Rangers next crop of arms on display at camp

March 29th, 2022

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers are coming off their worst back-to-back finishes since 1972-73, the franchise's first two years in Texas, so there's a lot of work to be done.

They've addressed what was the American League's worst offense a year ago by spending $500 million on free agents Corey Seager and Marcus Semien and making smaller moves to acquire Kole Calhoun, Mitch Garver and Brad Miller. Their pitching staffs have finished in the AL's bottom five in ERA for eight straight years, so the Rangers will have to do more than import free agent Jon Gray for $56 million and Greg Holland, Martín Pérez and Garrett Richards on much smaller deals.

Texas never has had much success developing homegrown pitching. In 50 seasons, it has signed and developed just six arms who have made it to the All-Star Game in a Rangers uniform: Kevin Brown, Alexi Ogando, Roger Pavlik, Kenny Rogers, C.J. Wilson and Jeff Zimmerman. Rogers and Bobby Witt are the only in-house pitchers to win 100 games for the franchise.

That could be about to change, because Texas is stocked with mound prospects like never before. Its pitching crop is led by right-handers Jack Leiter, Cole Winn and Owen White, who are on course to join the big league rotation by mid-2023.

"In terms of depth of pitching and high-end talent, it's as good as we've ever had," said vice president and assistant GM in charge of player development and international scouting Ross Fenstermaker, who has worked for the club since 2010.

The No. 2 overall selection in last year's Draft, Leiter was the Rangers' highest pick since they grabbed Tommy Boggs in the same spot in 1974. After tying for the NCAA Division I strikeout lead (179 in 110 innings) and pitching Vanderbilt to within a victory of a College World Series championship in his only full college season, he'll make his pro debut in April and shouldn't require much Minor League seasoning.

"Jack is tightening up his slider after historically having a slower-spin slider, and he's really taking to it," Fenstermaker said. "We've put an emphasis on his changeup and he's making good progress. He has a curveball he uses as kind of a change of pace and it's such a unique fastball. The angle at which it comes in, the carry through the zone -- it's a special fastball."

Winn should be the first of the pitching prospects to claim a spot in the Texas rotation. The 15th overall pick in the 2018 Draft, he has lived up to his billing as the most polished prep right-hander in that class. Using four solid of better offerings, he was named Double-A Central pitcher of the year and reached Triple-A at the end of his age-21 season in 2021, recording a 2.41 ERA with a .146 opponent average and 107 strikeouts in 86 innings.

"Cole can throw four distinct pitches in any count," Fenstermaker said. "He started leveraging his strength and understanding how good he is and what makes him good. He'll throw plus changeups in a 2-0 count right on right and his sequencing and mix of his pitch utility is so unique. He's just refining his craft at this point, nothing major."

White broke out as the Arizona Fall League pitcher of the year last offseason, displaying a quality four-pitch mix after a delayed start to his pro career. Signed for an above-slot $1.5 million in the second round of the 2018 Draft, he had Tommy John surgery in May 2019 before the pandemic pushed back his debut to 2021. He finally made his pro start last May -- but broke his pitching hand when he slammed it on the ground after he made an error, costing him two more months.

"Other than accelerating his experience level, there's not a ton for Owen to work on," Fenstermaker said. "We're trying to emphasize pitching to his strengths and leveraging his best pitches in the best zones. We've seen more of the same of what we saw in the Fall League. The fastball is very good, the slider is very good, the curveball can be plus and the changeup is plus."

Camp standout: Cameron Cauley

An all-state wide receiver at Barbers Hill (Mont Belvieu, Texas), Cameron Cauley reminded some area scouts of Dustin Pedroia with the hitting ability and swagger he packs in a frame generously listed at 5-foot-10. Signed for an over-slot $1 million in the third round last July, the shortstop batted .255 with 10 steals in 24 games while debuting in the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League.

"We thought we were getting excellent bat-to-ball skills, great athlete, great energy, and then he swung and missed more than we anticipated in his debut," Fenstermaker said. "Cam Cauley has been something else this spring. He came back and he's having competitive at-bats, showing bat-to-ball ability, impacting the ball.

"The shape he's in and the way his body is moving, he's a no-doubt shortstop now. He really dedicated himself to get baseball-ready."

Breakout potential: Zak Kent

A ninth-round pick out of the Virginia Military Institute in 2019, Zak Kent began his full-season debut last year as a High-A reliever, moved into the rotation after a month and finished the season as a starter in Double-A. Armed with a mid-80s slider that he can locate wherever he wants despite its tremendous depth and horizontal action, the right-hander posted a 3.64 ERA with 117 strikeouts in 89 innings.

"To Zak's credit, he's been here all offseason long, asking a ton of questions," Fenstermaker said. "He's very inquisitive and competitive and he's evolving at how he uses his stuff. His bread and butter is his slider, he'll sit 93-96 mph with his fastball, he can spin a curveball too and he now has more of a traditional changeup. The only issue is the utility of his fastball over time, so he's working on getting some more spin effect and pitching to a spot and locating it."

Something to prove: Avery Weems

Part of the return from the White Sox in the December 2020 Lance Lynn trade, Weems was a sixth-round senior sign out of Arizona after recording a 6.46 ERA in two years with the Wildcats. The left-hander impressed during Chicago's instructional league program in 2020, then made his full-season debut in High-A last year and got roughed up for a 5.06 ERA, albeit with a 124/27 K/BB ratio in 85 1/3 innings.

"On the surface it wasn't a particularly great year, but Avery's underlying metrics were pretty good," Fenstermaker said. "He threw 94-95 mph the other day and he has one of the best sliders in our organization at any level. He can spin a curveball too and he's working on a changeup, though his other stuff is so good he may not need it. He can sink and run his fastball at 95 or cut his four-seamer."