1. Robbie Erlin, LHP, Myrtle Beach
Erlin's first start of the period wasn't spectacular––he allowed four runs (three earned) over five innings of work. But in his last four outings, the 20-year-old southpaw has retired 81 of the 90 batters (90%) he has faced. He has worked at least six innings in each of the starts, posting the following line––27 ip, 7 h, 3 r, 2 bb, 31 k. If there's a chink in Erlin's armor, it's that he has allowed five home runs in seven starts this season. However, his ability to mix and locate all three of his pitches (fastball, curveball, changeup) has been devastating for Carolina League hitters, and he may not be seriously challenged until he reaches Double-A––which may come sooner rather than later, given his 17 hits allowed in 42 innings this season.
2. Christian Villanueva, 3B, Hickory
At the time of the first hot list, Villanueva was the only of Hickory's Arizona League graduates batting under .300. The 19-year-old has since turned things around in a big way. Over his last 20 games, Villanueva is 29-for-80 (.363) with four doubles, a triple, and two home runs. And for the season, he currently leads the Crawdads in both batting average (.333) and slugging percentage (.500). He has also added six steals in seven attempts. While the Mexico native is a very polished defender with a plus glove at third base, he also has a smooth line-drive stroke and some upper-body strength that allows for some present power. Villanueva may not offer quite the upside of Myrtle Beach's Mike Olt, but he is a solid all-around prospect.
3. Joe Wieland, RHP, Myrtle Beach
Like his rotation mate Robbie Erlin, righty Joe Wieland had one middling start (six innings, five runs) and a few spectacular outings. The 6-foot-3 hurler has logged 26 innings over his last four starts, giving up 18 hits and striking out 26 without walking a batter. Wieland hasn't issued a base on balls to any of the last 95 hitters he has faced––not since a sixth-inning walk on April 18 against Winston-Salem. Additionally, he hasn't walked more than two batters in a game since April 23, 2010––a string of 27 consecutive starts. Wieland isn't just a strike-thrower, though. He also brings good stuff to the table, with an 87-93 mph fastball, a plus curveball, and a developing changeup. Both Wieland and Erlin could get an opportunity to reach Double-A Frisco before the All-Star break.
|Strausborger has been consistent with the bat. b>|
Due to his plus speed and solid defensive skills, Strausborger––a four-year senior from Indiana State––was an intriguing 16th-round selection. Early on this season, the 23-year-old has turned himself into a prospect worth watching at High-A. Strausborger was named our Rangers Minor League Player of the Month for April, and he has continued the strong production in May. Over his last 23 games, he is 28-for-94 (.298) with five doubles, three triples, and four homers. The power is particularly intriguing given that he plays in a pitcher-friendly league and home ballpark. He is also showing some plate discipline, working 10 walks and striking out 11 times in the last three-plus weeks. If he continues hitting, his speed and glove could carry him through the system as a potential major league reserve.
5. Mark Hamburger, RHP, Frisco/Round Rock
Hamburger has improved at every step up the organizational ladder, and he was the RoughRiders' most reliable reliever before Wednesday's promotion to Triple-A Round Rock. Since April 19, the righty has produced the following stat line––16.2 ip, 9 h, 1 r, 4 bb, 19 k. His Triple-A debut on Wednesday was plenty strong, tossing two scoreless innings and striking out two while throwing 23 of his 28 pitches for strikes. Although Hamburger's lack of a wipeout secondary pitch limits his ceiling, he throws strikes and locates his plus 91-96 mph fastball, which has a little natural movement. If the 24-year-old continues pitching well, he could become a viable middle relief option for the Rangers at some point this season.
6. Frisco sluggers Mike Bianucci and Tom Mendonca
By the numbers, Bianucci and Mendonca have been two of the more prolific sluggers in the Texas League thus far. And over the last three weeks, the two have posted very similar slash lines. Since April 19, Bianucci his hitting .341/.376/.588 while Mendonca has posted a .326/.337/.581 line. They have combined for eight doubles, one triple, 11 home runs, and 36 RBI. The flip side is the strikeout-to-walk ratio. While Mendonca is hitting .326 in his last 21 games, he has walked only twice (one intentional) and struck out 27 times. Bianucci has five walks and 23 punchouts over 22 contests. Both players are having nice bounce-back seasons––particularly Mendonca, who has nine round-trippers after hitting only 10 all of last season. But the two will also likely have to make more consistent contact to sustain the success over the long run.
7. Zach Osborne, RHP, Hickory/Myrtle Beach
After scuffling a bit in spring training, the Louisiana-Lafayette product began his regular season with a dominant early-season run at Hickory and earned a promotion to High-A Myrtle Beach. Since joining the Pelicans, Osborne has worked five hitless innings, walking two and striking out five. Coming from a deceptive low three-quarters arm slot, the right-hander mostly relies on an 88-90 mph sinker and a sweeping 79-80 mph slider. Fellow righty hitters are just 5-for-42 (.119) with three walks and 14 strikeouts against him. Osborne hasn't been the only successful A-ball reliever of late. Since April 19, Hickory RHP Ryan Rodebaugh (14.2 ip, 1 r, 16 k), Myrtle Beach LHP Joe Ortiz (11 ip, 3 h, 0 r) and RHP Johan Yan (11 ip, 1 r, 2 bb, 12 k) have also been excellent.
|Perez's curveball has improved. b>|
The 20-year-old top prospect has made definite progress this season, showing a few more flashes of excellence and developing his curveball into a more consistent offering. But the overall inconsistency is still there. Perez's command of his heater––which can range anywhere between 90-97 mph and often sits in the middle of that––comes and goes at times. In his April 19 outing, he twirled a rain-shortened five-inning perfect game. He has issued 14 walks in 20 innings (four starts) since that outing. Still, the stuff and overall results are strong. In the five recent outings, Perez has allowed only 18 hits in 25 innings, walking 14 and striking out 20––leading to a 2.88 earned-run average. It's often easy to forget that Perez is still the second-youngest pitcher (months behind Detroit's Jacob Turner) in all of Double-A baseball.
9. Brian Barden, 3B, Round Rock
Ever since slugging third baseman Chris Davis earned his latest big league call-up, veteran Brian Barden has filled in nicely for the Express. In his last 19 games––all of which have come at third base––Barden is 29-for-78 (.372) with four doubles, a triple, a home run, and 18 runs batted in. He is particularly hot of late, recently notching multi-hit efforts in six consecutive games while going 16-for-28 (.571). Though he isn't known for his power, Barden has been a key producer while hitting in the three-hole of an Express lineup that has scored at least seven runs in each of its last eight games.
10. Seven-RBI performances from Taylor Teagarden and Zach Zaneski
The two catchers––Teagarden at Triple-A Round Rock and Zaneski at High-A Myrtle Beach––get special mention for phenomenal single-game performances. In Teagarden's first game since being optioned back to Triple-A––on May 8––he busted out, going 3-for-4 with three homers, a walk, and seven runs batted in. Zaneski notched a seven-RBI effort of his own on May 3, when the Pelicans posted 20 runs against Potomac. In that game, the 24-year-old was 5-for-6 with three doubles and two round-trippers.
1. Jose Felix, C, Frisco
Through 22 games, the only thing separating Felix's batting average and on-base percentage is a lone hit-by pitch on opening night. The 22-year-old backstop hasn't drawn a walk in 85 plate appearances this season after working only one free pass in 107 trips with Frisco last year. While Felix will always be carried by his defensive skills, he has shown some progress with the bat over the last two seasons. RoughRiders hitting coach Brant Brown is working on getting the prospect to turn on the ball with more authority––which has led to some increased pop over the last few weeks. But the bottom line is that Felix will have to be at least somewhat selective at the plate. Although he has excellent hand-eye coordination and rarely strikes out, one walk in 192 Double-A plate appearances shows that he's simply being too aggressive.
2. Carlos Melo, RHP, Hickory
The 20-year-old Melo has a lively arm, attacking hitters with a 90-93 mph fastball that touches the mid-90s in spurts and a breaking ball that improved last summer. But he is having lots of trouble finding the strike zone in his first extended full-season look. Over his last three starts, Melo has permitted 18 free passes in only 7.1 innings. He has logged 18 innings for the year, giving up 11 hits, walking 24, and striking out 22. If Melo isn't able to correct his control issues soon, he could be replaced in the Crawdads' rotation by Cody Buckel or Nick Tepesch.
3. Braden Tullis, RHP, Hickory
After permitting eight runs (six earned) on eight hits and three walks in a one-inning relief appearance on April 22, Tullis got the dreaded mid-season extended spring training assignment to work through his struggles. The 21-year-old was the Rangers' eighth-round pick in '09 in large part due to his 88-91 mph sinker and plus changeup. But Tullis lost the feel for his changeup last season, and he hasn't been able to regain it since. Working mostly with an 86-89 mph fastball and a slow 74-ish mph slider lately, his stuff has taken a definite step back following an excellent pro debut with Spokane two years ago.
One to Watch
Jake Brigham, RHP, Frisco
|Brigham is showing promising stuff and results. b>|
The 6-foot-3 righty opened last season at High-A Bakersfield but lived up in the zone with his fastball and struggled to throw his sharp curveball for strikes. The result was a 6.93 ERA and 67 hits allowed in 49.1 innings. Brigham returned to Hickory in mid-season and found success after introducing an easier-to-command slider into his arsenal. He also began working low in the zone with more consistency, making him more difficult to hit. And perhaps most importantly, he gained confidence while experiencing extended success for the first time since his '08 Tommy John surgery.
Now, Brigham mixes the slider and curve about evenly, and both offerings have proven to be effective. He has struggled to find much of a feel for his changeup through his career, and the multiple breaking balls help make the change less of a factor.
Brigham, who was the Rangers' sixth-round pick in the 2006 MLB Draft, had Tommy John surgery in 2008 before spending the last two seasons at the Low- and High-A levels. He has posted the following line in his last three starts with the ‘Riders––19.2 ip, 14 h, 7 r, 5 bb, 15 k. The improved mental maturity, fastball command, and addition of the slider has helped him find early success in his first tour of the Texas League.
Brigham's ultimate role may reside in the bullpen, but if he continues to improve while commanding multiple pitches and working deep into games, he has a chance to make it as a starting pitcher.
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