Number one.

Coming into 2008, we were all pumped about what Baseball America had ranked as the game’s number four farm system — more on that later — with pitching rotations up and down the system that featured multiple Rangers prospects as the season got underway.

At AAA Oklahoma, Eric Hurley and Doug Mathis and A.J. Murray fronted the starting five.

At AA Frisco, there were Matt Harrison and Mike Ballard and Michael Schlact.

At High A Bakersfield, the rotation included Tommy Hunter and Omar Poveda and Zach Phillips and Beau Jones, and Kasey Kiker would soon join them from extended spring.

At Low A Clinton, Blake Beavan and Michael Main wouldn’t be part of the rotation as of Opening Day, but the LumberKings did run Derek Holland and Neftali Feliz and Evan Reed and Kennil Gomez out there to kick things off.

When the season began, neither Martin Perez nor Neil Ramirez had thrown a professional pitch.  Wilfredo Boscan hadn’t thrown one outside the Dominican Summer League.  Tim Murphy was midway through his junior season at UCLA.

Today that Spokane quartet makes up half of Baseball America’s list of the top eight prospects in the eight-team Northwest League.

BA Assistant Editor Nathan Rode said this yesterday, in connection with the rankings: “I’m still trying to wrap my head around how deep the Rangers pitching is.  It’s incredible.”

The 17-year-old Perez, a small, athletic lefthander whose electric combination of a fastball that touches 94 and a plus breaking ball (and a developing change) reminded at least one scout of fellow Venezuelan Johan Santana, was ranked by BA as the number two prospect in the league, but there was significant debate among the publication’s braintrust as to whether he actually deserved the number one spot, which instead went to Cubs third base prospect Josh Vitters, the third pick in the nation last year.  Facing a league full of 21-year-old hitters, Perez was seventh in the league in ERA (3.65), struck out 53 in 61.2 innings, and yielded only three home runs.

Perez outranked lefthander Christian Friedrich, a college pitcher whom Colorado took in the first round in June and was rumored to be high on the Rangers’ draft board had Justin Smoak not fallen to them.  Just after Friedrich at number four on the NWL’s top 20 list was Ramirez, a 19-year-old who held his older competition to a .166 average, with twice as many strikeouts (52) as hits allowed (25) in 44 innings.  BA noted that although Ramirez already works at 90-94 and touches 96 (mixing in a power curve that ranks right up there with Perez’s), there’s room for projection as his 6’3″, 185-pound frame fills out.

Boscan checked in as the number six prospect in the league (and apparently fit in the top five in an unfinished version), commanding a sinking fastball, a 12-6 curve, and a plus change that induced loads of groundballs when batters managed to make contact off the 18-year-old.  The Venezuelan led the circuit with nine wins and finished fourth in ERA (3.12) and strikeouts (70 in 69.1 innings), issuing only 11 walks in 12 starts and three relief appearances.  

At number eight, Murphy drew an Andy Pettitte comp despite making 12 of his 13 appearances out of the Spokane bullpen.  Scouts felt he had the makeup of late-inning reliever but could have enough stuff (including a low-90s fastball and a sharp 12-6 curve) to start.  The league hit just .152 off Murphy, who fanned 40 and walked 15 in 32.2 innings of work.

All four could begin the 2009 season sporting Hickory Crawdads threads, as the Rangers acknowledged yesterday that they’re moving the organization’s Low A program from Clinton back to the South Atlantic League, where they’d been affiliated with the Savannah Sand Gnats from 1998 through 2002.  The Crawdads, a North Carolina franchise, had been a Pirates affiliate since 1999.  Clinton, after six years as the Rangers’ Low A affiliate, will now become a Mariners farm club.

But for now, all four hurlers are at fall instructs in Surprise — as are third baseman Matt West (the NWL’s number 16 prospect) and righthander Carlos Pimentel (who just missed landing in the top 20) — and I will be too, in another day.  

What I’m about to see may be the third or fourth wave of pitching prospects heading toward Arlington, but don’t think for a second that it has any less force than the ones ahead of it.  And don’t assume they’re all three years away.  From last year’s group of 50 players who reported to Arizona last fall, eight made it all the way to the big leagues in 2008.

And as for that number four farm system, Baseball America Executive Editor Jim Callis hinted yesterday that the publication may be about to anoint the Texas system as baseball’s best: “[The Angels] won’t have it so easy in a couple of years because the Rangers and Athletics have put together the game’s two deepest farm systems.  I’d rank Texas ahead of Oakland because I like their depth and their balance of hitters and pitchers a little more. The Rangers have done an impressive job on all fronts recently, picking up talent via trades ([Elvis] Andrus might be the best shortstop prospect in the minors, while Feliz might have the best pure fastball), the draft (getting Smoak and [Robbie] Ross with the 11th and 57th overall picks this year was a huge coup) and the international market (Perez drew some Johan Santana comps in the short-season Northwest League this summer).”

The Rangers are going to be better soon, doing it the right way.

Check back in with you from Arizona, where I’ll be watching part of baseball’s number one farm system at work.

 

You can read more from Jamey Newberg at www.NewbergReport.com.

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