October 2009

If I had a Hammer.

I caught most of Game One between the Twins and Yankees on Wednesday night, pitting AL MVP-to-be Joe Mauer against Mark Teixeira, who could be his runner-up.  Naturally, it tripped a swarm of Rangers-centric thoughts, primarily one that converges with a relatively quiet story that was never supposed to be.

A couple months ago I was talking to a friend at work about Mauer’s season, suggesting that he’s the hitter – or at least was coming into 2009 – that Hank Blalock was supposed to become.  Mauer entered the season as a lifetime .317/.399/.457 hitter, with more walks than strikeouts, averaging about a dozen home runs and 34 doubles for every 150 games.  This year, his age 26 season, he exploded with a .365/.444/.587 slash line, with 28 homers and another season with more walks than strikeouts.

Three weeks after Minnesota made Mauer the first pick in the 2001 draft, Blalock hit for the cycle twice in three days for AA Tulsa, in the middle of a breakout season at age 20 (.380/.437/.557 for High A Charlotte, .327/.413/.544 for Tulsa, then .344/.431/.713 with 11 home runs and 36 RBI in just 122 Arizona Fall League at-bats – equaling the high home run mark ever put up in what was then a 10-year-old league, and obliterating the league slug record) that led everyone from Baseball America to Baseball Prospectus to John Sickels to call him the number one position player prospect in all of baseball.  

Texas had finished in last place in the West in 2000 and 2001 – 20.5 and 43 games back – but Blalock was on the doorstep, just about ready to bring his pure hit tool, his bat speed, his extra-base power to all fields, and his exquisite plate discipline to Arlington to inject some much-needed youth into the Alex Rodriguez-led Rangers lineup.  He was going to be at the forefront of the Rangers’ resurgence, its return to perennial American League contender status . . . .

. . . along with Teixeira, who was chosen four spots after Mauer in that 2001 draft.  Both Blalock and Teixeira were third basemen, but Texas would figure out a way to get both to the big leagues when they were ready.  Blalock was going to camp in 2002 with a chance to win a big league job (which he did), while Teixeira would start his pro career in 2002, the only minor league season he would need.

Blalock and Teixeira were Holland and Feliz, times 10.

Before that 2002 season, former Astros scouting director and Baseball America national writer David Rawnsley wrote a foreword for the Newberg Report Bound Edition that included this:

There is enough material on individual Ranger minor leaguers on the following pages to fill a book (hey, it did fill a book, Jamey!), but I do feel compelled to make a comment on one prospect: Hank Blalock.
 
I’ve seen Blalock play frequently over the years, starting when he was a junior in high school.  I, like every other talent evaluator in the baseball business, have just as frequently underestimated Blalock’s ability.  Now Blalock is one of the best prospects in the game, and I saw something this fall that I’ve never seen in a prospect before.
 
Serious sports fans have often marveled at how some of the great athletes of our times seem to see the game in slow motion and are able to react earlier and more quickly to developing situations.  Joe Montana, Magic Johnson, and Wayne Gretzky are the three athletes who come immediately to mind.  All three were perceived as somewhat average physical talents who overachieved because of their incredible understanding of the game they played.
 
Until I saw Blalock in the Arizona Fall League, I can never remember thinking about a baseball prospect along those lines; here was a hitter who saw the ball so clearly, so early out of the pitcher’s hand, and so understood what the ball was going to do, that he was at a distinct advantage over his fellow competitors.  I sat in the warm Arizona desert air and tingled at the revelation.  Sure, Barry Bonds gives this impression and I know George Brett probably did, too.  But this was 21-year-old Hank Blalock.  It was exciting to watch that night and it should be even more exciting for Rangers fans in the future.

Baseball Prospectus that same off-season: “Blalock is the best hitting prospect in the game, and there’s not anybody particularly close.” 

Sickels: “Blalock is my favorite prospect. . . . I saw him play three games for AA Tulsa, and in those contests he saw a total of 44 pitches.  Not once did he swing at a pitch that wasn’t a strike. . . . If he isn’t a Grade A prospect, I don’t know who is.”

As Blalock’s Rangers career has almost certainly come to a quiet end, re-reading those four Rawnsley paragraphs, and the BP and Sickels comments, is painful.  The things that they wrote sound to me, today, like Mauer.  Not anything like what Blalock became. 

It’s almost hard to believe that Blalock hasn’t even turned 29.   The prime of his career should be now.  Instead, his peak, amazingly, was at age 22, when he hit .300/.350/.522 in 2003, his first full big league season – a year in which his decline in production actually began after his famed All-Star Game home run (he hit .323/.375/.524 before the Break, .272/.319/.520 after it).  Injuries and a transformed approach as a hitter have changed his career into something unfathomable eight years ago, and six.

The player who amassed more bases on balls (153) than strikeouts (148) in his only three seasons fully on the farm went an impossible 136 plate appearances this summer without drawing a walk (and not because he was raking: he hit .200/.199/.363 in that span).  While Mauer (.444) led the big leagues in reaching base this season, Blalock’s mark (.277) was second-worst in the game.  Not only was his 2009 strikeout rate his worst since his rookie season, his walk rate was also the worst of his career.  So was his line drive percentage.  An advanced ability to go with the pitch early in his career has given way to a tendency to roll outside corner pitches to second base, and to swing for the porch on balls in and out of the zone.

He went hitless in his final 19 plate appearances of the season, probably his final 19 as a Ranger.

Blalock is certainly not to blame for Texas missing the playoffs this year, or any other.  But while his arrival in the big leagues was supposed to help usher in a new Rangers era, instead his eight-year tenure here has encompassed an era of its own, a period in which the club never played past 162. 

The young blue-chipper in whom Rawnsley “saw something . . . that [he'd] never seen in a prospect before” has had just as extraordinary transformation the last six years, but in the wrong direction.  Blalock’s playing days are not over, and he’s made about $22 million in the game, but sadly the highlight of his career is an All-Star Game home run that, if you look carefully at the numbers, would, coincidentally or not, prove to mark the turning point in his productivity, if not his approach.

It saddens me to consider that the Rangers’ playoff history ended the year that Blalock was drafted in the third round and, many believe, is getting close to returning, just as Blalock will almost surely depart. 

It was supposed to be so, so different.

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Twitter  @newbergreport
 

87-75.

The American League West played .531 ball this season, .529 when
you limit it to the Rangers’ competition.

 

The American League Central played .470 ball this season, .455
when you limit it to the four teams that will spend the post-season at home
after Tuesday’s Game 163 between Detroit and Minnesota.

 

And yet, despite that, through 162:

 

Texas               87-75

Detroit             86-76

Minnesota       86-76

 

Texas, despite a sluggish finish, ends up with the fourth-best
record in a league that sends four teams to the playoffs.

 

That’s not an excuse.  The
alignment is what it is, the weighted schedule is what it is, and the Rangers
didn’t do enough to play more than 162 games. 
From the most basic measure, 2009 fell short of being a success.  There are lots of reasons to feel good about
this second-place divisional finish and second-place Wild Card finish, but at
the same time there’s a lengthy list of places where this thing can realistically
improve, starting with about four or five key players who are better than what
they gave the Rangers in 2009. 

 

Another area that can get better, and needs to, is dealing with
the schedule’s red zone.  With three
weeks to go, Texas was six games out in the division and four back in the Wild
Card chase.  Minnesota was 5.5 and 13.5
back.  After that point, the Rangers went
7-14.  At the same time, the Twins went
16-5 over their final 21 games.  The
Tigers, whom Minnesota caught to force a one-game playoff, went 11-10.  The three secure AL playoff teams, Los
Angeles and New York and Boston, each went 12-9. 

 

Texas simply has to close better, and the experience that so many vital
young players gained, not only getting acclimated to the big leagues in 2009,
but also contributing in a season that had something on the line every night
until the final week or two, should help the club handle September better going
forward.

 

One hundred thirty-four days until pitchers and catchers
report.  There are a couple huge off-season
issues to resolve before that time, but regardless of how those shake out,
there will be a healthy percentage of writers nationally who will predict this spring
that, one year from now, Texas, having played more consistently, will be among
the eight teams still standing.

 

The great thing about 2009 is that, unlike 2004, this was a team
that made some noise in the standings despite a number of flaws and disappointments,
as opposed to fluking its way to a strong finish.  After 2004, the message drilled into the fan
base by a front office that expected a step backward going into the following
season was one of “managed expectations.” 

 

Going into 2010, on the other hand, the Rangers’ players and coaching
staff and front office have simply earned heightened expectations.  They, and we, wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

 

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Instructs, Day Four: Bright side.

His name sounds like it came straight out of a Chip Hilton novel.

He once listed his hobbies as body-boarding and playing video games, as if you needed to ask.

His fastball whistles like others’ don’t, with that subtle tail of flame that Max always insisted didn’t exist only in picture books.  His slider might as well be named after the three Rice Krispies dudes.  His curve would make Beckham proud.  His change?  Check out the perfect parachute landing.

He’s all business throwing a bullpen session in sleeves and shorts at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, bouncing, almost fidgeting, like the third Festrunk Brother (look it up), as he peers in for the signal (or, in this case, signals the pitch himself), seemingly getting restless waiting to break your bat, or buckle your knees.

Right now, he’s probably walking someone’s four great-grandmothers across the street.  And I bet he recycles.

Back home from Surprise, I’m exhausted this morning, but reviewing a Tanner Scheppers side doesn’t need to come in essay form, and probably could have been done in a Twitter-length economy of words.

He’s gonna be gooooood.

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Instructs, Day Three: First impressions of a second-round third baseman.

The Rangers haven’t neglected third base on the farm.  Their primary AAA third baseman this season was Travis Metcalf, a former 11th-round pick, but AA third baseman Johnny Whittleman was a second-rounder, as was Low A third baseman Matt West, and rookie league third baseman Emmanuel Solis was a high-profile, high-dollar Dominican Republic sign — as was Johan Yan, since converted to the mound.

Third base, however, may be the thinnest position in the system right now, though that may not be all that unusual.  Rangers national crosschecker Kip **** will tell you third base has become the toughest position to find premium talent at in the high schools and colleges.  

Despite devoting second-round picks to the hot corner in 2005 (Whittleman) and 2007 (West), Texas went there again in 2009, tabbing Fresno State’s Tommy Mendonca, a player advertised as having a legitimate power bat and solid defense but some questions about his ability to make contact.  He had a very good debut season, hitting .309/.361/.537 in 188 Spokane at-bats with nine home runs, a total that was fifth in the Northwest League and would have been higher had he not been promoted to Bakersfield late in the season.

Reminiscent of Chris Davis’s debut season, also with Spokane, Mendonca struggled early, sitting at .196/.255/.353 over his first 51 pro at-bats.  But like Davis, he made some key adjustments and exploded, hitting .350/.390/.606 over his remaining 137 at-bats and prompting the two-level jump to the California League (where he hit .209/.261/.279 in 43 at-bats).  (His first taste of High A came on the road against the Modesto Nuts and Stockton Ports, both within 40 miles of his hometown of Turlock, California.)

When I got to the fields Friday morning and watched the Rangers take infield, Engel Beltre and Leury Garcia and Macumba stood out as they normally do, but so did Mendonca, whose glove and arm at the hot corner were impressive.  In fact, his throwing mechanics — the quick transfer, the strength, and the accuracy — looked a lot like Michael Young’s.  He’s built like Young as well, sturdy but without a menacing, Rolen-esque build.

At the plate, there was some length in Mendonca’s left-handed swing, but he showed tremendous, consistent opposite-field power, with the kind of backspin you want to see.  As for the contact issues, you just trust the player to make adjustments, and Mendonca is praised for his makeup and desire to work.  There’s a lot to like here.  I’m optimistic.

Catcher Vinny DeFazio is going to be a huge fan favorite everywhere he plays.  He looks like a UFC fighter and a 1940s catcher at the same time (with a name befitting either), is clearly an extremely vocal, hard-nosed leader, was constantly seeking coaches out with questions, and hit a 415-foot home run to straightaway center field in the ninth.  The New Jersey native (and son of Salvatore and Arline: you can’t make this stuff up) will coach one day, if he wants to, but in the meantime baseball people are convinced that the 2009 12th-rounder (.277/.415/.524 with 12 home runs in 231 at-bats between Spokane and Hickory this year), who caught Tommy Hunter at Alabama, is going to play this game for a long time.  The minute you see him play, you’ll be a fan for life.

Several of the pitchers DiFazio caught yesterday were impressive.  Righthander Daniel Gutierrez, acquired from Kansas City last month for catcher Manny Pina and outfielder Tim Smith, pitched an inning and a third as he readies himself for Arizona Fall League play.  He was free and easy with his delivery, and kept everything down, complementing a good fastball with a really good curve.  Righthander Francisco Mendoza, who nearly had to have a leg amputated after getting hit by a car a couple years ago, had a very good Dominican Summer League season (1.45 ERA, 30 hits and six walks in 37.1 innings, 38 strikeouts) and was sharp yesterday, retiring all four Mariners he faced.

Righthander Neil Ramirez faced three hitters.  All three struck out, two swinging through a four-seam fastball and one looking at a buckling full-count curveball.  Righthander Joe Wieland was even more impressive, getting a ground ball out and flyout to short left as he entered with one out in the seventh, and then striking out the side in the eighth.  By my count, he threw 21 pitches, 15 for strikes.  Righthander Johnny Gunter had a very good curve, getting a handful of called strikes with it in the ninth, including two third strikes.  

Mendonca, who hit once late in the game (he’s limited right now due to a forearm injury he suffered at the end of the season in Bakersfield), launched a shot to the opposite-field warning track in the eighth.  

Ruben Sierra Jr. has the leg hitch.  It’s not as pronounced as Dad’s was, but it’s there.

The Rangers’ outfielder Guillermo Pimentel had a better game than Seattle’s outfielder Guillermo Pimentel, the latter being the high-profile kid the Mariners signed for $2 million in July after spring reports that the Rangers had the inside track on him.  

Shortstop Jurickson Profar, center fielder Teodoro “Cafe” Martinez (son of former White Sox/Indians corner infielder Carlos Martinez — trivia: he hit the ball that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head for a home run in 1993), and second baseman Santiago Hill all made terrific defensive plays in the game.  

Baseball America named lefthander Martin Perez the number one prospect in the South Atlantic League (invoking the Johan Santana comparisons again, citing his build and his delivery and his fastball and his change), which follows the publication’s ranking of fellow lefthander Robbie Ross as the Northwest League’s top pitching prospect.  Hickory righthander Wilmer Font, according to BA, was in the discussion for the South Atlantic League Top 20 but didn’t make it.

That’s all I have time for this morning.  I’m off to see Mendonca’s Fresno State teammate, Tanner Scheppers, throw an early side, and then catch at least part of the Rangers’ game in Glendale against the White Sox, which will include Shawn Blackwell, Nick McBride, and Carlos Melo on the mound.  Looking forward to seeing all four of those high-ceiling righthanders.

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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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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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