Heated competition.

For anyone who has spent any time on the back fields in Surprise, whether in February or March or September or October, the first thing you notice upon arriving at Rangers Fall Instructional League 2008 is that the players (and coaches), at long last, have their names on the backs of their Rangers uniforms.  

Whether or not it was a change prompted by Nolan Ryan (who hinted at it in March while noting that there were three number 19’s worth watching in camp), it’s a welcome one, not only giving those of us just visiting a chance to take everything in without having to tote a roster, but also, maybe, giving the players something just a little extra to take pride in — their name on a jersey that says “Rangers” on the opposite side.

There’s something interesting on the back side of the workout T-shirts as well.  While last year’s instructional league shirts said “The Future Is Here” on them, this year’s edition has a simple message on the back:

“Compete.”

Aside from the obvious motivational point, there’s something else about the choice of words.  

The 60 players in Arizona (53 at Instructs and seven slated to play in the Arizona Fall League) have to know that the competition to become a Texas Ranger has never been steeper, with the big league club getting younger and with the system deeper in prospects than it’s ever been.  Every ballplayer understands the odds and the realities — they know they’re constantly auditioning not only for their employer but 29 others as well — but every player, especially at the age of the kids who are working in Surprise right now, wants to get to the big leagues with the franchise that first believed in him and made his dreams of playing professionally come true.

That’s going to be more challenging than ever.

But that’s a good thing.  Meritocracy is better than patchwork, and then there’s the other significant aspect of an uptick in young talent: other teams want to make trades with you.  

I got to Peoria, complex home of the Dodgers and Mariners, an inning into yesterday’s game between Texas and Los Angeles.  On the mound was a trimmed-down Omar Poveda, who flashed a very good breaking ball and made me wonder whether the Rangers have decided to add the 20-year-old to the 40-man roster in November or to leave him off, exposing him to the Rule 5 Draft.  (Jon Daniels suggested on the radio a week or two ago that the roster decisions have all but been solidified.)  The organization’s trend since Daniels took over has been to add deserving players who are arguably within a year of reaching the big leagues.  Poveda stands to kick off the 2009 season in Frisco.  Where he ends it is largely up to him.

The most interesting thing about the lineup behind Poveda was that Marcus Lemon was playing second base. In his three-year pro career, Lemon has played nowhere defensively other than shortstop.  I’m no expert, but he’s always struck me as someone who projects better as a second baseman.  

Behind the plate on Wednesday was Doug Hogan.  Justin Smoak was at first base — and caught one second-inning foul pop-up 20 feet from Hogan . . . behind Hogan, as a matter of fact . . . impressive closing speed.  Edwin Garcia manned shortstop, and the diminutive Edward “Junior” Martinez played third.  Stationed from left field to right were Eric Fry (sporting a very Warren Newson-esque build), Jared Bolden, and Joey Butler.

Former Rangers first baseman Jason Hart coached first base.  

Zach Phillips was sharp in the third and fourth.  I’m looking forward to seeing if he can break through once he’s out of the hitter-friendly California League.

There may not be two bigger enigmas in the system than righthander Fabio Castillo and hitter Cristian Santana.  So much talent.  Will it convert?

Then there’s righthander Wilfredo Boscan, whose future I couldn’t be more confident about.  The guy looks so much like a pitcher, despite his 18 years of age and slight, 160-pound build.  If he grew up in the States, he would have been in the Robbie Ross/Joe Wieland class as a high school draft-eligible this summer, and as eager as I am to see Ross and Wieland on the mound this week, if they look as polished as Boscan does, my baseball brain is liable to self-destruct.

Boscan wasn’t dominant yesterday afternoon, and had some command issues in his second inning of work (he was missing low consistently), but he did get out of a two-on, none-out jam with a ton of poise, striking out the next hitter looking on a breaking ball away, coaxing a lazy fly to right on another breaking ball, and inducing a weak humpback liner to shortstop to kill the threat.  He’s clean mechanically, has live stuff, and is surely capable of adding good weight to his 6’2″ frame.  

The Venezuelan did enough with his numbers in 2008 (9-1, 3.12 in a dozen Spokane starts and three relief appearances [including a 2.09 ERA in innings one through five], a 70/11 K/BB, four home runs allowed in 69.1 innings, and a 1.50 G/F) against meaningfully older competition that I’m not worried about the stats side of the equation.  Yesterday I got a glimpse of the scouting side.  And I’m pumped.

By time Boscan finished, you could have brewed coffee in my bottle of water.  It was 105 degrees, with a slight hair-dryer breeze, which made me give a little more thought than I had before about what the Arizona League rookies have to fight through for three months when it’s up to 10 degrees hotter than it is out here now.  It’s hard-to-believe heat.

Castillo, who pitched the seventh, looks to me like he’s slowed his mechanics down.  A couple Dodgers squared up on him before he tuned things up, finishing the inning with a strikeout and a comebacker.

Blake Beavan started the eighth with what must have been a 10-pitch battle that ended in a walk, then gave up a sharp single, but he settled down after that, coaxing rollover groundouts to third base and second base after a sacrifice bunt.  He escaped having allowed just one run.

Lefthander Corey Young, the Rangers’ 12th-round pick out of Seton Hall in June, opened my eyes in the ninth. He’s deceptive, coming from a bit of a funky slot and hiding the ball well, and he’s got a really good-looking curve that he relied on a bunch.  Young went 1-1, 2.79 with seven saves out of the Spokane bullpen this summer, striking out 34 while issuing only 11 walks in 29 innings of work and limiting Northwest League hitters to a .185 average and just one home run.  I want to see more.

Young’s final pitch of the game was volleyed into center field, where Bolden came in to make a diving catch, after which the Rangers met at the middle of the diamond to exchange congratulations.  

Meanwhile, 900 miles away, Matt Harrison had just walked out to the middle of a diamond for game-ending slaps as well, wearing a Rangers uniform with his name on the back, having just set a franchise record for wins in season by a rookie lefthander with a crisp quality start (six innings, two runs on six hits and one walk, seven strikeouts, eight groundouts, three flyouts).

A year ago at this time, Harrison was working with Rangers instructors in Surprise, a Class AA pitcher getting ready to pitch in the Arizona Fall League.  Now, he’s a favorite to be in the big league rotation when the 2009 season begins, having won 15 games in 2008, nine coming in the major leagues.  He may never wear a jersey again in this organization that doesn’t say “Texas” or “Rangers” on the front.

It’s the type of thing for five dozen players in Surprise, some four games into a 22-game instructional league schedule and others awaiting the start of the AFL season, to compete for.


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

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