DL: That said, has his emergence come at all as a surprise?
SS: For the people in our system, it was always: [Justin] Smoak, [Chris] Davis, or Moreland? They’re all first-base types, so how will they play out? Different people had different opinions on them, but they’re all different in what they bring to a team. I don’t think that Mitch is a surprise to many people within the organization. Even our big-league players who were around him in spring training. Michael Young, and some of the other guys, would come over and say, “This guy can hit.” They saw it right away.
Julio has not played a lot in this series, but he did play a lot for us throughout the year. He’s another good young player, and he‘s pinch-run in this series, but we‘ve played [Josh] Hamilton in center, for the most part, because of David Murphy
‘s emergence and us getting Jeff Francouer. But Julio Borbon is a guy who is coming.
Alexi Ogando is a very intriguing story. He’s a guy that we really could not get out of the Dominican Republic for about two-and-a-half years because of a visa issue. He’s a guy that we got in the minor league Rule 5 draft, from Oakland, as an outfielder, and we converted him. He’s 96-98 mph and this is his first year of professional baseball in the United States, as a pitcher. For him to be pitching in the big leagues, and helping us win, might be one of the most surprising stories. Last year he was pitching in the Dominican Summer League, kind of stuck in the Dominican, and now he’s here with a chance to help us get to the World Series.
DL: Once these guys get to the big leagues, how involved with their development are you?
SS: I’m very involved. I’ll be throwing batting practice to them on the field before the game. I guess that I do things a little differently than your typical farm director, because I did play, and I do coach; I do put the uniform on. I’m pretty involved with our club throughout the course of the season. I’m obviously traveling to our minor-league affiliates and working with our young players, but there are a lot of young players here in the big leagues, and our major-league coaching staff is very involved with them. They’re keeping up with them and making sure that they know the history of our players.
The key to young players is getting them to contribute right away, it‘s not waiting two or three years until they figure it out. Based on where we’re at payroll-wise, we’re always going to have those challenges, and our major-league coaching staff realizes that. So they’re open to listening, and asking questions and finding out as much as they can about our young players.
And it’s one thing to be ready from a physical standpoint, to be able to go out and compete at the major-league level. It’s another thing to be ready from a mental standpoint. Can these players walk into our clubhouse and feel comfortable and let their personalities come out, and let their abilities come out? I think that’s the biggest thing. And it starts with Ron Washington
creating an atmosphere around the team. Wash goes, “Hey, we’re going to go with young players,” and Wash is very trusting. I’ll say, “Wash, we think this guy can do this; he can help you,” and he’ll say, ‘OK, let’s go; bring him on,” versus, “I’ve got to see it first; this is the big leagues and not the minor leagues.” Wash has never taken that approach, which is really important for us.
Our guys can get comfortable right away, because they feel it. They know that Wash believes in them, and that our organization believes in them. They have the right environment set up so that when they walk into the clubhouse, the Kinslers and the Youngs and the Hamiltons are open to them. They see them and think, “They’re here, so they must have talent. Let‘s make them comfortable, because they‘re going to help us win.”