Instructs, Day One: Pro.

I first came out to Fall Instructional League in October of 2007, motivated primarily by the opportunity to see, in one place and at one time, prospects who had joined the organization since spring training that year like Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Martin Perez, Engel Beltre, Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Julio Borbon, and Tommy Hunter.  (Derek Holland, too, though I didn’t realize until I got there that he was worth making the trip to see.)

There may never be a first-year class like that one again, and I know that, but I go back every year anyway.  It’s a therapeutic few days, a sort of baseball rejuvenation at the conclusion of the season before it’s time to embark on the heavy work for the Bound Edition, some of which is influenced by what I see out here.  Numbers are numbers, and obviously I put stock in them, but sometimes you can watch a player for two innings and it changes the way you think about a player.

I planned my 2009 trip for this week by design.  Texas would be in Anaheim and Seattle, either finishing the season or extending it — the club wouldn’t be at home, so I wouldn’t miss anything by being away from home, either.  Best case, I’d be back in town before the playoffs.  Worst case, I’d be on the back fields at a time on the baseball schedule when the big club’s playoff hopes had been wiped out.

The 2009 Instructs roster may lack the “wow” factor in terms of first-year players that the 2007 class had, but there were still two players in particular I couldn’t wait to see in Surprise.  One is Tanner Scheppers, who threw a side Wednesday morning before I got to the fields and will hopefully throw again while I’m in town.  The other one is who I want to write about this morning.

The thing I remember most about 2007 Instructs was the way that Andrus (age 19), Borbon (21), and Beltre (17) carried themselves. Each had been in the organization for about two months, but they backed up their obvious talent with a ton of charisma, exhibited in different ways.  

I’ve written many times about the impression Andrus made on me that week (“It’s not really a swagger that Andrus has.  It’s more of a comfortable magnetism.  He reminds me of a feature tailback, or a really good cover corner, with that smile that says he knows he’s going to beat you more often than not.  He’s going to be a leader.”).  

Beltre was completely different, flashing a personality as big as his raw tools and putting himself in the center of things like a prizefighter with his posse.  

Borbon, despite having all of 37 professional at-bats (he’d appeared in just nine games since signing), seemed to embrace the role of mentor, helping break any barriers that might have existed between the Latin American kids (Borbon went to high school in the Dominican Republic) and the States-born players (he was born in Mississippi and starred at the University of Tennessee).  There was an obvious priority placed by the organization on team unity in that camp, and Borbon (and Hunter) seemed to take on leadership roles in that regard.

Now, some have suggested that, from time to time, I have a tendency to overhype prospects.  I’d contend that I’m less guilty of that than I might have been four or five years ago, when there were a lot fewer prospects in this system but I still managed to tout a bunch of them.  But for the sake of argument, let’s assume I’m a little quick to wave a player’s flag on occasion.

What I’m about to say is not an exercise in overhyping, and isn’t really hype at all.  Don’t take this the wrong way.

Jurickson Profar reminds me of Elvis Andrus.

No, not in the field or at the plate or on the bases.  The five or six innings Profar played in yesterday’s game against the Angels, while impressive (more on that in a bit), weren’t enough for me to come anywhere close to suggesting I have a handle on what kind of player he is.

But the 16-year-old shortstop has that effortless charisma, that energy, that look of confidence — some would (and do) say he has “it” –  that was so striking the first time I saw Andrus, two falls ago.  With Andrus, there was more of a leadership factor at work, but he’d already had three pro seasons under his belt.  Profar has yet to play an official pro game.

But you watch the former Little League World Series star from Curacao do what he does, and you get an immediate sense that he’s different.  You can’t take your eyes off of him.  Not in the “can’t afford to because you’ll miss something” sense (though there is some of that), but in the literal sense: You just can’t.  

Everything is energetic.  Athletic.  Enthusiastic.  He has more than enough arm for shortstop (hardly surprising when you consider he was touching 92 on the mound at age 14).  Teammates and coaches were calling him “Pro,” and it fits.  Just watching him whip the ball around the horn after a routine 6-3, or seeing him standing on third base before third baseman Emmanuel Solis has even thrown the chopper to first (with a runner on second), or scoring the only Rangers run of the game easily as he tagged up on a pop fly caught in a poor throwing position by the Angels second baseman, or talking to baseball people, who all say something slightly different but come to the same conclusion, you don’t need to be around Profar for long to know he’s going to draw attention to himself, without seeking it.

Like Andrus.

After Profar came out of the game, minor league infield coordinator Spike Owen took him to a nearby field, the one where I saw Scott Servais work one-on-one with Jarrod Saltalamacchia one morning in March, never taking a baseball out but instead teaching by talking.  The 48-year-old Owen, a University of Texas All-American and veteran of 13 big leagues seasons with an .875 post-season OPS, stood out at the shortstop position with a kid a third his age, discussing the nuances of the position.  I would have liked to have heard it.

And I would have liked to have seen the look on the clubhouse attendants’ faces when, on Day One of Instructs a couple weeks ago, they learned that Profar had shown up at the complex at 4 a.m., not because his watch had stopped but because he couldn’t sleep, and was ready to roll.

Other observations from Wednesday:

In many ways, Fall Instructional League looks a lot like spring training, only at a different time of the year.  In other ways, it’s quite different.  Thousands of Rangers fans descend on Surprise every March.  If you were at yesterday’s game, you were with the Rangers organization, were with the Angels organization, were scouting for another club or in scout school, or were me.

Watching Leonel “Macumba” De Los Santos play defense will never get old.  Is he now the system’s number one catching prospect?  Might be.  His footwork and cannon arm will remind you of heyday Pudge, and he did a great job blocking pitches yesterday.  The bat is less dependable, but might play enough to get him to the big leagues as a backup.

Righthander Wilmer Font is in really great shape, and his breaking ball and changeup continue to look years ahead of where they were last season.

Lefthander Chad Bell’s delivery is not as violent as B.J. Ryan’s, but he has the same body type.

Righthander Braden Tullis is savvy on the mound, with a linebacker’s mentality.

I’ve now seen 17-year-old righthander Richard Alvarez a few times, and I’ve been impressed.  He commands a full arsenal, has a strong pickoff move, and looks physically stronger than he did in March.  He punched out two Angels in his one inning of work.

Other things:

Ron Washington’s wish list for 2010 includes an experienced starting pitcher, a left-handed reliever, and a right-handed bat,
preferably one who can play first base and the outfield.  

Borbon will spend four to six weeks playing center field for Aguilas in the Dominican Winter League.

Based on a survey of Northwest League managers, Baseball America ranked Spokane lefthander Robbie Ross as the circuit’s number seven prospect — and its top-ranked pitcher.  Outfielder Miguel Velazquez was ranked 10th, third baseman Tommy Mendonca 11th, and Tullis 20th.  Among the “deep sleepers” in the league identified by BA were right-handed relievers Justin Miller and Reinier Bermudez.

NPB Tracker’s Patrick Newman reports that the Rangers may be the frontrunner to sign Japanese high school lefthander Yusei Kikuchi, who they’ve been scouting all year.  According to local reports, the 18-year-old will decide within a week whether to sign with an major league organization or make himself eligible for the amateur draft in Japan.

Like everyone else, BA’s Jim Callis loves Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman, going so far as to say he’d rank in the upper quarter of the publication’s Top 100 Prospects list for 2010, but Callis wouldn’t rank the lefthander ahead of Feliz, Justin Smoak, or Perez.  Callis doesn’t compile the Top 100 list alone (he and three others collaborate on it), but his remarks this week suggest that, at least on his own list, Feliz and Smoak and Perez will all show up in the top 25.

The Rangers released 21-year-old outfielder Miguel Alfonzo, according to Baseball America.  He hit .243/.344/.374 between Spokane and Hickory in 2009, his second year to play at the Low A level.

The Fort Worth Cats of the independent American Association released outfielder Wally Backman Jr.  

Rangers minor league righthander Michael Schlact is now blogging, at http://mschlact.blogspot.com/.

I went to a seminar a week ago where it was suggested that, ethically, a lawyer is probably required to disclose that he’s a lawyer if he maintains a blog that, even incidentally, has led to business generation.  A number of you who I suspect know of me only because I write about the Rangers have called on me and my law firm for legal work — which I very much appreciate — and so I’m going to do what I must and tell all of you, here, in no uncertain terms, that I, in fact, practice law.

But that doesn’t disqualify me from coming to the conclusion, after just one day at Instructs, that Jurickson Profar has all the ingredients to become something pretty special on the baseball field.

profar5.jpg

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