Rangers Minor League Notes (3/2)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Friday's Texas Rangers intrasquad game was full of action, with a mixture of Yu Darvish, Joe Nathan, Neftali Feliz and some of the organization's top prospects. Lone Star Dugout has notes and observations from Surprise.

The Texas Rangers played their second intrasquad game of the spring on Friday afternoon, tuning up for Sunday's Cactus League opener against the Kansas City Royals. Like Thursday's game, the regular major leaguers mostly played the first four innings before some of the organization's top young prospects entered the contest.

As I wrote on Tuesday, early-spring game reports should be taken with a grain of salt, as most players are just getting back into the swing of things. Some hitters will have a bit more trouble catching up to velocity this early in camp, and most pitchers will be inconsistent with their velocity. Not all, though, as Alexi Ogando was touching 97 mph in his inning on Friday.

  • First, the Yu Darvish inning. The scene on the back fields was hectic when Darvish threw the bottom of the third inning. A mixture of Rangers' front office officials, photographers and media––both American and Japanese––crowded behind home plate to get a look at the stud right-hander's first state-side action against live hitters.

    The inning set up nicely, with Darvish facing the top of the Rangers' regular order––second baseman Ian Kinsler, shortstop Elvis Andrus, left fielder Josh Hamilton and third baseman Adrian Beltre. The following is his chart from the inning. The key for this chart: B (ball), C (called strike), S (swinging strike), F (foul ball), FB (fastball), SL (slider), CB (curveball).

    Kinsler: 93 FBB, 95 FBB, 94 FBB, 94 FBC, 92 FBC, 85 SL – flyout to left field
    Andrus: 66 CBB, 94 FBF, 85 SLB, 94 FBF, 90 FBB, 94 FBS – strikeout swinging
    Hamilton: 89 FBB, 90 FBB, 96 FBB, 93 FBC, 94 FBB – walk
    Beltre: 95 FBC, 93 FBC, 88 FBF, 94 FB – 4-6 fielder's choice

    Throwing 11 of his 21 pitches for strikes, Darvish threw his four-seam fastball at 92-96 mph, his two-seam (sinker) between 88-90, his slider at 85 and his eephus-like slow-breaking curve at 66. The 25-year-old showed excellent mechanics, controlling his body through his delivery and exploding late with a very quick arm. His stuff––the fastball and slider in particular––also explodes late. Both Darvish's four- and two-seam fastballs have excellent life. The two-seamer has a little more sinking action, but the 94 mph four-seamer he threw to strike out Andrus dove under the shortstop's bat.

    If there's a negative from Darvish's outing on Friday, it's that his command wasn't perfect. But it was also his first game of the spring, and he was facing some talented hitters. The Japanese hurler was falling behind and had three three-ball counts. He's a good athlete and repeats his mechanics well. In other words, there's no reason that a 100 percent Darvish shouldn't be able to command the ball.

    His curveball isn't intended to be an out pitch, and it almost certainly won't be used as such. The slow curve is more of an occasional get-me-over offering to keep hitters off-balance, using it early in counts like he did to Andrus. It can create some deception when following a 66 mph curve with a lively 94 mph heater.

    Darvish's slider is his out-pitch breaking ball. It looks to be a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch, coming in around the mid-80s with lots of late break and dive. He showed impressive confidence in the pitch by going to it with a full count against Kinsler. The slider was located at the knees and on the outside corner, coaxing a weak flyout to left field.

    The Rangers' April 6 regular season opener is still more than a month away, and Darvish will be gradually stretched out with each outing until that point. But Friday's one-inning appearance was a promising debut, as he showed lively, dominant stuff despite the command issues.

  • Feliz showed an improved changeup.
  • Because of Darvish's presence, the story line of Neftali Feliz's move to the rotation has been placed on the back burner. But his ability to transition back into a starting role could be vital to the Rangers' success in 2012. The fireballing righty turned in an impressive inning on Friday, giving up one hit in an otherwise clean frame. He threw 15 of his 20 pitches for strikes.

    There's no doubt that Feliz has one of the game's best fastballs––a true 80-grade pitch with both plus-plus velocity and late movement. The key to his rotation success will come down to two things––his ability to command the fastball (and consistently get ahead in counts), and his secondary stuff.

    As a reliever, Feliz's fastball was too often erratic last year. He issued 30 walks in 62.1 innings. He also tended to rely on the fastball heavily. While that's (mostly) fine in one-inning stints, he'll need the cutter, slider and changeup to be more effective as a starter.

    The 23-year-old isn't likely to sit in the mid-to-upper 90s as a starting pitcher, like he can out of the bullpen. But he should be able to touch that range in bursts when needed. On Friday, Feliz's fastball sat between 92-94 mph––likely his approximate range as a starter––with good sink and lots of armside run. His 82-84 mph changeup also had sink and tumble and looked like a potential plus offering. Feliz's change was often too firm in the upper-80s while coming out of the bullpen, and though it was a put-away pitch for him in the minors, he lost confidence in it over the last two seasons. After throwing his change with more than 10 percent of his pitches as a rookie in '09, he used it just 4.2 percent of the time last season. But an improved change (like the one shown on Friday) could be a key offering for Feliz this season.

    Feliz also mixed in his usable 86 mph cutter and slider, which was thrown a bit harder than normal at 82 mph. Friday's short appearance was a promising start for his fastball command and secondary stuff. It was only a short early-camp look, but he should have success if he's able to consistently get ahead of hitters at the dialed-down (but still plus) velocity as a starting pitcher.

  • The scene around the back fields was still hectic when veteran closer Joe Nathan took the mound directly after Darvish. Nathan allowed two hits in a scoreless 14-pitch (nine-strike) frame. His arm appears to be working well early in camp. Working on a good downward plane, Nathan flashed a 91-93 mph fastball with an 86 mph slider and an 82 mph curveball. All three pitches were sharp.

  • Top pitching prospect Martin Perez looked strong while throwing a live batting practice session on Wednesday, and he was efficient in a perfect 11-pitch (eight-strike) frame on Friday. Here's the brief chart on Perez's inning:

    91 FB – popout to second base
    91 FBB, 92 FBS, 94 FBF, 94 FB – groundout to shortstop
    73 CBC, 90 FBB, 82 CHF, 93 FBF, 82 CHS – strikeout swinging

    As noted, Perez's fastball sat between 90-94 mph with a couple of 82 mph changeups and a big-breaking curveball at 73. His stuff certainly isn't an issue. The velocity is good, his changeup is a future plus pitch with lots of deception and tumble, and his curveball began to flash plus more often last season. It all comes down to his ability to command all three offerings, and he did well on Friday.

    The youngster's command issues often boil down to the effort in his delivery. On his best days, his fastball can easily sit in the 92-96 mph range and touch up to 97. Those are the days in which he has little trouble finding success. But Perez most often sits at 90-94. With Triple-A Round Rock last year, he seemed to be reaching back for the extra velocity too often, causing him to fly open in his delivery and hurting his command as a result. The 20-year-old did a better job of controlling his delivery in Frisco last season, but he had trouble after the promotion to Triple-A. It's a maturity issue that Perez should be able to solve once he settles in and learns that he doesn't always need to throw in the mid-90s.

    Scheppers settled in after the first two hitters.
  • Right-handed reliever Tanner Scheppers is another hurler whose success boils down to his ability to command. He was often falling behind in counts and sitting up in the zone with his fastball in 2011. On Friday, Scheppers was flying open in his delivery and missing to the armside, though he did throw 10 of 16 pitches for strikes in a shutout frame.

    The 6-foot-4 prospect worked at 93-96 mph. He didn't throw a breaking ball but mixed in two 87-88 mph changeups––an offering he very rarely used last season. After starting the inning with an eight-pitch walk to Drew Robinson (an impressive at-bat for the youngster) and plunking Jose Felix with a first-pitch fastball, he began to settle in. Scheppers fanned Leonys Martin on a 96 mph heater, got Leury Garcia to ground into a first-pitch fielder's choice, and induced a first-pitch groundout versus Santiago Chirino.

  • Garcia, who appears to have added a bit more bulk this season, still runs extremely well. Bulk is also relative, of course, as Garcia is still a small guy and listed at 5-foot-7. Hitting from the left side against Scheppers, Garcia (according to Baseball Prospectus' Jason Parks) got from home to first in 4.01 seconds. It was particularly impressive considering it wasn't a ball in which Garcia was leaning out of the box when he made contact.

  • Neil Ramirez wasn't particularly sharp in his inning, but he also wasn't bad. His inning was rolled after getting two outs and reaching his pitch count at 27 (with 19 strikes). Here's his chart:

    Mazara: 92 FB – single to left field
    Alberto: 91 FBB, 91 FBF, 93 FBF, 94 FBB, 78 CB – reached out for broken-bat single
    Mendonca: 92 FBB, 93 FBS, 92 FBS, 93 FBS – strikeout swinging
    Hudson: 94 FBB, 85 CHB, 92 FBS, 85 CHS, 94 FBF, 75 CBB, 93 FB – well-struck double to right-center field
    Sardinas: 92 FBB, 93 FBC, 77 CBF, 78 CB – reached on E3

  • Luis Sardinas, who is coming off his second shoulder surgery in as many years, is already playing in games and could open the season at Single-A Hickory if the Rangers deem him ready. The switch-hitting youngster got two at-bats and played second base in Friday's game while Luis Hernandez manned shortstop.

  • Pitching in his first game since undergoing Tommy John surgery in October 2010, big right-hander Wilmer Font induced three consecutive groundouts on 10 pitches against Robinson, Martin and Jorge Alfaro. But his fastball was only at 86-88 mph with three 75-77 mph changeups.

    It's too early to worry about Font's velocity, but it was interesting. Font showed little arm speed during Friday's brief outing. He didn't appear to be really letting it go. Font could be a little hesitant to let it fly coming off the surgery, although that's just speculation. His velocity through the rest of camp and the regular season will be worth watching.

  • Kelvin de la Cruz, acquired from the Cleveland Indians for cash considerations just prior to camp, is pitching for a left-handed relief job in the Rangers' bullpen. The 6-foot-5 southpaw has long limbs and hides the ball well in his delivery. Fellow southpaws hit only .143/.264/.198 with a 37 percent strikeout rate against him at Double-A Akron last season. De la Cruz, 23, showed an 87-90 mph fastball and a 77-80 mph curveball in an 11-pitch ninth inning.

  • Although raw power has always been part of Engel Beltre's intriguing skill set, his game pop has practically declined with each season in pro ball. After slugging .433 at the rookie level in '07, his slugging percentage dwindled to .403 at Single-A in '08, .318 at High-A in '09 and just .300 in Double-A last season.

    Coming off a season in which he belted only one round-tripper in 118 games, Beltre looks to have bulked up slightly. His torso is a little thicker and he's hitting the ball with more authority early on. In Friday's intrasquad, the outfielder went 2-for-3 with a pair of triples.

    The added power is nice, but Beltre is still a highly aggressive hitter who will need to tighten his hitting zone. His approach led to too many weakly struck balls last season, and he needs to do a better job of waiting for pitches that he can drive with more authority.

  • Future Rangers Top Stories