Carter, outfield prospects looming on Rangers' horizon
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers haven't been shy about spending on the free-agent market the past two offseasons. Two winters ago, they shelled out $500 million for middle infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, plus $56 million more for Opening Day starter Jon Gray. This offseason, they filled out their rotation by committing $185 million for Jacob deGrom and an additional $78.7 million for Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney and Martin Pérez.
Texas hasn't invested nearly as much in outfielders, just $5.2 million for Kole Calhoun for 2022 and $2 million for Robbie Grossman for '23. That's in part because three of its best prospects will be ready for big league outfield jobs at some point in '24, if not earlier, and there's plenty of depth behind them.
The crown jewel of the organization's stockpile of outfielders is Evan Carter, who went from a surprise 2020 second-round pick out of a Tennessee high school to one of the game's best prospects at his position in short order. He's a center fielder with five-tool potential, but his advanced approach and swing decisions stand out even more than his physical ability. Carter batted .295/.397/.489 with 43 extra-base hits, 64 walks and 28 steals in 106 games last season while reaching Double-A soon after his 20th birthday.
"Evan is such a skilled hitter," said Ross Fenstermaker, the Rangers' assistant GM in charge of player development and international scouting. "As he comes to learn where his nitro zones are, I'm very confident that he'll be able to tap into more of his power regularly. He barrels balls so consistently, his approach is so good, we've seen it in big league games this spring. This dude doesn't miss pitches."
Dustin Harris and Aaron Zavala are two more skilled hitters who spent time in Double-A last year. Formerly a corner infielder, Harris moved to left field in 2022 and was on track for his second straight 20-homer/25-steal season before a sprained left wrist cost him the final six weeks. Zavala led the system in on-base percentage (.420) in his first full pro season, though he'll miss the first month of this one following elbow surgery last fall.
Anthony Gutierrez may be further away on the horizon but also may possess the highest ceiling of any Rangers prospect, outfielder or otherwise. Signed for $1,997,500 out of Venezuela in 2022, he could have four plus tools and solid speed once he's fully developed. He made his U.S. debut at age 17 and is ready for full-season ball this year.
"Some of the stuff that Guti does is spectacular," Fenstermaker said. "He still hasn't hit his full-on man strength yet, so another physical maturation is coming. I think what's underrated is how good his instincts are. We'll keep him in center field and I think he'll compete for Gold Gloves. He's so big and athletic and graceful."
Gutierrez highlights an international outfield contingent that also includes Yeison Morrobel (Dominican Republic) and Alejandro Osuna (Mexico). After tearing up the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League and reaching Single-A at age 18 last summer, Morrobel added 20 pounds during the offseason and has produced exit velocities as high as 115 mph this spring. The younger brother of former All-Star closer Roberto Osuna and the nephew of ex-big leaguer Antonio Osuna, Alejandro idolizes Alex Verdugo and is reminiscent of him as a hitter.
Camp standout: Sebastian Walcott
Several prospects have impressed in big league camp, including third baseman Josh Jung, second baseman Justin Foscue, shortstops Luisangel Acuña and Jonathan Ornelas and righty reliever Marc Church. On the other end of the spectrum is Bahamian shortstop Sebastian Walcott, who has looked spectacular while getting his first exposure to professional baseball after signing for $3.2 million in January.
If anyone can challenge Gutierrez for having the highest ceiling in the system, it might be Walcott, who has well above-average arm strength and could have power to match.
"I don't know how many fastballs Sebastian had seen at 93-94 mph in his life, but he came here and was facing a guy throwing 93-96 and squared him up for 107 mph exit-velocity single," Fenstermaker said. "Then Alex Speas came in and was throwing 96-98, and he hit a home run. He has a very good approach and is getting better at shortstop. It's been very impressive."
Breakout potential: Winston Santos
Signed for just $10,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2019, Santos didn't make his pro debut until '21 because of the pandemic. In his first two seasons, the right-hander stood out with the armside run on his fastball, his advanced changeup and his ability to throw strikes. Now his velocity has taken a leap this spring.
"Winston stayed here all offseason, working on his body and getting stronger," Fenstermaker said. "He has been sitting 95-98 mph every time out. He can move the fastball around, the changeup is there and he has some of the best command in our system."
Something to prove: Jack Leiter
Leiter dominated in his lone full season at Vanderbilt before going No. 2 overall in the 2021 Draft and signing for a franchise-record $7,922,000. Texas challenged the right-hander by sending him to Double-A for his pro debut in '22 and he struggled, going 3-10 with a 5.54 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings.
Leiter lost some ability to locate and miss bats with his mid-90s fastball, as well as some power on a curveball that he had trouble landing for strikes. After tasting adversity for the first time as a pitcher, he responded by adding strength and improving his mechanics during the offseason. Leiter looks more like his old self this spring.
"Jack has been fun to watch," Fenstermaker said. "His delivery is in sync, his spin rates are back, he has the vert and the carry on his fastball. The curveball and slider both look good. It's clear he got to work after a difficult season."