Breaking Down Rangers' Top 10 Prospects at Start of 2014 Season

Will Korn@@TheRealWillKornCorrespondent IIApril 3, 2014

Breaking Down Rangers' Top 10 Prospects at Start of 2014 Season

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    Julie Jacobson

    When you think of model major league organizations over the last few seasons, three teams that immediately come to mind are the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers.

    There's no debating Boston and St. Louis on that front. Each club has won a pair of World Series titles in the last eight seasons. The Rangers are still searching for that ever elusive first World Series championship, but they are one of only two clubs—along with the Tampa Bay Rays—to win 90 or more games in the each of the last four seasons.

    The rest of the league envies these organizations because they are able to maintain a winning club at the major league level while keeping very strong minor league systems intact.

    Stocking and developing talent, especially of the international variety, has been a specialty of general manager Jon Daniels since he took office with the Rangers in 2006. Texas has had stronger systems in the past, and the organization has made some deals that have slightly strained the talent pool.

    Matt Garza rings a bell.

    But the Rangers' talent pool in the minors in 2014 is impressive once again. The infield talent and depth characterizes Texas' system. Many promising young outfielders are also starting to emerge.

    Let's take a look at the Rangers' top 10 prospects at the start of this exciting new baseball season. To be clear, the ranking of these prospects reflects my own opinion. 

    Enjoy! 

10. Nick Martinez, RHP

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    Martinez being included in this group might come off as a bit surprising to some Ranger fans. But he impressed in spring training and in four starts in Double-A Frisco late last season.

    He did enough to earn the unofficial fifth spot in the Rangers rotation—at least for now—and will make his first major league start Saturday night against David Price and the Rays in Tampa Bay.

    Even with Texas' rotation in shambles, Martinez emerged among a deep crop of potential starting candidates to win a job with the Rangers. That by itself, I think, earns him a spot here. Although once the cavalry returns, he will likely head back down to Double-A.

    For now, though, congrats, kid.

    In his March 21 article, John Sickels of Minor League Ball over at SB Nation ranked Martinez as the Rangers' No. 12 prospect. Here's a snippet of what he thinks about the youngster out of Fordham University:

    All the attention paid to the Hickory toolshed overshadowed Martinez’s fine season: 2.50 ERA, 128/45 K/BB in 151 innings, 117 hits between High-A and Double-A. Athletic right-hander out of Fordham shows strong command of three pitches and clean, easy mechanics. Could be strike-throwing inning-eating starter or a really good middle reliever.

    Hitters had a tough time squaring up on Martinez and hit just .212 off him for the season. He is primarily a three-pitch guy, possessing a low 90s fastball, a plus curveball and a tailing changeup. He's only 6'1" and 175 pounds, but his compact delivery helps him to overcome that slight frame. 

    He is someone to keep an eye on for sure, even beyond his big league debut Saturday night in Tampa. Martinez is the definition of a no-nonsense, straightforward pitcher, and that can only help his development.

9. Ronald Guzman, 1B

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    Guzman only got 10 at-bats with the Rangers in Arizona this spring, but boy, did he take advantage of them. Two homers, five RBI and a pair of walks in those 10 trips to the plate are very promising numbers.

    He's had some problems staying healthy and only played in 49 games with Class-A Hickory last season. But he was fairly productive despite the very limited action. Here's what Marc Hulet of FanGraphs had to say about Guzman:

    Signed the same year as [Nomar] Mazara, Guzman’s 2013 season was interrupted by a knee injury. He flashes plus raw power but has yet to fully tap into it. He struggled mightily against southpaws in 2013 with a .496 OPS compared to .778 against righties. Guzman, 19 has limited defensive value.

    Sickels adds some praise of his own, saying Guzman "might develop into a David Ortiz-type, [with] big upside." 

    Whoa. If Guzman can be anything close to Big Papi, the Rangers could be set at first base for quite a while. He needs to add some muscle to his lanky frame, but he has the body that is capable of producing a true power hitter.

    I would bet he'll start out back in Hickory and may move up to Frisco at the end of the year if he impresses. But like many of these talented, young prospects, there is no reason to rush.

8. Luis Sardinas, SS

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    Quite possibly the most advanced defensive prospect in the Rangers' minor league system, Sardinas has a special glove and awareness at shortstop. 

    More than most of the other guys on this list, he is still an offensive project. But he does have an ability to make solid contact and spray the ball to all fields. 

    Right now, I view him as sort of a super utility player with plus speed. Elvis Andrus is signed long term and is just 25, so there may not be an abundance of opportunity for Sardinas in the immediate future.

    As a switch-hitter though, if he can develop some more power and continue to turn heads with his defensive range and arm strength, he could have a shot with Texas. Playing in Double-A at just 20 years old is no small feat. 

    The scouting report from Hulet:

    The slick-fielding Sardinas is often overlooked in an organization brimming with young infielders. The young athlete isn’t as gifted offensively as the likes of Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor but he is a skilled defender at shortstop with an above-average arm, plus range and good actions. At the plate, Sardinas understands his strengths and doesn’t try to muscle the ball, instead focusing on an all-fields approach and hitting the ball where it’s pitched. He also has above-average speed that should allow him to steal 20+ bases in a full big league season.

    Sardinas is just one more in the long and distinguished line of talented young infielders in the Texas system. 

7. Alex Gonzalez, RHP

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    By a comfortable margin, Gonzalez is the second best pitcher in Texas' system.

    The 23rd overall pick in the 2013 amateur draft out of Oral Roberts University, he initially struggled with Spokane in the Northwest League. But he performed significantly better in his time at High-A Myrtle Beach. 

    In five starts last season, he posted a 2.84 ERA in 19 innings, allowing 15 hits. He punched out 15 batters but also walked nine. So the two things he needs to work on are control—he can be a bit erratic at times—and working deeper into games. 

    But he has some of the best stuff in the organization, with his slider being his go-to pitch. He accompanies that with a low-to-mid 90s sinker, changeup and an occasional curveball. 

    Sickels wrote: "One of my favorite college pitchers from the 2013 draft, the Oral Roberts product has a fine sinker, slider, and changeup combination and should/could develop into a mid-rotation presence assuming the standard caveats about young pitchers."

    The major plus with Gonzalez is that he spent four seasons pitching at Oral Roberts and was the ace in his last two seasons there. He's a very intelligent and mature pitcher on the mound, which should give him a real shot to eventually claim a spot in the rotation. 

6. Joey Gallo, 3B

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    Gallo is one of the most intriguing prospects in the Rangers system. He has the monster power that makes scouts drool and perennial 40-plus homer potential. But he also strikes out at an obnoxious rate—36.9 percent last season in Single-A Hickory. 

    Which of those will carry over to the major leagues? He can probably make it to the show on his power alone, but will he be handcuffed by his swing-and-miss tendencies?

    The hard fall of his strikeout rate is somewhat cushioned by his ability to take walks. He took 48 free passes in 2013, and despite striking out at that rate, he still maintained a .334 OBP. So he does have a good eye, but his uppercut, Prince Fielder-like swing keeps his batting average down. 

    From Hulet:

    Gallo possesses plus-plus power and has one of the most potent bats in the minors in terms of home run potential. Unfortunately, he invokes comparisons to former Indians slugger Russell Branyan for the boom-or-bust, swing-and-miss tendencies. He struck out almost 40% of the time in 2013. In the field, Gallo shows a very strong arm but his range and foot work are both below average and he may end up in right field (first base is also an option but would negate part of his defensive value).

    For now, Gallo seems like a toss-up in terms of overall potential with a major league club. The Branyan comparison is somewhat frightening, but the kid is just 20 years old and still has plenty of time to develop, being just in Single-A right now. 

    If he puts on a few extra pounds and learns to make more consistent and selective contact, watch out.

5. Nick Williams, Outfield

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    Williams is one of the most complete players down on the farm. He does everything well or least on an average level—there aren't any standout weaknesses in his game. 

    As a 19-year-old, he put together a very nice 2013 season in Single-A Hickory, even if shortened. In 95 games, he hit .293 with 17 homers and 60 RBI—110 hits in 95 games is impressive. 

    Williams is a free swinger and doesn't take a lot of walks—just 15 last season. He strikes out but not at a Gallo rate.

    Sickels thinks very highly of the young outfielder, ranking him as the fourth-best prospect in Texas' system:

    Marvelous tools, part of the Hickory Bunch, hit .293/.337/.543 with 15 walks, 110 whiffs. Like most of his teammates his approach is overaggressive and it remains to be seen how this will work at higher levels. All-Star tools, skills still in rudimentary stage though I think he’s a more balanced hitter than Joey Gallo.

    Defensively, Williams doesn't have a spectacular arm, but he is a smart runner who can range well. He has a touch of speed and can accelerate quickly both in the field and on the basepath. 

    He clearly has an ability to hit for power and average. That, to me, could put him in the discussion as a No. 3 through No. 6 hitter in the Rangers' future lineup.

4. Luke Jackson, RHP

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    Jackson has wicked stuff but needs to work on his control. He has steadily improved over his first three seasons in the minors, and now he is the best pitcher in the Rangers system.

    He has been able to rein in his control issues a bit over the last three years, and he's become tougher to hit as a result. In 2013, he started 23 games between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco. He finished the year with an 11-4 record and a 2.04 ERA in 128 innings of work. He surrendered just 92 hits and struck out 134 batters.

    The only real black mark in those 128 innings was a total of 59 walks on what was otherwise a phenomenal season. If he can learn to control himself a little more, he has the fearless, attacking mentality of an upper rotation starter. His long delivery is deceptive, and then he comes right at you with the fastball-curveball one-two punch. 

    Hulet's thoughts:

    Trades and promotions have robbed the organization of a lot of its pitching depth but Jackson continues to get better and is now the most talented pitching prospect in the system — although questions remain about his future role. The right-hander has a strong pitcher’s frame but everything that comes out of his hand is hard — a fastball that touches 95-96 mph, as well as a curveball. He has a changeup in his arsenal but it’s rarely used. Jackson also struggles with both his command and control but when he finds the strike zone he can be hard to hit.

    I'm excited to see how Jackson continues to develop. He'll start the year in Double-A, but could easily be in Triple-A Round Rock or even in Arlington by the end of 2014.

3. Jorge Alfaro, C

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    I might catch some flak for ranking Alfaro at No. 3, but I'll explain my thinking about that decision on the next slide. One can make a very compelling argument that he should be the top or second-best prospect in Texas' system. 

    He is almost certainly the future behind the dish for the Rangers. Besides Michael Choice, he has the most direct path to a prominent role with Texas. Current Ranger catchers J.P. Arencibia and Geovany Soto are only signed through 2014, although it's reasonable to expect one of them will return next season.

    Still, Alfaro doesn't have much in the way of "blocking talent" in front of him. He just needs to continue to play well, and he will get his shot—maybe sooner than later. 

    Alfaro performed well last year at Single-A Hickory, hitting .258 while belting 16 long balls and driving in 53 runs. His 16 stolen bases is a major plus.

    He has All-Star potential, wielding power and an arm that reminds me of Ivan Rodriguez. He is another free-swinger, however, who needs to improve his plate discipline.

    Sickels and Hulet aren't as high on Alfaro as one might expect. Sickels wrote:

    Good progress on defense, has the tools to be an All-Star. Bat remains a serious concern for me: he showed only slight improvement while repeating Low-A and his plate discipline remains disturbingly poor. Turns 21 in June so there is lots of time on the clock, but very much a high-risk/high-reward property. Alfaro does not resemble him physically, but statistically he could end up something like Miguel Olivo

    Hulet had this to say:

    Alfaro, 20, has a strong arm that should allow him to control the running game in the Majors. His naturally-aggressive nature at the plate hinders his offensive tools and he may not hit for a great average due to his high strikeout totals. Alfaro has above-average power potential. 

    Again, patience is key here. There's no need to rush Alfaro. He is not major league-ready, and there is plenty of time to get him to that point.

2. Michael Choice, OF

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    OK, so allow me to explain myself here.

    Choice is ranked ahead of Alfaro for two main reasons. First, Choice had the best minor league numbers of any Rangers prospect in 2013, given that he was playing in Triple-A. Second, he tore it up in spring training and earned a spot with the Rangers, where he can reasonably play a major role sometime this season. 

    He is four years older than Alfaro and played college ball. But put age aside here. Choice is the more major league-ready prospect—if you still want to classify him as one—and that's why he gets the nod here.

    So far this season with the Rangers, he has one hit in four plate appearances, and many more should be on the way. Conceivably, he could take over as the full-time right fielder next season if Texas doesn't pick up Alex Rios' 2015 option.

    There's a lot to like about Choice's development. He was known as a guy who had both plus power and contact ability but would expand his strike zone by chasing outside pitches. He demonstrated excellent plate discipline in spring training and was probably the Rangers' best offensive player in Arizona.

    I thought he would be better served by starting this year in Triple-A, getting to play every day while Rios plays out what could be his last year in Texas. But Choice proved his value as a right-handed power bat off the bench, if nothing else.

    Now, it's time to sit back and watch what this kid can do in this lineup.

1. Rougned Odor, 2B

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    I'm not seeing very many Rangers prospect lists that don't have Odor coming in at No. 1. 

    In my mind, he is easily the most advanced Rangers prospect. He just turned 20 in February, and he managed to hit .303 in 508 at-bats between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco last season. What's even more impressive is that he was able to maintain—and even increase—his batting average after he moved up a level to Double-A.

    He is a special prospect who has quickly worked his way through the prospect rankings over the last couple of years. 

    He has a tight, compact swing that allows him to get around on and inside pitches. He makes hard contact consistently and can generate unexpected power because of his swing. 

    Odor plays the game hard, even if he doesn't have great speed. He is a smart runner and plays with max effort, which allowed him to steal 31 bags in 2013. The glovework is getting there, but remember he's just 20.

    Here is what Sickels thinks of the Rangers' prized possession: "Let’s see…41 doubles, 11 homers, 32 steals, .306 average between High-A and Double-A, at the tender age of 19. Needs some work on defense and looks blocked in Texas, but clearly an elite prospect."

    The only question to consider with Odor: Where does he fit in with Texas, given that Andrus and Jurickson Profar are both locked in long term?

    Do the Rangers perhaps try to trade Andrus in a couple of years, move Profar to short and call up Odor to play second? That's obviously speculation, but it's the only way I see Odor getting regular playing time anytime soon.

     

    **All stats courtesy of MLB.com and MILB.com.