Sizing up the right-handed relief prospects

Lone Star Dugout analyzes the Rangers' top right-handed relief prospects. Which right-handed relief prospects have the highest upside? Which ones are ready to make a Major League impact soon? Who needs to make their mark quickly?

Note: For accuracy purposes, only prospects that have played professional baseball in the U.S. are eligible for this feature. These lists were compiled before Fall Instructional League, and any 2009 draft picks or international signees that have yet to play are ineligible.

Highest Ceiling

Pedro Strop: Although he posted a 5.32 earned-run average between Double-A Frisco, Triple-A Oklahoma City and the Major Leagues this past season, Strop is undoubtedly the organization's top relief prospect because of his ceiling and the improvement he has shown.

Strop broke Spring Training with Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he was rocked early and often while also struggling with command. He also had trouble closing out games upon his early season demotion to the Texas League. But as the year progressed, Strop continued to show gradual improvement.

The 24-year-old former shortstop has a mid-90s fastball–usually 93-96 mph–that can top out at 97 or 98 at times. He possesses plus hard mid-80s splitter and a usable low-80s slider. Strop's biggest issue early in the season was command, but he began to iron out the problems around mid-season. Once he became more consistent, the Rangers re-promoted Strop to OKC, where he tossed 3.1 scoreless innings in a six-day span, allowing just one hit, walking zero, and fanning three.

After that, Strop was promoted to Arlington for the final month of the season, and he logged a total of seven innings out of the Rangers' bullpen. During his time in the Majors, Strop was a bit inconsistent [although his numbers were skewed by one very poor outing], but he showed the promise that makes him a legitimate late-inning relief candidate.

Strop still has consistency issues that must be ironed out, and he is likely to begin the 2010 season back in Triple-A, although he should have an opportunity to win a bullpen spot in Spring Training. If Strop continues to progress as he did during the second half of '09, he could be the Rangers' setup man of the future.

Fabio Castillo: The 20-year-old may be the most difficult pitching prospect to figure out in the entire Rangers' system. Once regarded as the club's top Latin American starting pitching prospect, Castillo has spent much of the last two seasons working out of the bullpen, although he has been in long relief. The Dominican Republic native was extremely inconsistent in 2008, as his velocity ranged anywhere from the low-to-mid-80s to the low-to-mid-90s and he rarely threw his breaking ball for strikes.

The big right-hander repeated the Single-A level in 2009, and he got off to an excellent start, posting a 1.79 ERA in 45.1 first-half innings. But things took a change for the worse in the second half–much worse. After the All-Star break, Castillo logged a 7.01 ERA, and he gave up 26 hits in his final 13.2 innings.

Castillo's velocity fluctuated in 2009 as well, although it was better, ranging between 88-96 mph. He usually sat between either 88-92 or 92-94 during his appearances. He still has promising stuff, with good movement on his often above-average fastball. Castillo can also spin a good slider. His changeup remains a major work-in-progress.

The 2010 campaign is big for Castillo's future. Even if the organization now sees him as a future reliever, he must become more consistent as he likely moves up to the High-A California League next season.

Closest to Majors

Madrigal has been just fine in the minors.
Warner Madrigal: While Madrigal is close to the Majors, he could also fit in the ‘Jury is Still Out' category, because Madrigal hasn't proven to be a legitimate Major League pitcher yet. In the minor leagues, Madrigal looks like a surefire Major Leaguer. In fact, he looks to have back-end bullpen potential. The former outfielder works in the low-to-mid-90s, and he has little problem throwing strikes, often attacking the bottom part of the zone. When Madrigal gets ahead in Triple-A, he puts hitters away with his good splitter and slider. In 49 innings at Oklahoma City this season, Madrigal had a 2.57 ERA, limited hitters to a .231 average, walked just 11, and struck out 48.

In 12.2 innings with the Majors, Madrigal was socked for 14 earned runs on 18 hits, walking 12 and striking out just five. The 25-year-old simply isn't the same pitcher when he wears a Rangers uniform. Although Madrigal's raw stuff remains the same, he fails to get ahead of hitters at the big league level, causing him to either keep the ball out of the zone or groove it over the middle. Because he rarely got ahead in the count, he wasn't able to use his splitter and slider effectively.

If Madrigal learns to become more aggressive in the Majors, he can be an effective reliever for the Rangers. He may not be a future closer, but he could work the seventh inning at the very least. Madrigal was somewhat effective with the Rangers in 2008 [in just his second year of pitching], and many of his 2009 struggles appear to be more mental than physical. It's too early to give up on Madrigal, but he must turn it around.

The "Sleepers"

Johnny Gunter: The hard-throwing Gunter is still relatively new to pitching, but he showed steady progress during his first season at short-season Spokane. The Alabama native shook off a rough start to surrender just one earned run in his last 11.2 innings [7 hits, 4 walks, 12 strikeouts] with the Indians. This past summer's 11th-round pick parlayed the performance into an invitation to Fall Instructional League.

At instructs, Gunter was working between 88-91 mph, but he usually sits in the low-to-mid-90s. The former catcher also has a hard slider. At 6-foot-4, 230-pounds, Gunter has an ideal body to go with the big arm, but he's still raw and will probably need some time to develop. Still, the improvement the 21-year-old showed during the Northwest League season was encouraging, and he has one of the higher ceilings for any reliever in the system.

Justin Miller: Perhaps no pitcher in the system showed more improvement than the former 16th-round pick did in 2009. After a rough debut season in which Miller posted a 5.06 ERA for Spokane in 2008, the Fresno State product came back looking better than ever. Miller's fastball velocity spiked to anywhere between 90-96 mph, usually sitting around 91-94. His slider also looked like a legitimate swing-and-miss pitch.

The 22-year-old got a late-season promotion to his hometown Bakersfield Blaze, and he shined, posting a 2.35 ERA in 15.1 innings. Miller allowed just 10 hits while walking nine and striking out 16. Stuff is no longer an issue for Miller, but he'll have to work on harnessing it and getting ahead in the count more often if he wants to take the next step. Miller should open his 2010 season back in Bakersfield, but he'll have a chance to move up to Frisco before the All-Star break.

Tufts has added velocity and an improved slider.
Tyler Tufts: If Miller didn't take the biggest step forward in 2009, it was definitely Tufts, who got some help from Hickory pitching coach Brad Holman. A mechanical change helped bump Tufts' velocity into the 91-93 mph range, and he now touches 94 on occasion. Tufts' fastball is a hard sinker with heavy downward movement that helped him get over two groundouts per flyout this past summer. He throws strikes and consistently attacks the bottom half of the zone with his sinker.

Tufts was a 32nd-round pick in 2008 out of the University of Indiana, but he is quickly turning into an excellent find. The 22-year-old had a 2.84 ERA in 73.0 innings out of the bullpen between Hickory and Bakersfield this season, and his command could allow him to move quickly. Tufts got most of his strikeouts with a solid slider, and he is also working on a changeup. Tufts had success with his changeup in Hickory, but he must work on commanding it down in the strike zone.

Justin King: The Rangers selected King in the 30th round of the '08 draft as more of a project, and he has shown steady progress ever since signing. The Alabama native posted a 3.00 ERA while allowing just 22 hits in 30.0 innings with short-season Spokane in 2009, and his control continued to improve. King's low-to-mid-90s fastball usually sits between 92-94 mph [touching 96], and his hard 83-86 mph slider is a legitimate swing-and-miss offering.

Control has been the primary issue for King, as he has uncorked 21 wild pitches in just 61 career professional innings, but it has improved over the last two seasons. The 6-foot-5 hurler was forced to miss Instructional League after undergoing surgery on an aneurysm in his right shoulder that has bothered him since early in his collegiate career. The surgery should help him stay healthier and it should help his control, as King says he was often pitching without feeling in his fingers.

Ovispo De Los Santos: Not particularly well-known, the 21-year-old is coming off his first healthy season in two years, and his stuff definitely took a step forward. With a fastball that sits between 94-96 mph and tops out at 98, De Los Santos is a true power reliever with effortless heat. He also has above-average control and command for a young hard-thrower.

Secondary stuff will be the key to the Dominican Republic native's development. The prospect has a promising changeup, but he often struggles to get his curveball over the plate. De Los Santos was flat-out unhittable for most of the AZL season, but when he was hit, he was hit hard. If he can become more consistent, he has a chance to become a household prospect name by the end of 2010.

Need to Make Their Move

Brennan Garr: The 25-year-old is currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League, where he hopes to take a big step forward. Garr certainly has the stuff to pitch in the big leagues, but his command must become more consistent. His fastball generally sits between 91-93 mph [though it's a tick higher at times] and his slider [more of a hard slurve] and split-changeup are both usable pitches. Garr's changeup is improving, and it appears to be developing into a legitimate out pitch.

Garr had an up-and-down season with Frisco in 2009, leading to a 4.26 ERA in 50.2 innings. He was still difficult to hit [48 hits] and missed some bats [42 strikeouts], but he fell behind in counts too often and still walked a few too many hitters [25 walks]. If the right-hander can continue to refine his command–which has improved in the Fall League–he can be an effective middle reliever in the Major Leagues.

Laughter began relying on his sinker in '09.
Andrew Laughter: The former 10th-round pick reached Double-A Frisco just one month into his first professional season, but he has since stalled. During the 2008 season, Laughter was tough to hit, but he struggled to command his 91-95 mph four-seam fastball and hard slider. The 6-foot-4, 227-pound hurler changed his ways about halfway through the '09 campaign, when he began relying more on an upper-80s, low-90s sinker, which he was able to command with more consistency. While his walk numbers declined, the sinker also made him more hittable and his strikeout numbers also dropped.

Like Garr, the 24-year-old has the stuff to pitch in the Majors, but he needs to find more consistency. Whether he's throwing the harder four-seam or the two-seam with better movement, he must command the fastball down in the strike zone. While his breaking ball has good, hard movement, he also must throw it for strikes more often. Despite a rough '09 season–during which Laughter spent over two months on the shelf with a finger injury–it's too early to give up on the righty, as he has spent just two full seasons in pro ball.

Evan Reed: Reed has developed into perhaps one of the organization's more underappreciated prospects since he has yet to reach Double-A full-time. But the 6-foot-4, 225-pound reliever had excellent results in 2009, and he isn't short on raw stuff. Formerly a starting pitcher, the Rangers moved Reed to the bullpen this past summer, and he responded by posting a 2.96 ERA while striking out 65 in 48.2 innings for High-A Bakersfield.

Reed is armed with one of the very best fastballs in the system, starter or reliever. The right-hander's heater is anywhere between 91-95 mph–usually sitting at 93-94–and it has plenty of late, natural movement. The fastball helped him get over 1.7 groundouts per flyout while surrendering just one home run all season. Reed's biggest challenge over the past few seasons has been finding consistency with his offspeed stuff. Reed's slider took a step forward in 2009, and he is beginning to throw it for strikes more often. He also began throwing a hard splitter late in the season, and he uses the pitch occasionally.

The Jury is Still Out

Flores misses plenty of bats.
Adalberto Flores: The 6-foot-7, 227-pound Puerto Rico native turned heads by striking out an astounding 11.8 batters per nine innings in 2009–or 73 in 55.2 frames to be exact. With an 88-91 mph fastball, Flores isn't overpowering, but he has lively movement on his stuff and a good feel for pitching. The 23-year-old has an effective breaking ball and a sinker/changeup that isn't much different from his fastball velocity-wise, but it does a good job of fooling hitters. After two productive seasons at the Single-A levels, Flores should make the move to Double-A Frisco in 2010, where he'll have an opportunity to prove that the eye-popping strikeout numbers are for real.

Mark Hamburger: The former Twins prospect had a rocky 2009 season, as he was dominant at times and flat-out bad at others. Hamburger delivers a 90-95 mph fastball with good life from a three-quarters arm angle that makes him tough on right-handed hitters. He also has a good slider to go with a changeup and a curveball. In the end, Hamburger is much like most of the Rangers' relief prospects with good arms–he has the stuff, but his command must become more consistent.

Although Hamburger doesn't walk a ton of hitters, he could stand to throw more quality pitches within the strike zone. Despite the above-average stuff and fastball with good movement, he was hittable in '09 [79 hits in 66.1 innings] and he was susceptible to the home run ball. The 22-year-old is still relatively young and inexperienced, and it's far too early to give up on him. Hamburger has excellent tools and he could put them together at any time.

Reinier Bermudez: After defecting from his native Cuba, Bermudez signed with the Rangers in the Dominican Republic early in the 2008 season. The club liked Bermudez because of his low-to-mid-90s fastball that often tops out at 96-97 mph. He also uses a hard, big-breaking curveball in the upper-70s. Bermudez pitched in the Dominican Summer League last summer while the Rangers got his visa situation sorted out. While he was old for the league at 23, he posted dominant results that included 18 hits allowed and 67 strikeouts in 46 innings.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound reliever got his first taste of the U.S. at instructs last fall, and he went on to pitch in Extended Spring Training last year. Bermudez showed good stuff, but he also had his share of rocky moments. He came out and dominated the NWL with Spokane, showing an excellent power repertoire. The 24-year-old was definitely old for the circuit, but he has the raw stuff to begin moving quickly if he irons out the command issues. Bermudez missed a lot of bats and was very difficult to hit [24 ip, 14 h, 30 k], but he also fell behind hitters and went into deep counts too often.

Justin Gutsie: The Rangers' 14th-round pick in 2008 missed the entire '09 season after undergoing hip surgery in Spring Training. But Gutsie remains an arm to watch due to his fastball that often reaches 93-94 mph and his promising slider. The St. John's product is scheduled to begin his throwing program soon, and he should be ready to go when camp breaks in 2010.

Josh Lueke: Lueke also missed significant time in 2009, as he logged just 7.2 innings at High-A Bakersfield before being arrested in an alleged rape case. Charges have since been dropped, and the Rangers have reinstated the pitcher. The big 24-year-old will return to the mound in 2010, where he can show off his fastball that touches the mid-90s [and even higher at times]. He also has an above-average slider that could develop into a plus pitch. Although Lueke pitched in just four games for the Blaze this past summer, he was looking better than ever, and he could be primed for a breakout in 2010.

Jose Monegro: After putting up impressive numbers in the Dominican Summer League in 2008 and part of '09, the 20-year-old moved to the AZL this past summer, where he posted a 2.51 ERA and struck out 47 in just 32.1 innings. The 6-foot-3, 200-pound hurler has an upper-80s, low-90s fastball that gets good armside run away from left-handed hitters. He also uses a big curveball, a slider, and a changeup.

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