There is more than a lone star in the making on the Texas farm. Thanks to an aggressive and well-executed commitment to scouting and player development, the Rangers now possess what is arguably the deepest stable of young talent in the game. Much of the credit goes to general manager Jon Daniels, but no less important are the contributions of Scott Servais, the team’s Director of Player Development. Servais, who has been in his current role since December 2005, discussed the organization’s philosophy, and some of the most promising players under his watch.
David Laurila: How has the Rangers’ player development system changed since you arrived here?
Scott Servais: We’re going into our fourth year here, and I think we’ve definitely moved things in the right direction. When we first came on board, we were recognized in the industry, from a talent-level standpoint, as being kind of toward the bottom among all organizations, but over time we’ve made a commitment and got a lot better. That commitment started with ownership and the general manager, and the direction they decided to go in as far as putting resources into our minor league system and acquiring talent at the amateur level. There are also the programs that were put in place, and me getting the freedom to bring in the right people to help develop our players and move them along at a quicker pace.
DL: How much of your job is scouting-based, and how much of it involves managerial responsibilities?
SS: I would say that the majority of it is putting the right coaches in place. I don’t get too involved in scouting amateur players, though I will get involved with the international players. My title is Director of Player Development, so I oversee all of the players who are already signed and in our system. A big part of that is putting our programs and systems in place, and getting the right people-coaches, trainers, etcetera-on the same page, so that we can all be moving forward in the same direction. As far as evaluating the talent we have, that’s obviously a primary job of mine as well. It probably goes hand in hand with hiring the right people.
DL: How many games do you see at each level over the course of a season?
SS: I’m constantly traveling around to our affiliates, getting a feel for how guys are progressing. It depends on where some of the guys are that we consider our higher prospects, and sometimes there are issues. But I try to get to each affiliate at least three times a season, and sometimes it is four or five. It all depends on what the priorities are at the time.
DL: How important are statistics in your evaluation process?
SS: I think that some of them play in. I look a lot at the experience level of the players. I’m not going to get so caught up in the errors, or strikeouts, or whatnot. But there is a track record over time. Guys who do get to the big leagues, and have successful careers, show certain standards that they’ve met at all the different levels. And age, at the level a player is at, really dictates a lot as to how I look at their statistics.
DL: Are strikeout rates important when evaluating pitchers?
SS: Not for me, they’re not. A lot of times that comes from velocity; they’ll overpower hitters at the lower levels. Your hard throwers will obviously strike out more guys, but sometimes that may change if their secondary pitches don’t come. If their breaking ball isn’t better at the upper levels, those numbers will go down, so you can get misled if you get too caught up in those numbers. So I don’t really play a whole lot into that.
DL: Nolan Ryan has a preference for developing power pitchers within the organization. Is that an accurate statement?
SS: I think that all organizations prefer power pitchers. Nolan was that type of pitcher, so there’s probably a comfort factor to where he likes that type of player. We also all know that the margin for error is much bigger, the harder you throw.
DL: Ryan is reportedly implementing some new policies for pitchers in the organization. How would you describe them?
SS: I don’t think that there have been a whole lot of change. Some of it has been documented. We’ve tried some different things on the developmental side, like throwing live batting practice between starts, and we think it has really helped a number of our young pitchers. Neftali Feliz and Derek Holland are two guys who have benefited from it, but it’s really been a number of guys. I think that has been the biggest change. It’s something that everyone felt strongly about, and we figured out a way to make it work in the daily routines. It’s something that I think we’ll be sticking with in the future.
DL: How about pitch counts and innings?
SS: We haven’t really changed anything from what we were doing in the past. I’ve talked to Nolan about where we stand, and do I think there are times where we give our managers plenty of freedom, especially at the upper levels. If there’s a chance to run a guy out there, and it’s the seventh inning and he’s sitting on 100 or 105 pitches, we’ll give him a chance to extend himself so that he gets the feeling of working through jams. It’s something we’ve done over the past three years that I’ve been here. We’ve done a study comparing how many innings our pitchers throw compared to other organizations, and we’re near the top. There are some organizations that do it differently, but we definitely have a plan. With Nolan, we’ve kind of brought him up to speed on what we’ve done here, and so far it’s all been good.
DL: How close to big-league ready is Neftali Feliz?
SS: I think he still needs some time in the minor leagues, but we’ll find out a lot in spring training. He’s getting a chance to come to big-league camp, and to participate in that and face a different caliber of hitter. He was very successful at the Double-A level when we promoted him last year, but when you get to see more experienced hitters who aren’t going to be wowed by the velocity, that’s where the secondary pitches are going to have to play in. So he’ll let us know. Can he get to the big leagues this year? Possibly, but it wouldn’t shock me if he didn’t.
DL: You caught a lot of guys as a major league catcher. Does Feliz remind you of any of them in particular?
SS: For pure stuff, I caught Kerry Wood early in his career. He was more advanced, and probably had a better breaking ball-better secondary pitches-but the velocity is similar. But nobody really jumps out at me. There was a relief pitcher that was with the Giants for awhile, Felix Rodriguez. He was similar, but Neftali is a lot younger than he was and will probably move quicker. So Kerry Wood, at least from a pure velocity standpoint, would probably come closest.
DL: How close to big-league ready is Derek Holland?
SS: He may be a little bit further along than Neftali, just because of his secondary pitches; his ability to use them really came on at the end of the year. But they’re very close. And they get along very well. They’re good teammates and kind of see themselves as the next wave here; they want to make an impact on the major league club. And when that happens, they’ll let us know. These guys are going to be at the upper levels-the Double-A or Triple-A levels-and if there’s a need and one of them is rolling along pretty well, I’m sure that we’ll give him an opportunity.
DL: How similar are Martin Perez and Kasey Kiker?
SS: They’re not similar at all in my opinion, even though they’re left-handed and throw the ball hard. They come from such different backgrounds, and they have different styles of pitching. Obviously, Kasey Kiker is further along, because he’s older than Martin, so we know more about him. Both guys have bright futures ahead of them, but they’re different pitchers.
DL: Where is Blake Beaven developmentally right now?
SS: He’s coming along very well. I think last year was a huge learning year for him, kind of being out there and going through his first full pro season. For all young players, it kind of takes a while for them to really buy in, and bite down, on what we’re talking about-how we’re approaching pitching and our routines. And for them to come up with a routine, a lot of times it takes up to a year or two. So Blake is moving along at a pace that we’re comfortable with. I just saw him a few weeks ago in Texas, and he looks great. We’re very excited. One thing about Blake is that he made all of his starts last year, and he throws strikes; he does not walk a lot of people. He’s going to have a chance to be in this game for a long time.
DL: How about Michael Main?
SS: Again, huge strides toward the end of the season. He had a rib issue early on, so he got started a little bit later last year. In instructional league, he was probably our most impressive guy. And part of that was that he was fresh; he wasn’t as gassed as some of the other guys. He didn’t have the number of innings they had. Right now he’s healthy, and I saw him in Texas a couple of weeks ago as well. Those guys are kind of in that next group that we hope will make an impact on our club.
DL: The Red Sox are going to allow Casey Kelly, their first-round pick last year, to both pitch and play shortstop this season. How did you view Main when he began his professional career?
SS: When we signed him that first year-where he was at and where we saw his future going off of what our scouts saw-we liked him more as a pitcher. I know that some clubs differed-they liked him as an outfielder. But for right now, he’s going to remain a pitcher. He was drafted as a pitcher. We did allow him to hit that first year, when he signed, just to kind of ease him into the game. I think it’s a big transition, especially for high school players who are used to playing every day, to just pitch once a week. That can be tough. We wanted to help him get over the hump mentally, so we let him do both. But he’s comfortable going forward as a pitcher, and I know we are.
DL: How similar are Justin Smoak and Chris Davis?
SS: Obviously, Smoak is a switch hitter, which is a huge advantage in our game. I think that early on, from what we’ve seen so far, that Justin Smoak’s strike-zone discipline has maybe been a little better than what Chris Davis’ was at a similar level. They both have big power. I do think that Chris Davis is quite a bit further along defensively. I think it really helped Chris to play third base for the one season he did that. Putting him back at first base, he’s much more agile and has a better feel. That’s one thing with Justin that we’re going to spend a lot of time on in the spring and throughout the season: getting him more comfortable defensively. He’s a capable defensive player, but I still think there’s a lot more in there. We want the complete player; we don’t just want a bat.
SS: Borbon is further along. There’s a chance that at some point this year he’ll impact our major league club. He really had a great season between Bakersfield, Frisco, the fall league, and winter ball; I think he probably walked to the plate 750 to 800 times this year. He really showed us a desire to play, and he went out there even when he wasn’t 100 percent. As an offensive player, Engel Beltre is going to be similar in that he won’t just be an average guy, there will be some power in there as well. Engel is a high-energy personality who loves to compete. Defensively, both guys are good, but can get better. They’re similar players, but I think Julio may be a little bit faster. But it’s kind of which day you catch them on, and I’m glad we’ve got both. They both have a chance to play in our outfield one day.
DL: What are your thoughts on the John Mayberry-Greg Golson deal?
SS: I think it’s probably a good baseball deal in that both guys get a change of scenery and some new people to work with. I liked working with John Mayberry. He had just been our first-round pick when I got here, so I had an opportunity to spend a lot of time with him. I don’t know Greg Golson that well. I’ve just seen him work out a little bit, but I know that some of our people have been spending a lot of time with him in the offseason, working to make some adjustments in his approach and his swing. He’s a very athletic player who will get plenty of opportunity to play for us, whether it’s in Triple-A, or in the big leagues, this year. At the end of the day, we’ll see what we’ve got.
DL: The organization is hoping that Elvis Andrus can jump from Double-A to the majors this year. How do you view his readiness?
SS: I certainly feel that he’s ready, and I’m one of the proponents behind it. I think he can be a special player, not only on the field, but his makeup and how he handles everything off of it. That said, any time you make that jump-which is a huge jump to make-there are going to be some bumps in the road, and there will be some times where he’ll struggle offensively, defensively, and whatnot, because he is a young player. But I couldn’t be any more excited about coming into spring training and seeing how he interacts and fits in, and if he’s ready.
DL: How much would it impact Andrus if he began his big-league career 0-for-22?
SS: It’s funny you mention that, because I started my career 0-for-22 and ended up playing for 10 years. And I think Elvis is a heck of a lot better offensive player. I think that if that’s the decision that’s made-if he makes our club-it will be because he played well in the spring and earned it. But we’re going to have to be patient and hang with him through tough times, and I don’t think 0-for-22 right out of the chute would be cause for panic and sending him to Oklahoma City right away. So we’ll just play it as the year goes on, and I’m sure that Ron Washington will be dialed in on that one every day. We think that Elvis has a chance to be a cornerstone player for us for a long time.
DL: How did 0-for-22 impact you?
SS: It got me thinking! But it was spread out over time, because I started out as a back-up catcher behind Craig Biggio at the time, in Houston. I also broke my hand in the middle of that and missed some time. But that’s what I started out at, 0-for-21 or 0-for-22, before I got my first hit.
DL: There have been a lot of trade rumors involving Taylor Teagarden and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Does your experience behind the plate give your opinions more weight when Jon Daniels discusses possible deals with his staff?
SS: I hope so, but I don’t know. JD weighs in and asks for opinions from a lot of people in our organization. I obviously played the position for a long time, and I’ve spent a lot of time with those two players, and I look forward to spending more time with them in spring training; I’ll put a uniform on and work with our big-league catchers. But I don’t know; that’s a question that you’d have to ask Jon. But I do get asked a lot of questions about those guys, not only from inside the organization, but from the outside, and I like what we have catching-wise. They’re both young and inexperienced, but they have a lot of upside. I think they both have great futures. I don’t think anyone sits back and predicts what a guy is going to do over the course of a 10- or 12-year career; you can throw darts at a board and get just as close to it. But I think they both have great upsides and things to work on. Experience is going to help them a ton, and I also think that the coaches who are working with these guys on a regular basis will make a big impact on how quickly they can speed up their learning curve. That’s getting to know our pitching staff, handling game situations, not letting the offense carry over to the defense. All of those things that go into the maturation of a catcher are huge in the development process.
DL: Going back to your playing career, who was the best pitcher you caught in your 11 major league seasons?
SS: There are different styles of pitchers; there are guys you have a good rapport with, and there is pure stuff, like a Kerry Wood. I caught Robb Nen for a little while in San Francisco; he had pure stuff. There was Darryl Kile, who was a good friend of mine. I played with Darryl for a long time, coming through the minor leagues and in the big leagues. There was Doug Drabek, who won a Cy Young award; I played with him in Houston for a few years. So it’s different styles. Kevin Tapani is a guy who really understood what he was doing out there. Pete Harnisch was a terrific competitor. And all of those guys really helped me in my current job of evaluating pitchers-whether a guy has got a chance or if he’s probably not going to make it.
DL: If you someday move out of your current position, what would be a better fit for you: manager or general manager?
SS: I don’t know, I really don’t. I have interest in both areas, but I like what I’m doing right now. It’s been a huge challenge, coming on board and getting an opportunity to change the culture of an organization. And I think that starts at the bottom when players come into the system, and that’s what we do-we try to create the right positive environment. We put a priority on winning in the minor leagues. Some organizations don’t believe in that, but we do. We want the mindset, and culture, of our coaches and players to be that we expect to win. We definitely think that’s a good carryover to the big-league level as our talent level increases and we get more big league-caliber players into our system.
DL: Any final thoughts?
SS: I think that the one thing that gets thrown out a little bit is that the strides we’ve made-for me, it’s a direct reflection on the direction that Jon Daniels, our general manager, and ownership-Tom Hicks-decided to go a few years ago. When we made the Mark Teixeira trade, we made a commitment at that time to go and put resources into player development. That was a huge step, because it hadn’t typically been the Rangers’ way. And doing that, and getting the ball rolling, was really Jon Daniels and Tom Hicks. Of course, Nolan Ryan came on a year ago and has added to the mix, but I don’t think enough credit is given to Jon and Tom. Instead of throwing crazy money at an A-Rod, or different things that the Rangers have tried to do in the past, we’re putting a huge importance on our scouting department-our amateur in the US and our international and pro scouts-and along with that, our player development department. And all of our scouts have done a great job, especially in evaluating makeup. For me, that’s what it is all about: getting everyone to feel that they’re an integral part of our success. We’ve been given the challenge to see what we can do with that, and I think we’ve done a good job so far.