Prospects for improving the pen.

What’s particularly upsetting about that loss was that, even after the Royals jumped on Colby Lewis early, Texas pounced all over Royals starter Nate Adcock, getting to their bullpen before the third inning had ended.  Kansas City came into the game having lost five straight, a span in which the club’s inexperienced relief corps had gone 0-4, 4.19.

And then, last night, the quintet of Felipe Paulino, Everett Teaford, Tim Collins, Louis Coleman, and Blake Wood – a pitcher who’d just been discarded by the Rockies, three rookies, and a second-year reliever – absolutely shut Texas down for 10.1 innings (38 trips to the plate, three hits [all singles]) before their teammates exploded for five runs in the 14th inning.

Going into the ninth, the Rangers had a 7-6 lead, Neftali Feliz was trotting in, and the Angels were losing in Minnesota, 5-0.

None of that ended well.

But really, a loss is just a loss, and the indelible moment of that one looms larger, the 10th pitch that Feliz threw, the one that Alex Gordon destroyed, sending it 423 feet to the upper deck.

It was Feliz’s 10th pitch, and his 10th four-seam fastball.  Ninety-nine on the gun doesn’t matter when the hitter’s able to sit dead red, especially when he gets one middle-middle.

Then, in the 10th inning, Feliz strikes Jeff Francoeur out on a slider, throws Billy Butler three sliders out of four pitches and gets him to ground out on the final one, and then gets Wilson Betemit (presumably having to respect the possibility of another breaking ball) to pop up to shortstop on a fastball.

Feliz’s slider is not great.  He sort of slings it, and it doesn’t have as much tilt or depth as you’d like.

But it’s clearly the difference between Feliz’s fastball serving as a weapon and serving as batting practice.

Yorvit?

Texas is 26-25, tied for first.  Last year Texas ended May with a 26-24 record, and then rattled off a 21-6 June.

Of course, last June the Rangers drew the White Sox, Rays, Mariners, Brewers, Marlins, Astros, Pirates, Astros again, and Angels, 13 at home and 14 away.

This year, Texas gets the Rays, Indians, Tigers, Twins, Yankees, Braves, Astros, Mets, and Astros again in June, with only nine of the 27 games at home.  Tougher.

Since returning to Round Rock, Chris Davis has homered in three of four games.  Regardless of what the plans are as far as getting him back up here are, this is a very good time for Davis to be locked in at the plate.

But it goes back to what we said a week ago about trade opportunities: Do you want to trade Davis for a seventh- or eighth-inning arm right now, or do you hang onto him for the time being knowing that a club with an impact starter or reliever that could hit the market in six weeks has shown interest in Davis in the past?

The Padres, according to ESPN’s Jayson Stark, are “beginning to send signals that their three prospective free agents – Heath Bell, Ryan Ludwick and Chad Qualls – will be on their closeout-sale shelves in a few weeks,” but are “not motivated” to discuss players they can control past 2011, like reliever Mike Adams.

So to state things another way, would you trade Davis right now for Washington’s Todd Coffey, or Arizona’s David Hernandez?  It would make you better right now.

But what if San Diego believes Davis can be an everyday third baseman (that’s what he’s played exclusively while at Round Rock) and would take him as part of a package for Bell – just not for another month?

Jon Heyman (Sports Illustrated) hears that Texas “will consider the Mets’ Francisco Rodriguez, who has said he’s [willing] to go elsewhere as a set-up man under the right circumstances.”  It’s not clear whether the Rangers are on his 10-team no-trade list.

And Ken Rosenthal (Fox Sports) adds to the intrigue, reporting that Rodriguez would have “no problem” setting up “for a club that acquired him, signed him to a contract extension and returned him to the closer’s role next season.”  Rosenthal identifies Texas as the perfect example of where that could work, as Rodriguez could fill the eighth-inning role right now (meaning his $17.5 million club option for 2012 would not vest) and then close next year under a new (less expensive) contract with Feliz moving to the rotation.

For the moment, I want to stop talking about relief pitchers, because it’s a little depressing.  Instead, a little minor league talk.

These were the 10 pitchers I pegged as breakout candidates on pages 22-23 of the 2011 Bound Edition:

Robbie Erlin, LHP

David Perez, RHP

Miguel De Los Santos, LHP

Cody Buckel, RHP

Joe Wieland, RHP

Justin Grimm, RHP

Matt Thompson, RHP

Neil Ramirez, RHP

Richard Alvarez, RHP

Shawn Blackwell, RHP

Erlin has been promoted to Frisco, where he’ll make his AA debut tomorrow.  His .132 opponents’ batting average with Myrtle Beach was lapping all of minor league baseball – the next best mark is 27-year-old swingman Jay Buente’s .163 for AAA Durham.  In 54.2 Pelicans innings, Erlin had scattered 25 hits and just five walks, fanning 62.  His 2.14 ERA was fourth best in the Carolina League, his strikeout total was second highest, and his walk rate was third best.

For those of you who haven’t seen this kid pitch, get out to Frisco.  He’s a machine, a pro on the mound.  We talk all the time about how young Martin Perez is (and granted, he’s been in AA for nearly two years), but the fact is Erlin (at age 20) is only six months older than Perez and the two are now teammates.

David Perez has fanned 22 and walked one in 13 extended spring training innings, permitting three runs on 10 hits.  The Dominican Summer League opens today, but Perez won’t be going back after he posted a 1.41 ERA in 13 DSL starts last year, striking out 62 and walking only eight in 64 innings and limiting opponents to a .202 batting average (allowing one run in his final 45 innings last summer, on 20 hits and four walks with 42 strikeouts).  Word is that the 18-year-old’s fastball has touched 98 in Surprise this month.

Eighteen years old.

De Los Santos, added in November to the 40-man roster, pitched six times for Frisco (8.04 ERA, 38 strikeouts and 17 walks in 28 innings) before a shoulder injury sidelined him three weeks ago.

Buckel emerged from extended a month ago and has allowed 16 hits and six walks in 17 Hickory innings, fanning 20 and inducing 1.73 as many groundouts as flyouts.

Wieland ought to be in Frisco with Erlin soon.  He leads the Carolina League in ERA (1.73) and in walk rate (issuing only three free passes in 52 innings), and he’s second in WHIP (0.88, trailing Erlin’s 0.55), third in strikeouts (61, trailing Erlin by one), and third in strikeout rate (10.41 per nine innings, ahead of Erlin’s 10.21 and trailing blue-chip prospects Jake Odorizzi and Drew Pomeranz).  Wieland is number 12 on Baseball America’s “Hot Sheet” this week.

Grimm was promoted from Hickory to replace Erlin in the Myrtle Beach rotation.  In nine Crawdads starts, the 2010 fifth-rounder from the University of Georgia (who signed too late last summer to make his pro debut) had a 3.40 ERA, giving up 45 hits (.247 opponents’ average) and 18 walks in 50.1 innings while setting down 54 on strikes, good for the third-highest punchout total in the 14-team league.  After walking 4.7 batters per nine innings in four April starts, he’d cut the rate to 2.1 per nine in May.

Thompson’s monthly Hickory splits have been even more dramatic than Grimm’s.  In four April starts, the 21-year-old went 0-2, 5.12 with an uncharacteristic 5.1 walks per nine.  In five May starts, he’s 2-0, 1.95, walking 2.9 per nine and also nearly doubling his groundout rate (2.69 in May).

Ramirez has had one of the biggest breakthroughs in the minors this year.  Summoned to Round Rock after one Myrtle Beach appearance (leapfrogging Frisco) for what was supposed to be a cameo start, his next move is now more likely to be a promotion than a demotion.  To be fair, his May in AAA (5.73 ERA, .293 opponents’ batting average, 23/11 k/bb in five starts) hasn’t gone as well as his April (1.69 ERA, .157 opponents’ batting average, 25/8 k/bb in four starts), and so there’s not a clock ticking on his arrival in Arlington, but since he’ll be on the 40-man roster this winter there will be a temptation to get him up here in September, if not sooner.  The 22-year-old’s rate of 10 strikeouts per nine innings is second best in the Pacific Coast League.

Through 15 innings in extended, the 18-year-old Alvarez has given up six runs on 11 hits and six walks, fanning eight.  He’s had two ineffective summer stints in the Arizona League and could return for a third run at rookie-league hitters next month, unless the organization chooses to challenge him with an assignment to Spokane.

Blackwell has struggled with his results in extended (though in his last outing he threw four no-hit innings, walking one and fanning four), and is probably headed to the Arizona League when its schedule gets rolling.

And the 10 position players:

Luis Sardinas, SS

Christian Villanueva, 3B

Jake Skole, OF

Mike Olt, 3B

Drew Robinson, IF-OF

Tomas Telis, C

Hanser Alberto, SS

Teodoro Martinez, OF

Josh Richmond, OF

Kellin Deglan, C

Sardinas has been recovering from shoulder surgery.

Villanueva is holding his own at age 19 in the South Atlantic League, hitting .288/.344/.431 as Hickory’s everyday third baseman, cooling off after a blistering .338/.400/.514 April.

Skole, last summer’s top pick, has also slowed down with the Crawdads, hitting .210 in May after a .278 April.  He’s dramatically improved his k/bb, though, going from 26 strikeouts and seven walks in 79 April at-bats to 20 strikeouts and 16 walks in 62 May at-bats.

Olt is having a tremendous first half, hitting .291/.400/.513 for the Pelicans, leading the Carolina League in base-reaching and sitting fifth in home run rate (one every 19.75 at-bats).  Nineteen of his 46 hits have gone for extra bases (11 doubles, eight home runs), and he’s thought of as a plus defender at third base.

Robinson, last summer’s fourth-round pick, was absolutely torching extended spring training opponents (.405/.479/.833 in 42 at-bats, four homers, four doubles, one triple, six walks, five strikeouts) before a broken finger sidelined him.

Telis, splitting time between catcher and DH for Hickory (as he returns from February 2010 Tommy John surgery), is hitting .281/.333/.413 with only 13 strikeouts in 167 at-bats.  He’s gunned down 16 of the 49 baserunners who have tried to steal on his watch.

Alberto is hitting .323/.350/.479, with only five strikeouts in 96 at-bats.  The 18-year-old hit .358/.377/.464 in the Dominican Summer League last year, winning the league’s batting title.

Martinez, son of former big league corner infielder Carlos Martinez, is hitting .286/.319/.368 as a 19-year-old in the South Atlantic League.  After hitting one home run in his first 142 pro games, the fleet outfielder has gone deep each of the last two nights for the Crawdads.

Richmond is having a solid .265/.355/.457 season for Hickory after his .297/.417/.458 debut last summer for Spokane.

Deglan has struggled offensively for Hickory, going 5 for 38 in May to drop his season slash to .185/.281/.272.  He’s thrown out seven of 38 would-be basestealers.  Deglan turned 19 this month.

What’s the point of all of that, other than to serve a distraction from the big league bullpen issue?

The fact that so many prospects have taken a leap forward this spring – and let’s include Jurickson Profar (hitting a malicious .308/.427/.551 in May, including 11 for his last 20 with six extra-base hits, four walks, and one strikeout), Roman Mendez, Cody Eppley, Barret Loux, Robbie Ross, Jake Brigham, Mark Hamburger, Joseph Ortiz, Ryan Rodebaugh, Tommy Mendonca, Mike Bianucci, and Ryan Strausborger – will make it easier to trade for bullpen help.

Erlin’s not going anywhere for relief reinforcements, and neither is Profar or Olt or Ramirez or either Perez, but the watch list on Texas prospects ought to be lengthier now than it was two months ago, and since the grimness of the Rangers’ bullpen situation has swollen right along with it, the developments at the lower levels of the farm may turn out to be not all that unrelated after all.

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