One of the changes Nolan Ryan made after his first spring training as Rangers President was to put names on the uniforms of all the club's minor league players. Back in his first swim with the Rangers, it didn't take a lot of effort to figure out which prospect was Ivan Rodriguez, or Juan Gonzalez, or Dan Smith, or Robb Nen.
But coming into his first camp in management with an organization whose farm system was then judged to be the fourth best in baseball, based on depth as much as on top-tier talent, it wasn't as easy to figure out who, as Ryan put it, "the three number 19's" were -- since all three were legitimate prospects.
But if the labeled jerseys are one way to distinguish Boscan from Pimentel, Moreland from Smith, Telis from Felix, Brigham from Ocampo, there's one other measure Ryan has taken that will not only help you tell Corey Young from Beau Jones, but also draw you to the Rangers' top young arms, if you're paying attention.
Wearing a Madras shirt (with no name on the back), Ryan spent his Sunday morning moving around the four minor league fields that fan out from the eagle's nest at the southwest corner of the Rangers' complex, and there was a clear design to his path. One of the changes in regimen that Ryan helped institute this spring was having pitchers, rather than coaches, throw batting practice. As a steady stream of young Rangers arms finished getting loose on the eight-wide stretch of pitching mounds off to the side, many of them methodically made their way onto one of the four fields.
To help understand this point, you need to realize that the four fields are going all at once. Four pitchers throwing B.P. simultaneously, four batting cages each manned by one hitter and three or four others waiting their turn, with four groups of infielders taking ground balls and swarms of players all over the four outfields, shagging.
(Here's a Google view. Zoom in to that four-leaf clover of fields at the bottom.)
When I walked up, I was drawn immediately to the field where 18-year-old Martin Perez was pitching to hitters. There was Ryan, the man in Madras and a black baseball cap leaning against the back of the cage amidst a line of Rangers uniforms, intently watching the left-handed blue-chipper. When pitchers throw live B.P., they're pitching. This isn't throwing at 80 percent to give hitters something to rake. It's making your pitches, trying to get outs.
After Perez had finished his session, 150 feet away there were righthanders Pedro Strop (wow) and Wilmer Font, back to back, throwing live B.P. on the field just to the right. And there was Ryan, situated in the same spot, only different, leaning against that other cage just as he had the first.
Back to the Perez Field to see Carlos Melo, the 18-year-old righthander who came over in the Gerald Laird trade, an extremely exciting power arm off of whom Ryan and I put just about as many balls into play as the threesome of Engel Beltre, Tim Smith, and Jonathan Greene did. (To be fair, Melo had some command issues, but when his live fastball did bury the zone, the hitters managed to foul the ball into the dirt or the cage, at best.)
Back again to the Strop/Font Field went Ryan, to see Joe Wieland face hitters.
And afterwards, a brief conversation behind the cage between Ryan and Wieland that I couldn't hear, and didn't even try to. Just watching the body language and the facial expressions, I witnessed a two-minute talk I may never forget. No different from the Ryan moment with Kasey Kiker on the same minor league field a year ago, Ryan talked, Wieland listened. Ryan taught, Wieland absorbed. It was a quiet, unanimated, casual chalk talk, with absolutely no bluster or intimidation or "Do you know who I am?"
I call it a conversation, but basically it was Ryan teaching, with the hint of a smile in his voice, some arm and hand action as he showed Wieland whatever it was that he was describing, and Wieland nodding his head, with eyes as wide open as they can be, with the hint of a look on his face that suggested the 19-year-old was eagerly taking in every word while suppressing the urge to concentrate instead on who was delivering the message.
At that moment, Ryan looked like there's no place he would have rather been. You don't need me to tell you whether Wieland looked the same way.
Dial ahead about four hours. As I sat with my family at the Rangers-Padres big league game in the Surprise Stadium, an inning or two in a group of pitchers that included Neil Ramirez, Jared Hyatt, Michael Schlact, and Kyle Ocampo sat down to take in some action. An inning after that, up walked Beltre to hang out with them for a while.
I'm not going to suggest that no minor league outfielder from the Dominican has ever chosen to hang out with a group of States-born minor league pitchers in the Rangers system, but it made an impact on me. My snapshot memories of how the players tended to congregate in years past was that pitchers were with pitchers, hitters with hitters, a segregation within which Latin American players hung with their own, and stateside kids were drawn to each other.
I remember from Fall Instructs a year and a half ago watching Beltre, Elvis Andrus, and Julio Borbon -- each brand new to the organization at the time -- helping break those barriers down, sort of integrating the farm system with the type of leadership not dictated by anyone in management but instead generated by the kind of charisma that they come by naturally. I don't know this for a fact, but I'm confident that it's not by accident that the Rangers have added players with that sort of makeup, which is not to say that those players were chosen at draft or trade time over others with better tools -- certainly not the case -- but the Rangers' amateur and pro scouts, stateside and internationally, get to know these kids before they belong to Texas, and it's one of the things that makes this franchise different and better than it's been in past eras.
Maybe Juan Senreiso would have walked up to Kam Loe, Nick Masset, John Hudgins, and Justin Echols to hang out with them at a big league game six years ago. Bet not, though.
Got an extra-early morning of activities to get to today. The big leaguers have the day off, but I'll have some extra notes to share tomorrow.
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