SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers are as aggressive as any team when it comes to signing amateur talent. They're not afraid to gamble on high-ceiling players even if they come with high risk, and price has been no object when it comes to the international market.
As a result, Texas has amassed an impressive collection of prospects. The Rangers' farm system is stocked with power arms, power bats and big-bodied athletes. Walk around the back fields of Texas' Cactus League base in Surprise, and in short order, you can find catcher Jorge Alfaro firing lasers to second base, third baseman Joey Gallo and outfielder Nick Williams sending baseballs into orbit, and right-hander Luke Jackson and lefty Victor Payano thowing in the mid-90s.
"You try to get interesting players with tools and makeup and who are competitors," farm director Mike Daly said. "That's what we're trying to do. Most of those guys who play in All-Star Games have above-average tools. Look at the playoffs, and most of the guys who perform have above-average tools."
Last year's low Class A Hickory affiliate exemplified what the system is all about. Led by Alfaro, Gallo and Williams, it featured legitimate prospects at every position as well as an electric arm in C.J. Edwards, who would go to the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade. There was a boom-or-bust aspect to the Crawdads, who ranked second in the Minors in homers (178) though also first in strikeouts (1,403) and sixth worst in batting (.237), but scouts couldn't stop raving about all of the high-upside prospects on the club.
Daly acknowledges that several of the organization's most talented youngsters require a lot of polish. And that's fine, because that's what player development is all about. Many of last year's Crawdads will advance to high Class A Myrtle Beach in 2014, and they'll have to make adjustments as they face a higher caliber of pitching.
"It's a fun challenge," Daly said. "Our coaches, our coordinators, our staff have put a ton of time in with these guys. They want to be good hitters. We could have held them back as a group and played it safe, but they want to be challenged. They're prepared mentally and physically. We're excited."
Even after graduating Jurickson Profar, Martin Perez and Leonys Martin to Arlington and dealing Edwards, Mike Olt and two other prospects for Garza in 2013, Texas maintains prospect depth. The Rangers helped replenish their system last year with a Draft that included two first-round picks (right-hander Alex Gonzalez and second baseman Travis Demeritte) and several intriguing arms in the later rounds (most notably, sixth-rounder Sam Wolff). They also topped all clubs by spending $8.42 million on international amateurs, giving seven-figure bonuses to outfielder Jose Almonte, right-hander Marcos Diplan and shortstop Yeyson Yrizarri.
Three questions with Gallo
There isn't a Minor Leaguer with more raw power than Gallo, a 2012 supplemental first-rounder who signed for $2.25 million. The 6-foot-5, 205-pound third baseman set a Nevada high school career record with 65 homers, broke the Rookie-level Arizona League record with 18 long balls in his pro debut and led the Minors with 40 last year.
MLBPipeline.com: Over the past couple of years, Nevada has produced you, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant, all of whom would be on the short list of those having the best power potential in baseball. What's going on in your home state? How well do you know those guys?
Gallo: It must be something we're eating or drinking over there. Actually, it shows the level of talent we have in the Las Vegas area. We're underrated. I've hit batting practice with Bryce in the offseason a few times. I've known Kris since I was born, almost. His dad was my first hitting coach.
MLBPipeline.com: You've already established yourself as one of the premier power hitters in the Minors. What part of your game are you trying to improve?
Gallo: I have a lot to work on. I'm working on a little two-strike approach, seeing the ball better, having more discipline, staying athletic enough to play third base. I've worked my [behind] off in the offseason and during the year to stay there. Obviously, it's not easy as big as I am, so it will take a lot of work.
MLBPipeline.com: You flashed a 98-mph fastball in high school. Do you miss pitching at all?
Gallo: I miss coming in the last inning and throwing as hard as I can, but I've always loved to hit. In my last game in high school, a Blue Jays scout told me he had me at 100 mph. I didn't have the passion for pitching. I took the hard road, I guess.
Camp standout: Cody Buckel
A second-round pick in 2010, Buckel cruised through the Minors in his two full pro seasons. He was the Rangers' Minor League pitcher of the year in 2012, when he led the system in ERA (2.49) and strikeouts (159 in 144 2/3 innings) while reaching Double-A at age 20. Buckel drew comparisons with Tim Lincecum because of his compact build and delivery, and with Trevor Bauer, his offseason workout partner, because of his mechanics and long-toss regimen.
Buckel never had any trouble throwing strikes, which made the sudden disappearance of his control in 2013 all the more stunning.
After being invited to big league camp, Buckel gave up five walks while recording just one out in his first appearance. In the first month of the regular season at Double-A, he had as many walks as outs recorded (28). Buckel took three months off from game action before heading to the Rookie-level Arizona League in August, where he walked seven in 1 1/3 innings.
After working with Keith Comstock, the Rangers' rehab pitching coordinator, and sports psychologists, Buckel appears back on track. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound right-hander has regained control of his repertoire, which consists of a low-90s fastball and three solid or better secondary pitches in his curveball, slider and changeup.
"He's been really good," said Daly, who plans on sending Buckel to high Class A Myrtle Beach to start the season. "It's a credit to Keith Comstock and to Buck. It was a challenge he accepted and overcame. He came into camp again as a normal, regular pitcher. He hasn't had any issues and should be good."
Breakout candidate: Nomar Mazara
The Rangers signed Mazara out of the Dominican Republic in 2011 for $4.95 million, an international amateur record that should last for a while now that bonuses are limited by the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement. Other clubs were surprised by the bonus, but Texas saw Mazara as a left-handed slugger with a terrific swing and 6-foot-4 frame.
Although Mazara is raw at the plate and still growing into his body, he hit 13 homers as the third-youngest regular (age 18) in the low Class A South Atlantic League last year. He still needs to curb his aggressiveness, though he has made some offensive strides while also improving his arm strength and right-field defense. The Rangers think Mazara is on the verge of busting out in 2014, when he'll likely return to the South Atlantic League to start the season.
"For him to be that young and develop like he has is impressive," Daly said. "His effort and his approach are so consistent day in and day out. He has the bat. He has the power potential. He profiles as a true corner guy, and those guys are hard to find."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter.