Rangers Minor League Notes (3/4)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Although the Texas Rangers dropped their Cactus League opener to Kansas City on Sunday, a couple of young left-handed pitching prospects turned in solid performances late in the game. Lone Star Dugout has notes and observations from the day in camp.

Sunday's Cactus League opener between the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals wasn't exactly action-packed, but there were a couple interesting appearances from young Rangers prospects.

  • It was a sloppy 2012 debut in Surprise Stadium for the Rangers, as they collected only five hits and committed three errors defensively. Mike Olt had one of the miscues in his debut at first base. The third base prospect is picking up the first baseman's mitt in an attempt to increase his versatility––largely due to the presence of Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre on the big league roster.

    As Olt explained in this interview on Saturday, he'd never played a game at first base in his life prior to Sunday's contest. He manned third base in the first two intrasquad games and is still getting the vast majority of his looks at the hot corner.

    In Olt's only defensive chance on Sunday, he stretched out slightly and dropped a relay throw from second base to commit the error. The 23-year-old is a good athlete with some agility, but it's probably going to take some time before his game at first base can be accurately judged. At this point, he's just getting accustomed to the footwork of the position and reading balls off the bat from a different angle.

    Olt also struck out in his only plate appearance, taking the count full against Kansas City right-hander Neal Adcock before whiffing on a well-placed 92 mph sinker that dove down and in.

  • Michael Kirkman enters camp as perhaps a favorite to earn the bullpen's left-handed relief role. The southpaw can be tough on fellow lefties due to his plus velocity and swing-and-miss slider, but he'll need to tighten his command. While righties hit him well both at Triple-A and in the majors last season, he remained successful against lefties. Left-handers hit him at a .231/.280/.291 clip (28% strikeout) in Triple-A and .214/.313/.265 (18% strikeout) in the majors.

    On Sunday, Kirkman threw lots of strikes with a 91-93 mph fastball that touched 94, but he was over the heart of the plate too often. His fastball had good life when spotted low in the zone. He showed good command of a sharp 78-82 mph slider, which he threw for strikes 8-of-12 times and induced two swings and misses.

    Kirkman's high-effort delivery isn't conducive to plus command, and that's a large part of why he projects as a hard-throwing reliever rather than a starter. But he has the ability to flash average command, which should be good enough out of the bullpen.

    Armed with two pitches capable of missing bats––including low-to-mid 90s velocity when he's at full-strength––Kirkman has the stuff to carve out a consistent big league bullpen role. But he'll need to prove he can command his fastball while showing the ability to both get ahead in counts and keep from living in the middle of the zone.

  • Infielder Yangervis Solarte, who was signed to a minor league contract as a free agent this past offseason, is an interesting player. The 5-foot-11, 195-pound switch-hitter has a bit of a stocky build and a line-drive stroke from both sides of the plate. With Double-A New Britain in the Twins' system last season, he batted .329/.367/.466 with 36 doubles. He also made lots of contact, striking out only 38 times in 121 games. During the offseason, Solarte appeared in 32 games with Aragua of the Venezuelan Winter League and hit .317/.366/.404 with eight walks and eight strikeouts.

    The 24-year-old Solarte is seeing lots of action early in big league camp at both second and third base. Thus far, he has displayed mature actions with sure hands at both positions. While he probably doesn't have the physical profile to play shortstop, he logged significant action at second, third, and left field last season. Solarte isn't a top prospect by any stretch of the imagination, but he appears to have an all-around advanced game and is intriguing as a young minor league free agent signing.

  • Lefty Robbie Ross pounded the strike zone in his scoreless inning, throwing 18 of his 23 pitches for strikes. Ross allowed two hits––a seeing-eye ground ball single up the middle and a broken-bat single to shortstop.

    Just about everything Ross throws has cutting action with some sink. Although that can often make a pitcher's fastball difficult to command, Ross appears comfortable with the action and does a good job of locating his heater regardless. He also commanded his 83-86 mph slider on Sunday, though it wasn't as sharp as it was late last regular season.

    Ross had a nice battle with veteran third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff to finish his inning. After beginning the at-bat with four consecutive foul balls––on three 89-90 mph fastballs and one 84 mph slider––Ross buried a big-breaking 73 mph curveball in the dirt for ball one. He finished Kouzmanoff with his sharpest slider of the frame, an 83 mph pitch that broke down and in to the right-handed batter.

    The Kentucky native added his curveball as a fourth offering late last season, but he didn't really begin throwing it in games until this spring. The curve should act as a change-of-pace pitch in situations similar to Sunday––when a hitter has fouled off a few pitches in a row. The pitch can be particularly useful because Ross still struggles with his fringy changeup, which cuts too often when he'd prefer it to have the sinking and fading action of a normal change.

    Ross has a good feel for pitching with two strong pitches. His fastball sat at 88-93 mph in Frisco last year, and his sharp slider is a plus offering that can range between 83-87. He throws strikes and induces ground balls while working the corners and low in the strike zone, but he'll likely need to refine a third offering this season in order to stick in a major league rotation.

  • Miguel de los Santos, another southpaw, finished off the game for the Rangers with a quick 1-2-3 inning. He struck out Greg Golson and induced two groundouts––one to Chris Getz and one against Clint Robinson.

    While de los Santos struck out 142 batters in 94.2 innings between three levels last season, he also issued 46 free passes. It all comes down to fastball command with him. The 23-year-old has a legitimate plus-plus changeup––arguably the best pitch in the Rangers' entire minor league system––but he too often has trouble throwing strikes with his fastball.

    De los Santos was working from a good downward angle and throwing strikes with his fastball on Sunday––a promising start. Here's the chart from his inning. A reminder that B (ball), C (called strike), S (swinging strike), F (foul ball), FB (fastball), CB (curveball), CH (changeup).

    Golson (RH) – 90 FBC, 77 CHS, 77 CHS – strikeout swinging
    Getz (LH) – 89 FBF, 90 FBF, 77 CHF, 90 FBB, 77 CBB, 77 CHB, 90 FB – groundout to shortstop
    Robinson (LH) – 77 CBC, 77 CBC, 75 CH – groundout to first base

    Golson was simply overmatched in his at-bat, swinging well in front of two consecutive changeups. De los Santos showed his confidence in the pitch by throwing it lefty-lefty with two strikes to two consecutive hitters for positive results––one foul ball and one groundout.

    In an interview late last season, Myrtle Beach pitching coach Brad Holman described de los Santos' changeup. It's a screwball-like pitch that can miss bats at any level.

    "With the changeup, I think if I was to describe it, it looks like it stops in mid-air," Holman said. "It really does. It almost has like a string-attached-to-it action, and you see some really funny swings from hitters. It's a very exceptional changeup.

    "It has some sinking action. I think he does a little of both (screwball and sink). It depends on whether he's trying to throw it for a strike. If he's just trying to lay it in there in a 2-0 count, it doesn't have as much action. But he really, really manipulates it a little bit, turns it over, and gets the sink to it when he throws it for a strikeout."

    Beginning with late last season, the Dominican Republic native has shown improvement with his curveball. Though he had a potential plus curve earlier in his career, he seemed to lose the feel for it while developing his changeup a couple years ago. The pitch often became long and loopy in the upper-60s, low-70s. But de los Santos was throwing the curve at 77 mph on Sunday––it didn't look like a swing-and-miss pitch, but certainly a viable third offering for a reliever.

    He likely won't ever have the fastball command necessary to stick in a starting rotation. The Rangers should put the 40-man roster member in the bullpen at some point––perhaps starting with this season. If he can throw enough strikes with his fastball, the wipeout changeup and usable curveball could get him to the majors quickly.

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