Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the upcoming season. Some compete for jobs in big league camp, while others vie for spots on Minor League affiliates. MLB Pipeline will visit all 30 camps this spring, and today we check in on the Rangers.
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers' use of their farm system has gone through different iterations over the past several years.
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When they were competing, the system was used to make trades in order to bring in big league talent. Deals for Cole Hamels and Jonathan Lucroy in particular sent away many highly thought of prospects. At times, sometimes concurrently, players were funneled up to the big leagues, with homegrown bats like Nomar Mazara, Rougned Odor and Joey Gallo currently contributing to the big league roster.
Then, in 2017, things didn't go so well at the big league level so the Rangers found themselves in selling mode after two straight playoff appearances. Lucroy was shipped out, as was Yu Darvish, bringing in a new group of prospects, led by Willie Calhoun, now the Rangers' No. 2 prospect. That, combined with a core of young players already in the system, expanded with a successful 2017 Draft has Rangers Minor League camp buzzing.
"This is probably the most excited I've been in a long time," Rangers farm director Jayce Tingler said. "I think it's due to a somewhat frustrating 2017 a little bit at the big league level. I think we're most excited about a group of players we had last year, some of our young prospects who we think took significant steps forward.
"I've been here since 2006 and it's one of the deepest drafts we've had since I've been here. Our scouting department on the amateur side, we had one of the deepest drafts. You combine that with the players we got for Darvish and Lucroy, it's created a buzz. We have a different level of talent than we had at this time last year. I think that's excited our coaching staff as well. It's the beginning of Spring Training, everyone's excited, but I think we have a little extra excitement here because of those reasons."
While Calhoun is at the upper levels and should impact the big league roster at some point in 2018 -- even though he was just reassigned from big league camp -- most of the talent in this system is a bit further away in the lower levels of the system.
The organization's affiliate in the Class A Advanced Carolina League, the Down East Wood Ducks, had a rough first half, but came on in the second and earned a share of the league title. Hickory, down a level in the South Atlantic League, had a similar second-half turn-around, though it fell short of the postseason. Short-season teams also made the postseason in the Northwest and Arizona Leagues. A total of 23 of the system's Top 30 prospects have yet to play above A ball.
"We're really excited at our A-ball levels and down, some of the depth and the type of talented players we have," Tingler said. "We have to keep marching forward and help those guys progress."
Waiting for high-end talent is nothing new for the Rangers. They've long gone after high-end talent in the Draft and the international market and been patient in the development process. One of the things that really gets Tingler going is that while they got that kind of high-ceiling player in this last Draft, this group has a better feel for the game than some raw teenagers have in the past, using first-rounder Bubba Thompson as Exhibit A.
"I think all of us had pre-set judgements," Tingler said. "We were getting a Division I quarterback. It's going to be high-end upside, but there's going to be a lot of rawness. It became very clear after watching him play a week or two how he commanded the zone, how he swung at strikes. There wasn't a lot of swing and miss in his game. Certainly the talent was easy to see and speaks for itself, but we were really excited about the baseball skills he came in with.
"I think any time you've been able to go through those things over the years, you learn from them, what works, what doesn't, and you have more guys to compare it to. We've dealt with a lot more rawness."
When the Rangers see arm strength in a position player, they don't necessarily give up on him if he doesn't hit enough to progress. Instead, they often like to give that arm a chance on the mound.
Matt Bush had already begun the move from shortstop to reliever when the Rangers got him, but they helped him get to the big leagues. Jairo Beras was once a big-time outfield prospect. He was hitting for Down East until early June of last year before he shut it down and came back on the mound, eventually reaching Hickory as a 6-foot-6 relief prospect.
He's not alone in Rangers camp this spring. James Jones made it to the big leagues as an outfielder with the Mariners in 2014 (He stole 27 bases that year in Seattle) and has 341 Major League at-bats. He began the slow transition to left-handed pitcher in 2016, but missed nearly all of the 2017 season following Tommy John surgery. Brett Eibner reached the big leagues as a hitter with three different teams and was going to start giving pitching a try with the Dodgers last summer before he, too, needed elbow surgery. The Rangers signed him to help him rehab and transition to the mound. And the Rangers had signed former big league outfielder Anthony Gose, who started pitching in the Tigers' Minor League system in 2017, to a Minor League deal, only to lose him to the Astros in the Rule 5 Draft. He was recently returned to the Rangers.
"We're very open minded there," Tingler said. "We have quite a few of those converted guys we're working with and we feel are taking the process slowly, making sure the arm is built up before we let them go out there and start firing.
"We have done it for a little while, we have some experience. We know our failures and maybe where we've been too aggressive in the past. Our process is we try to build the arm up, think of safety first. When guys convert, you see sometimes how easy it looks like it's going to be, the challenge is to tap the brakes and make sure if this is going to work over time, it takes an incredibly long amount of time. You want to make sure you don't step on the gas too early."
A number of players showed improvement late in 2017, a big reason why those teams in Down East, Hickory and Spokane performed so well. No. 21 prospect Michael Matuella had a 3.14 ERA in the second half for Hickory a 6.56 mark in nine first-half appearances. No. 30 Tyler Phillips wasn't ready for full-season ball, hit the reset button and finished second in the short-season Northwest League in strikeouts and WHIP. Lefty Cole Ragans is now the system's No. 4 prospect after a strong showing on that Spokane team. No wonder Tingler is excited about the future.
"The guys who made significant steps last year, they've come in and they've continued to improve," Tingler said. "The young guys we expect to continue to grow, they look the part so far."