Friday on the Farm: With changes in place, here’s how Texas Rangers want to improve player development
(Hickory Crawdads/Ashley Salinas)
All signs before Sept. 10 indicated that Texas Rangers player development was thriving.
The system was deeper, thanks to the 2021 MLB Draft and deals made at the trade deadline. Players were developing after a year off and staying relatively healthy, which was a nod toward the programs implemented during the 2020 minor-league shutdown to keep players active.
The industry was taking notice, with five Rangers prospects packing the MLB.com top 100 rankings and Baseball America bumping the system from No. 24 to No. 11.
Then came Sept. 10, when the Rangers said they could do better.
Out from player development were assistant general manager Mike Daly and director of minor-league operations Paul Kruger, who was moved to director of baseball operations on the MLB side.
Moved into a new role was Ross Fenstermaker, who went from director of pro and international scouting to vice president/assistant GM for player development and international operations.
But when the trend was rising on a steep incline, what needed to be better?
The answer that day for why the changes: You can always do better.
“It is just building on a lot of the things that we’d already put in place, just continuing to carry that forward and the positive momentum and trajectory that we had,” Fenstermaker said last month in Arizona.
“It’s more of setting a higher level of vision from a front-office perspective in terms of what we want player development to look like and then finding the right people that can execute that vision on field and throughout the operation.”
The Rangers hired Josh Bonifay on Monday to be farm director, but general manager Chris Young put the player-development hierarchy in place.
“Ross is the brains behind the operation here,” Young said.
Fenstermaker will spend more time in Arlington, thought not all of his time, helping to put the right people and systems in place. There will be increases on the technological side, though in some areas it might be pulled back.
His focus so far has been putting the right personnel in place, including Bonifay. Fenstermaker said the Rangers started with a list of 20 candidates to be farm director, took a deeper dive on around half that list, and made their choice from there.
It’s also hiring people who won’t make it into the media guide but will be doing important work behind the scenes.
“It’s more just better collaborating and integrating among our leadership group,” Fenstermaker said. “I think the scope of the operation has grown pretty significantly and you’ve got a lot of different disciplines. We’ve got a performance department, we’ve got medical, we’ve got directors of hitting, pitching. There’s a lot of information out there, and it’s important to design systems where those different disciplines can integrate and collaborate a lot better.”
Bonifay will be more of a hands-on farm director. He has been a minor-league manager and coach as well as the Rangers’ major-league field coordinator in 2017. He was the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm director the past three seasons.
He’s been on the long bus trips as a player and a coach, and has seen players struggle on the field and off it.
“He understands what these players go through, what the staff goes through,” Young said. “He’s done a number of roles within PD. And I think it’s really important. I think it’s just a natural empathy that you have when you’ve kind of lived and walked in their shoes.”
The Rangers dismissed co-pitching coordinator Jono Armold after the minor-league season. Danny Clark remains in the position he’s held the past 13 seasons and will be joined by Jordan Tiegs, who was the pitching coach at Low A Down East.
And don’t overlook the impact new Rangers bench coach Donnie Ecker will have on the organization. He will also serve as the offensive coordinator and create a hitting program that is to be used at every level in the minors so that there is a seamless transition as players rise through the system.
“We are very focused on that element of continuity,” Young said Thursday on the Texas Rangers Baseball Podcast. “That is something we want to improve on the offensive and defensive side.”
Communicating to players
It’s a different language, one that players and coaches have had to learn. Ecker speaks technology, but as a former minor-league player in the Rangers system, he also speaks baseball with the same empathy as Bonifay.
A trend within Rangers personnel seems to hiring coaches who can convey the technological side to the players in a manner in which they can understand it and take advantage of the information.
There also needs to be an open exchange of ideas, rather than a coaching barking orders to a player.
“The leadership styles have definitely changed over the years,” Fenstermaker said. “Our guiding principle in player development now — I don’t know what it was before — it’s really like we’re here to serve the players. We are not here without these players. Like, I’m not here without them. I’m aware of that. And I want all of our coaches to be aware of that, too.”
During the instructional league, the Rangers sent all players to their performance center to pitch or swing in front of motion-capture technology. TrackMan devices were all over the back fields.
Some players just want to know the basics of the information. If their four-seam fastball plays well up in the zone, great, and they’re going to try to throw it up. They don’t necessarily need to know why.
“I’m not very good with the technical terms of it,” right-handed prospect Owen White said. “I truly like to keep it simple. If they want to sit down and talk to me about it, and we make an approach from that, I’m all about it. But if they tell me, ‘Hey, it looks good, keep going,’ that’s more my style.”
Others want to know the science behind it, and they can talk like a scientist when explaining it to people, say, with a degree in history with a minor in journalism.
“I want to know what I do well and what I can improve on because, at the end of the day, I feel like no pitcher is ever done working on something,” prospect Ricky Vanasco said. “They can always improve, even if it’s like the slightest little thing.
“I have 100% spin efficiency, so how many rotations on the ball. Like it’s just straight backspin. My spin rate isn’t very high, but it’s spins so well that it doesn’t really matter for me. I want to say my last outing I was up to like 23-24 inches of vert [vertical movement]. And it was at like 96-97 mph.”
The messaging from the coaches is vital.
“[It’s] creating that continuity and finding ways to message different things,” Young said.
Two of the three infielders are just behind Foscue in the BA prospect rankings. Foscue is fourth, Ezequiel Duran is fifth and Josh Smith is sixth.
Smith is a shortstop, and Duran said he is comfortable there. The Rangers believe he is best at second, though.
While it might look like there isn’t a place on the Rangers’ for either Duran or Smith, because of Foscue or a potential free-agent addition at shortstop, that isn’t necessarily the case.
“It’s ultimately going to come down to something that we wanted to do a better job of, that is creating competition in the minor leagues,” Fenstermaker said. “No path is paved for these players. Foscue has got to continue to prove it every day.”
Foscue and Duran are playing in the Arizona Fall League, with Foscue designated as the Rangers’ primary infielder so that he can catch up on at-bats after missing time during the regular season with a rib injury.
Foscue had three home runs entering Friday, but Duran had 10 extra-base hits and was batting 98 points higher, .320 to .222.
Foscue welcomes the competition.
“I love it,” he said. “You can take it as like, ‘Oh, I want him to fail and I want to do good. That’s the wrong mind-set to have. I had this mind-set going in to Mississippi State. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to compete with the best. You’ve got to come to work every single day to get better. I think a lot of people have that mentality. Competition is what makes an organization good.”
How good is the system?
The Rangers, though, thought they were badly underrated entering the season and believed all of what happened in 2021 would have happened in 2020 had there been a a season.
So, how good do the Rangers believe their system is entering 2022?
“I think we’re a top 10 farm system right now,” Fenstermaker said. “And with the third pick in the draft, another top 40 pick after that, and depending on who we graduate before that, we’ve got a chance to be top five farm system by midseason next year.”
That would include the potential “graduations” of Josh Jung and Sam Huff from prospects to MLB players who no longer have rookie status. The Rangers expect to sign two top-30 players from the upcoming international class.
They have also made changes in their leadership that they believe will make the farm system better.
“I think we’ve got great players and great systems in place here and are really looking to build upon that and take us higher and ultimately produce high-quality major-leaguers that are going to win championships here in Texas,” Fenstermaker said.
Jeff Wilson, firstname.lastname@example.org