Dream on.

I wrapped up yesterday’s report with a self-imposed directive to get myself out to back fields early enough to catch minor league lefthander Robbie Erlin throwing BP.  I got there in time, and got a lot more than just a glimpse of Erlin, including a reminder that while Baseball America may not have this system in the top one or two slots in baseball this year, the depth in high-upside pitching prospects to dream on is still dizzying, a point that came up at our roundtable event last night (a good recap of which can be found here).

The assembly line was already in motion when I got to the fields at 9 a.m., with half a dozen hitters stationed at each of the four minor league fields, waiting to step up against a succession of pitchers getting in what probably amounted to 20-25 pitches each (I should have counted).  Catchers’ signals differentiate live BP from what you might envision; while the L-screens are in place, there’s no steady diet of coach-pitch fastballs grooved from 50 feet.  The pitchers take the hill, at a full 60’6″, with the intention of throwing their pitches and getting phantom outs.  The hitters don’t know what’s coming.  The pitchers don’t always like the signals, and will shake them off on occasion.

There’s a group of pitchers throwing with each other in a barren outfield to get their arms warm, four more who have moved on to the next station, lined up opposite catchers and getting loose in the super-sized bullpen, and another four who have jogged from the pens to one of the four fields fanned out around the Eagle’s Nest, stepping in against hitters.

Shortly after I arrived, the foursome in the pen included lefthanders Martin Perez, Kasey Kiker, and Corey Young and righty Joe Van Meter.  It’s no intended knock on Kiker, Young, and Van Meter that I didn’t lock in on how they looked.  Perez was closest to me and everything else, when he’s throwing, is penalized into periphery.  Danny Gutierrez, in the foursome ahead of the Perez-Kiker-Young-Van Meter group, was pitching to Engel Beltre on Field 5, which is something I was interested in watching, but I couldn’t take my eyes off Perez throwing his warm-up pitches to Vin DiFazio.

When pitching coordinator Danny Clark called for the groups to rotate forward, Perez jogged to Field 6, and I slid that way myself (as Neil Ramirez, Justin Grimm, Trevor Hurley, and Andrew Doyle moved in to throw their pens).  Alinson Perez got into his crouch behind the plate, and slightly built infielder Santiago Chirino stepped in.  And then husky outfielder Jared Prince.  After that, Jared Bolden, and then catcher Kevin Torres.  They didn’t do much.  Bolden, a fourth-year pro who’s had a brief taste of AAA, rocketed a ground-rule double to right center on the final pitch he saw from Perez (especially impressive in that he hits from the left side), but other than that it didn’t take much squinting to envision the 19-year-old Perez on a big league mound by sometime in 2012.  Hyperbole, maybe, but that guy even looks different peering in for the signal, receiving the ball from the catcher, striding off the mound at the completion of his work.  He is, in the parlance, a Guy.

As that group finished, I caught Ramirez on Field 4, dealing that tantalizing fastball-curve combination that’s stirring up some buzz in camp.  The 2007 supplemental first-rounder (compensation along with righthander Michael Main for the loss of free agent Gary Matthews Jr. to the Angels) has battled through various arm and wrist injuries since turning pro, but he put in a full year at Low A Hickory in 2010 (142 strikeouts and 37 walks in 140.1 innings) and got stronger as the season wore on.  He’s putting himself back on the map the way Michael Kirkman did a couple years ago, though the righthander is a different pitcher.

But it was back to Field 6 when the groups rotated next, because there was Erlin, emerging from a bullpen foursome that included righties Barret Loux and Ezequiel Rijo and southpaw Joseph Ortiz, jogging to take his place on the mound that Perez had vacated minutes beforehand.  

Don’t misunderstand what I’m about to say.  Don’t.  But I imagine that when Cliff Lee was coming up through the Montreal system, Robbie Erlin was something like what the Expos thought they had.  

Sort of.  Erlin is 20 years old.  At the same age, Lee had just completed his freshman year at Meridian Community College, after having turned the Marlins down as a high school pick in 1997′s 8th round and then the Orioles as their 20th-round pick in 1998, opting instead to transfer to the University of Arkansas (from which he’d go to the Expos in the 4th round in 2000).  Erlin, on the other hand, had just blown through the South Atlantic League in his first full pro season after signing out of high school as the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2009.  Starting 17 times for Hickory (and relieving another 11 times), Erlin was among the league’s youngest pitchers but led the circuit with a 2.12 ERA — the third-lowest ERA among all starters in minor league baseball in 2010 — and also in hits plus walks per inning (0.92).  To make it more plain, older opposition managed just 89 hits in Erlin’s 114.2 innings (.213 average), but these Lee-suggestive numbers — only 17 walks and a league-leading 125 strikeouts — may be the most dazzling.  Erlin, who stands a tick under six feet (which some suggested was the primary reason he lasted until the third round two June’s ago) hits his spots and misses bats.  He unleashed a few curves that Jacob Kaase and Cody Podraza swung through and that froze Jared Hoying, leaving two of the three with a good-grief smile (not an exaggeration).  

Erlin is not Cliff Lee.  He’s not someone we should keep the number one slot vacant for.  But he’s a big league arm with big league makeup, and he’s going to see Frisco at some point this year.  He was two steps behind Perez on Field 6 on Monday morning, but may be just one step behind him in development, and on the starting pitcher prospect depth chart.

I didn’t have to move an inch once Erlin finished his work (with one final bender to Hoying), as righthander Roman Mendez (the key piece in July’s Jarrod Saltalamacchia trade) climbed the Field 6 mound next.  The 20-year-old flashes an explosive, swing-and-miss fastball/slider combination, but even to an untrained eye like mine it’s apparent that he doesn’t have much feel for the changeup (at least he didn’t yesterday) and there are still command issues on the hard stuff.  Lots there to like, though.

Next on Field 6: the slingy, all-limbs, nasty (if not scary) Geuris Grullon, a tall and lanky 21-year-old lefthander who has walked 63 (and hit another dozen and unleashed 38 wild pitches) in 94.2 minor league innings over four pro seasons stateside.  The 112 in the strikeout column, the one home run allowed professionally, and the obscenely great groundout/flyout rates make Grullon a prospect, and the walk rates have improved a bit each year, but there’s still much to be harnessed.  An upside arm to not forget, but one with as much potential to flame out before AA as he has to be death on big leagues lefties one day.

As Grullon was finishing up, I peeked over my right shoulder to see that the next foursome included David Perez, Cody Buckel, and Luke Jackson, and it irritated me that I was going to have to choose.  Though I’d seen Perez a couple times in 2010 and between the other two had only seen a Jackson session in October that didn’t even include a baseball, ultimately the choice wasn’t that difficult.  The Other Perez is only 18 and has yet to throw an official pitch in the United States, but I’ve got him as the Ran
gers’ number nine prospect (Baseball America has him at 11), and I can’t see enough of this kid right now.

The way the four back fields are organized, it was the AAA diamond that Perez was sent to (and that the GM slid over to as well).  Not much should be read into the back field assignments in mid-March (for one, a good number of eventual AAA and AA players are still in big league camp, and will remain so at least until minor league games start up this Thursday), but it was interesting to see the lanky teenager commissioned with the task of pitching to Marcus Lemon, Erold Andrus, and a couple other seasoned pros several years older than anyone Perez has ever been asked to face.

Perez posted a 1.41 ERA in the Dominican Summer League in 2010 (including only one run over his final 45 innings of work), striking out 68 and walking eight in 64 innings, and limiting hitters to a .202 batting average.  His stuff promises to take another step or two forward as he fills out his 6’5″ frame, but there’s plenty there right now, enough to prompt Andrus to tip his helmet toward the mound after he finished his round against the kid eight years his junior.

Hours after I’d seen Ramirez and Erlin and Mendez and Grullon and the Two Perez’s, I sat in the stadium and watched Miguel De Los Santos follow four innings of Neftali Feliz and four more of Eric Hurley, facing the back end of the Dodgers’ traveling squad but burying a dizzying change (to go along with an interesting fastball and curve that still have room for refinement).  Feliz now wants to be a starting pitcher (I’m still making him my ninth-inning guy in 2011, if it’s my call).  Hurley wants to remind everyone that he’s back in the picture.  De Los Santos, for his part, wants to prove that the Rangers’ off-season decision to put him on the 40-man roster — in spite of no experience above Low A Hickory — was the right call, and in one eye-opening inning yesterday, he started making the point for thousands who had never seen him pitch.

That’s part of what makes the back fields so interesting, a study in contrasts where even the untrained among us can look at Martin Perez and Robbie Erlin and David Perez pitching to hitters and dream.  As Kevin Goldstein and others remind us, we’re all guilty of overhyping our own prospects and complaining that they’re ranked too low in this system evaluation or that one (“you can’t move them all up unless you tell me who you’re moving down”), but rankings are subjective anyway, and statistics can be deceiving.  

Given a 15-minute look at these guys getting in their mound work while the scoreboards are off and the umpires are nowhere to be found, you might decide, even while admitting that such small doses can be misleading — especially to a fan not trained to assess such things — that the pitching pipeline is still producing, which bodes well for this club’s ability not only to continue addressing its needs on the mound internally but also to make impact trades with a currency that’s just as important as room in the budget.

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