Sizing up the middle infield prospects

In this feature article, Lone Star Dugout analyzes the Rangers' top middle infield prospects. Which middle infield prospects have the highest upside? Which ones are ready to make a Major League impact soon? Who needs to make their mark quickly?

Highest Ceiling

Elvis Andrus, SS: The Braves initially signed the highly sought after prospect to a six-figure signing bonus out of Venezuela in 2005. Andrus batted just .244 in 385 at bats with Myrtle Beach this season, but the Pelicans play in one of minor league baseball's biggest pitcher's parks. He was also playing at the High-A level as an 18-year-old – the same age as most high school draft picks. After joining the Rangers organization, Andrus' move to the hitter-friendly California League seemed to pay dividends, as he hit .300 in 27 games with Bakersfield.

Scouts appear divided on the shortstop's power potential, but few doubt his overall ability as a hitter. Andrus has an advanced approach, good plate discipline, blazing speed, and plus-plus makeup. Although Andrus may never develop into a big home run threat, he should at least possess solid gap power.

The most impressive aspect of Andrus' game at this time is his defense. The 18-year-old has outstanding range to both sides with a strong arm to boot. He has worked diligently to improve his defense since signing with the Braves and it shows. Andrus is already the best defensive infielder in the system, including the big league club.

Closest to Majors

German Duran, 2B: Duran is currently listed as a second baseman, but the club is trying him out as a utilityman due to the presence of Ian Kinsler and Michael Young in the Rangers' middle infield. After a rather pedestrian season at shortstop in 2006, Duran moved to second base in 2007 and shined. His range was especially impressive to his glove side – up the middle – and his arm was good enough. The Fort Worth native will spend his time in the Arizona Fall League focusing on shortstop and third base in hopes that he can become a more versatile defender.

Though Duran's defense appeared to be much improved this past season, his bat remains his most impressive tool. The 23-year-old smacked 32 doubles, five triples, and 22 home runs – all career highs – with Double-A Frisco this year. He also took home the Texas League Home Run Derby title during the league's All-Star weekend. Standing just 5-foot-10, Duran doesn't seem like the prototypical power hitter. Most of his power is generated from his lightning-quick hands, which allow him to get around on just about any pitch. Duran may not hit for the same amount of home run power once he reaches the majors, but he figures to hit for above-average gap power while still knocking his fair share over the fence.

The "Sleepers"

Osuna is worth keeping an eye on.
Renny Osuna, 2B: Osuna is one little-known prospect worth keeping an eye on. The Venezuela native was a standout at New Mexico Junior College before being drafted by the Rangers in the 32nd round in 2005. Visa problems kept him at the club's academy in the Dominican Republic until mid-2006. Though his numbers with short-season Spokane this past season were not earth-shattering, Osuna earned praise from hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger for his advanced approach and ability to take the ball the other way. The 22-year-old grew up playing shortstop, moved to second base in college, and spent some time at third base in '07. Osuna is officially listed as a second baseman, but he will probably continue to play all three positions throughout his career. He earned a promotion to Single-A Clinton for the Midwest League playoffs and was 4-for-15 at the plate while starting four games at third base.

Need to Make Their Move

Joaquin Arias, SS: Even though Arias missed practically the entire 2007 season with a shoulder injury, the 23-year-old will still be considered a little young for the Pacific Coast League next season. Regardless of age, Arias has not developed the power the Rangers hoped he would when he was acquired from the Yankees in 2004. In Arias' first Triple-A season – 2006 – he had just 28 extra-base hits (4 home runs) and 19 walks in 493 at bats. The speedy shortstop's best tools currently reside in the field, where his plus arm and plus range would make him an above-average defender in the majors right now. With that said, the ultra-toolsy Arias will not become an everyday player in the majors if he is unable to add strength and become a more consistent hitter.

Jose Vallejo, 2B: Vallejo is one of the most exciting players in the system thanks to his blazing speed and phenomenal defensive skills. The 21-year-old excels in the small-ball aspect of the game. He is an outstanding bunter and knows how to use his speed, which is evidenced by his 47 steals in 50 attempts (94%) in 2007. Vallejo possesses soft hands, quick feet, and a strong arm – three tools that make him the organization's top defensive second baseman. However, he continued to struggle at the plate this past season. The Dominican Republic native became a switch-hitter after joining the organization and – although he has shown improvement – he still struggles from the left side. His offensive numbers improved while repeating Single-A Clinton in 2007, but his .653 OPS was still underwhelming.

The Jury is Still Out

Hulett could see big league action next year.
Tug Hulett, 2B: A versatile player with outstanding strike zone judgment, Hulett could have a career as a big league reserve. The infielder fits best at second base – where he is an above-average defender – but he is also able to fill in at shortstop and third base when needed. Hulett posted 90-plus walks in each of his first two full professional seasons, but that number dipped to 64 in his 2007 Triple-A debut. Hulett did show surprising flashes of power with the Triple-A RedHawks this past year, as he belted 11 home runs – topping his previous career high of two. The 24-year-old Auburn product is unlikely to become a major league regular, but his on-base abilities, versatility, and scrappy playing style could make him a contributor.

Marcus Lemon, SS: Lemon's first full professional season wasn't anything spectacular, but it wasn't disappointing either. The shortstop bounced back from a rough first half to hit .280/.378/.412 in his final 67 contests. His plate discipline and approach were impressive for a 19-year-old in the Midwest League. Though he will probably never be much of a power-hitter, he did show the ability to turn on balls on the inner-half as the season progressed. Lemon proved to be raw both defensively and on the base paths, as accumulated 31 errors and was caught stealing 14 times in 26 attempts. Lemon may not have the highest ceiling in the organization, but he is a hard-working player with good tools across the board.

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