Sizing up the corner infield prospects

Lone Star Dugout analyzes the Rangers' top corner infield prospects. Which corner 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

Tom Mendonca, 3B: The club's second-round pick in the '09 draft [and the first of three second rounders in this piece] has the highest ceiling of any third baseman in the system due to his plus power and advanced defensive skills. Many questions remain about Mendonca's bat, largely due to his high strikeout totals [233 in 206 games] in three seasons at Fresno State. But Mendonca was coachable in his debut stint with short-season Spokane and he was open to suggestions, allowing him to finish hot and end with a .309 batting average for the Indians. He also slugged nine home runs.

The 21-year-old still swung and missed too often with Spokane, but he hit well enough to earn a late-season promotion to High-A Bakersfield, where he was 9-for-43 [.209] with three doubles and 12 strikeouts. The left-handed slugger is likely to begin his first full season back with the Blaze in 2010.

Some Rangers officials have compared Mendonca's offensive game to former fifth-round pick Chris Davis. Like Davis, Mendonca has the ability to pop 30-35 home runs in a big league season. Davis maintained high batting averages with high swing-and-miss rates throughout the minors, much like Mendonca did this summer. The former College World Series Most Outstanding Player has a long way to go in his development, but he has the tools and he is willing to make adjustments, so he's off to a strong start.

Justin Smoak, 1B: The system's top position prospect is currently hitting home runs at a record-setting pace in the 2009 Baseball World Cup. The success is a welcomed sight for Smoak, who hit just .244 with four home runs in 54 games at Triple-A Oklahoma City this season.

Scouts and Rangers officials weren't worried about Smoak's struggles at Triple-A. Afterall, the '09 campaign was–for all intents and purposes–the 22-year-old's first professional season. Smoak still drew plenty of walks and kept a respectable strikeout rate with the RedHawks, but he struggled to make solid contact while being fed a steady diet of solid offspeed pitches for the first time in his career. The 6-foot-4 switch-hitter began to make the necessary adjustments towards the end of the season, and he is carrying that into the World Cup.

In addition to being the best offensive corner infielder, Smoak is also the best defensive first baseman in the system. While he may not be Gold Glove-caliber [at least not yet], his footwork is excellent and he displays soft hands. Smoak still has some work to do in the field, but he should develop into an above-average defender at first base.

Closest to Majors

Tracy's home run power is developing.
Chad Tracy, 1B: After a disappointing first half, Tracy completely turned his season around with one of the best second halves of any player in the Rangers' system. When the dust had settled, Tracy hit .279 with 26 home runs and 107 runs batted in. The 24-year-old credits improved pitch selection for his development, which led to 17 second-half home runs. Tracy hit 17 home runs all of last season.

During the second half of the Texas League season, Tracy began to look like a hitter with big-league potential, but defense will be his biggest question mark. Tracy's glovework was spotty in 2009, his first full season at first base. He must develop his footwork and needs to make more decisive first steps toward batted balls. The 2010 campaign figures to be very important for Tracy's future, but he will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this offseason.

The "Sleepers"

Jonathan Greene, 3B: At 6-foot-0, 200-pounds, Greene doesn't look like an incredibly powerful hitter, but his raw power rates among the system's best. The North Carolina native swings and misses a lot, and unless he cuts down, he likely won't be able to carry his .273 average with Bakersfield up to the Texas League next summer. He put his power on display while hitting a no-doubt homer to the right-center field gap in San Antonio late in the year—a feat that only one or two right-handed hitters accomplish each season in that ballpark. In getting a full-season with the ‘Riders next year, Greene should have fun with the short left-field porch at Dr Pepper ballpark.

Perhaps no player in the entire system improved themselves more defensively in 2009 than Greene. The former catcher has always featured a plus arm, but his first step was much quicker this summer, giving him good range to both sides. His hands also improved, allowing him to glove balls instead of simply knocking them down. The 24-year-old has some promising tools, but it's his hit tool that will decide how far he goes.

Ortiz is showing progress with the glove.
Michael Ortiz, 1B: When judging Ortiz, it's important to remember that the 20-year-old played just one season of high school baseball, and it was a partial season at that. Ortiz's bat has potential, as he is a solid line-drive hitter who is known for his hard work and dedication. After a solid debut with the AZL Rangers in 2007, he took a step back with the rookie club in '08 before posting his best campaign yet in 2009. Ortiz rebounded to bat .304 with 10 doubles, two triples, two homers, and 24 walks in 49 games.

The Miami Palmetto High product got rave reviews from his coaches and teammates for his hard work and improvement with the rookie club this season, and he earned an invitation to Fall Instructional League. At 6-foot-2, 200-pounds, Ortiz is strong and he is becoming a more disciplined hitter. The left-hander began to take the ball the other way with consistency—and with some power—for the first time in his life in '09. He also improved by leaps and bounds defensively this summer.

Need to Make Their Move

Mauro Gomez, 1B: The slugging first baseman rarely gets publicity for two reasons—he plays in Bakersfield, and he has spent six seasons in the U.S. without ever getting above the High-A level. Still, Gomez is a much better player than he gets credit for. He is an average defender at first base, but it's his bat that makes him intriguing. Gomez's power is nothing short of staggering. He doesn't take many walks, he swings and misses too often, and he very rarely hits the ball to the opposite field–some Cal League teams even employ an overshift against the right-handed hitter. However, he belted 35 doubles and 28 homers while driving in 94 runs this season with the Blaze, and many of his round-trippers were tape-measure shots. Gomez has played in at least 59 games for Bakersfield in three different seasons now, but the 25-year-old may finally get his look in Frisco next season.

West has a plus arm.
Matt West, 3B: The Bellaire High product has tools, but he remains very raw. West's approach is his biggest issue—at times it can be solid, but his pitch recognition is well-below average, causing him to swing and miss too often. West is a very strong hitter, and when he makes solid contact, the ball can travel a long way. If he improves on his pitch recognition and overall discipline, a lot of wrongs could be corrected in that his batting average will improve and his power numbers will likely soar.

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound third baseman batted just .234 with Hickory this season, and his numbers stayed fairly consistent from month to month. He has a plus arm but committed 33 errors [.902 fielding percentage] with the Crawdads. West has shown his potential in spurts–including a solid showing at instructs last year–but he is batting just .249 through his first 231 career professional games.

John Whittleman, 3B: Another former Houston-area high school third baseman, Whittleman still shows glimpses of what the Rangers hoped he could be when they selected him in the second round of the '05 Draft, and that's why he remains a prospect. The third baseman batted a career-low .224 with Double-A Frisco this season, but he flashed his potential by hitting .293 with eight homers and 20 walks during the month of July.

The Houston native still has excellent plate discipline [he drew 80 walks this season], but it may also work against him at times. Whittleman has a tendency to take good pitches early in counts, causing him to fall behind. The 22-year-old is still searching for some middle ground in terms of approach. His line-drive swing generates solid gap power, and his home run pop is gradually developing. In the field, Whittleman has all the tools—solid range and a strong arm—but he still struggles to make plays consistently. The third baseman committed 26 errors this season, leading to a .909 fielding percentage.

The Jury is Still Out

Erik Morrison, 1B: The former 46th round pick will have to prove himself as he climbs the organizational ladder. While Morrison spent most of his time with High-A Bakersfield during his debut summer in 2008, he took a step back to Single-A Hickory to fill a roster spot this year. As a 23-year-old former four-year player at the University of Kansas, Morrison proved to be one of the best hitters in the Sally League, batting .297 with 32 doubles and 18 home runs. Morrison continued to play well in nine games during a late-season promotion to Bakersfield.

Morrison played mostly first base in Hickory, but he has the ability to play practically any infield position as well as both corner outfield spots. He is valuable to the Rangers' organization in that he is extremely versatile and can provide some pop to a minor league lineup. Given his age and experience level, Morrison was clearly too advanced for the Sally League, and it was tough to get a gauge on how he'll perform at the higher levels. He'll likely get an opportunity with Double-A Frisco next season, and only time will tell if he is able to continue his success at the plate.

Clark Murphy, 1B: Murphy's first full season was certainly a disappointment, as he batted just .225 and struck out 110 times in 316 official at-bats between short-season Spokane and Single-A Hickory. The 19-year-old actually broke Spring Training with Hickory on the heels of his .358 AZL batting average and outstanding instructs performance in '08, but the Sally League proved to be too much for him. He struggled even after a mid-season assignment to Spokane.

When the Rangers selected Murphy in the 5th round of the 2008 MLB Draft, most scouts and experts agreed that the lefty had potential, but he was also raw and would take a couple of years to develop. That is why Murphy's phenomenal performance last summer came as a bit of a surprise. Still, the California native has plenty of raw power and potential with the bat, and it's far too early to give up on him. Although he was drafted as an outfielder, Murphy has spent all of his time at first base since signing, and he is still getting accustomed to the position.

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