As promised, my thoughts on ten players facing a critical 2018.
LHP Yohander Mendez (signed 2011, international free agent)
Most well-regarded international free agents sign at 16 and don’t play in official games their first year. When the time comes for a 40-man roster decision, those who bloom late might not have much experience outside short-season leagues. Such was the case with Yohander Mendez, who finished 2015 in low-A with a career-“high” of 66 innings because of steady-but-slow development and lingering injuries. Mendez might have escaped the Rule 5 draft and very likely wouldn’t have stuck on an opposing roster, but he had taken a large-enough step forward that Texas couldn’t abide the risk. Mendez rewarded the Rangers immediately, pitching at four different levels and reaching the Majors in 2016.
Last year, unfortunately, he stalled. Mendez still offers a dazzling changeup, but the fastball command troubled him, leading to a shocking increase in homers (26 in 150 innings, 11 more than his previous five seasons combined). He’s also still trying to master a breaking pitch. Now in his final option year, Mendez needs to make the most of what should be a longer look at the MLB level. RHP Connor Sadzeck (2011, 11th round)
Last June, Texas converted Sadzeck to relief, and I suggested a strong showing might result in a visit to Arlington later that very season. Alas, the showing, it was not strong. In relief, opponents hit an alarming .318/.409/.536 against him. He allowed 52 runners in 26 innings, and his strikeout rate of 23%, while good in and of itself, was actually lower than what he accomplished as a starter. Both Baseball America and MLB.com dropped him from their top-30 rankings over the winter.
At his best, Sadzeck will overpower with premium velocity and a decent slider. At worst, his fastball command fails him, and his breaker and change won’t do enough to keep opponents off guard. Sadzeck is 26, also on his final option, and will finally pitch in my backyard at AAA Round Rock after more the two years in Frisco. Now is the time. RHP Ariel Jurado (2013, international free agent)
Like Mendez, Jurado stalled in 2017. His deadly sinking fastball, which he commanded exceptionally while still a teenager, often disappeared. Without it, Jurado’s okay change and lagging slider carry too large a burden. He allowed 188 hits, most in AA.
Texas still thought highly enough of Jurado to protect him on the 40, and he just turned 22. He has time. But he does need to develop, even if slowly. It’s hard to imagine him reaching MLB without that sinker, and another down year would mean two seasons in Frisco without much progress. With it, and with enough improvement on his secondaries, he's a back-end MLB starter.
LHP Brett Martin (2014, 4th round)
The Rangers drafted Martin in the 4th round, higher than expected. When he’s healthy and in form, you see what they envisioned. I certainly did in a special “prospects game” against the Cubs in 2016, when Martin fanned his side in order on a combination of downhill fastballs and over-the-top curves. Martin capped that year by throwing seven no-hit innings in a Cal League playoff game. Unfortunately, a variety pack of injuries has prevented him from reaching 100 innings in any of three full seasons, and for much of his career he’s been hittable. Last year, opponents batted .287/.353/.433 in a pitcher-friendly environment. I would love to see an uninterrupted season from him, because he's got the stuff to pitch in the big leagues.
Also, Martin shares my daughter’s birthday, and I want to be able to point him out to her on tv, or in person. SS/IF Michael De Leon (2013, international free agent)
De Leon arrived with a flourish, making his pro debut as a 17-year-old in AA Frisco when the Riders needed a guy for moment. He immediately moved down to low-A Hickory, where he was still the youngest player. Lately, his status has declined. That’s a harsh assessment of someone who just turned 21, but the evidence is abundant: Texas omitted him from the 40-man roster last fall, he survived the Rule 5 draft, and he no longer appears in the back end of top-30 prospect lists. Like Luis Marte before him, De Leon is highly capable in the field but has struggled mightily to reach base (.288 career OBP, .257 last year in AA). Even projected utility infielders need to hit a little. RHP Michael Matuella (2015, 3rd round)
Last year, I warned against reading too much into Matuella’s statistics. Elbow injuries (one requiring the knife, the other a lengthy rest) limited him to a single appearance in his first two pro seasons, and he also dealt with a disturbing back condition known as Spondylolysis in college. 2017's test was to stay healthy, which Matuella passed by reaching 75 innings for the season and a steady 75-90 pitches per outing in his last seven starts.
Now, we can focus on the results. Last year, he sporadically displayed the form that in 2015 portended a first-round pick (possibly first overall) until his elbow betrayed him. He’s dazzled this spring, and I’m looking forward to seeing him as much as anyone in the system. Matuella turns 24 in June and will be Rule 5-eligible this December if not protected on the 40.
Incidentally, I don’t know that I’ve seen such a broad range of opinion in a player’s prospect ranking:
Baseball Prospectus: 4th
Baseball America: 30th
CF Eric Jenkins (2015, 2nd round)
Taken 45th overall in the June draft after the Rangers’ dismal 2014, Jenkins was Texas’s highest 2nd-round pick in twenty years. The farm system is off its peak, but center field remains a strength, and several CFs have passed Jenkins during his two-plus years in the system. In two seasons in Hickory, he’s batted .217/.274/.316 and hasn’t achieved an OBP above .300 in any month since June 2016. Based on history, more time in Hickory seems proper, but he might need a promotion to garner regular at-bats, what with Hickory's outfield potentially overcrowded with some or all of Leody Taveras (for a little while, perhaps), Bubba Thompson, Pedro Gonzalez, Miguel Aparicio, Chad Smith, Tyreque Reed (if he doesn't play 1B). Jenkins isn’t Rule 5-eligible until after 2019, but if he doesn’t advance soon, he won’t enter the discussion. C/IF Josh Morgan (2014, 3rd round)
In repeating High-A while taking up catching, Morgan slugged nearly as well in pitcher-friendly Down East as the season before in the moon-like conditions of High Desert. However, his walk rate dwindled as he posted a career-worst .318 OBP, and getting on base is supposed to be his forte. That type of offensive performance stands up just fine if he retains catching and shortstop duties. If not, and especially if he's viewed purely a 2B/3B in the long term, his bat will have to do most of the talking. It certainly has before; Morgan had a .300 average and .387 career OBP entering 2017. CF Pedro Gonzalez (2014, international free agent)
Texas received Gonzalez from Colorado last summer as the player to be named in the Jonathan Lucroy trade. He wasn't of the caliber of most of the prospects surrendered to acquire Lucroy in 2015 and didn’t pique interest with his 0-for-17 cup of coffee in Spokane to end the season. Still, reports from the subsequent instructional league were glowing and have continued this spring. Texas is deep in quality CF prospects, and Gonzalez fits comfortably among them.
This fall, he could present the Rangers with another Mendez-type decision. Now entering his fifth season, Gonzalez has yet to reach low-A and will be Rule 5-eligible if unprotected on the 40. He almost certainly won’t be MLB-ready, but if the tools and performance show enough promise, Texas might again have to prevent another team from swiping him. There are worse problems to have. C Jose Trevino (2014, 6th round)
With his defense and leadership skills, Jose Trevino can play professional baseball for as long as he wants. The question is: at which level? Trevino was a lynchpin on consecutive league championship squads (Hickory in 2015, High Desert in 2016) and batted a lofty .303/.342/.434 in the hothouse Cal League environment. At AA Frisco, he dwindled to .241/.275/.323 including a meager .190/.236/.250 in 30 games to close the season. He’s better than that, but at age 25, this season would the suitable time to show it. Texas added him to the 40-man roster last fall, and he'll return to Frisco for at least part of the season.
Newberg Report (newbergreport.com)