There's a difference, perhaps subtle, between the phrases "Building Tradition" and "Building a Tradition." It's a detail that I'm sure this organization, which is very good about details, thought through when choosing the former for the back of this year's Fall Instructional League practice jerseys.
The first thing I saw when I got to the back fields on Monday morning was Hector Ortiz working for 20 minutes with a group of four minor league catchers on the wild pitch scramble play with a man on third base. How to slide when retrieving a ball bouncing around the backstop. Where to feed the pitcher covering the plate. How much velocity to put on the strike to the moving pitcher.
When a dozen infielders were assembled on the next field to work on turning double plays, coaches clocked each play from fungo-in-play to ball-in-glove at first base -- to the hundredth of a second. The 3.87 turns would double up even a swift batter. The 4.3's wouldn't get it done. There were flashy grabs and impressive throws, but what the coaches cared about most was that 3.92 that would have retired the two invisible runners.
But don't mistake what goes on at Instructs as finishing school for the 70 players on hand. It's a remarkable pool of talent, made up almost solely of players from the lowest levels of the Rangers' farm system, but there's loads of raw out there. Nomar Mazara's jagged outfield routes, Ronald Guzman's glovework at first, and Saquan Johnson's game skills as a whole are understandably underdeveloped, as are the areas of the game in which they flash extraordinary ability that's easy and exciting to dream on.
A year ago, Jordan Akins was the epitome of raw, a tantalizing combination of size and speed and athleticism that exemplifies an organizational mindset: Bring in the player who has a shot to be special at the expense of a couple players who are more likely to pan out but be ordinary. That was Akins, whose physicality is the closest the organization has developmentally to a future Nelson Cruz but who managed to hit only .187/.241/.252 (with 35 strikeouts and only five walks in 107 at-bats) in the Arizona League in 2010, after signing with Texas as its fourth-round pick rather than taking a baseball-football scholarship offered by the University of Central Florida.
Akins made measurable progress in 2011, returning to the AZL and hitting .283/.312/.428 (although with an only marginally better strikeout rate and a worse walk rate). But the buzz I heard from a dozen different baseball people before getting out to the fields Monday morning was not in line with the mini-breakout season Akins had. He'd hit another gear, it was unanimously suggested, a gear that most young baseball players aren't capable of.
As two games were in the late stages Monday afternoon, an Advanced Instructional League game in the stadium and a standard IL game on Nolan Ryan Field, Akins was in the fourth batting practice group 100 feet away on Field 2, taking turns with Guzman and a couple guys who weren't Akins or Guzman, preparing for their own mid-afternoon game.
Whether it was because of the size of the signing bonuses or the scouting reports that questioned some aspects of Guzman's game, Mazara was the J2 player I was prepared to be more excited about, the Jurickson Profar to Guzman's Luis Sardinas. But, at least for one day, Guzman was the one who knocked me flat. He could have been 22 years old and I'd have been blown away by his BP session.
More imposing and physically mature than Mazara, and a very exciting hitter.
Guzman's BP showing prompted Baseball Prospectus's Jason Parks to tweet: "After a day of Ronald Guzman viewing, I'm tempted to say something sensational like Guzman is the best 16-year-old hitter I've ever seen."
It was an extraordinary exhibition of awesomeness.
And possibly outdone by the 19-year-old Akins, whose BP results were majestic in their own right, a dazzling display of one-ups-manship, whose outfield arm in defensive drills recalled the kid who quarterbacked and did everything else on the high school football field and whose closing speed on fly balls demonstrated how a 6'3" kid could land a college scholarship as a cornerback, and who, an hour later, in a game against Central Arizona Junior College, with Guzman on first after a single up the middle, would crush a fastball over the 390-foot sign in left center field, despite not getting the good part of the bat on it.
I scribbled down a preliminary version of my Top 72 Prospects list for this year's Bound Edition a few weeks ago, just after the minor league seasons ended. I had Akins somewhere around 25-30. That's twice as far down from the top as it should be. At least.
I'm basing that not on a batting practice session and a single fourth-inning at-bat against a junior college squad (that had silenced Rangers bats to that point). But those two moments drove home what I'd been hearing for a couple weeks about one of the organization's true five-tool talents.
Akins might be 19 years old to Guzman's 16, but I'm betting he's played less baseball in his life, making him a pretty amazing instance of scouting and very exciting development.
Guzman signed this summer for $3.5 million. Akins signed for one-tenth of that a year earlier. But at this point, those are mere details, incidental bullet points about one physical specimen from La Vega, Dominican Republic and another from McDonough, Georgia, a couple beastly teenagers going about their work in front of dozens of onlookers while the Rangers were getting set to end the Los Angeles Angels' season and continue their fight to hang onto home field for Friday's Game One.
All that while another critically important segment of this organization continues getting things set in a much different way, developing the young players it's counting on to keep this club's window of contention open for a long time, and in some eye-opening cases seeing instruction and repetitions translate into very loud production.