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
Who: Despite an uneven 2010 season, Perez remains one of the top left-handed starters in the minors. Armed with a lively fastball that can sit in the 92-96 range, a true plus changeup that could be a 70-grade pitch after Perez matures, and an inconsistent curveball that has 55/60-grade potential, Perez missed a bat per inning pitched at the Double-A level as a 19-year-old.
What could go wrong in '11: The same thing that happened to himin '10, which can be summed up in three words: Command, Curve, and Consistency. Last season, Perez never found consistency with his fastball command, often losing the angle on the pitch and elevating it up in the zone. From a mechanical point of view, Perez is smooth and compact in his delivery, with a lengthy stride that eclipses his height. But he can lose his line to the plate and lose his focus when the command drifts away. Everything in his arsenal is built to play off his fastball, so shaky command will limit the effectiveness of his secondary pitches. In the long term, Perez will throw quality strikes and set the table for his swing-and-miss off-speed stuff, but until his control fine-tunes into actual command, Perez will be giving Double-A hitters something to work with in the meantime.
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
Who: After a strong performance in spring training carried over to High-A Bakersfield, Beltre’s stock was climbing, as the toolsy prospect looked like he was turning the corner and turning into a real player. After a promotion to Double-A, the party came to an abrupt halt, as Beltre’s weaknesses at the plate were exploited and his stock dropped in the eyes of many prognosticators. Obviously, his stock didn’t plummet in my eyes, because I ranked him the second-best prospect in the system, but I’ll explain that in more detail in a minute.
What could go wrong in '11: Beltre could fall off the prospect landscape thanks to his approach. Although the owner of the best collection of tools in the system, Beltre is a true boom-or-bust prospect, with everything showing signs of life except his approach at the plate, which continues to sabotage the remainder of his skill set.
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
Who: The precocious Little League World Series star made his much-anticipated debut in the college-heavy Northwest League, holding his own despite playing the entire season as a 17-year-old. Profar was seen by many as a better pitching prospect than a shortstop, but the Rangers gave him a reported $1.55 million to develop as a position player, and so far the Curacao native has lived up to the lofty hype.
What could go wrong in '11: Profar will jump into full-season ball as an 18-year-old already labeled as a top 100 prospect, which creates expectations that most players fail to eclipse. More refined and polished than his contemporaries, Profar lacks the extreme gulf between his present and future grades that most projectable teenagers have; at the present, he is simply showing in-game actualization and maturity that you don’t often see from college-tested players, let alone a teenager. This can present a bit of a prospect paradox, as the polish and poise give you reason to dream big about his ultimate upside, but the tools-based ceiling isn’t as high as his current skills might suggest. That is not a knock on Profar; he lacks elite tools, and I nevertheless project him to be a very good first-division regular, but not a superstar. I might be in the minority on that now, and I'm comfortable with the idea that I could be standing all alone when his developmental song stops.
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
Who: Drafted in the supplemental first round in 2009, Scheppers got a delayed start to his professional career after taking the mound for the St. Paul Saints rather than the Pittsburgh Pirates, who had drafted him in 2008. Making his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League, Scheppers looked more than legit, parking his fastball in the 94-97 range and bumping up against 100 mph on more than one occasion. To go along with the 80-grade heat, Scheppers mixed in a hard 70 curveball, an excellent pitch with late two-plane break. In his first full season, Scheppers was up and down, brushing off the competition in Double-A, but he struggled to find his rhythm after a promotion to Triple-A, where he worked in the rotation and out of the pen.
What could go wrong in ‘11: The injury issues of his past seem to be prologue when reading scouting reports on Scheppers. Because of his prior medical concerns and his present mechanics (which don’t appear dangerous but lack fluidity and involve some effort), there continues to be debate about the future role best suited for his arm. Moving away from the injury concerns for this article, I want to focus on one aspect of Scheppers’ game that could not only lead to disappointing results, but also a permanent move to the bullpen.
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
Who: Drafted in the third round in 2009, Erlin had the best season of any Rangers minor leaguer, dominating Sally League hitters as a teenager in full-season ball. The six-foot-nothing lefty brings a combination of stuff and polish to the table, but he lacks physical projection and his ultimate ceiling as a mid-rotation starter chokes his prospect value a bit; if Erlin had some physical projection left and another few ticks on the fastball, we would be talking about a guy with three plus-potential pitches to go along with veteran’s feel for command/control. As prospects go, that would be a monster.
What could go wrong in ’11: Similar to Profar in the sense that present polish clouds the perceptions of their eventual developmental progression, Erlin is going to reach a point in the near future where his skill set finds success, but lack the filthiness to dominate. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but if you are expecting the Erlin of 2010 to continually reappear with one affiliate after another as he climbs the ladder, you could be in for a letdown.
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.