Seven teams, seven sleepers

The Texas Rangers have seven minor league teams from the Dominican Summer League up to Triple-A. Each team has its share of top prospects, but the clubs also have some 'sleeper' prospects that have the talent to reach elite status. Lone Star Dugout takes an in-depth look at some of those players.

Triple-A Round Rock: Omar Beltre, RHP

Despite reaching the majors in 2010, Beltre tends to fly under the radar. The 29-year-old returned state-side last season after the much-publicized marriage fraud scandal held him out of the U.S. for five years. He made two starts with the Rangers but played most of the season at Triple-A.

Beltre's above-average stuff is evident. As a starter, he features a 92-94 mph fastball (bumping 95-96), a mid-80s splitter, and a low-80s slider. The fastball and splitter can both be plus offerings, though the slider often breaks out of the hand and remains inconsistent. Beltre lived up in the zone and fell behind hitters in his seven big league innings––likely an aberration from the pitcher that constantly pounded the lower portion of the zone in 85 Triple-A innings.

While the big right-hander profiles best as a reliever, his arm was slow to bounce back early in the season. Texas put Beltre back in the Triple-A rotation after he was needing three-to-four days between relief appearances. Whether he's starting or relieving, Beltre should have an impact on the 2011 big league staff.

Double-A Frisco: Jose Felix, C

Felix has a chance to become a strong defensive-minded backup catcher. The 22-year-old split the 2010 campaign between High-A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco before finishing with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League.

The 5-foot-10, 198-pound backstop has decent arm strength, but it's his smooth mechanics and quick release has allowed him to gun down 71-of-122 (58%) attempted base stealers between the regular season, Fall League, and winterball this year. Felix handles a pitching staff well and is learning the nuances of game-calling.

The Mexico native isn't likely to impress with his offensive numbers. Yet for him to become a backup, he'll just need to be passable at the plate. With the help of his hand-eye coordination, Felix fanned in only 8.1% of his plate appearances. His overly aggressive approach produced a poor 4.7% walk rate. Felix improved his hitting mechanics in 2010––leading to a .278 average in 100 games––but he'll have to become a more selective hitter as he progresses.

Wieland's curveball improved.
High-A Myrtle Beach: Joe Wieland, RHP

Wieland has mid-rotation potential because of a durable frame, solid-average stuff, and plus control. His fastball fluctuates a bit from start-to-start, working between 88-91 mph in some outings while sitting 91-93 and touching 94 in others. Wieland's velocity should become more consistent as his 20-year-old arm continues to mature.

Although Wieland's ERA jumped nearly two runs following his early-July promotion to High-A Bakersfield, his low-80s curveball made big strides. The 6-foot-3 righty's strikeout rate rose to 24% (62 in 59 innings) at High-A after he began throwing the breaking ball earlier and more often in starts.

Wieland stated in a recent interview that he'd like to focus on improving his inconsistent changeup next season. The Reno native attacks the strike zone with all three pitches––he had 25 walks in 148 frames and 5.3 strikeouts per walk in '10.

Single-A Hickory: Matt Thompson, RHP

Scouts are quick to mention the Metroplex native when discussing the top sleepers in the Rangers system. While his current numbers aren't dominant, Thompson is progressing steadily and could break out as one of the system's top pitching prospects.

The right-hander passes the initial eye test, with a strong 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame and a clean arm action. His 88-92 mph fastball touches a bit higher on occasion and still could add a tick down the line. Thompson currently becomes hittable as his fastball often stays straight, but he releases the ball from a good angle and can get some natural sink at times.

The 20-year-old's most intriguing pitch is a plus 75-78 mph curveball with excellent depth that allowed him to post 130 strikeouts in 129.1 innings at Hickory in 2010. Thompson's low-80s changeup, which has good deception and sink, helped him induce over two groundouts per flyout against lefties this past season. The change projects as a future solid-average pitch.

Short-season Spokane: Josh Richmond, OF

Richmond's biggest obstacle thus far has been staying on the field and injury free. The 21-year-old has plenty of raw talent but a couple of hand injuries limited him to just 23 games at the University of Louisville in 2010. Texas took a flier on Richmond in the 12th round––signing him for $195,000––after he produced a disappointing .262/.351/.369 line in his junior campaign with the Cardinals.

He later injured his thumb and missed some time after diving into home plate during a game with short-season Spokane. Regardless, Richmond batted .297/.417/.458 with 16 walks (plus 9 HBP) and 23 strikeouts over 144 plate appearances in his debut summer.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound prospect has a smooth swing in addition to some plate discipline and strength. Richmond profiles as an above-average corner outfielder with a plus arm and some athleticism. He spent most of the summer as Spokane's every day right fielder and projects to stay there. Richmond is currently flying under the radar due to his injuries and draft round, though he was one of the more naturally gifted outfielders in the 2010 collegiate draft crop.

Blackwell has some projection.
Rookie level Surprise Rangers: Shawn Blackwell, RHP

The Houston native is a projection arm that should show gradual progression while his 6-foot-5, 195-pound frame and stuff matures over the next few seasons. At his best, Blackwell throws an 88-91 mph fastball from a good angle, though he must learn to keep it down in the zone. His velocity fluctuated in his first season, dropping into the 84-86 mph range at times, but it should become consistent as his arm gets accustomed to the heavy throwing schedule of professional baseball.

Blackwell, who turned 20-years-old in November, flashed a mature curveball for a pitcher just out of high school. He often threw the breaker in the mid-70s while showing the the ability to bury it in the dirt and chase strikeouts in the upper-70s. The prospect still has room to sharpen the spin and command of the offering. As with most young pitchers, his changeup is a work in progress, though the pitch often has good shape and his arm speed is promising.

The righty's projection earned him a $300,000 bonus as a 24th-round pick in the '09 MLB Draft. So far, his development has been positive and he'll look to continue the gradual progress as he climbs the ladder. He could eventually sit in the low-90s to go along with an above-average curveball and a usable changeup.

Dominican Summer League Rangers: David Perez, RHP

Perez is next in a line of high-ceiling Latin American arms the Rangers are beginning to develop. Texas inked the Dominican Republic native for a bargain $425,000 bonus over a month after the July 2 signing period began in '09, as he went through a bit of a dead-arm period that caused some teams to back off him.

As it turned out, the dead arm period was just that, and the 18-year-old was among the top pitching prospects in the Dominican Summer League this past season. Perez posted a 1.41 ERA over 14 starts and 70 innings. He yielded 50 hits while walking only eight and fanning 68.

The 6-foot-5, 200-pound hurler has a loose arm action and consistently throws strikes down in the zone with three pitches––an 89-91 mph fastball that touches as high as 93-94, a 74-77 mph curveball, and a changeup. Perez should possess a low-to-mid-90s fastball when he develops, and his current package of command and control with multiple pitches make him all the more intriguing.

Others

Hanser Alberto, SS – The athletic shortstop finished tops in the Dominican Summer League with a .358 average during his first year of professional ball. Alberto drew praise for his advanced pitch recognition and excellent hand-eye coordination that allowed him to consistently barrel balls despite an aggressive approach. The 18-year-old has some lift in his swing that should produce gap-to-gap power. He also swiped 16 bases in 19 attempts over 50 contests.

Jake Brigham, RHP – Brigham was a breakout candidate entering the 2010 campaign but posted a 6.93 ERA after opening the season at High-A Bakersfield. Still, the right-hander has promising stuff and found success with a new slider upon his return to Hickory. Brigham's fastball sits in the low-90s, touching 95-96 mph during his starts. The Florida native has yet to master the changeup and may profile best as a hard-throwing reliever that can let his fastball go while mixing in two usable breaking balls.

Santiago Chirino, 2B – The Venezuelan middle infielder has polished skills that allowed him to compete in the college product-dominated Northwest League as a 19-year-old. Chirino particularly stands out for his plus glove at second base due to his advanced instincts and sure hands. At the plate, the 5-foot-10 prospect projects as an on-base threat due to his ability to work counts and use all fields––two particularly impressive assets given his age and experience level.

Ovispo de los Santos, RHP – The fireballing Dominican had a bit of a breakout in 2010 and should reach the upper levels of the minors in '11. De los Santos throws an explosive fastball that touches the upper-90s with seemingly little effort. His slider is improving as he gains trust in the pitch and throws it more often. The 23-year-old recently drew interest from some teams as a potential selection in the Rule 5 Draft, though he wasn't taken.

Carlos Melo, RHP – Melo made massive strides in 2010, lowering his ERA from 7.09 to 3.83 while repeating the rookie Arizona League. Most likely a reliever in the long run, the 19-year-old currently works as a starter, where he flashes a 90-93 mph fastball (touching the mid-90s) with natural life. While Melo has always possessed a powerful arm, he is beginning to harness his secondary stuff (curveball, changeup) and the mental aspect of the game.

Tom Mendonca, 3B – Mendonca looked like a shell of his former self for much of his first full season, posting a disappointing .248/.331/.391 slash line at High-A Bakersfield. However, the lefty slugger was undergoing major changes to his approach and swing and was regarded as a project when drafted out of Fresno State. Mendonca built some much-needed momentum with a strong showing at Advanced Instructional League. He still has excellent raw power and could be primed for a clear improvement––if not a breakout––in 2011.

Neil Ramirez, RHP – All signs seem to point toward a 2011 breakout for Ramirez, as he displayed major improvements across the board this past season. Ramirez gained steam just after the All-Star break and logged a 3.20 ERA with 14 walks and 71 strikeouts over his final 64.2 frames. The 21-year-old began pounding the strike zone with a 90-96 mph fastball––a major development following his 88-93 mph heater and 13.4% walk rate in '09.

Jimmy Reyes, LHP – Reyes is a smallish lefty with an 88-91 mph fastball, a plus slider with good tilt, and an advanced changeup. He throws strikes with all three pitches. A seventh-round pick in this past summer's draft, the Elon product posted a 2.36 ERA with just three walks and 35 strikeouts at short-season Spokane. Though Reyes' 5-foot-10 frame doesn't offer much projection, the reliever's competitive nature and polished repertoire should allow him to move through the system quickly.


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