Here’s a quick re-introduction to Texas’s four full-season affiliates and the initial rosters. The season begins Thursday in AAA and Tuesday everywhere else. Assuming you’re comfortable being in public outdoors and have the money to spare, I would implore you to catch a game in person. Minor league teams were crushed by the pandemic as much as any business on the planet, and the tickets you purchase will help keep them afloat. AAA: Round Rock Express (Round Rock, Texas)
Texas affiliate since about two months ago
What a journey. Houston’s seemingly permanent affiliation with Round Rock lasted all of two seasons, only one of which included actual baseball. The Astros switched to Sugar Land, gaining a suburban affiliation they could have achieved years ago if not for the opposition of previous ownership. That’s a story for another time.
In their 2019 rebranding
, the Express eschewed Astros colors except for an orange-hued sunrise on one logo, saving themselves the trouble of re-rebranding now that the Rangers are back. (The primary circular logo design mimics Houston's, but unless you see them side-by-side I don't think you'd draw an association.) Likewise, Astros-oriented decor at the Dell Diamond was surprisingly muted. Erase emblems of the previous affiliation won’t be difficult. They’ve always wanted an identity separate from the parent club. Brandiose, the marketing titan whose efforts I’ve criticized in the past, has served the Express well in this regard.
The original AAA schedule contained a full 144 games, but less than three weeks after the announcement, MLB cancelled the season’s first month as a precautionary measure in favor of the alternate site activities I’ve reported on lately. Minor league player travel jibes poorly with MLB bubble requirements, and I worry about postponements and cancellations down the road. (Miami recently halted its minor league spring training because of a player/staff outbreak
.) Round Rock will play 90 of its 120 games within the division and half its slate against just Sugar Land and OKC.
As for the roster, we won’t have one before alternate site activities conclude next Monday. AA: Frisco RoughRiders (Frisco, Texas)
Texas affiliate since 2003
The turbulent minor league reorganization didn’t change Texas’s relationship with Frisco except for different papers to sign. The Riders perennially lead the league in attendance despite now having one of the older stadiums (not old, just older than average). Certainly, the surroundings have helped. Frisco had about 5,000 residents when I moved out of the area in the late 1980s and close to 50,000 when the park was built. Today, upwards of 200,000! Former Rangers radio color voice and Angels television play-by-play announcer Victor Rojas became the team’s president and GM over the winter.
The league (now joylessly known as the “Double A Central” instead of the Texas League) has ten teams for the first time. San Antonio rejoined after two seasons in AAA, and the new Wichita Wind Surge dropped down from AAA without ever playing a game. Pitchers:
A.J. Alexy (#28 BA, #21 MLB.com)
Hans Crouse (#9 BA, #7 MLB.com)
Tyler Phillips (#23 MLB.com)
Yerry Rodriguez (#20 MLB.com)
Cole Winn (#5 BA, #5 MLB.com)
Frisco has the lion’s share of prospects to start the season. Nine of the announced 13 pitchers are capable of starting. Crouse, Rodriguez and Winn are skipping high-A, while Tyler Phillips is repeating the level despite the layoff. Phillips reached AA with terrific control but sometimes struggled with the quality of strikes. In the downtime, he’s worked on pitch construction and command. Alexy owns a sharp fastball/curve combo. To be determined is whether he will stick as a starter or switch to a lesser but still high-leverage role. Hopefully, we get a full, injury-free season and some definition of Crouse, whose risk profile is as large as the day he was drafted. Always impressive in instructional settings, Winn struggled badly upon assignment to Hickory in 2019 but rounded in form by the end of the season. He’s the safest bet in the system to become a quality starter. The last Texas-picked pitcher to throw 150 innings as a Ranger was Derek Holland in 2013.
The hard-throwing Speas will reach the Majors if he can throw enough strikes. Poor control prevented a 2020 debut and dampened interest from other teams in last winter’s Rule 5 draft. The 25-year-old Ozuna is a converted infielder with two elbow surgeries and 12 innings in the 2018 Dominican Summer League to his credit. He throws upper 90s with a slider. Joe Gatto earned a Major League contract over the winter despite no experience above AA, but a rough spring bounced him off the 40. Catchers:
I want Whatley to succeed and the Rangers do too, but the third-rounder from 2017 didn’t hit at all in 2018’s high-A assignment, and he spent the next season at a lower level. Still, he received a spring invite and has played for the alt-site club. The 24-year-old Novoa also hasn’t hit well above low-A. Infielders:
Sherten Apostel (#14 BA, #11 MLB.com)
Davis Wendzel (#16 BA, #12 MLB.com)
I’m fine with Apostel starting in AA. He didn’t appear close to ready in his MLB debut and would have been assigned to that level in 2020 under ordinary circumstances. The pandemic and a thumb injury have limited Wendzel to 24 professional plate appearances, all in short-season leagues, but he’s impressed enough to jump to AA, presumably as a shortstop, a position he barely glimpsed in college.
Dorow (2017/30) has MLB-worthy infield flexibility and a patient approach but will need to hit better to make it. Biggers (2018/8), part of Arkansas’s national runner-up squad in 2018, similarly can play just about anywhere. Outfielders:
Julio P. Martinez
Bubba Thompson (#30 BA, #16 MLB.com)
Steele Walker (#17 BA, #13 MLB.com)
I’m going to try very hard not to overuse “it’s a big year for [insert player]” statements in my reports. After a lost 2020, it’s a big year for everybody, but it really applies to this group. Bubba Thompson was Texas’s top pick in 2017 but isn’t assured of a 40-man spot this winter. Early-season wrist surgery (and perhaps its after-effects) limited Thompson to just 57 games and a .178/.261/.312 line at high-A Down East in 2019. An old 21 when drafted, Walker is only a year to 18 months younger than Lowe, Heim, Calhoun, Solak and IKF. He’s a quality prospect, but time is of the essence. 2021 is arguably make-or-break for 25-year-old Julio P. Martinez, once a top-ten prospect, albeit in a then-weaker system. Stowers is the more advanced of the two prospects received for Rougned Odor. His respectable low-A 2019 (.273/.386/.400) didn’t fully offset concerns about how the bat would play going forward or whether he could handle center or right. High-A: Hickory Crawdads (Hickory, North Carolina)
Texas affiliate since 2009
Hickory and Down East have traded levels. The switch appears geographically driven, although Hickory also has double the population of Down East’s home in Kinston. The Rangers purchased the team from original owner Don Beaver after the 2017 season. Coincidentally, the Crawdads came into existence when Beaver purchased and moved the team from Gastonia which had hosted Texas’s low-A squad for six seasons. Texas moved on to Charleston, while the White Sox occupied the new stadium in Hickory.
Although Hickory’s pandemic-restricted travel situation is benign in 2021, it could become messier in future years in a Frankenstein’s monster of a league known as the High-A East. The 12 teams play in unevenly numbered divisions and sprawl from northwestern Georgia to central Kentucky to southern New York. In the old league, Hickory’s stadium favored offense and especially homers. Pitchers:
Ronny Henriquez (#15 BA, #17, MLB.com)
Avery Weems (#29 BA)
Ronny Henriquez reached low-A as an 18-year-old and struck out 28% of opposing batters. Sometimes his strike locations were generous, resulting in high-hit outings. Weems was the second player in the Lance Lynn trade but he’s no throw-in. Not known as a strikeout pitcher at the University of Arizona, Weems fanned 75 in 60.1 innings at two short-season levels in 2019. Slaten was Texas’s 3rd-rounder from 2019 and is skipping low-A. 2016 1st-rounder Cole Ragans, twice a victim of Tommy John surgery, has finally reached full-season ball in his sixth professional season. Catchers:
David Garcia (#19 BA, #15 MLB.com)
Placed on the 40 before he’d reached full-season ball, Garcia skips low-A. Beginning in the latter portion of 2018, his once-iffy bat has progressed impressively. Infielders:
Justin Foscue (#6 BA, #9 MLB.com)
Jonathan Ornelas (#27 MLB.com)
Chris Seise (#27 BA, #28 MLB.com)
Foscue will debut professionally in high-A. Absent the pandemic, a 2020 spent between short-season and low-A were easily foreseeable for the 14th-overall pick, so his assignment here isn’t out of bounds. Seise has 325 pro plate appearances in four seasons, most of which came within a few months of his 29th-overall selection in the 2017 draft. Surgeries on both shoulders ruined most of 2018-2019. Ornelas is contact-oriented and has already played everywhere but catcher, first and right in his brief career. Outfielders:
After multiple seasons in low-A Hickory, Aparicio and Gonzalez finally advance to high-A… Hickory. Guenther, an addition to the Lowe trade, is listed in the outfield despite more pro games at first. LOW-A: Down East Wood Ducks (Kinston, North Carolina)
Texas affiliate since 2017
After 2016, the Rangers purchased a new minor league club to replace the California League’s High Desert Mavericks. Kinston has a colorful baseball history, if not a whole lot of people. The Wood Ducks averaged 1,651 fans per game in 2019, last in the Carolina League but actually impressive given the size of the town and county. Kinston is about the size of Corsicana and isn’t getting any larger. The Rangers relocated here because they desperately wanted out of the Cal League, and the city had an old but capable stadium in need of a tenant.
The new 12-team Low-A East League contains an equal number of teams from the old high-A Carolina League and low-A Sally League. Unlike Hickory, Down East’s league structure is set up perfectly, with three four-team groups divided easily by the geography. That and an extremely unbalanced schedule will keep the Woodies within a 100-mile radius of Kinston for all but 18 of 120 games. The park tended to play neutrally in the old Carolina league.
Owen White (#22 BA)
Everyone on the roster except Abdiel Mendoza will be making his full-season debut. White (2018/3) and Englert (2018/4) are making extremely belated professional debuts. After being drafted, they were part of an acclimation program that withheld some pitchers from game duty in favor of comprehensive training and instruction. Both succumbed to Tommy John surgery and then lost another year to the pandemic.
Acker (2020/4 by Oakland), Roby (2020/3), and Krauth (2020/FA), will also be pitching professionally in real games for the first time. Roby is Texas’s highest pitching pick in last year’s draft. Acker came to Texas as part of the Andrus trade. Krauth pitched for UConn and signed as a free agent. The rest spent 2019 at rookie-level Arizona and/or short-season Spokane. Catchers:
Four catchers, limited actual catching. Rodriguez and Cabello have yet to wear a mask in a real game, and Valentin has ten starts in 2019’s rookie league. Rodriguez, Texas’s priciest international signing from 2018, manned first and left field in the Dominican Republic. The 20-year-old Cabello is an unlikely C/CF hybrid who came to the Rangers in exchange for Rougned Odor. Florentino demolished the Dominican Summer League in 2018 but struggled in his first taste of American ball the next season. Infielders:
Luisangel Acuna (#8 BA, #18 by MLB.com)
When I played around with potential rosters over the winter, I wondered where Texas would fit all its promising young infielders ready for full-season ball. Texas’s answer was to trade two for Nate Lowe (MIF Osleivis Basabe and 1B/OF Heriberto Hernandez) and squeeze the rest into low-A. Everybody but Harris can play up the middle, and nobody is limited to first, a position which could be helmed by some of the catchers to get them more at-bats. Similarly, depending on who else arrives, some of these infielders might moonlight in the outfield. Outfielders:
Evan Carter (#18 BA, #25 MLB.com)
Arguably the most bewildering choice of the 2020 draft at the time, Evan Carter has rewarded Texas’s calculated risk with excellent reports on his play and makeup. Smith was part of the return for Mike Minor. Alt Site Notes
Blake Bass struck out uberprospect Bobby Witt Jr. on three pitches including two swinging strikes on a fastball (93) and slider (87). Witt later drove a tough slider from Jimmy Herget for a solid single. Unfortunately, I caught another tough night by Cole Uvila, who walked two and went to three balls on three other hitters in an inning truncated after 29 pitches with just 12 strikes. Uvila returned the next innings and retired two straight.
New to the alt site, 26-year-old righty Hever Bueno (2016/9) delivered easy upper-90s heat augmented with an upper 80s slider. His control was poor, a career-long issue, and he generated one miss on eight swings. He reached 100 MPH on one pitch, off which DH Clay Dungan cracked a double to the wall.
He also retired Witt on a flyout to center. Bueno hasn’t pitched above low-A.
Anderson Tejeda has a .154/.333/.269 line with a 48% strikeout rate (!) and 21% walk rate (!!). Breakers are challenging him as much in Round Rock as in Arlington. I assume he’s AAA bound, but a Double AA assignment wouldn’t bother me. IF Yonny Hernandez (.324/.439/.382) has seven walks against just four strikeouts. 1B Curtis Terry (.256/.275/.333) is putting the ball in play consistently but mostly on the ground of late. My eyewitness reviews on righty Joe Barlow are mixed, but he does have just two walks against ten strikeouts in six innings. Elsewhere
Tampa Bay has assigned the three prospects received in the Nate Lowe trade. OF Heriberto Hernandez and Alexander Ovalles are headed to low-A Charleston, and IF Osleivis Basabe will head straight for high-A Bowling Green. None has played full-season ball. Ovalles is listed as an infielder, presumably first base, a position he played sparingly in 2019. DiamondPod
A new one every Wednesday. Check my email signature. This week we covered the amazing Ohtani and Trout, Adolis Garcia continued success, Leody Taveras’s demotion, minor league rosters, my alt-site observations and more.