Joey Votto hit .231/.341/.287 as a 19-year-old in Low-A. He hit .301/.413/.499 the following season and has posted a .310/.388/.536 batting line in his first two major league seasons. Adrian Gonzalez hit .269/.327/.365 as a 21-year-old in 2003 before rebounding with Triple-A seasons of .304/.364/.457 in 2004 and .338/.399/.561 in 2005.
In his first season in Double-A, Ubaldo Jimenez had a 5.43 ERA while striking out 7.6 batters and walking 4.4 batters per nine innings. He returned to AA-ball the following season and posted a 2.45 ERA while striking out 10.6 hitters per nine innings. Jimenez now ranks among major league baseball's best young pitchers.
Several prospects in the Rangers' minor league system had disappointing seasons in 2009. Unfortunately, some will likely follow the paths of Juan Dominguez, Ruben Mateo, Ramon Nivar, Kelly Dransfeldt, and Mario Ramos. Others will rebound in 2010, and a few may eventually develop into productive big league players. Below are five that I expect to recover at least some of the luster on their prospect status in 2010.
No. 1: RHP Michael Main | DoB: 12/14/88 | 6′ 1″, 170 lb.
Acquired via: 2007 MLB Draft, 1st Round (24th overall)
Stuff: Low-to-mid-90s fastball; tight curveball; potentially above-average change-up
● Main is the easy choice. His problems in 2009 appear to have been health-related and not due to a baseball injury or lost ability. Main's peripherals in 2009 (7.6 K/9 and 5.7 BB/9) were nothing like his career rates (10.3 K/9 and 3.7 BB/9) prior to 2009.
● It is worth noting that after an awful start to the season (four starts, 14.2 IP, 11.66 ERA, 23 H, 12 BB, 13 K, and a .365 BAA), Main was making progress (seven starts, 35.1 IP, 4.33 ERA, 22 BB, 27 K, and a .269 BAA) before giving up eight runs in four innings during his final start of the season. And when he returned in September, his two relief appearances at High-A Bakersfield were excellent (4.0 IP, 0.00 ERA, 2 H, 1 BB, 4 K, and .154 BAA).
● If he proves to be healthy in spring training, there seems to be little doubt that he has the pitching repertoire necessary to be effective in the Texas League. Assuming he is assigned to Frisco, then a strikeout rate north of 8.0 K/9 and a walk rate south of 3.5 BB/9 would allow him to regain his status as one of the more intriguing prospects in the Rangers' system.
No. 2: C/DH Max Ramirez | DoB: 10/11/84 | 5′ 11″, 175 lb.
Acquired via: Trade for OF Kenny Lofton (07/27/07)
Stuff: High on-base percentage with power; below-average defensive catcher
● Until 2009, Max Ramirez was among the most consistently impressive hitters in the minors (.951 OPS in ‘05, .871 in ‘06, .924 in ‘07, and 1.067 in '08). Injuries to both wrists in 2009 sapped his power and affected his ability to hit for average.
● During games that I saw in May, Ramirez had trouble checking his swing on balls down and away, which led to a lot of swings and misses on pitches that were outside the strike zone. Through the first two months of the season, Ramirez' strikeout rate was up (33 percent) and his walk-out rate was dismal (6 percent). Although his batting average never got above .250, Ramirez' batting eye did return, as his walk rate was above 16 percent and his strikeout rate was 20 percent from June through August. Those numbers were roughly in line with his career averages (14 percent walk rate and 21 percent strikeout rate).
● If Ramirez is healthy in 2010, it seems very likely that he will once again hit for average and power. As of December 17th, Ramirez was averaging nearly two bases per hit in the Venezuelan Winter League with eight doubles and 13 homeruns among his 48 hits. Unfortunately, he is still struggling with strikeouts, with 62 whiffs in 200 at-bats.
No. 3: RHP Eric Hurley | DoB: 09/17/85 | 6′ 4″, 195 lb.
Acquired via: 2004 MLB Draft, 1st Round (30th overall)
Stuff: 90-95 mph fastball, above-average slider, below-average change-up
● Hurley was off to a promising start in the major leagues in 2008 (22.2 IP, 3.55 ERA, 5.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9) before a shoulder injury and off-season surgery put him on the shelf. Hurley's slider rated as a plus pitch during his brief time in the major leagues in 2008, and his fastball was 90-95 mph in 2006 and 2007.
● Fly ball tendencies, a high home run rate, and a relatively ineffective change-up made it difficult to imagine Hurley as much more than a back-of-the-rotation starter. Injuries are never a good thing, but perhaps Hurley's shoulder injury and ensuing surgery will hasten his transition to a role that he seems ideally suited for -- late-inning reliever.
● According to FanGraphs, 19 of the 30 most valuable relievers in 2009 relied primarily upon a low- to mid-90s fastball and a slider. Hurley's fastball and slider are clearly his best two pitches. In addition to allowing him to ditch the change-up that was his problem pitch in Triple-A, pitching out of the bullpen might allow Hurley to pitch consistently in the mid-90s. As a starter, Hurley tends to begin games with a 90-92 mph fastball that he ramps up to 93-95 mph by the fourth and fifth innings. Interestingly, Hurley's career minor league strikeout rate goes from 7.6 K/9 through his first three innings to 8.8 K/9 in his fourth and fifth innings. A move to the bullpen would allow Hurley to focus more on immediate results and less on his stamina.
No. 4: LHP Beau Jones | DoB: 08/25/86 | 6′ 1″, 195 lb.
Acquired via: Trade for 1B Mark Teixeira, LHP Ron Mahay (07/31/07)
Stuff: Low- to mid-90s fastball; potentially above-average curveball and change-up
● Following a breakout 2008 season (3.22 ERA, 7.8 H/9, 9.2 K/9, and 4.4 BB/9 in 58.2 innings), Jones appeared to be on the relatively short list of left-handers who might get a chance to pitch out of the Rangers' bullpen in 2009. A bad start in Frisco (5.88 ERA, 10.2 K/9, 6.4 BB/9, and .294 BAA in 33.2 IP) resulted in his demotion from Double-A to High-A, and he absolutely dominated the California League (0.55 ERA, 4.4 H/9, 14.3 K/9, and 1.1 BB/9 in 16.2 IP). With his mojo back, Jones returned to the Texas League and pitched exceedingly well (2.18 ERA, 8.3 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, and .230 BAA in 20.2 innings).
● Although Jones featured a low- to mid-90s fastball in his first few seasons, the pitch apparently dropped to 88-91 mph in 2009. Jones recently switched from a curveball to a slider as his breaking ball and he is developing more confidence in his change-up. These changes might partially explain Jones' early-season problems.
● Jones is not a LOOGY, as evidenced by the .271 BAA vs. left-handers and .228 BAA vs. right-handers in his career and .282 BAA vs. left-handers and .221 BAA vs. right-handers in 2009. If he makes it in the big leagues, it will be because he is able to produce outs regardless of the hitter.
● If Jones is able to maintain the better control that he exhibited after June 2009 and build on the progress that he made with his secondary pitches, then he could develop into a decent major league reliever. Improved fastball velocity could help him leap-frog Zach Phillips and others who appear to be ahead of him in the group of pitchers who are in line to get their opportunities pitching out of the Rangers' bullpen.
No. 5: LHP Tim Murphy | DoB: 05/07/87 | 6′ 2″, 190 lb.
Acquired via: 2008 MLB Draft, 3rd Round (89th overall)
Stuff: Lively low-90s fastball; above-average curveball; average change-up
● After overpowering hitters in the Northwest and Midwest Leagues (9.6 K/9, .173 BAA) in 2008, Murphy seemed destined for the fast-track to Arlington. With the exceptions of a five-start stretch in June when he posted a 2.18 ERA, and his final two starts of the season when he posted a 2.25 ERA, Murphy was among the more generous pitchers in baseball.
● The puzzling thing about Murphy's 2009 season is that his walk (3.7 BB/9), line drive (9.2 percent), and ground ball (49.4 percent) rates ranged from good to excellent. Likewise, his home run rate was a very respectable 0.7 HR/9 for the California League.
● Murphy's disappointing season resulted from a strikeout rate that was well below the league average of 8.1 K/9 and a BAA on fly balls that bordered on obscene (.396). Had Murphy's BAA on fly balls matched that of the other Bakersfield starting pitchers (.318), then his ERA in 2009 would have likely been in the neighborhood of 5.00 and he would be considered a near-lock to be a member of the RoughRiders starting rotation to begin 2010.
● "His competitive nature makes him a perfect fit for a late-inning relief role, though he also may have enough stuff to serve as a starter. Murphy has a 90-92 mph fastball, but his best pitch is a sharp, over-the-top curveball. If he can improve his changeup and his control (he gave up nearly as many walks as hits), he could move into the rotation. His arm action is long in back, which affects his release point and his ability to locate his pitches." (Nathan Rode, Baseball America)
● Assuming Murphy makes the switch to the bullpen, it seems likely that he could have a Zach Phillips-esque rebound. Given his age and three-pitch repertoire, it appears likely that Murphy will get an opportunity to prove himself against Texas League hitters at some point in 2010.