The Rangers' Triple-A affiliate, the Oklahoma City RedHawks, was in Round Rock for a four-game set against the Astros' Triple-A affiliate, the Express. Below are impressions of seven players and a bonus observation from the Thursday and Friday evening games.
1. Saltalamacchia is a mess.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia displayed a decent eye at the plate, but he made solid contact on only a couple of pitches in the eight or nine at-bats that I saw. And that's the good news on the Rangers' big catcher.
On defense, Saltalamacchia managed to block no more than half of the balls that hit the dirt before reaching his glove and allowed at least a dozen balls to get by him in two nights. Worse yet, he appears to have no confidence in his arm. He flips the ball to the pitcher rather than throwing it. More often than not, he takes a few steps toward the mound and wrong-foots the toss, looking more like he is throwing darts than baseballs. His throws to second base at the end of the pitcher's warm-ups before each inning are decent and he does a good job using his torso and lower half, but he seems reluctant to make a throw to any of the bases during game action. I'm not sure if the problem is mental or physical, but it appears highly unlikely that the Rangers' Opening Day starting catcher will finish the season in the big leagues.
2. Don't forget Mitch Moreland.
Remember a couple of years ago when everyone kind of ignored Tommy Hunter because there were sexier prospects in the Rangers' system? I'm beginning to think that Moreland is going to be the hitting equivalent of Hunter. He won't be a star, but he looks like he could be a very solid major league player.
During the first two games of the series, Moreland hit most of the pitches that he swung at and most of the pitches that he hit were drilled. Among his outs were a screaming line drive down the first base line that got snagged by the first baseman and a fly ball to center field that was caught approximately 400 feet from home plate. He also hit five or six hard line drives down the first base line that were just foul. Except for perhaps Chris Davis, Moreland was the best hitter on either team.
After a slow start, Moreland is re-building his prospect status with production that is getting better by the month (see table). Consistent with his career numbers, Moreland's Triple-A performance has featured a relatively low strikeout rate for a power hitter (16 percent), a solid walk rate (12 percent), and even splits against left- and right-handed pitchers (.855 OPS vs. LHP, .854 OPS vs. RHP):
Perhaps more importantly, he's starting to look like an outfielder. I saw Moreland last summer and he looked like a first baseman or DH playing in right. He got relatively slow jumps on the ball, had a long, lumbering gait, and didn't appear capable of changing directions very well. Moreland looks a lot more athletic this season. He appears less girthy and more chiseled. He looks less like an offensive lineman and more like a tight end or linebacker. He's still a long strider, but he looks quicker to the ball and on the base paths. This is not to imply that he has become a great defensive outfielder or base runner. Moreland lacks the speed and agility to have even average range in the outfield. But I do think that he is on his way to playing a passable right field, especially if he is paired with a speedy center fielder.
3. Endy Chavez is not the answer.
Fortunately, most of us have forgotten the question. Chavez looked okay in left field and weak at the plate. Hopefully, Borbon will continue to be productive as the everyday center fielder in Arlington.
4. Gentry to Seattle?
I'm surprised that Seattle didn't target Craig Gentry in the Cliff Lee trade. He's not at the same level as Franklin Gutierrez, but Gentry has that same sort of effect on hitters. He causes opponents to deflate when they round first base and notice that the line drive that they hit to the gap failed to reach the turf. Pitchers must absolutely love that. Gentry also looked more confident hitting the ball this year than when I saw him last year. He's probably never going to be a major league starter, but Gentry looks like a perfect fourth or fifth outfielder for a team stocked with left-handed outfielders.
5. Michael Kirkman is a legit lefty.
The most compelling argument for relying more on statistical analysis than scouting is that stats are more objective and feature a much larger sample size. And now for my knee jerk, amateur scouting take on Kirkman: "Wow!" His four-seam fastball was 92-93 mph with the occasional 94 thrown in for good measure. His cutter and/or two-seamer was 89-91 mph. Hitters had a hard time getting a bat on either pitch. His slider was also a swing-and-miss pitch, though he had a lot of trouble keeping it close enough to the strike zone to get hitters to swing. His curveball and change-up were show-me pitches.
Kirkman appeared comfortable pitching from the stretch and he maintained his velocity with runners on base. His velocity was consistent through six innings and nearly 100 pitches. He lost the strike zone twice during the game (four straight balls to one hitter and four out of five to another), but otherwise he did a very good job of throwing strikes with his fastballs. If he can come up with a reliable off-speed pitch, Kirkman could be a very good left-handed starting pitcher in the big leagues. If his secondary pitch(es) fail to develop, his four-seam/two-seam/cutter mix should play well out of the Rangers' bullpen.
6. Guillermo Moscoso lost his "Invisi-ball"
During Spring Training '09, Jason Parks dubbed Moscoso's low-90s fastball "The Invisi-ball" based on its ability to magically miss bats. Moscoso's fastball is still a 91-93 mph pitch, but hitters are no longer having trouble getting lumber on it. Of the 70 or so strikes that Moscoso threw on Thursday, I would wager that half were fouled off and another 30 percent were put in play. Of the remaining strikes, no more than three or four were of the swing-and-miss variety. Several hitters worked walks by fouling off multiple pitches with two strikes. Unfortunately, neither his curveball nor change-up functions as an out pitch, which makes Moscoso vulnerable to high pitch counts.
7. Cody Eppley found a ball that disappears!
He didn't throw particularly hard (fastball in the upper-80s and slider in the upper-70s) and he left a lot of pitches up in the zone, but the Express hitters were positively baffled by the side arm delivery of Cody Eppley. In two innings, Eppley produced at least 10 swings-and-misses en route to four strikeouts. Only one ball was hit hard (a screaming line drive that was just foul down the third base line). He's got a ways to go with his command, but Eppley looks like he could fit into a major league bullpen as a right-handed specialist at some point in the future.
8. Scouts are like birds of prey.
I counted 9 scouts behind home plate during the Thursday evening game. There were only 3 present for the game on Friday, which started a few hours after the Lee-for-Smoak trade went public.