Minor League Mailbag: Part 1 of 3

Vallejo's stock is soaring

Lone Star Dugout brings you part one of our three-part minor league mailbag. In this feature, we answer your questions about the Rangers' minor league system. This feature is a free preview of premium content!

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I was just wanting to get a little update on Nate Gold. I haven't heard much about him lately, what's he been up to?

Pat in Baghdad, IQ


Gold is having a bit of a rocky season at Triple-A Oklahoma.

Most people remember Gold's monstrous season with Double-A Frisco in 2006 when he belted 34 home runs with 103 RBI. He followed that up with an impressive season at Triple-A, hitting .292 with 26 homers and 103 RBI. Included in that was an extremely impressive second half, leading Rangers hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger to praise his plate discipline.

Gold has scuffled this season.
Basically, as Boulanger told us last season, Gold's swing is not designed to hit the outside pitch, often including the outside corner of the strike zone. In the past, he ran into trouble by swinging at outside pitches that he couldn't hit. Boulanger said that he began to lay off those pitches in the second half of last season and, although sometimes the pitch is a strike, he was doing a better job of hitting his pitches.

I've seen Gold at three different points this season and it has seemed to me that teams have figured out how to pitch him. I saw him during perhaps the worst slump of his life [when he hit .178 in May with 25 strikeouts in 90 at-bats] and teams were pounding the outside part of the zone. He has struggled overall, batting just .234, but he's walking at a decent rate and his power has been pretty good in every month except May.

There were quite a few fans clamoring for Gold to get a look in the Majors last September. From talking to some people, I got the feeling there were a few people in the organization that felt he was deserving of the chance as well. But he didn't get the call and with Chris Davis now taking over at first base, I think it is unlikely that he will in the future.

This doesn't necessarily mean that Gold is never going to get his shot; it just probably won't be with the Rangers. Gold will become a six-year minor league free agent after this season and I think he will likely move on and sign with another organization.

I would love to hear your thoughts on Mike Ballard, who seems to be on quite a roll of late in Frisco. I would assume he has a ceiling like Doug Mathis, except that he is a lefty, which makes him a bit more interesting. What sort of stuff does he have, and is it just a fluke that he only allowed 3 HRs on the year, or is that indicative of his stuff?

Clark


Ballard is a very intriguing guy. Because he is not a top prospect with a million dollar arm [and partially because the Rangers have so many of them in their system right now], I think Ballard tends to be overlooked by most fans.

Ballard's cutter has been a key addition.
Although his fastball, which sits around 86-88 mph and tops out around 90, will not blow anybody away, he does a good job of locating it and keeping it down in the zone. When I watched him pitch in Clinton last season, the first thing I took note of was that he kept it down. So, no, I don't think it's a fluke that he has allowed three home runs all season. He realizes his fastball isn't overpowering and he's not going to try and pitch like it is.

His best pitch is a curveball that sits around 68-70 mph. It's a big-breaker that, in my opinion, is one of the better breaking pitches in the system. It's definitely his strikeout pitch and it is an offering that he can throw for a strike in just about any count. He also has a pretty good changeup.

But with even with those three pitches, I wasn't sold on Ballard being able to pitch in the Majors, mostly because of his fastball. It has been his recent development of a cutter that makes me think he has a shot to succeed in the Majors. The cutter has been so beneficial to Ballard because it helps keep hitters off his fastball. The pitch looks almost exactly like his fastball, except it cuts in on the hands of right-handers and away from lefties.

I asked Ballard when he began throwing the cutter and he said it was about a month and a half ago. So, let's take a look at his numbers pre- and post-June 1.

Pre-June 1: 42.2 IP, 60 H, 18 BB, 25 K [5.91 ERA, 1.83 WHIP]
Post-June 1: 53.2 IP, 53 H, 16 BB, 47 K [2.52 ERA, 1.29 WHIP]

Of course, part of this improvement [especially in the K:BB ratio], I think has to do with Ballard just trusting himself. As he said in an interview two weeks ago, he really got away from trusting his stuff. The cutter has probably played a role in allowing him do that.

To sum it up, Ballard isn't one of the top prospects in the system, but he's certainly a guy to keep an eye on. I think he has a shot to pitch in the Majors as long as he continues to trust his stuff.

How would you describe Cristian Santana's first half and do you think the Rangers will aggressively promote him to High A in '09 or do you think he would benefit by repeating the '09 season in Clinton?

Jason in NYC


In need of plate discipline. That's now I describe Santana's first half in Clinton.

Santana has big time raw power.
When I saw him in mid-late June, the biggest issue I noticed with Santana was his lack of plate discipline. His pitch recognition especially appeared to be in need of improvement. After seeing him, I'm not completely shocked that he has struck out 79 times in 54 games this season.

I honestly thought Santana was a little more polished than this. He struck out quite a bit in the AZL and NWL last season, but it wasn't nearly this much. I do think the strikeouts have gotten into Santana's head and it certainly hasn't helped matters. That should probably be expected of a 19-year-old playing full-season ball despite having just 33 games of professional experience before this season.

I think that should be repeated, just in case anyone is worrying too much about Santana's struggles this year. He has spent the entire season in full-season ball despite entering the year with 33 games of professional experience.

His power is still there and it is obvious when watching him. Since Justin Smoak has yet to sign and Chris Davis has graduated to the Majors, I'd say that Cristian Santana currently has the most raw power in the Rangers' minor league system. If he puts it together, I think he could absolutely be a 30 home run guy in the Majors, but he obviously has a long way to go.

Santana has hit better this month [.318/.400/.545] and his power is beginning to show up in game situations. But I would have to think the Rangers will have him repeat Clinton next season. He is raw and, like I mentioned above, he had barely any professional experience coming into this year. If he continues his hot July through the rest of the season, I could see him going to Bakersfield to open 2009, but I don't think it would be the likely scenario.

Why is Blake Beavan's strikeout rate so low?

Daniel in NYC


I received a couple of questions like this so I'll try to cover all of it here.

Don't panic over Beavan's low K rate -- yet.
I think there are a couple of reasons and I think a lot of it has to do with control. Beavan has never been one to walk many batters. He didn't do it in high school and he isn't doing it in Clinton this season. That is obvious by looking at his eight walks in 75.2 innings with the L-Kings.

With Beavan's stuff, he didn't have to expand the strike zone to punch out hitters in high school. He could just blow them away with the fastball or hammer them with the slider.

Because Beavan's velocity has been down this season, he's not going to be blowing many Midwest League hitters away with his fastball. There are plenty of undisciplined hitters that will go chasing in Low-A ball, but I also don't think Beavan is going out of the strike zone to chase strikeouts. One thing I noticed from my trip to Clinton is that, while he does throw a whole lot of strikes, he is throwing quality strikes for the most part. That's why you see a guy with a low walk rate, low strikeout rate, and low opponent batting average.

There has been commotion over Beavan's velocity being down this season, but I'm not ready to worry about it. He is currently starting once every five days and throwing two bullpen sessions in between. It is not uncommon for guys – especially high school draft picks – to lose velocity during their first full season of pro ball. I think it's safe to say that Beavan will never sit in the mid-90s with his fastball, but I would bet for a return to the low-90s with the ability to top out in the 95-96 range. Sort of like what we see with Eric Hurley today.

I would bet that we will see Beavan's walk and strikeout rates rise next season, and in the future, as his fastball velocity rises and his changeup improves. He'll be able to overpower hitters with his stuff more often and I think he will begin to expand the zone a bit.

What position does Matt West project to?

Jeff in Sherman


West is listed as a shortstop this season, but I'm not sure why. He profiles as a third baseman because of his body. He played shortstop during his career at Bellaire High, but he's already a fairly big kid. He's about 200 pounds and I've seen him listed at both 6-foot-1 and 6-foot-2. Either way, that's about accurate. His arm is certainly strong enough for the position as well.

Even though West is listed as a shortstop, the Rangers drafted him as a third baseman last year and he has played all 27 games this season at the hot corner.

I would love to know how the glut of middle infield prospects we have accumulated all grade out and rank in the system. I would love to hear your thoughts on the long term projectability of these guys (Duran, Arias, Andrus, Vallejo, Lemon, Osuna, etc).

Clark


I'll do my best to rank these guys off the top of my head: Andrus, Vallejo, Duran, Lemon, Osuna, Arias. I could go back and forth on Vallejo and Duran.

I will come out and say that I don't think Andrus is going to be a star in the Majors. I think he could make a couple of All-Star teams during his career, but for the most part, I tend to think he's just going to be a very steady starting shortstop. I like him because I think there's an excellent chance that he becomes a solid everyday shortstop. Andrus is both intelligent and hard-working, two qualities that certainly mix well with solid across-the-board tools. But every Rangers fan knows about Andrus at this point.

Osuna is hitting .413 in 19 High-A games.
To people that know me well, they know that Vallejo has been ‘my guy' since I saw him in Clinton last year. There were always the questions about whether or not he would hit enough, but the other tools have always been there. He's an exceptional defender at second with plus range, soft hands, and a plus arm. Because of his athleticism and across-the-board plus tools defensively, there's no doubt in my mind that he could handle playing shortstop and third base. It's because of this – and the fact that Ian Kinsler probably isn't going anywhere in the near future – that I think of Vallejo as sort of a super-utility guy. Mike Hindman told me that he refuses to think of Vallejo as a utilityman. I agree with him in the sense that I think he could be good enough to be a starting second baseman in the Majors, but I don't think he'll be a better overall player than Kinsler.

When Vallejo was promoted to Frisco, my primary question was whether his sudden power surge was legitimate or Cal League-aided. I am happy to report that his power is pretty legitimate. After seeing him a few times with the ‘Riders, I can tell that he is hitting a lot more line drives than he did last season. He may run into a few homers in the Majors, but I'm betting that he'll be more of a gap power guy that hits his fair share of doubles and triples.

Yet another thing I love about Vallejo is that he is an extremely smart baserunner. You see a lot of young guys with plus speed that steal a high number of bases, but they also get caught quite a bit. Over the past two seasons, Vallejo has stolen 79 bases while being caught only six times.

Lemon is having an excellent season. I don't think there are many 20-year-old prospects that walk more than they strike out in High-A ball. But I think the most intriguing aspect of Lemon's game this year is the pop he has shown. It didn't show in April, but he currently has eight extra-base hits in 14 games this month.

The number one issue for Lemon is his defense. I haven't been to Bakersfield this season [I see them in San Jose and Stockton next week], but his 25 errors and .924 fielding percentage is a bit worrisome, especially for a guy without plus range and a plus arm. If he develops enough to become a starter in the Majors, I think he'll eventually move to second base, but the Rangers aren't going to pull a guy with his talent off shortstop this early.

Osuna's .372 batting average makes him extremely interesting. He was a high-profile prospect as a kid in Venezuela, but visa problems forced him to attend New Mexico JC. He hit well there, but still had visa problems even after the Rangers had signed him. He spent some time in the Dominican Summer League because of it.

The main thing that makes Osuna successful is his approach at the plate. He's not afraid to work the count and he is not afraid to go the other way. It may sap some of his power, but if the approach lets him hit .372, I don't see a big problem with that.

The thing that stood out to me most about Osuna is that he's an athletic guy with good range in the field. He has committed 23 errors this season while mostly splitting his time between second base and shortstop. The main issue I saw with Osuna was throwing the ball to first. He has good arm strength, but he really seemed to struggle with his accuracy. He was promoted just a day or two into my trip to Clinton, so I look forward to catching a more extended view of him in Bakersfield.

I see Osuna being very similar to Marcus Lemon in that he's a steady offensive player with a great eye, a good approach, and a bit of pop.

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