Friday on the Farm: A look at how the Rangers’ farm system fared in the first half
(Hickory Crawdads/Ashley Salinas)
Most minor-league players still aren’t experts in how to navigate a full season, and some are doing it for the first time.
No player is playing at full strength halfway through a season, and no one is going to get back there until next spring.
They will learn a lot just by managing their way to the 2022 finish line.
That’s not to say they weren’t developing in the first half, which ended last weekend for three of the Rangers’ four full-season affiliates. Triple A Round Rock hit the halfway point Thursday, racing to a 3-0 win in under two hours.
The Rangers’ system acquitted itself nicely, with three of the four teams above .500. There were superlatives and hiccups at each level, and much of the focus was on Double A Frisco.
That’s where Jack Leiter is pitching — well, not this week — and the No. 2 overall draft pick last year has been up and down in his first professional season.
He has learned that there is a learning curve, and it can be like the knee-buckling curve he can throw.
The Rangers have little concern about Leiter, though most of the top pitching prospects haven’t developed as quickly as the Rangers would have liked. There is opportunity in the big-league rotation, and no one has jumped up and grabbed it.
The stall out on the pitching side is one of the main storylines from the first half in the Rangers’ system. There are others, though.
Let’s take a look.
Cole Ragans, lhp: The 2016 first-rounder is the one starter at Frisco who flourished, and as such he’s now at Round Rock. Ragans has added velocity and a cut fastball a season after his comeback from two Tommy John surgeries. He’s on the Rangers’ radar.
Ezequiel Duran, 2b: The infielder was leading all of baseball in doubles when was promoted from Frisco to the Rangers in early June. He is back in the minors, now at Round Rock, where the Rangers want him to play outfield so that they can get his bat in the lineup more if he is needed again.
Luisangel Acuna, ss: The brother of Ronald Acuna Jr. should be getting more love than he does, but he doesn’t seem to mind flying under the radar. Acuna has been a .300/.400/.500 player most of the season for High A Hickory, in addition to playing terrific defense and stealing a base seemingly whenever he wants.
Jonathan Ornelas, ss: Yet another middle infielder doing good things, Ornelas has arguably been the best hitter in the organization. He finished the first half with a .339/.379/.471 slashline. He’s shown power with more lift in his swing and is a premium defensive player.
Evan Carter, cf: Carter capped the first half by being selected as the South Atlantic League Player of the Week (.455, grand slam, two triples, eight RBIs, four steals). He’s only 19, and is bouncing back after a slump that prompted the Rangers to give him a few days off.
Moving on up
The Rangers have called upon several prospects to help out the big-league club — Duran, Josh Smith, Leody Taveras, Sam Huff and Glenn Otto among them. As was covered above, Ragans has moved from Frisco to Round Rock.
Others have also been on the move.
Owen White, rhp: One of the system’s top 10 prospects, White got off to a bit of a slow start but found his comfort zone and was simply overmatching hitters at Hickory. He throws hard, has plus off-speed pitches, and wants to destroy every batter. He makes his second Double A start tonight.
Larson Kindreich, lhp: The eighth-round pick in 2021, Kindreich’s college polish (Biola) was too much for hitters in the Carolina League. The Rangers gave him a well-deserved bump from Low A Down East to Hickory, where the 23-year-old now gets to pick on hitters his own age.
Chase Lee, rhp: His sidearm delivery gave Double A hitters fits. The Rangers’ sixth-round pick last year from Alabama, Lee didn’t allow a run in his first 15 appearances. He has struggled in three Triple A outings (27.00 ERA), but he’s a rocket scientist (literally) and will figure it out.
Marc Church, rhp: Three Hickory relievers (Joe Corbett, the other Josh Smith and Tristan Polly) actually beat Church from Hickory to Frisco, but Church has the best stuff of the four. Church’s fastball and slider are so good that the Rangers think he might be able to start with just two pitches.
Cam Cauley, ss/Ian Moller, c: The third- and fourth-round picks in 2021 were kept in extended spring training to open the season in an effort to manage their workloads this season. They’re at Down East now and struggling some at the plate, which isn’t unexpected. Their defense, though, has been very good.
Don’t be surprised if Acuna makes his way to Frisco this month. That’s another indication of how well he has handled High A. Others have earned a chance to be promoted:
Cole Winn, rhp: The reigning Rangers Minor League Pitcher of the Year has had trouble the past couple months with his fastball command, but might be working his way out of it. His last outing was his best, and more of that at Round Rock will get him to the Rangers’ roster.
J.P. Martinez, of: The Rangers grabbed Martinez, from Cuba, after missing out on Shohei Ohtani. That was a long time ago. Martinez is 26, doing very well at Frisco (.899 OPS, 25 steals), and his age dictates a promotion to Triple A.
Aaron Zavala, of: A slow start never deterred the Rangers’ 2021 second-round pick. His numbers have steadily climbed, though his on-base percentage has been terrific all season. He hasn’t shown much power, but he also has a .424 OBP. Trevor Hauver, a similar hitter, could also make the Hickory-to-Frisco jump.
Blaine Crim, 1b: Frisco has proven to be just another place for Crim to keep on hitting. His average (.264) is lower than usual, but he provides pop (14 doubles, 12 homers) at a position where the Rangers are incredibly thin.
Mason Englert, rhp: Hickory’s best starter early and their most consistent starter in the first half, Englert could earn a spot at Frisco later in the season. It would be a sweet promotion for the 2018 fourth-rounder, who is from Forney just east of Dallas. He has 67 strikeouts and 15 walks in 60 innings.
Ornelas doesn’t think his season is necessarily a breakthrough, though others would say it is. He’s hitting 70-80 points higher than his career average after last season. Englert also fits this category, and so do others based on first-half performances.
Mitch Bratt, lhp: Low A teams will have their share of eye-opening performances, and Bratt has provided one. Selected last year in the fifth round, Bratt tossed five no-hit innings last week to drop his ERA to 2.38. He doesn’t walk many hitters and he also gets plenty of swing-and-miss.
Josh Stephan, rhp: A local product from South Grand Prairie High, Stephan passed on college even though he wasn’t selected in the five-round 2020 MLB Draft. The decision appears to be paying off. Stephan has 70 strikeouts and 16 walks in 60 2/3 innings at Down East.
Alejandro Osuna, of: The only hitter in the Down East lineup over .300 is Osuna, an experienced 19-year-old who played professionally in Mexico before signing with the Rangers. He has the makings of a fourth outfielder in the big leagues, and is a candidate for a promotion.
Cody Freeman, c/3b: Drafted as an infielder in 2019 (fourth round), Freeman moved to catcher in 2021 and has been acquitting himself well behind the plate. He’s also shown some punch at the plate, as he is tied for the Hickory team lead in homers (eight) and has good strike-zone judgment.
Ben Anderson, rhp: Others in the rotation are considered better prospects, but Anderson has made a successful transition (3.51 ERA) to the rotation. He pitches to contact and needs to strike out more hitters, and that could be in his genes. His twin brother, Ian, is a starter for the defending world-champion Braves.
Low A Hickory: The roster was oozing with talent — Acuna, Carter, White, Englert, Zavala, Hauver, Ricky Vanasco, TK Roby — to start the season and still is despite a few departures. Not surprisingly, the Crawdads posted the best first-half record in the organization (38-28).
Double A Frisco: If Hickory doesn’t have the most talented team, Frisco does. The RoughRiders faded some after a solid start, but have received contributions from unexpected sources (Ornelas, Martinez, Trey Hair) while their rotation battles favorable hitting conditions and a more experienced group of hitters.
Triple A Round Rock: For the first time in a few seasons, the Express roster has a nice group prospects. Winn is at the top of that heap, and Huff, Duran and Steele Walker are there now after they were demoted by the Rangers. Smith and Taveras were there before their bumps to the big leagues. Bubba Thompson is having another nice season.
Low A Down East: The Wood Ducks aren’t terrible, but their offense can be. Outside of Osuna, the bats have been either inconsistent or non-existent. That’s not unusual with a young and/or inexperienced roster. The good news is their rotation has been very good.
Jeff Wilson, email@example.com