Rangers Minor League Mailbag

In the first installment of our monthly minor league mailbag feature, Lone Star Dugout fields questions about Justin Smoak, Pedro Strop, and the most impressive debuts from 2009 draftees, among other subjects in this free preview of premium content.

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The Rangers Minor League Mailbag is a new feature that will run at the beginning of each month. Please send all questions to minorleaguemailbag@gmail.com. We will try to answer as many as possible.

What do you make of Justin Smoak's recent performance at the Baseball World Cup? After his struggles in AAA, is this a legitimate breakout for him?

Josh in Austin


In case anyone quit following the system when the regular season ended, Smoak set a Team USA World Cup record with nine home runs in the tournament, and he took home the Most Valuable Player award for the entire tournament after the U.S. won gold.

The performance was absolutely a positive sign, but I say tap the brakes a bit. Most of the teams the U.S. faced weren't even of Low-A caliber. Maybe short-season, although many of the teams [Germany, China, Netherlands Antilles] have few or zero players that have ever played affiliated baseball in the U.S.

Smoak did slow down a bit when the Americans began playing some of the tournament's more talented teams, such as Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Netherlands. Still, it was a talented USA roster and Smoak was arguably the top performer. Fellow top corner infield prospect Pedro Alvarez belted five home runs in the tournament, but he also only batted .259 [Smoak hit .291 with a .418 on-base percentage].

We all know that Smoak has excellent plate discipline and above-average power potential from both sides. He only hit four home runs in 54 games with Triple-A Oklahoma City, so yeah, I am encouraged by the power he showed in the World Cup.

But I don't think I would call this a ‘breakout' for Smoak. Despite the rather disappointing showing with Oklahoma City, I'd argue that his breakout came when he batted .328 with a .930 OPS at Double-A Frisco in his first full professional season. Even though he had struggles in Triple-A, it's important to remember that he was there in his first full season. Former Miami first baseman Yonder Alonso, the seventh overall pick in the '09 draft, didn't reach Double-A until late in the year, and his production [.295/.372/.457 in 29 games] didn't match Smoak.

With the struggles of Chris Davis and Hank Blalock this season, do you think Justin Smoak can be the Rangers' opening day first baseman next year?

George T.


In a word: no.

Smoak works with Rudy Jaramillo at instructs in 2008.
I think, realistically, we're looking at mid-season 2010 before Smoak is ready to contribute in the Major Leagues. Maybe a little bit longer before he's ready to become a full-time contributor. And I don't totally see the point of bringing him to the Majors unless he is going to be a full-time player.

Smoak is absolutely one of the top hitting prospects in all of baseball, and he's probably the Majors' best first base prospect. But he's not perfect, and he's not ready yet.

Although the 22-year-old was dominant at Double-A Frisco, he showed a tendency to chase [and be beaten by] good offspeed pitches, and changeups in particular. But in Double-A, the pitches weren't good enough to beat him consistently.

Once he got to Triple-A, that changed. Pitchers fed Smoak a steady diet of offspeed stuff, and they weren't going to give him fastballs until he proved that he could hit it or lay off it. Smoak was still a pretty selective hitter with OKC [not shocking, since he has excellent plate discipline], but he lost his power because he was off-balance and unable to square up on the offspeed stuff.

Smoak made adjustments, but he's not there yet. In his last month [out of two] at Triple-A, he laid off the offspeed stuff he couldn't hit, he made more solid contact, and that led to a better average and more power.

I say he's not ready because, although he made good adjustments, he isn't all the way there yet. I think he needs another two or three months in Triple-A before he is ready for extended looks at big league pitching.

Any news on Josh Lueke's legal problems? Or the org's view of his present/future prospect status?

Shroom


I also covered this on the premium message board, but I'll take a look at it here too. A recent article in the Bakersfield Californian chronicled what is apparently the end of Lueke's legal troubles. He agreed to a plea bargain that kept his prison time to 40 days [which has already been served], and he has returned home to Kentucky for the first time since last offseason.

It looks as if Lueke will be re-activated from the inactive list and he'll be back with the Rangers in 2010. The article says he'll be transferred out of Bakersfield, so I have to assume this means he'll be pitching at Double-A Frisco next season.

In terms of on-field performance, Lueke remains one to watch once again. He's always had an excellent raw arm, with a fastball that reaches the mid-90s and a good swing-and-miss breaking ball. In his 7.2 innings with Bakersfield this year, he gave up five hits while walking one and fanning 11. It was a small sample size, but a very encouraging one.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound hurler will be 25-years-old when the 2010 season begins, but he remains an intriguing relief prospect.

Pedro Strop: legitimate future big league reliever or Warner Madrigal clone?

J.J.


First off, I don't think it's fair to write off Warner Madrigal just yet. The Major League version of Madrigal this season was, absolutely, a complete disaster. And he wasn't all that impressive last year either. I've seen quite a bit of him in Triple-A the last two years, and I have to say he's not nearly the same pitcher in Triple-A as he is in the Majors.

Strop has the stuff to be a late-inning force.
When he's a RedHawk, Madrigal pounds the strike zone with his low-to-mid-90s fastball, and he throws his slider and splitter for strikes at will. He gets ahead of hitters and dominates them. He is a true late-inning force in Triple-A. With the Rangers, Madrigal rarely gets ahead of hitters. He falls behind and either walks hitters or grooves a fastball and it gets tattooed. The raw stuff is still there. I'm not saying he'll absolutely turn it around, but this was just Madrigal's third full season of pitching and he is trying to get Major League hitters out. It's frustrating, but I say don't write him off just yet.

As for Strop––I'm more confident on him than Madrigal. Strop just completed his fourth full season of pitching [although, in his defense, he was injured nearly all of 2008]. Anyone who saw him pitch–even when he struggled with OKC and Frisco this season–could clearly see his big league potential. Strop has an excellent fastball, a big-time splitter, and a good slider. The 24-year-old showed gradual improvement throughout the year with Frisco, and he went unscored upon in 13 of his final 15 outings, pitching more than an inning in most of those games. Strop earned a promotion to Triple-A, and after he gave up just one hit and walked zero in 3.1 scoreless innings, it was off to the Majors.

Command is still clearly the issue for Strop. He was sparkling in most of his Major League outings, but he was downright terrible at other times. That's the exact same way he looked in the minors this year. But he showed improvement as the season progressed, and I expect that to continue. Strop is a good guy and, from all accounts, a hard worker. I think he could be a big part of the Rangers' bullpen in the future.

Do you have any updates on any of the injured minor league pitchers from this season? I know Justin Gutsie missed the whole year, and guys like Michael Schlact and Cliff Springston were out for most of the season.

Preston in San Francisco


It definitely seems like the Rangers' minor league pitchers got off rather light on the injury front this year. There were a couple of season-ending injuries, but it didn't feel like a high percentage of guys went on the disabled list.

Gutsie did miss the whole year after undergoing hip surgery in Spring Training. He is back at home in Pennsylvania and isn't throwing yet. He's hoping to be ready for 2010 Spring Training.

Schlact had rotator cuff surgery in July and he's on the road to recovery. If everything goes according to schedule, he may be a little behind the schedule of other pitchers in Spring Training, but not far behind it.

Cliff Springston had Tommy John surgery in July and Kevin Castner had Tommy John surgery in early August. Off the top of my head, those were the only two to fall under the TJ knife this season.

Justin King was sent home from instructs after he underwent surgery to remove an aneurysm in his right arm that was causing his hand to go numb. I'm interviewing him later today, and I'll be speaking with him more in-depth about the injury then.

I've gotten a couple of questions about Eric Hurley. I really have no idea how he is coming along, but I plan on asking around when I get to instructs.

Does David Paisano's progress represent the biggest gain from pre-season expectations to postseason status on this year's farm? If not, who had the biggest development delta?

Shroom


Paisano made strides at the plate this year.
Paisano made quite a bit of progress this year, but as I mentioned in the Sizing up the Outfield Prospects story, there are still some concerns with consistency and the loss of speed, which may very well be hamstring related.

I think some of the players who improved their stock the most, to me, were Tim Smith [obviously with the Royals now], Tomas Telis, Wilmer Font, and Mitch Moreland. If I had to pick one player, it'd probably be Font. I was pretty low on Font after last year, when I ranked him 28th in the system. This is what I wrote on the top 50 list last year:

Font, 18, missed nearly all of the 2008 season with a shoulder injury. The 6-foot-4 hurler is very raw, but he is one of the system's most naturally gifted players. Font, who stands 6-foot-4, throws serious gas, with his fastball ranging anywhere between 90-99 mph. His curveball and changeup have shown potential at times despite being in the early development stages.

I certainly hadn't given up on him, but I wasn't particularly confident about his curve and changeup and his fastball command was all over the place. He really made strides in all areas this season, and I think he's a legitimate top 10 guy in the system. He really showed me a lot.

Former sixth round pick Bobby Wilkins had a nice rebound this season between the AZL and Spokane. Is there any hope for him?

Micky in San Antonio


There is some hope for him. Wilkins had a very nice season statistically, posting a 1.73 ERA in 41.2 total innings this year. He wasn't very hittable [32 hits, .215 BAA], he walked just nine, and he struck out 34. Most impressively, Wilkins finally got out of Arizona, throwing eight scoreless innings [and giving up four hits] in a late-season stint with Spokane.

Although Wilkins' numbers were far from disastrous last year, but his velocity was around 82-86 mph when I saw him, and he was apparently even a tick lower than that at times. His curveball was big and loopy, and his changeup wasn't really there.

Wilkins may be a full-time reliever now, but he was around 88-92 mph this summer, sitting right around 90. His curveball wasn't as big, but the spin was a little tighter when I saw him in the AZL. Wilkins was young even as a high schooler, and he just turned 20-years-old on August 20. He still has a ways to go in the developmental process, but it appears there is something there, even after a disappointing first two seasons.

In your mind, who had the most impressive debuts (pitchers and hitters) from the Rangers' 2009 draft class?

Alan


Pitcher: Braden Tullis

Hitter: Vin DiFazio

There honestly weren't very many choices for pitchers. Scheppers, Erlin, McBride, Bell, Strong and Blackwell all signed so late they either didn't play at all or [like Erlin] only got a couple of innings at season's end.

But Tullis is a nice sleeper guy who is proving to be an excellent find in the eighth round. One thing about Tullis get gets overlooked a bit is that he pitched extremely well in the Northwest League despite being just one year out of high school. Tullis is a 19-year-old who was just a freshman this past year at Skagit Valley College in Washington.

The right-hander has an upper-80s, low-90s sinker that helped him get 2.6 groundouts per flyout in Spokane this season. He also allowed just one home run. Tullis' slider is a bit of a work-in-progress, but he has an advanced changeup that shows plus potential. He could be a guy who moves through the system rather quickly.

As for DiFazio, he tore through Spokane before doing the same in the Single-A Sally League with Hickory. The 12th-round pick hit .290 with five homers and 12 walks in just 18 games for the Crawdads. From everything I'm hearing, he has continued to impress at instructs as well.

I saw that you are heading to instructs soon. What are you looking forward to seeing most out there?

ATXAggie


Tough question. A lot of things. Yes, I am attending instructs this weekend. I'm flying out on Wednesday and I'll return on Sunday. I think more than anything, I'm looking forward to seeing Jurickson Profar play. I've heard great things about him from everyone down there, and I really can't wait to see him on the field. Aside from that, I want to see all of the new pitchers [Tanner Scheppers, Nick McBride, etc.] and Miguel Velazquez. I've still yet to see Velazquez play in person.



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