SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers Minor League teams began playing exhibition games last Thursday. While most of the Spring Training focus is on the Major League team, the Rangers are professing a desire to re-emphasize scouting and player development.
Their farm system played a huge role in the Rangers' rise to an American League power, but it has also been hit hard by a long series of trades over the past four years designed to reinforce the Major League team during the pennant chase.
The system is hardly depleted. There is still plenty of talent down below and here are 10 things to watch for in the Rangers farm system this year.
1. The Ace: With Martin Perez in the big leagues, right-hander Luke Jackson is now the Rangers top pitching prospect. He was 11-4 with a 2.04 ERA in 23 starts and two relief appearances last season with 134 strikeouts in 128 innings. Jackson, 22, reached Double-A in 2013, pitching in six games there.
2. The Big Six: Joey Gallo, Lewis Brinson, Ronald Guzman, Nomar Mazara, Nick Williams, Jairo Beras. They are young and inexperienced. None are older than 20. None have played above Class A Hickory. But in an industry pining for more power, the Rangers have an impressive collection of big bats in the lower end of their system. These six combined to hit .255 with a .479 slugging percentage plus 97 home runs and 303 RBI in 1,916 at-bats.
3. The Lost Boys: As much as trades have hurt the system, so has the struggles of the top draft picks from 2010-11. Outfielder Jake Skole, 15th overall in 2010, hit .215 with a .302 slugging percent at Class A Myrtle Beach. Pitcher Cody Buckel, 2nd round in 2010, is trying to overcome severe control problems. Pitcher Kevin Matthews, 33rd overall in 2011, and outfielder Zach Cone, are both coming off major injuries. Another is pitcher David Perez, who was once a big time prospect but now coming back from Tommy John surgery.
4. The Backstop: Catcher Jorge Alfaro is the Rangers' top prospect but is probably 1-2 years away and may start the season at Class A Myrtle Beach. Brett Nicholas, a left-handed hitter who had 21 home runs and 91 RBI at Double-A Frisco last year, has taken up fulltime catching again. The Rangers may have something if he can maintain his offensive production with the rigors of being an everyday catcher. This would also be a good time for Kellin Deglan, 22nd overall pick in 2010, to have a breakthrough season after three straight full seasons in Class A.
5. Pitching breakthrough: Anybody can throw out a dozen names of young Rangers pitching prospects who could be considered candidates for breakout seasons: Victor Payano, Alex Gonzalez, Collin Wiles, Alec Asher, Connor Sadzeck, Jerad Eickhoff and others. So let's throw out the name of right-hander Nick Martinez, an 18th-round pick out of Fordham who was 12-7 with a 2.50 ERA last season. He was 2-0 with a 1.13 ERA in five games at Double-A Frisco. The big question is who from this wide group of pitchers will end up in the Frisco rotation behind Jackson.
6. Power relievers: Right-handers Wilmer Font, Lisalverto Bonilla, Roman Mendez and Matt West all have power arms but are still inexperienced and/or coming back from injuries. These guys have been known to light up radar guns but now need to be developed into pitchers.
7. The Double Play: Double-A Frisco is expected to have a tremendous double-play combination of shortstop Luis Sardinas and second baseman Rougned Odor. No telling how they will eventually fit at the big league level but they will be fun to watch at Frisco.
8. Mystery Man: Infielder Ryan Rua, a 17th-round pick in 2011 out of Lake Erie (Oh.) College, came out of nowhere last year to hit 29 home runs with 82 RBI in just 367 at-bats at Class A Hickory, meriting a late-season promotion to Double-A Frisco. He's not on anybody's top prospects list yet but last year's numbers can't be ignored.
9. Rampaging Republicans: This is probably looking way too far down the line but the Rangers Dominican Summer League team pulverized all competition last year. They were 53-18 in the regular season, then won five of six in the playoffs. Juremi Profar, brother of Rangers second baseman Jurickson Profar, had 44 RBIs in 63 games. There are no big names like Mazara, Guzman or Beras but there were some very good young players in the Dominican last summer.
10. Triple-A rotation: This is something to watch simply because Round Rock is supposed to provide depth for the Major League team. There just isn't much there in the way of prospects, partly because of the pitching the Rangers have given up in trades the past few years. So this rotation might include Nick Tepesch and some long march veterans like Armando Galarraga, Doug Mathis, Scott Richmond, Justin Germano and Ryan Feirerabend.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.