Rangers Minor League Notes (3/27)

SURPRISE, Ariz. – The Surprise complex was busy on Tuesday night with four simultaneous minor league games between the Texas Rangers' and Kansas City Royals' affiliates. Lone Star Dugout has notes and observations from the games.

Each spring towards the end of camp, the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals play four simultaneous minor league night games against each other on the Royals' back fields. The games, which are a bit hectic (but lots of fun) considering that the fields are only feet apart, feature most of the top prospects from both organizations.

The Triple-A field pitted RHP Colby Lewis versus LHP Danny Duffy. At Double-A, it was RHP Neftali Feliz against RHP Jake Odorizzi. And on the High-A field, Rangers top pitching prospect LHP Martin Perez faced hard-throwing RHP Yordano Ventura.

Ventura, 20, opened the night by throwing his fastball between 96-98 mph in the first two innings. Other big-time fastballs of the night included Duffy (up to 98), RHP Tanner Scheppers (to 99), and RHP Connor Sadzeck (to 97).

Because there's so much action at once, I bounced around all four fields at different times and caught glimpses and snapshots one half-inning or one batter at a time. What follows are some notes and observations from that night.

But first, the Rangers recently re-ordered their minor league position rosters in camp. The lineups from Tuesday's action will mostly represent where the players are slated to open the 2012 regular season. While the position guys are pretty much set, the organization was still sorting out its pitching situation.

Here are the four starting lineups from those games. Middle infielder Leury Garcia, who will likely begin the season with Double-A Frisco, was sick and sat out the game.

Round Rock

1. Leonys Martin, CF
2. Greg Miclat, SS
3. Yangervis Solarte, 2B
4. Tom Mendonca, 3B
5. Joey Butler, RF
6. Brad Nelson, 1B
7. Chris Robinson, C
8. Val Majewski, DH
9. Kyle Hudson, LF

Frisco

1. Jurickson Profar, SS
2. Engel Beltre, CF
3. Mike Olt, 3B
4. Chris McGuiness, 1B
5. Jared Prince, RF
6. Alex Buchholz, 2B
7. Zach Zaneski, DH
8. Jose Felix, C
9. Ryan Strausborger, LF

Myrtle Beach

1. Jake Skole, CF
2. Odubel Herrera, SS
3. Tomas Telis, C
4. Vin DiFazio, DH
5. Christian Villanueva, 3B
6. Andrew Clark, 1B
7. Josh Richmond, RF
8. Santiago Chirino, 2B
9. Teodoro Martinez, LF

Hickory

1. Luis Sardinas, SS
2. Rougned Odor, 2B
3. Jordan Akins, CF
4. Trever Adams, 1B
5. Chris Grayson, LF
6. Zach Cone, RF
7. Jorge Alfaro, DH
8. Kellin Deglan, C
9. Hanser Alberto, 3B

  • Neftali Feliz, who has dealt with some recent shoulder tightness, started the Double-A game for the Rangers. The 23-year-old began the outing by tossing anywhere between 88-93 mph but reached up to 96 by the third inning. He appeared to dial things up a bit after getting hit around at the lower velocity.

    The results weren't important for Feliz on Tuesday––he was simply getting his work in while testing out the shoulder. But the stuff looked fine, including a 78-82 mph slider and an 86 mph cutter, which he threw to strike out Kevin Kouzmanoff in the first inning.

    Feliz's best secondary pitch of the game was his changeup, which ranged between 83-87 mph. The offering had lots of life with some deception, and he commanded it down in the strike zone. Feliz's slider and changeup have improved this spring, though the offerings have been understandably inconsistent. His breaking ball looks more like a true slider this season––it often resembled a curveball in recent years.

    The key for Feliz when starting, through, will be the ability to command his fastball along with having passable secondary stuff. Throwing strikes and getting ahead in counts hasn't been much of an issue during camp, but his within-the-zone command has been loose at times.

    The former All-Star closer figures to work between 92-96 mph as a starting pitcher. His fastball always has lots of life, and it might have even more action at that velocity. He could be a monster if he consistently commands low in the zone with good secondary stuff. It's a work in progress for Feliz at present, though the three offspeed pitches have been strong in flashes during camp.

  • Joe Nathan followed Feliz with a crisp 1-2-3 inning, throwing nine of his 11 pitches for strikes. There has been some talk of Nathan's struggles in ‘A' games this spring, where he has surrendered eight runs in six innings. But stuff hasn't been an issue for the veteran closer––it has been more about the location of his fastball.

    Nathan commanded all three of his pitches down and located them on both corners in the Double-A game. Here's the chart from his quick inning:

    Right-handed batter: 92 FBS, 92 FBF, 88 SLS – strikeout swinging
    Left-handed batter: 92 FBF, 93 FBF, 81 CB – groundout to second base
    Right-handed batter: 86 SLC, 86 SLB, 94 FBS, 82 CBB, 93 FBC – strikeout looking

    Although he was facing Double-A hitters, Nathan's stuff was crisp and his location was good. When he pitches like that, he has success. The velocity is also about normal for him. While his fastball once sat in the mid-90s, his average fastball between 2008 and 2011 has been between 92-94, touching 95 on occasion.

    The good news on Nathan––his stuff has been fine this spring. The upper-80s slider and low-80s curve are both still plus pitches capable of missing bats, and his fastball velocity is there. The inconsistent command has improved late in the spring, looking good on Tuesday and in his last ‘A' game outing against Cincinnati.

  • Right-hander Connor Sadzeck, the Rangers' 11th-round pick in last year's MLB Draft, is a tad raw, but he has impressed in minor league camp with a potential power repertoire. He closed out the Low-A game by striking out all three batters he faced, throwing his lively fastball at 94-97 mph. Check out the rundown of his outing––plus an interview with the prospect––at this link.

  • I've seen hard-throwing reliever Tanner Scheppers touch 98 mph a number of times since he joined the Rangers' organization as a supplemental first-round pick in 2009, but I'd never seen him hit above that––until Tuesday.

    The 6-foot-4, 220-pound righty threw all of his fastballs between 95-99 mph in his Double-A inning during the night games. The good news is that he showed plus-plus velocity with a little boring action on his fastball, and his misses were down rather than up. The bad news is that, while he fanned two in a scoreless inning, he had trouble putting away prospects Christian Colon and Wil Myers. Colon took a 96 mph fastball into center for a base hit on 3-2. Myers followed in a 2-2 count by hitting a slightly hung 83 mph curveball into left for a single.

    Still, it was one of Scheppers' better outings of the spring. His curve had late snap and looked like a plus pitch, and his fastball location wasn't bad.

    Scheppers began his professional career by striking out 19 batters and allowing one run––without issuing a walk––in 11 innings at Double-A Frisco in 2010. The Rangers are still waiting for that dominant version of Scheppers to return. Since then, his velocity has remained excellent, but he's had trouble with both fastball and breaking ball command. He has looked improved at times this spring and not-so much at others.

    If Scheppers can become a little more consistent with his new three-quarters arm slot, he could contribute to the Rangers' bullpen this season. The 25-year-old has pitched each of the last two seasons between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock but has yet to reach the major leagues.

  • When the Texas Rangers acquired first baseman Chris McGuiness from Boston as part of the trade for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the left-handed hitter was hitting a solid .298/.416/.504 in 78 games at Single-A Greenville. He finished the regular season by socking seven round-trippers in 34 contests for High-A Bakersfield.

    McGuiness returned to the High-A level in 2011, his first full season in the Rangers' organization. The results were more than shaky in 53 games, as he batted just .214/.320/.296 with two home runs, 30 walks, and 51 strikeouts. He dealt with injuries on and off throughout the campaign.

    As this year's spring training nears its end, it appears that McGuiness will be pushed ahead to Double-A Frisco and become the RoughRiders' opening-day first baseman. The 23-year-old appears healthy and has performed much better in camp this spring. He's a solid defensive first baseman who shows good footwork around the bag. Though he has a selective approach offensively, there are concerns about the long load in his swing, making it more difficult to catch up with plus velocity.

    But McGuiness had a promising at-bat against Jake Odorizzi in the Double-A game on Tuesday, turning on a 93 mph fastball up in the zone for a long three-run home run into right-center field. On Wednesday, the former Red Sox prospect went 1-for-4 with three strikeouts––whiffing on a fastball, a changeup in the dirt, and a sweeping lefty-lefty breaking ball––but he once again turned on a 94 mph fastball for a double into right-center.

    There's no doubt that first base is the Rangers' position of weakness in the minor leagues. Ronald Guzman is one of the system's top prospects, but he's also 17-years-old and a long way from the major leagues. The Rangers are hoping McGuiness can respond to the Double-A push with a rebound season––he turns 24 during the first week of the regular season. Strikeouts may always be an issue for McGuiness given his swing, but if he can flash some power while drawing walks and playing good defense at first base, he can––at the very least––stick around in the upper-minors.

  • What else is there to be said about switch-hitting shortstop Jurickson Profar at this point? The Rangers seem ready to push their top prospect forward to Double-A Frisco this season, skipping the High-A Carolina League.

    As an 18-year-old last season, Profar earned Low-A South Atlantic League MVP honors by hitting .286/.390/.493 with 37 doubles, eight triples, 12 homers, and more walks (65) than strikeouts (63). He also stole 23 bases in 32 attempts.

    Profar may have a slight adjustment period in the Texas League as a 19-year-old, but on the whole he should handle the level just fine. The Curacao native has all the tools for success––a highly advanced approach including discipline and great pitch recognition, a mature swing from both sides of the plate with a quick bat, and some present strength.

    His polish was on display during one Double-A game at-bat on Tuesday, when he worked the count full after being down 0-2. He took some tough pitches before getting a fastball up and crushing it off the wall into right-center field for a double. In his next at-bat, hitting right-handed, Profar unloaded on a ball over the plate, which eventually died at the wall. Though he has some strength right now, both are balls that easily get out of the park within a year or two.

  • With Mike Olt and Jurickson Profar (plus Leury Garcia) potentially manning the left side of the Frisco infield, there should be plenty of dazzling glove-work to go around. Profar and Olt each made a spectacular play behind Feliz in the first inning, causing a Royals minor league pitcher watching the game to blurt, ‘Wow, these guys are superstars.'

    Profar may not have quite the elite range that current Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus possesses, but he's an above-average all-around defender with good range and a strong arm. His tools play up due to his instincts, sure hands, and quick first step.

  • Finishing the notes with one under-the-radar arm who may be worth watching: right-handed pitcher Phil Klein.

    A product of Youngstown State, Klein was the Rangers' 30th-round pick in last year's MLB Draft. He had decent numbers between the rookie-level Arizona League and short-season Spokane last year, striking out 31 batters (with 16 walks) in 20.1 innings while posting a 3.98 ERA.

    But when I saw Klein last season, he was working from a low three-quarters arm slot and throwing his fastball between 85-88 mph with a sweeping upper-70s breaking ball and 79-82 mph changeup. There didn't appear to be much to see there.

    The Rangers have brought Klein's arm slot back over the top this spring, helping get some downward plane from from his 6-foot-7, 240-pound frame. The 22-year-old has good mechanics, including a clean delivery and a loose, easy arm action that looks like it could produce more velocity.

    Here's the chart from his perfect 1.2 inning appearance in the Low-A game on Tuesday:

    –90 FBC, 81 CB – groundout to third base
    –78 CBB, 89 FB – broken-bat groundout to shortstop
    –81 CHC, 90 FBB, 90 FBS, 80 CBC – strikeout looking
    –77 CBB, 89 FBB, 88 FBS, 90 FBC, 85 SLS – strikeout swinging
    –83 SLC, 80 CBB, 91 FBF, 80 CBB, 88 FBF, 80 CBF, 92 FBC – strikeout looking

    Klein's fastball has sat between 88-92 mph this spring, and he's working from a good angle while coming over the top at 6-foot-7. His fastball seems to jump on hitters, and he might still be able to add a tick more velocity as he gets more instruction. He'll flash a big-breaking 77-80 mph curveball with lots of depth. It's not always sharp but could be a potential plus pitch if he tightens it up a bit. He also appeared to be mixing in an 83-85 mph slider with more horizontal break and some tilt.

    At the very least, the righty has more talent and potential than most 30th-round picks out of college. Klein is an intriguing arm to watch from that higher arm slot. He has performed well this spring with decent stuff, impressing the Rangers' player development staff and professional scouts.

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