Rangers Minor League Notes (3/25)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – A couple of promising young middle infield prospects saw action in Friday's Double-A contest against the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Lone Star Dugout has notes and observations from the game, which ended in a 5-5 tie.

Frisco RoughRiders 5 – Northwest Arkansas Naturals 5

1. Engel Beltre, CF (1/2, 2B)
2. Renny Osuna, SS (0/2)
3. Jose Ruiz, 1B (1/3, RBI, K)
4. Mike Bianucci, RF (1/2, HR, 2 RBI)
5. Tom Mendonca, 3B (0/4, 2 K)
6. Davis Stoneburner, 2B (1/2)
7. Mitch Hilligoss, DH (1/2, 2B)
8. Jonathan Greene, LF (2/3, 2B, RBI)
9. Doug Hogan, C (1/2, RBI, K)
10. Jose Felix, DH (0/3, K)

Hirotoshi Onaka, CF (0/2, K)
Hanser Alberto, SS (2/2, 3B, SB)
Braxton Lane, RF (1/2, K)
Rougned Odor, 2B (0/2)
Carlos Oropeza, DH (0/0, BB, SB)
Alinson Perez, C (0/1)

• Shortstop Hanser Alberto entered the Rangers organization with little fanfare, but he raised a few eyebrows by topping the Dominican Summer League with a .358 batting average during his pro debut. In camp this spring, Alberto has flashed a legitimate hit tool with an all-fields approach and the ability to catch up to plus fastballs.

The 18-year-old went 2-for-2 with an opposite-field bloop triple and an infield single in the Double-A game. On the single, he practically threw the bat at an outside pitch and the ball drifted into no man's land between the pitcher and first and second basemen. He then swiped second base. Alberto, who is likely to begin the year in extended spring training, could be the everyday shortstop at short-season Spokane this summer.

• Middle infielder Rougned Odor just might be advanced enough to play in the rookie-level Arizona League as a 17 year old this season. While the Venezuela native has an aggressive approach, he has a line-drive stroke and shows mature pitch recognition skills. He is also displaying good game awareness for his age and experience.

In his first at-bat against NWA, the lefty hitter stayed on a 75 mph curveball from a righty and grounded out sharply to first base. He grounded out routinely to second in his other plate appearance but got from home-to-first in 4.2 seconds, according to Jason Parks' (Baseball Prospectus) stopwatch. The speed is promising, and he has been clocked up to 4.0 (on a bunt hit attempt) this spring.

Odor's bat never seemed to be a question to teams pursuing him, but there were concerns about his speed and ability to stick at shortstop. Although Odor may be a long-term second baseman, the Rangers inked him for a reported $425,000 after his speed began to show improvement.

The prospect fielded one ground ball deep and to his glove side (toward first base) in the game. He bobbled it but was able to stay with the ball and throw out the runner at first. Odor also showed his plus arm strength in turning the game-ending double play.

• After struggling last season to the tune of a .258/.309/.433 slash line at High-A Bakersfield, outfielder Mike Bianucci is having a better performance this spring. The 24-year-old put his excellent raw strength on display by belting a two-run homer to left field despite getting under the ball a bit and cracking his bat. Bianucci's bat speed isn't great, and it has led to high strikeout rates at the High-A level the last two years. His strength isn't doubted, though, and it allows him to hit some tape-measure home runs when he squares up.

• The Rangers are stuck with an interesting dilemma at third base. Christian Villanueva is likely to open the season with Single-A Hickory, and Mike Olt figures to be the everyday third baseman at High-A Myrtle Beach. That leaves Tom Mendonca, who batted just .248/.331/.391 at High-A Bakersfield in 2010.

Mendonca has been unspectacular either in the positive or negative in camp. His plus raw power has been evident at times, and he is also whiffing a good amount. The club may choose to push Mendonca forward to Double-A Frisco to begin the season. And if he doesn't perform with the ‘Riders, there's always a chance that he switches places with Olt a couple months into the campaign.

Justin Grimm: 3.2 ip, 4 h, 3 r, 1 bb, 4 k (65 pitches – 44 strikes)
Zach Osborne: 0.1 ip, 1 h, 1 r, 1 bb, 0 k (12 pitches – 7 strikes)
Daniel Gutierrez: 1 ip, 0 h, 0 r, 0 bb, 0 k (5 pitches – 5 strikes)
Geuris Grullon: 0 ip, 1 h, 1 r, 3 bb, 0 k (16 pitches – 3 strikes)
Zach Phillips: 2 ip, 0 h, 0 r, 0 bb, 5 k (23 pitches – 17 strikes)
Johan Yan: 2 ip, 1 h, 0 r, 1 bb, 1 k (24 pitches – 12 strikes)

• Grimm's start was profiled––along with an interview––in this feature story.

• Due to Grimm's pitch count, Zach Osborne came on in relief with two outs and a man on first in the fourth. He was just backing up and closing out the frame. Osborne surrendered a first-pitch two-run homer on an 88 mph fastball that he left up and over the plate. He then issued a six-pitch walk before inducing an inning-ending pop to third.

Working from a low three-quarters arm slot, Osborne threw his fastball at 88-90 mph to go along with one 79 mph slider (for a ball) and an 84 mph changeup (to a lefty, fouled off). A starter at Louisiana-Lafayette, the ninth-round pick will likely settle into a relief role in full-season ball. He's an intriguing middle relief prospect, with deception, an upper-80s, low-90s sinker, and a good slider.

• Daniel Gutierrez has struggled to find much velocity at all since returning from his 50-game suspension last season. Against the Naturals, Gutierrez tossed a quick five-pitch inning, throwing all five pitches for strikes. But his fastball was just 85-87 mph, and he appeared to be babying his shoulder by pushing the ball instead of really letting it go. He threw one 72 mph curveball in the dirt for a swinging strike.

The former Royals prospect has worked at 85-87 mph––lower at times, and a tick higher at times––over the last year. A couple days after his appearance against Northwest Arkansas, he was released by the Rangers.

• Left-hander Geuris Grullon may be on his last legs in the Rangers organization. The 21-year-old is a physical specimen, standing 6-foot-5 with long arms and long fingers that help create plenty of natural movement on his fastball. Grullon's fastball has good velocity and outstanding cutting action to go along with some sink, making it incredibly difficult to hit. The problem? He rarely seems to know where it's going.

In Friday's contest, Grullon threw 16 pitches––all fastballs––between 88-90 mph, and all had the usual cut. But he threw just three strikes, including 11 consecutive balls, and he walked the bases loaded. Grullon rarely mixes in his offspeed stuff largely because he has been working to gain control of his fastball.

The Dominican Republic native began working from a lower arm slot last season in an effort to harness the control and command. The velocity stayed the same––he can work anywhere between 88-95 mph at times––though he still can't control the pitch. He has pitched between the Arizona League and short-season Spokane for the last four seasons. If he doesn't figure it out and ultimately gets cut, he'll almost certainly catch on with another team looking to give his talented arm a second chance.

• Zach Phillips came on in relief of Grullon, with the bases loaded, and looked locked in from the start. Phillips fanned all three batters he faced in the sixth inning to get out of the jam. In the seventh, he struck out two more hitters with a groundout to second mixed in between. He had five strikeouts in two innings.

The Sacramento native was throwing a bit harder than usual––working his fastball up to 92––and he showed pinpoint command of all four pitches. The most interesting development from the contest was the effectiveness of Phillips' slider, which he added late last season.

Phillips threw his 81 mph slider four times, getting swinging strikes each time (including three strikeouts). He used it to both left- and right-handed hitters. He got one K by burying it in the dirt on the back foot of a righty batter. The pitch had good tilt, falling off the table and diving straight into the ground.

Because he doesn't have an overpowering fastball, the key for Phillips has always been his command. He has three usable secondary offerings, but he gets hit when he leaves his stuff up in the zone. Phillips was locked in and on top of his game on Friday.

• Yan wasn't getting ahead of hitters with much consistency––he threw only 12 of his 24 pitches for strikes. However, his heavy sinker induced a double play ball to erase a base runner in both innings.

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