I�d like to thank Joey for giving me the opportunity to rant about the minor leagues on his excellent blog. I�m going to be doing weekly pieces on all things farm related and hopefully I won�t get laughed off the stage.
The 2008 Texas Rangers are a team supplied by an electric offense that could feature as many as four All-Stars and quite possibly two legitimate MVP candidates. It also features a very thin and ultimately powerless pitching staff that is once again pushing the Rangers below .500 on the year and eventually to the top third of the draft in June. Sound familiar?
Despite a few solid individual performances, the team as a whole is near the bottom in most pitching statistics including team ERA, hits allowed, earned runs allowed, walks allowed, OPS against, quality starts, WHIP, K/BB and K/9. You get the point.
The name of the game is pitching. It doesn�t get any easier than that. It�s no coincidence that every pitching category the Rangers find themselves deficient in, the teams at the top of the standings find themselves flourishing in. Teams live and die by the arms on the bump. Period.
Despite a pipeline of arms making their way towards Arlington, help isn�t exactly on the way. Eric Hurley, Matt Harrison, Thomas Diamond and Michael Schlact represent a few of the homegrown pitchers that could eventually take the mound for the major league club in the next year. But they do not represent the top of the rotation talent that will be required to pitch the Rangers out of the American League basement. Unfortunately, the majority of that necessary talent is currently knee deep in the Midwest League playing for the Low-A Clinton LumberKings.
The Clinton rotation is arguably the best rotation in all of minor league baseball. It currently features three of the most promising arms in the organization in RHP Fabio Castillo, RHP Blake Beavan and RHP Neftali Feliz and that number could eventually swell to four or five depending on the promotion schedule of RHP Michael Main and RHP Neil Ramirez. Let�s break down the rotation as it stands now and get a closer look at the arms that have been burdened with the fate of the franchise by yours truly.
The ace of the rotation is 20-year-old Dominican flamethrower Neftali Feliz. Feliz is simply too good for the Midwest League and should have his ticket punched to High-A Bakersfield at some point this summer. His arsenal is front-loaded with an explosive fastball that sits in the mid-90s with plus movement and, according to Baseball America, has the potential to rate as an 80 on the 20-80 scale. That makes it a potential plus plus pitch that he throws with an easy arm action and repeatable delivery. His secondary offerings aren�t as refined but they show promise. He has the makings of a plus slider but he is inconsistent with his arm action and often struggles to command the pitch. His change-up is a work in progress but has improved since coming over to Texas from Atlanta.
His performance so far this season should rank Feliz as the #1 prospect in the Texas farm system. His K rates are ridiculously good (K/9 of 10.07, K/BB of 63/19), he keeps the ball on the ground and in the park (HR/9 of 0.16, GB/FB of 1.86) and he has a FIP ERA of 2.42. FIP stands for fielding independent pitching and is a measure of all things that a pitcher is directly responsible for. It helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched regardless of how his defense performed. The formula for FIP is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP.
Feliz has legit top of the rotation potential, but his path to the majors will ultimately be determined by the development of his secondary offerings. He could end up as a two-pitch, late innings reliever or he could end up as the ace of the Rangers� staff. Regardless of his eventual role, his �god-given gasoline� will make him a major league pitcher.
After starting the season in the pen, RHP Fabio Castillo, not to be confused with the author of the book, "The Cocaine Horseman," has struggled since moving into the starting rotation. Despite a few rough outings, Castillo has flashed the brilliance that made him the centerpiece of the Rangers' 2005 Latin American signings.
Castillo has a heavy fastball that can be a plus pitch that usually sits in the low-90s, but can be dialed up to the mid-90s when the situation arises. His slider is often a plus pitch that is hard on right-handed batters but lacks consistency. His change-up is the weakest link but should develop into a solid-average offering. Castillo has a natural feel for pitching but is still quite raw and struggles to repeat his delivery, causing issues with his command. He is only 19 years old and projects as a solid mid-rotation horse that is built to eat innings at the major league level. His performance so far this season is not really indicative of the talent this kid possesses. He just looks like a pitcher.
Local boy Blake Beavan is the youngest member of the rotation (19) and has lived up to his first round expectations by throwing up a 3.51 ERA in 41 innings of work. Despite an incredible BB/9 rate of 0.68, Beavan has been very unremarkable. His FIP ERA is a whopping 4.79, heavily weighted by his poor K/9 rate of 3.83. It appears that Beavan has been pitching to contact instead of trying to overwhelm hitters, which is a developmental step in the right direction. His mechanics in HS, where he was able to simply overwhelm hitters, were not very clean and he wasn�t able to consistently repeat his delivery, causing command issues. He has very quick arm action and should be able to repeat his delivery with the proper mechanics.
Beavan throws a heavy fastball that has a tendency to hang up in the zone, especially early in games. When he keeps the ball down in the zone, he can very effective with velocity in the low-90s. I expect his velocity to increase as he becomes more familiar with his mechanics, thus allowing him to attack hitters with his fastball and use his slider as his out pitch. Speaking of his slider, apparently it is the best slider that Blake Beavan has ever seen. It�s a very tight aggressive pitch that usually sits in the mid-80s with serious arm side run that is incredibly tough on right-handed hitters. It has the makings of a plus pitch that has been inconsistent in the past due to his inability to throw it from the same arm angle as the fastball.
His change is developing but is still considered an average pitch. It�s hard to analyze Beavan at this point in his development. He is a 19 year old in full season ball and despite some questionable situation-independent statistics, he is still performing at a level consistent with a first-round pick. His ceiling remains quite high, although an eventual move to the bullpen is a possibility. Like most young pitchers, the development of his secondary pitches will set the tone for his advancement.
The surprise of the rotation is RHP Kennil Gomez. The 20-year-old Dominican native exploded on the full-season scene posting a solid 2.76 ERA in 62 innings of work. He is holding opposing hitters to a .212 average while striking out 19.3% of all batters faced. He has good control, walking only 2.25 per 9, and has been effective against both lefties and righties. He features an average fastball that sits between 88-92 with some movement. His curve has the makings of a plus pitch that he shows advanced command of. He has a quick arm action that he can repeat that should enable him to continue showing plus command of two pitches. I don�t know much about his change-up but like most pitchers his age, it is usually an underdeveloped pitch at this stage of the game. He isn�t an overwhelming pitcher but he can be very effective when he is locating and commanding his pitches. Despite not being a sexy arm with a sexy repertoire, Gomez is making a name for himself in the prospect world and could see some innings in High A Bakersfield before the year is over.
The final piece of the rotation is also the eldest of the group. 21-year-old LHP Derek �Dutch� Holland, the 25th-round draft and follow pick from 2006, has emerged as a legit prospect after putting up a 3.20 ERA (3.10 FIP) in 59 innings. He has been very effective against lefties holding them to an anemic .610 OPS but has struggled with his control, allowing 3.49 BB/9, helping to inflate his WHIP to 1.41. He keeps the ball on the ground and in the park and has been absolutely dominant with men on base, holding hitters to an OPS of .599. His fastball has some serious bite at 90-92 but can hit 94 when the mood is right. His slider and change are inconsistent pitches that he struggles to command but they have made progress since last season. Holland is a blue-collar prospect that grinds out starts and makes the right pitch when it is needed. I think his future lies in the bullpen but he will be given every opportunity to start. He is one to root for.
So that�s that. I�m not much of a writer so you will have to forgive my emotion driven text. I feel very strongly that the root of the Rangers' future success or perhaps even domination begins in Clinton. Their starting rotation is a mirror image of what our starting rotation at the major league level should look like. It should feature a flame-throwing ace that leaves scorched earth in his wake. It should feature a cocky number two that has the tenacity of a number one and the ability to step up to the plate in crucial situations. It should feature a durable innings eater that will keep you in games despite not being able to dominate. It should feature a reliable set of back of the rotation starters that lack the flash to overwhelm but have the ability to keep the ball on the ground and in the park.
This is how you build a rotation.