Esteemed Baseball Prospectus author Kevin Goldstein, widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the field of prospect evaluation, was generous enough to devote some of his valuable time to sit down and chat with me about the Texas Rangers' minor league system.
Read on for Goldstein's takes on the the hot starts of Manny Pina and Marcus Lemon, the slow starts of Neftali Feliz and Michael Main, and the promising future of Venezuelan flamethrower Wilmer Font.
Q: Who has been the biggest surprise so far this season? Biggest disappointment?
Goldstein: I want to preface this answer by saying that it's really early. I don't really get too excited or concerned about anything at this point in the season. As far as disappointments go, I think Main and Feliz come to mind. Feliz is clearly having some issues with throwing strikes. He's walked about a guy an inning so far, but the reports say that his stuff is still there. With Main, he's had some strike-throwing problems and some quality of breaking ball problems. I'm told it's nothing to concern about in any way. Again, we are talking about four/five starts here. You can find a bad four-start run with any prospect where they have some random control issues, or some diminished velocity, or they get hit around a little bit, but they are still excellent prospects. I don't want to push a guy down because of a few bad starts.
As far as surprises go ... Manny Pina is off to a good start in AA, but I'm not sure that changes his prospect profile. Marcus Lemon is off to a good start. That's fine; I've always liked Marcus Lemon. I don't think Lemon is something more than he was coming into this season, though. Another surprise is the consistency of the good starts coming out of Hickory with guys like [Wilfredo] Boscan, [Martin] Perez, [Carlos] Pimentel, and Font. They seem to be consistently good. Every time out someone is doing something pretty impressive.
Q: Do you think Blake Beavan is a future major league pitcher? If so, in what role do you see him in and what will his arsenal look like when he eventually reaches the end of his minor league development?
Goldstein: Good question. I do think Blake Beavan is a big leaguer. Most of the people I talk to think Beavan is a big leaguer. I think he could be a big leaguer on just location alone. He really hits his spots well. I still think he is going to end up as a reliever. I think he'll end up being a fastball/slider pitcher. His fastball has some sink and run and he can put it where he wants. He gets ahead in the count and I think he will be a very good reliever. I'm not sure if he's a closer. I think he might be more of a set-up man. It's just the way he pitches better early in games and the way his velocity goes away. Also, that his mechanics aren't picture-perfect point to him being better suited to be a reliever.
Q: Some would argue that if Beavan's mechanics are still somewhat problematic, the Rangers were foolish to originally alter his high school delivery, especially since his fastball velocity was in the mid-90s. Thoughts?
Goldstein: Because those mechanics were a complete disaster. Talk to any scout that saw Beavan down in Texas in high school and they would say that they love the arm and I like what he's doing, but this is a surgery waiting to happen. He was incredibly violent and was completely across his body. The torque and the stress on his arm were just brutal. I think the theory is that because he was really good then that you just ride it out and see what happens, but his mechanics were especially bad.
Q: Is Martin Perez the best 18 year-old in baseball? What is your guess on his developmental track?
Goldstein: No, he's not the best 18-year-old in baseball. He's really good, but he's not the best. That's a little much for me. He's a really good pitching prospect and he has a high ceiling, but he's hardly perfect.
As far as his developmental track goes, there are a lot of things going on there. He's obviously very polished for his age, but there are a lot of good arms in front of him. There is no need to rush him. Why do it? He's extremely young for Low A. I would let him spend the entire year in Hickory and all of next year in High A and he would still be incredibly young for the league. If he follows the standard development curve, he's going to be in AA at 20 and practically ready for the big leagues at 21, which is already way above most pitchers. I would do the one-year-at-a-time thing. Best 18-year-old in baseball? No. That's way too strong for me and I really like the guy.
Q: Who is the best 18-year-old in baseball?
Goldstein: Not 18, but Ynoa comes to mind. I certainly had several teenagers in my top 100 and Perez was not one of them.
Q: We've discussed how Engel Beltre is the classic feast or famine prospect. Do you think the Beltre we've seen so far this season is in over his head? How would you respond to the naysayers who have suggested that Beltre move down a level as a result of these struggles?
Goldstein: He might be a little over-his-head. He was probably a little over-his-head last season in Clinton. That's the first answer. Is he over-matched? Yes. Sending him down a level? Look, these guys aren't Strat-O-Matic cards. These are not computer simulations. These are not just commodities that you can do whatever you want with and expect them to perform. There is a psychological thing in play here. I think sending him down could have a negative affect on him. There are advantages to keeping him in the best-hitting league in baseball as opposed to sending him to the South Atlantic League. I think there is a good chance he gets hot. He's a streaky kind of a guy. He expands his strike zone way too much and that is what happened last season in Clinton. He's a guy that can make adjustments. I wouldn't send him down, no.
Q: The fervor over Marcus Lemon's heroic start seems to have died down a bit. Was this a classic case of fan overreaction or is Lemon really emerging as a legitimate prospect?
Goldstein: Marcus Lemon got off to a really great start and Marcus Lemon is a player I think a lot of people underrated, actually. He's not a stud and he's not a star and not some future impact player for the Rangers. In the end I think he is going to be a very valuable utility player who can play anywhere in the infield, slap some singles, and draw some walks. He's a very fundamentally sound player. That is a really valuable thing. I see this all the time and it's not just specific to Rangers fans. Fans of any team with a really good system end up thinking that hype applies to every guy in their system. They think that that every prospect they have is a monster and they aren't.
Just look at the Rangers system now: You are going to get a handful of good pitchers, and I mean one hand, and a few decent position players and that's it. That's it. But because the Rangers have a hyped system, and the hype is deserved because they have one of, if not THE best systems in baseball, but you have to remember what that means. It doesn't mean that there are 37 future stars in the system. It means that there are only a few, only a few potential stars and a few potential regulars. It's a really good system, but that doesn't mean that Marcus Lemon is the next Rod Carew; and that Manny Pina is suddenly Mike Piazza; and it doesn't mean that Kasey Kiker is Scott Kazmir. It just doesn't work that way.
Q: Let's talk about Wilmer Font. What does this kid have to do to join guys like Feliz in the upper echelon of minor league pitching prospects? How would you rate his secondary offerings and do you think they have the potential to grade out as average or above?
Goldstein: They have the potential to grade out as average or above, but they aren't there yet. I think Wilmer Font has a lot to be excited about; he's a very young, very big kid that can throw really hard. That's a wonderful thing and I love this guy. At the same time, he's raw. He's really, really raw. It's raw on a command/control level and it's raw on a secondary pitch level. Those things have to come together and it's certainly not a guarantee.
There are a lot of Wilmer Fonts out there. This goes back to what I was talking about before about prospects. A lot of teams have a Wilmer Font. A lot of teams have a big, young kid that can light up radar guns. Only a few of them take that next step. Font is certainly one of the guys that could. His results so far in Hickory have been encouraging. He has had some issues with command/control, but that's not really a surprise or a concern. He has to become more consistent, and back to the psychological thing, find more comfort in his secondary pitches, especially if he is going to be a starter. It's awfully hard to get kids to learn and to accept that they can't just blow people away. Unless you are just ridiculous, you can't do that. You have to set-up hitters and hit your spots. Those are the types of adjustments he is going to need to make.
Q: Which player(s) in the Rangers system have the chance to take the biggest steps forward from last season (as far as prospect rankings are concerned)?
Goldstein: Probably one of those arms in Hickory and probably either Perez (who was already a highly ranked guy) or Boscan. When I talked to people about Perez last year, the reviews were really impressive. They actually backed up what the team was telling me. That's a rarity. I make sure I'm talking to people outside of the organization as well and they usually are anywhere from a little to a lot lighter on a guy. But with Perez they were equal. In an organization that is just loaded with pitching prospects (and let's face it, the number of arms is just ridiculous), Perez, a teenager in Low A, probably has the best mechanics. He probably has the best arm action of any of them. The reports I'm getting this year on Boscan are better than the reports I received last year. He's already picking his game up from last year. Those are probably the two guys that I can envision being much higher on prospect lists than they were coming into this season.
Q: Out of the following AA arms (Kiker, Moscoso, Hunter, Poveda, Schlact), which ones will eventually become consistent major league contributors?
Goldstein: The first guy I would say is Kiker and I'd probably say as a reliever. I think he's going to be a lefty power arm out of the bullpen. I don't think he is going to be a starter. If I were on another team and I had to choose one of those guys, I'd probably choose Kiker. I'm not sure any of those guys are going to be starters in the big leagues. Poveda might end up being a No. 4/5 guy, but I think Kiker and Moscoso are going to profile better in the bullpen.
Q: Do you think any of the Rangers' younger arms will suffer any developmental issues as a result of the starter depth at the lowest levels of the minors?
Goldstein: I don't necessarily think so. It might, but the Rangers have a really good developmental team in place. They don't lock in a development plan and stick to it. They treat individuals as individuals. If one guy needs to be in one place doing one thing while another guy is in another place doing another thing, even though they were at the same level last year, they are okay with that. It's all about the individual. This is a nice problem to have. Other teams are bringing guys up from the Dominican because they don't have enough arms. The Rangers are sending guys there because they have too many. That's a pretty great thing.
Q: Manny Pina: Is the bat for real?
Goldstein: Well, I'm pretty sure he's not going to hit .450 this year.
JP: Thanks, Keith Law.
Goldstein: I don't think Manny Pina is all of a sudden a great prospect. Obviously he is hitting very well and that is certainly cause for a little bit of excitement. It should put a smile on your face, but he's not a guy with a lot of secondary skills. He's a guy that makes decent contact and is a pretty good defensive catcher. I wouldn't put him in a prospect ranking. He still profiles as a backup.
Q: Let's assume that you, Kevin Goldstein, are President of the Texas Rangers. How much long-term job security does the No. 1 farm system in baseball buy your general manager? How long until those rankings have to translate to wins at the major league level?
Goldstein: I think you need to understand why you are the No. 1 farm system in baseball. Is it because you have a truckload of talent near major league ready or do you have a truckload of talent that is going to take a awhile? The Rangers can score runs. What they need is pitching and that is going to take time. Obviously you have Feliz and Holland, but after that you have to go to Bakersfield or Hickory to find the next set of impact arms. It's going to be awhile and I think you have to be patient. I never thought the Rangers would compete this season, but I think they will be very competitive in 2010. I wouldn't start evaluating until 2011.
Q: What are your thoughts on Derek Holland's Weaverian bullpen assignment? Do you think Feliz will follow suit when Holland moves into the rotation?
Goldstein: I'm not really sure how I feel about it. At times, especially at the big league level, team needs can trump developmental time. I don't think it will be a long-term thing and I don't think it will be damaging. Where the Rangers are, it might be a good way to get a guy adjusted to the game and the lifestyle. There's a lot to adjust to besides just playing baseball. It's certainly a lot less pressure than blaring the horn saying Derek Holland is coming up and is starting on Thursday. The success of Holland in this bullpen assignment, or the lack of success, could play a role with what the end of doing with Feliz, once they deem Feliz is ready.