Of the 13 pitchers on Hickory's roster, nine ranked among our top 50 prospects in the organization this past offseason. Two of the other four pitchers made the list in past years.
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1) Robbie Erlin: Straight to Hickory.
Under the Texas farm system's current direction, the best-case scenario for polished high school pitchers has been to spend a month in Extended Spring Training before joining a full-season club. But Erlin's outstanding performance this spring [not just on the field] convinced the Rangers he was ready to handle the assignment to Hickory directly out of camp. Polished for a high schooler, the 19-year-old hurler has a sharp curveball and he commands his fastball well. Though he has just four innings of professional experience, Erlin has impressed the Rangers with his hard-working nature and mature makeup in addition to his impressive play on the field.
2) Wilmer Font repeats the league.
On the surface, this is mildly surprising given Font's 3.49 earned-run average and solid peripheral numbers with the Crawdads last season. He was fairly consistent and showed progression throughout the year. However, it's also important to look at how much the right-hander developed last year. After missing practically the entire '08 season, Font learned success wasn't completely dependent on overpowering velocity–he ditched the triple-digit heat for a 92-95 mph fastball that reached 96 and 97 when necessary, and Font's command improved as a result. Still, he has a lot of work to do in terms of overall command and developing the breaking ball, and he is just 19-years-old. Font may not spend the whole season in Hickory, but it makes sense to send him back there at the outset.
3) Michael Ortiz makes the jump to full-season ball.
After three seasons in the rookie-level Arizona League, first baseman Michael Ortiz will get his first crack at a full-season level in 2010. The 20-year-old made gigantic strides last summer in improving his approach, allowing him to go to the opposite field more often and see the ball better against fellow lefties. After working hard to increase his power over the offseason, the strong 6-foot-2, 200-pound prospect had an excellent spring and he is a definite breakout candidate with the Crawdads. During the final week of Spring Training games, Ortiz started at first base and batted in the middle of Hickory's order on a daily basis.
1) How will they find innings for all that talent?
The ultra-talented pitching staff features a whole lot of starting pitchers. Josh Lueke and Hector Nelo are full-time relievers, and the Rangers seem to be settling on Kyle Ocampo as a bullpen guy. The rest of the pitching staff has the ability to start, and it'll be interesting to see how the club divides the innings. Established full-season arms like Neil Ramirez, Wilmer Font and Joe Wieland may get the bulk of the load–meaning they'll be allowed to go deeper into games. But with the younger players–Robbie Erlin, Braden Tullis, Matt Thompson, etc.–the Rangers will likely want to limit their workload and keep them to three- or four-inning stints, whether it be starting or out of the bullpen. Regardless, there won't be many short relief situations in Hickory this season. Although he was a third-round pick last summer with a three-pitch arsenal, expect Andrew Doyle to come out of the bullpen as one of the team's late-inning relievers.
2) Can Matt West turn it around?
With a career .702 OPS, former second-round pick Matt West has been a disappointment in parts of three seasons [AZL Rangers, Spokane, Hickory] thus far. But the third baseman had a different look in camp. He looked like a player that was beginning to figure it out and turn his excellent raw talent into results in game situations. Though it was just Spring Training, West's pitch recognition appeared to be improving, as he was consistently putting together strong at-bats and blistering pitches left over the plate. The Houston native also looked like an improved player in the field, showing better footwork, a strong arm, and decent range. At the very least, West should improve upon last season's .234/.336/.335 line with the Crawdads, and he is another breakout candidate.
3) How quickly will Miguel Velazquez move?
With a strong, developed body and a good idea of what he is doing at the plate, slugging outfielder Miguel Velazquez has a chance to tear through the Low-A South Atlantic League. He figures to be a force in the middle of the Hickory batting order, and he probably won't finish the season with the Crawdads. The 21-year-old [he turns 22 in mid-May] was an extra-base machine in Spokane last summer, smacking 12 doubles, two triples and 10 homers in 54 games. While he has excellent tools across the board, the Rangers want him to refine his game–particularly defensively–in terms of getting better reads and jumps on balls in the outfield. Because of that, he may see some time in center, although he profiles as a corner guy down the line.
One to Watch
Josh Lueke – Because he missed nearly all of last season, it's easy to forget just how dominant Lueke was out of the gates. In 7.2 relief innings at High-A Bakersfield, he allowed just one earned run on five hits, walking one and striking out 11. The performance was legitimate, as the right-handed reliever has an outstanding arm. In a recent Spring Training outing, Lueke worked between 93-95 mph and flashed an excellent 84-85 mph slider. He also uses a splitter as his changeup. Lueke recently changed the grip on his slider, and it has become more of a power pitch with sharp break. The 25-year-old showed strong command in camp, and he could make the jump to Double-A Frisco in a hurry if he fulfills his potential. Lueke has 45.1 total innings of experience in Low-A and he has progressed since then, so he should have little trouble posting dominant numbers in the Sally League.