Instructs, Day Two: Patience.

There were several moments on Thursday that reminded me why I can never go by the numbers alone.  

The 2009 season started with the Rangers holding the distinction of having baseball’s number one farm system.  The key success of the season was the number of prospects who were not only called on to help the big league club, which will finish at least 10 games over .500 — and in fact over .500 at all — for just the second time in 10 years, but also, in most cases, contributed significantly.  Rookies Elvis Andrus, Julio Borbon, Taylor Teagarden, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, Darren O’Day, Neftali Feliz, and Doug Mathis were integral parts of a team that was in the mix until mid-September.

The downside in 2009 was that several key prospects struggled, some due to injury (Max Ramirez), some due to illness (Michael Main), others due to simply not having a very good season.  That doesn’t make the Rangers system any different from anyone else’s.  There will be players who fall into that third category next year, too, which is not to say that it will be any less frustrating, or any more acceptable.  It’s part of the game.

No Rangers prospect’s 2009 season was more frustrating, from a statistical standpoint, than Engel Beltre’s.  Sure, the toolsy outfielder was younger than just about everyone he was playing against in the California League, but that was also true in 2008, when he led the Midwest League in base hits and runs scored.  This year, Beltre wasn’t among the league leaders in anything positive, hitting .227/.281/.317 in 84 Blaze games, drawing just 16 unintentional walks while striking out 77 times from the top two slots in the lineup.  A wrist injury nearly ended his season in mid-July, killing six weeks before he returned for with a week or two left.

But watching Beltre yesterday, in morning workouts and in the afternoon Advanced Instructional League game, restored my faith in the 19-year-old — or at least my hope.  The electricity in his bat, the arm strength, the footspeed, it’s all there.  And as far as the speed goes, it’s not just stopwatch readings.  It’s baseball speed.  There was a play in the first inning of the AIL game, a 410-foot shot just left of center field without a lot of air under it, that Beltre sprinted straight back on, turning to look over one shoulder and then the other, sprinting, sprinting, sprinting — and camping, underneath the ball in time to the make the catch look oddly routine.  One scout had used the word “lockdown center fielder” when discussing Beltre during yesterday morning’s drills, and that first-inning play was Exhibit A.

That same scout used the name Carlos Gonzalez as a comp for Beltre, and it’s an interesting one.  Developed by Arizona, Gonzalez’s tools were off the charts but he didn’t produce much his first two seasons, at age 17 and 18.  But he broke out in a big way at age 19 (.307/.371/.489 for Low A South Bend), methodically moving up prospect lists until he was traded to Oakland after the 2007 season in the Dan Haren deal, and then to Colorado after the 2008 season in the Matt Holliday deal.  In half a season with the Rockies this year, Gonzalez hit .285/.353/.533.  He has arrived.

But there I go with the numbers again.  There might have been times when the Diamondbacks were frustrated with Gonzalez’s inability to turn tools into production, and certainly opportunities to sell low on him, but they were patient with him, and it paid off.  Watching Beltre’s box scores this year tried my patience.  Seeing him again on the field yesterday revived it.

Jake Brigham started the AIL game — a sort of “Junior Arizona Fall League” setup that involved players from the Rangers, Royals, Padres, and Mariners (the Gaylord Perry Classic? or maybe the Desi Relaford Invitational?) — and was brilliant, no-hitting the Seattle-San Diego squad over 3.1 innings, striking out four (primarily with a filthy breaking ball) and issuing one walk.  

Wilfredo Boscan — who has put on some good weight since spring training — relieved Brigham and allowed just one hit in his 1.2 innings of work.  Tyler Tufts got the next four outs and was very good, pounding the strike zone and consistently getting into pitchers’ counts (the Royals first baseman joked that even his pickoff throw had armside run).  Justin Miller had a rough go in the seventh, facing seven hitters and retiring just two.  Michael Main came on in the eighth.

Main was the camp star in my few days at Instructs in 2008, leading me to believe that 2009 was going to be to him what 2008 was to Derek Holland.  Instead, he fought a strength-zapping illness most of the year and posted a 6.49 ERA over just 61 innings.  He was shut down in early June, but returned in September, pitching in relief as a concession to his summerlong layoff, and he was effective.

And yesterday, he was electric.  In his first inning of work, he sat 92-94 and touched 95, striking out the first two batters on nine pitches (seven strikes).  The third batter lofted a lazy flyout to left.  Three-fourths of his bat tumbled out to first base.  Scouts in the stands were buzzing.  

But scouts were laughing after a play that shortstop Leury Garcia made in the fourth.  A Mariners hitter shot a ground ball toward the hole that Garcia backhanded on the dead run and, without planting and without jumping and without really even turning, he fired a sidearm laser across his body that the Royals first baseman snared on one hop, getting the out and maintaining what was still then a Brigham-Boscan no-hitter.

Kansas City second baseman Johnny Giavotella made an amazing play two innings earlier, diving to snare a grounder to his left and popping up to start a great-looking 4-6-3.  It was a better play than Garcia would make two innings later, but didn’t elicit the same sort of reaction.  The laughter from the scouts on Garcia’s play seemed to say, “That’s a top 10 prospect in a lot of systems.  Sick depth.”

Garcia also contributed on offense.  In the seventh he hit a smash up the middle for a single.  He proceeded to steal second base, dashed to third when the catcher’s throw went into center field, and scampered home when the center fielder’s throw to third dribbled away from the third baseman.

When Beltre and Garcia get to Frisco together (late 2010 at the earliest), they probably won’t quite put on an Andrus-Borbon-Vallejo show offensively, but they have a chance to be plenty disruptive.  The defense is already there for both.  The offense isn’t there on paper, but the tools are for the two teenagers, if you can be patient.  

I know the patience part isn’t always easy.  In Beltre’s case, he’s probably going to be asked to repeat High A at Bakersfield (despite his season-ending cameo with Frisco last month).  In this system, which has been aggressive with promotions the last few years, a decision to have Beltre start at the same level two straight years could stand out.  But they don’t all move as quickly as Andrus — it would be crazy to use him as a model — and when Borbon was Beltre’s age, he was about to start his sophomore year in college.

The fact is that Beltre finishes the 2009 season as a teenager with two years on full-season farm clubs under his belt.  That’s not an excuse, but there’s a list of young hitters — Carlos Gonzalez’s minor league production took a while to reflect his abilities, as did Hanley Ramirez’s and Chone Figgins’s and Torii Hunter’s and Carlos Beltran’s — whose careers give us enough evidence that it doesn’t always come together right away.  There’s so many things that Beltre is capable of.  It’s just going to take some stamina to let things play out.

A lot easier said than done?  Not if you get the chance to watch him
play.

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(c) Jamey Newberg
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