The Texas Rangers’ minor league system ranks among the best in baseball due to its excellent depth. That depth was improved this season by a strong crop of breakout prospects.
Some of the Rangers’ 2010 breakouts––such as Engel Beltre and Fabio Castillo––had been regarded as top prospects in the past, but the light didn’t come on until this past season. Others––like Cody Eppley and Randol Rojas––rose from relative obscurity to become legitimate prospects with potential big league futures.
Lone Star Dugout profiles eight of the organization’s top breakout performances from the ’10 campaign.
Engel Beltre, CF – Ever since he joined the Texas organization as part of the Eric Gagne trade in July 2007, Beltre has been one of the more naturally gifted prospects in the system. The Dominican Republic native possesses good foot speed, bat speed, and arm strength. But it wasn’t until 2010 that he truly broke out from a performance standpoint.
Beltre, who recently turned 21-years-old, is gradually developing his excellent package of raw tools into refined baseball skills. While learning to hit the ball on the ground, use all fields, and utilize his plus speed to his advantage, Beltre posted a .331/.376/.460 slash line in 68 contests at High-A Bakersfield. He was inconsistent at Double-A Frisco (.254/.301/.337 in 47 games) but showed flashes of promise.
Overall, the left-hander projects to hit for a strong average with a few home runs mixed in, though his plate discipline must still improve. Already an excellent defender, Beltre covers plenty of ground, reads batted balls well, and has a strong arm. He likely won't be ready to contribute to the big club in 2011 but could be the Rangers' center fielder of the future.
Fabio Castillo, RHP – Castillo had arguably the biggest breakout performance of any Rangers pitcher in 2010. Once regarded among the system’s top pitching prospects, the right-hander fell off the prospect map after displaying pedestrian stuff and results in two consecutive years at Low-A in ’08 and ’09.
|Castillo's fastball flirts with the upper-90s.
Texas pushed Castillo to High-A Bakersfield out of camp in 2010, and it paid off in a big way. The 6-foot-3, 238-pound hurler dedicated himself to baseball on and off the field, getting into better shape and making his mechanics more consistent. Castillo began throwing his fastball between 93-97 mph with late movement. His slider became at least a solid-average power pitch in the upper-80s.
With the much-improved stuff came better results. The 21-year-old hurled 17 consecutive innings without allowing an earned run at Bakersfield before his late-season promotion to Double-A. He then turned in a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, yielding three runs in 9.2 innings.
Castillo has the potential to become a reliable seventh-inning reliever down the line. Armed with a power repertoire, he could reach the show at some point in 2011 as long as he continues to refine his command.
Miguel de los Santos, LHP – The Dominican southpaw made headlines this season with his incredible strikeout numbers. In fact, de los Santos had the most strikeouts per nine innings (14.3) of any qualifying pitcher in all of minor league baseball.
Visa issues kept de los Santos confined to the Dominican Summer League during the ’09 campaign. While clearly outclassing his competition, he was able to refine his changeup and develop it into a legitimate plus pitch. De los Santos’ change, which has screwball-like action, is the best in the system.
The prospect spent so much time working on his change during the last two seasons that his curve has regressed slightly. However, de los Santos made his breaking ball a primary focal point during Fall Instructional League.
Despite his three-pitch mix, the 22-year-old is likely a reliever, as the club should look to get him on a faster track to the big leagues. He must refine the command of his 91-93 mph fastball in order to sustain success at the upper levels. Though he hasn’t pitched above Low-A, de los Santos has legitimate big league stuff.
Cody Eppley, RHP – The former 43rd-round pick was nearly released in his first Spring Training after coming into camp with low velocity. The Rangers made a last-ditch effort to save his career by turning him into a sidearmer, and Eppley has developed into one of the system’s top relief prospects. After a strong first full season at Single-A Hickory in ’09, Eppley ascended through three levels and finished at Triple-A Oklahoma City this past season.
The 6-foot-5 right-hander is cut from the Darren O’Day mold and profiles as a similar type of middle reliever. Eppley features a heavy sinker at 88-92 mph, a sweeping upper-70s slider, and the occasional changeup. His sinker induced nearly 3.6 groundouts per flyout, and the overall mix limited righties to a completely punchless .147/.210/.180 slash line with a 38% strikeout rate. As with most sidearmers, Eppley must still refine his slider command and changeup to left-handed hitters––they hit .292/.364/.406 off him.
Already holding an invitation to big league Spring Training, Eppley has an opportunity to see the majors at some point in 2011. Between High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A, he posted a 2.08 ERA in 69.1 innings. The 25-year-old yielded 53 hits while walking 23 and striking out 82.
Robbie Erlin, LHP – During his first Spring Training this year, Erlin wowed the Rangers with his polish on the mound and his level-headed professional demeanor off it. The impressive performance earned him an aggressive assignment to Single-A Hickory out of camp, and Erlin seized the opportunity by logging one of the best seasons of any minor league pitcher.
The 20-year-old worked between the starting rotation and bullpen and had a 2.12 ERA with only 17 walks and 125 strikeouts in 114.2 innings. At 5-foot-11, 190-pounds, Erlin doesn’t have a ton of physical projection, but he possesses advanced stuff and command with an excellent feel for pitching. The southpaw throws his fastball in the upper-80s, low-90s (touching 93 a few times) to go along with a promising curveball and changeup.
Though Erlin didn’t throw his changeup often in high school, the pitch quickly developed this past season. The changeup, along with his ability to command his fastball to both sides of the plate, allowed him to limit righties to a .179/.216/.273 line with a 30% strikeout rate. Both secondary pitches have room for maturity––something that should come as he develops and climbs the ladder.
Trevor Hurley, RHP – Like Eppley, Hurley was a relatively late-round (22nd) college pick that has gradually developed into a strong relief prospect. The Houston native and Kansas State product broke out to the tune of a 1.77 ERA with 84 strikeouts and 35 hits allowed over 66 innings at Single-A Hickory and High-A Bakersfield.
|Hurley was the closer at Hickory and Bakersfield.
While nothing about the 23-year-old’s arsenal screams overpowering and dominant, he does a fine job with a three-pitch mix. Hurley uses an 88-91 mph fastball (touching 92-93), a low-80s slider, and an upper-70s changeup. He also began toying with a splitter at Advanced Instructional League this offseason. Hurley has overcome control issues that plagued him during his collegiate career and could become a solid middle reliever.
Randol Rojas, RHP – After signing for less than $5,000 out of Venezuela in late-2008, Rojas has become perhaps the biggest bargain in the entire organization. The righty entered the system with a low-to-mid-80s fastball, but the velocity gradually climbed as the club put him on an arm-strengthening and throwing program. The end result in his first season was an upper-80s heater, an 8-0 record with a 0.80 ERA, and honors as the Dominican Summer League’s Co-Pitcher of the Year.
Rojas now features a heavy 89-91 mph sinker, a mature 76-79 mph curveball, and an 80-82 mph changeup. He throws strikes and attacks down in the zone with all three offerings. With tight spin and late break, his curveball plays off his fastball well and projects as a future above-average offering. He also flashes a more than rudimentary feel for his changeup, which has some fading action. Rojas stands at 6-foot-0 and doesn’t project to add much more velocity, though a potential strong three-pitch mix will give him the opportunity to remain a starter.
The 20-year-old had excellent results with short-season Spokane in 2010 despite skipping state-side rookie ball. In 15 starts and 77.1 innings, he had a 2.79 ERA, allowed only two homers, walked 20, and struck out 40. Rojas will likely be a gradual riser through the system, and while he may never be a big-time strikeout pitcher, his K numbers should also improve with time.
Christian Villanueva, 3B – The Mexico native shined in the rookie Arizona League this past season despite his relative inexperience. Villanueva made his official debut with the DSL Rangers in ’09 but was sidelined after just eight games with a knee injury. There didn’t appear to be any lingering effects in 2010, as he batted .314/.365/.431 in 51 contests.
Villanueva is a fairly polished player in all facets. He’s a plus defender at third base with advanced instincts that include a quick first step and the ability to read hops accurately. He also has soft hands and a solid-average arm.
Offensively, the 19-year-old covers the plate well and shows present gap-to-gap pop that should develop into at least average home run power. Villanueva was listed at 5-foot-11, 160-pounds when he signed, but he has already added muscle and shows strength when he barrels the ball.
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