Rangers Farm Report

Texas’s Top 100 Prospects
3B Josh Jung: 9th by FanGraphs, 19th by Kiley McDaniel (ESPN), 26th by Baseball America, 31st by Baseball Prospectus

RHP Jack Leiter: 20th by Baseball Prospectus, 24th by FanGraphs, 25th by Baseball America, 36th by Kiley McDaniel (ESPN)

IF Justin Foscue: 50th by Baseball Prospectus

RHP Cole Winn: 52nd by FanGraphs, 60th by Kiley McDaniel (ESPN), 61st by Baseball America, 91st by Baseball Prospectus

IF Ezequiel Duran: 68th by FanGraphs, 99th by Baseball Prospectus

RHP Owen White: 84th by FanGraphs

IF Josh Smith: 89th by FanGraphs

I believe all the Jung placements pre-date his injury. On a subsequent podcast, FanGraphers Eric Longenhagen and Kevin Goldstein suggested he’d rank in the sixties as is.

Organization Farm Rankings
8th by Baseball Prospectus, (13th in 2021)
9th by Baseball America (24th last year)
10th by Kiley McDaniel / ESPN (20th last year)

Trade
Both Jose Trevino and Jonah Heim have strong defensive reps, especially in terms of pitch-calling, but Texas’s catchers combined to hit .223/.257/.367 in 2021. Texas’s offense hasn’t been better than its pitching since 2016, and even then, just barely. 2020 was the franchise’s worst offensive season, and 2021 was no better than third-worst. This team desperately needs hitting. Mitch Garver will hit. (Also, the free agent market for catchers was exceptionally bleak.)

Isiah Kiner-Falefa admitted some grumpiness upon Texas’s acquisition of Seagar and Semien, and I can’t blame him. IKF’s bat has been worth about 1.5 wins below average (average, not replacement) per 600 plate appearances, but he’s compensated by fielding well at a premium position. Defense saved last year’s squad from a win total in the 50s. But again, the Rangers are focused on upgrading an atrocious offense. That’s not to pin it on IKF, who has an acceptable lifetime .316 OBP, but he’s the biggest trade chip if the strategy is to sacrifice some defense in exchange for hitting.

Kiner-Falefa received scant attention nationally while climbing the system, but those of us who focus mostly on the Rangers were on to him despite his lack of even doubles power at the time. IKF squeezes more out of his ability than just about any Ranger I’ve seen. He will not be denied. Best wishes to him.

I enjoy watching RHP Ronny Henriquez, but he’s the type you readily relinquish to push a deal for a starting position player over the line. His fastball is lively and angry, backed up by a capable if inconsistent slider and change. I saw him and Yerry Rodriguez back-to-back last July. Rodriguez’s fastball impressed the most, but Henriquez looked more likely to remain a starter. Henriquez induced nine swinging strikes with his slider. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Henriquez slide into a reliever role.
Here
I hadn’t thought of Brad Miller as an option. He’s 32. He’s wandered through six clubhouses during the past four years. He’s made only 57 of his 700 career starts at positions needing the most help in Texas (3B, LF). But even with all the address changes, Miller has batted .250/.344/.487 against righties since 2018. Miller used to man short regularly, so I’d venture he could form the strong side of a platoon at 3B or LF despite the relative lack of experience. Against lefties, Miller actually homers at a similar rate, about one per 21 PA, but otherwise is of no help.   

Martin Perez! Perez has averaged roughly one WAR per 100-150 innings in his career, and if he can give Texas 150 slightly-above-replacement innings in 2021, he’s a fine addition. Prior to his signing, Texas was in the position of asking some combination of Taylor Hearn, Spencer Howard, AJ Alexy, Glenn Otto, Kolby Allard, and perhaps a few others to fill three rotation spots behind John Gray and Dane Dunning. That’s a big ask. Perez will alleviate that pressure.

Free Agents back with Texas: LHP Sal Mendez, RHP Jesus Linarez, C Jordan Procyshen, IF Trey Hair, and as of yesterday, IF Charlie Culberson.

Among the recent signings to minor deals is OF Jake Marisnick, who’s totaled 11 wins above replacement in 800 games despite a .228/.282/.384 line, courtesy of superior defense. A nice depth signing and possibly more, depending on what Texas can do to fortify a still-thin outfield. Arlington native and Texas-Ex Brandon Workman is a Ranger following a second stint with the Red Sox. Workman has been off his game the past two years, posting a .5.66 ERA with 34 walks in 47.2 relief innings. Matt Moore, who threw 102 unmemorable innings for the unmemorable 2018 Rangers, is back. And, Texas just signed righty reliever Greg Holland, who’s been all over the map in terms of quality the past four years. The Rangers have some recent success snaring veteran arms, so perhaps Holland could be another.

IFs Nick Tanielu and Nash Knight are Rangers on minor deals. Neither appeared on any transaction list I’ve seen, but they’re on the Spring Training roster. Tanielu will be familiar to Express fans, having played for Round Rock as an Astro in 2019 and visiting last year as a member of the Padres’ El Paso affiliate. Tanileu excelled with the Express (.295/.360/.520) but was oddly ineffective at hitter-friendly El Paso (.233/.299/.415). The 29-year-old Knight — born in Denton, schooled at Dallas Baptist, professionally a Blue Jay until now — has played every position at some but it best regarded as a corner infielder with some moonlighting at second and in left. Both are seeking their MLB debuts.

There
1B Ronald Guzman signed a minor league contract with the Yankees.

San Francisco signed lefty Joe Palumbo to a minor deal. The Giants had declined to offer him a Major League contract after claiming him off waivers from Texas last fall, making him a free agent for a while. He’s a teammate of Luis Ortiz, who also signed with the Giants after spending 2021 in Round Rock.

Lefty Wes Benjamin, who became a free agent after being outrighted last fall, signed a minor deal with the White Sox.

Catcher Melvin Novoa and OF Pedro Gonzales signed with indy teams.

OF Lewis Brinson inked a minor deal with the Astros.

The Cubs signed OF Seiya Suzuki to a five-year, $85 million contract. Suzuki was the last available player in the “Other People’s Money” portion of my Nov. 16 report wherein I estimated value of lavishing $100 million annually (actually $108) on free agents. I had four and $44 in mind for Suzuki, so good for him on blowing by that.

Name Game
Our long national nightmare is over. MLB is reinstating the traditional monikers for the minor leagues. MLB was able to recast the minors more to its liking after 2020, but it lacked the naming rights. Thus, the stilted Triple A West, Double A South, High A East, and Low A East. They’re gone, never to be uttered again in polite company, replaced by the Pacific Coast League, Texas League, South Atlantic (Sally) League, and Carolina League.

New Rules
All full-season levels will institute a pitch clock of 14 seconds with bases empty and 19 (AAA) or 18 (elsewhere) with runners on. A 20-second pitch clock dates back to 2015 in AAA. I don’t know if the number of clock-enforced balls and strikes has declined, but my feeling is enforcement has become more lax over the years.

All full-season levels will play with the larger bases used in AAA last year. Also, the limit of two pickoffs or step-offs per plate appearance expands from low-A to all full-season leagues. A third pickoff that doesn’t result in an out is deemed a balk. Last year, Texas’s Down East squad set a low-A record with 2.42 steals per game. League-wide stolen base attempts increased 30% vs. 2019, and successful attempts jumped 47%.

The Pacific Coast League and Charlotte in the International League will employ the automated ball/strike system used last year in the Low-A Southeast and Arizona Fall League last year. I have a pet theory that players with superior batting eyes can walk at an outsized rate because they needn’t worry about varying strikes zones among umps or expansion of the zone in three-ball counts. Let’s check the stats:

Number of players drawing at least 1 walk per 6 plate appearances:
All Low-A in 2019 (no robo-ump): 6 players, 0.20 per team
2021 Low-A West and East (no robo-ump): 5 players, 0.28 per team
2021 Low-A Southeast (robo-ump): 18 players, 1.50 per team

Ranger Trevor Hauver is among them; he drew 64 walks in 66 games in Tampa prior to his trade to Texas. I don’t expect an explosion in the AAA walk rate like what occurred in the Low-A Southeast last year. AAA pitchers have better control and are another year removed from the lost 2020. But we might see some hitters really take advantage of a “perfect” strike zone.

Levels below AAA will ban the shift; the four infielders must divide equally on either side of second and plant their spikes in the dirt.

Legal News
Back in 2014, some minor leaguers sued selected MLB clubs and MLB itself over alleged illegal wage and labor practices. The players eventually formed a class that withstood a certification challenge reaching the US Supreme Court. Last week, a federal judge ruled on a host of pre-trial motions, most notably granting the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion and ruling that the players are indeed “employees” under federal and state law, that players’ currently unpaid activities in spring training complexes are indeed “work,” and that travel time to and from Cal League games is compensable. The judge ordered $1,882,650 in penalties on the Cal League claim, with penalties in other states to be determined at trial if the case proceeds that far. Prior to this ruling, you might recall that MLB’s counsel recently had to defend the notion that minor leaguers not only should not be paid during spring training, but that the instruction and “life skills” received are things the players would pay thousands for at private camps. The judge was not persuaded, stating “defendants’ creative professional exemption defense fails as to all of Plaintiffs’ claims” and “defendants’ method of allocating signing bonuses and tuition payments to offset minimum wage liability is incorrect as a matter of law.”

The amount of money isn’t huge, relatively speaking, but it’s not nothing, and paying players during Spring Training would certainly represent a drastic change in business practices. If a court tells clubs owners they have to pay minor leaguers more money, owners might respond by employing fewer minor leaguers. 40 minor league teams already lost their affiliations after 2020. Under the new agreement, clubs are committed to fielding four full-season minor teams through 2030.

Rule 5 Draft
Cancelled. Unfortunately, also cancelled is my annual trip to Arizona for the third straight year. Pre-CBA uncertainty about whether folks like me would be allowed in Surprise plus grim certainty about my current work schedule forced me to make an unappealing decision. Instead, later on this year I hope to visit Texas’s A-level clubs for the first time since 2011.

Rangers Farm Report

Jung
Per local reports, 3B Josh Jung has a left (non-throwing) labral strain that will sideline him for an indefinite period and possibly require surgery. Terrible news for someone who might have won the starting 3B job out of Spring Training. I saw plenty of him last August and September and thought he was ready. At the very least, he was to be among Texas’s most prominent prospects when the minors resume.

FanGraphs.com’s just-revealed top-100 prospect list places Jung 9th, the highest I’ve seen him. I’ll have more on prospect rankings down the road. 

Stock Photo Of Chain And Padlock Draped Over A Baseball

This week’s lengthier MLB-MLBPA discussions are encouraging, but on the whole, the lockout and tenor of ongoing negotiations reminds me of 2020’s reorganization of the minors. In that case, MLB patiently let the agreement with MiLB expire and largely dictated new terms to a collection of teams decimated by the pandemic. (Some have sued, but I don’t think they have much of a case.) In the current situation, MLB owners and management can’t domineer the Players Association as it did MiLB, but they seem willing to accept the loss of games and negative press in order to achieve the same resounding victory.

Fans have the right to be weary and disgusted, especially after two Spring Trainings impacted by the pandemic. I certainly am. However, I absolutely do not buy the “billionaires vs. millionaires” dismissal or the idea of locking them in a room until they work it out. The stakes are too high. For most players, this next CBA will govern what remains of their careers. The draft and reserve clause prevent anything approaching genuine competition for the services of most players. Salaries are essentially fixed. Any improvements in their compensation and working conditions must be obtained now. Likewise, for owners, terms that make the final version of a CBA tend to stick, so anything conceded now could impact profits and asset values well beyond the terms of this agreement.

Per Travis Sawchik
of The Score, 63% of MLB players in 2019 had under three years of service time. From 2011 to 2019, the average debut age increased from 24.6 to 25.6, but the percentage of players over 30 has decreased from 40% in 2004 to 30% now.

Entering 2021, the average MLB salary was over $4 million, but that figure is badly skewed by top-tier free agents and has no relevance for the vast majority of players. Roughly 45% of MLB’s active roster have salaries under $1 million. By my count, 30 of Texas’s 40-man roster members have yet to reach arbitration. Of those, I count 17 yet to reach $1 million in cumulative earnings, including signing bonuses. A decent number of them will eventually, of course, and I’m not trying to pass them all off as destitute. But for many of these players, minimum salaries are all they’ll ever see, so I think the union is right to weigh them heavily in the negotiations.

One Hundred Fifty

Connected to the critical monetary issues is MLB’s request (withdrawn as of Monday) for the power to lower the number of US-based minor leaguers per club from 180 to as few as 150. In the past, individual minor league teams had roster limits that generally guided the total number of players a club would employ, but clubs didn’t have an organization-wide roster limit to my knowledge. That has changed, and MLB may want the right to change it again for what seems a modest monetary benefit.

Reviewing Texas’s 2021 reveals what a lower limit would entail. 221 players took the field for the club’s minor league teams last year. Nine were rehabbing MLB players, another 17 were optioned 40-man members. That leaves 195 players on minor league contracts, to which must be added four absent from injury and seven draft picks who didn’t take the field. So, by my count, the Rangers had 206 players signed to minor league contracts over the course of the 2021 season. The total at any given moment was lower, but I don’t think the Rangers ever had as few as 150. Texas has at least 170 players signed to minor league deals right now. (Odds are my figures aren’t exact, but they should be close enough for discussion.)

The late-2020 overhaul of the minor league system eliminated 40 teams but guaranteed four full-season minor league teams per club through 2030. These four teams have a cumulative roster limit of 116. Rookie-level teams were and are at the discretion of individual clubs. Every club has at least one, some have two (not Texas). They have no roster limit and can stretch into the thirties and beyond. Staffing five teams with a maximum of 150 minor leaguers plus optioned 40-man members isn’t impossible but stretches resources awfully thin. A 150 limit would effectively prohibit multiple rookie-level teams within an organization.

Cutting aggregate roster sizes isn’t going to eliminate the AAA vets needed as MLB reinforcements, some of whom receive low six-figure deals. The eliminated salaries would be at the bottom, those making a few hundred per week.

Also, maintaining minor league rosters is difficult enough as is. Players get hurt and need replacements. Any promotion or demotion can set off a chain of transactions affecting the positions and plate appearances of multiple players. Now add to that the possibility of having to release a capable player in order to sign a draft pick, or putting forth a short-handed team, in service of some weirdly arbitrary roster limit.

Concurrent with this is the ongoing class action lawsuit by a group of minor league players against MLB. MLB’s argument ($ link) is that players are not employees during Spring Training, therefore they should not be paid. MLB’s counsel has reinforced this argument with a consulting study estimating that players receive training and benefits that would cost over $2,000 per week if obtained elsewhere, and that players gain “generally beneficial life skills” while in the minors.
Silver Cloud, Gray Lining

Good news: The lockout does not affect the minor leagues. Games will continue as scheduled, beginning Tuesday April 5 in AAA and Thursday elsewhere. Bad: Texas will still have plenty of players worth seeing, but the lockout and absence of MLB action is not to MiLB’s benefit.

First: Everybody on the 40-man roster is exiled. If you visit a minor league park this season (and you should!), you won’t see Sam Huff, or Sherten Apostel, or Yerry Rodriguez, or Ricky Vanasco, or Ezequiel Duran while the lockout persists. These players already missed 2020, and some were shelved for all or part of 2021 due to injury. They desperately need the opportunity to perform, but they’re banished from MLB facilities just like Max Scherzer, Corey Seager and Fernando Tatis Jr.

Second: Think about Drew Anderson, Jharel Cotton and Spencer Patton. All signed minor league deals with the Rangers before 2021, pitched well in AAA, and finished the season in MLB with 95 respectable innings between them. Patton and Cotton enter 2022 with MLB contracts, while Anderson parlayed his success into a gig in Japan. For their 2022 equivalents, the goal of returning to the Majors may not exist in April. Sometimes, opportunities are created by a combination of two or three superior weeks in the minors and an injury or bad performance at the MLB level. Some of these players could play well enough to warrant a call-up, only to have nowhere to go. That’s depressing.

Minor League Rule 5 Results

The Major League portion of the Rule 5 draft has been, at best, delayed by the lockout, but the minor league portion proceeded as planned in December. Players already on the 40-man roster were off-limits along with up to 38 players in the AAA reserve roster. The Rangers fully stocked the latter roster preceding the draft, leaving them unable to select anyone. They lost four players. Say farewell to:

IF Charles Leblanc (4th overall to Miami) – With a revamped approach, Leblanc more than tripled his home run rate in 2021 despite playing in AAA for the first time. Leblanc also struck out more than ever and posted a career-low .313 OBP and .229 average. He’s best suited to the corners (including LF) but can handle second and spot at short in a pinch. Leblanc is more of a prospect now than two years ago, when he struggled in AA, but even with the improved power I wasn’t shocked that he was exposed to this portion of the draft. Conversely, Baseball America described him as having the “greatest offensive upside” of any hitter in the draft lacking MLB experience.

RHP Abdiel Mendoza (18th overall to Toronto) —  Texas acquired Mendoza and RHP Teodoro Ortega in 2018 for reliever Cory Gearrin. Mendoza spent his Year 23 season in low-A, where he had his moments but struggled against lefties in general and everyone the second time through the order.

RHP Cole Uvila (26th overall to Baltimore) – Early in 2021, I thought Uvila had a shot to make his MLB debut. Like Joe Barlow, Uvila’s control ranges from so-so to frightening, but he strikes out plenty of hitters and manages to avoid too much solid contact the rest of the time. Or at least he did, until promotion to Round Rock, where in his first six outings he allowed 16 hits and walked 11 versus just three strikeouts. Still, writing off Uvila is premature. Recall that Barlow struggled badly in AAA and in successive spring tryouts before reaching the Majors.

RHP Nic Laio (27th overall to Pittsburgh) – His season mimicked Uvila. For a month, he was the system’s strongest reliever, fanning 31 in 18 innings with a 1.47 ERA for low-A Down East. Thereafter, mostly while in high-A, Laio continued to miss bats but was clobbered when he didn’t, permitting 11 homers and a .605 opposing slugging percentage in 38 innings.

Unlike some years, I didn’t have the reserve list before the draft. I did not expect Uvila or Laio to be exposed. That said, they were selected after two Rangers whose exposure didn’t surprise me.