'The Future Is Here'
Last year's rebuilding brings optimism in Texas
The Rangers might have finished 19 games behind the first-place Angels in the American League West last year, but there are plenty of reasons for optimism moving forward. About 40 reasons right now, actually.
Texas has taken major steps to improve its infrastructure over the last several years, and one look at its instructional league club based in Surprise, Ariz., last fall typified their movement toward the future. And that was certainly the message the organization preached in the fall, as each player and staff member wore shirts that read, "The Future Is Here," during the six-week camp.
While the Rangers were certainly aware of the instructional league club's raw talent, it was the buzz that talent generated throughout the industry that indicated that the organization is headed in the right direction.
"As evaluators, we always have the tendency to fall in love with our own players," Rangers senior director of baseball operations Don Welke said. "These players have that internal buzz. But when they begin to create that buzz externally, that's when you know you have something special."
Welke knows that all too well. With 42 years of scouting experience—including nearly 25 years serving as general manager Pat Gillick's right-hand man in Toronto, Baltimore and Philadelphia—Welke was the Rangers' international crosschecker in 2005, and he returned to general manager Jon Daniels' inner circle after leaving Philadelphia last season.
"We always had players who we thought had upside, but it really isn't until other clubs start talking about it that it really starts to hit home," Welke said.
That came to fruition at the Winter Meetings in December when several clubs approached Daniels about possible deals, and asked about several players on the instructs roster.
That's not to say Texas is devoid of talent beyond the lower levels. The Rangers' system has two waves of talent on the move to Arlington, but their greatest hopes currently lie with the talented, but inexperienced, instructional-league set.
The Rangers threw out five starters during instructs who threw 93 mph or harder and had at least one breaking ball that graded as average or better. The names may be new to some readers, but you could be hearing more about righthanders Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Wilmer Font and Fabio Castillo, as well as lefty Kasey Kiker, in the near future.
The position players on that roster read like a who's-who on a prospect A-list: shortstop Elvis Andrus, third baseman Johnny Whittleman, shortstop Marcus Lemon, catchers Max Ramirez and Cristian Santana and outfielders Engel Beltre and Julio Borbon, a 2007 third-round pick.
"We had a very good camp," farm director Scott Servais said. "This is where amateur players, whatever their background is—from the draft, coming in as high school or college players, or as players from another country—really get an idea of what's expected of them from the organization. And we try to make it as comfortable as possible."
When the Rangers committed to focusing on and investing in their scouting and player-development staff, they began to reap the benefits right away. The Rangers increased their impact depth via trades, the draft and their increased efforts internationally.
The biggest deal Daniels executed during his three-year tenure as GM came at the trade deadline last year, when he shipped franchise cornerstone (and Scott Boras client) Mark Teixeira to Atlanta for a boatload of prospects. Faced with Teixeira's impending free agency following the 2008 season, the Rangers cashed him in a year early for Andrus, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, lefthanders Matt Harrison and Beau Jones and little-known Dominican righthander Neftali Feliz.
But Daniels and his staff were not done making moves.
Just one day later, Texas jettisoned Eric Gagne to Boston for lefty Kason Gabbard, outfielder David Murphy and Beltre. The Rangers had shrewdly signed Gagne to a one-year, $6 million pact prior to the season.
"We knew last year if everything clicked, we'd be OK," Daniels said. "But if everything didn't, we'd have to begin to shift our focus."
That shift began well before the Texeria deal went down, as the organization honed in on high school arms early in the draft, nabbing righthanders Beavan and Main with two of their five picks before the second round.
Immediately after the draft, Welke was traveling all over the place, monitoring every player whose name could surface in deadline deals. One in particular he followed extensively was Feliz, who creates easy upper-90s gas and the has the makings of a plus curveball.
Welke began tracking Feliz during Welke's one season in Philadelphia, after seeing the 19-year-old on a back field in Orlando at the Braves' spring training complex.
"When I saw him, I said, 'Who the heck is this guy?' " Welke said. "This is a sensational arm type of kid, and you saw it right away. He's loose, free and easy. (Director of professional and international scouting operations) A.J. Preller and I watched him all year."
Meanwhile, the opening of the international signing period began July 2 and the Rangers made two major splashes, signing Venezuelan lefthander Martin Perez, who was considered the top lefty available, and highly touted Dominican shortstop Wilson Suero for just over $1 million combined.
"We have more resources available at the major league level, but we will be primarily focused right now on pouring resources into our system, to be one of the top clubs in terms of spending to continue to improve the organization as a whole," Daniels said.
"We want to be the best at scouting and developing our own players. We've expanded into the Pacific Rim and Latin America. We've added scouts on the amateur side. We feel like we've done well over the last year, but it's got to be non-stop. We haven't accomplished anything yet. We need to keep bringing in that talent."
When Daniels took over as GM at the end of the 2005 season, his priority was to improve the club's pitching. But his long-term goal always has been rooted in scouting and player development. Now, just two years later, the organization has made significant strides from top to bottom.
And while he might be labeled a new-school, statistical-oriented GM (he became the youngest GM in major league history the day he was appointed), that's far from the case.
"He's definitely not inundated by all that 'new wave' stuff," Welke said. "He's extremely thorough and uses all the information and resources available to make decisions. The front office is filled with young, bright innovative guys. It wasn't an easy decision for me to leave Pat and Philadelphia, but having the opportunity to build on something was huge for me.
"Right now we have a lot of guys with high upside and that's hopefully just the beginning. You want to build the farm system, so you can keep the major league club competitive for 10 or 15 years, and not just go out and use the pro scouting department to build something that lasts a year or two at the major league level.
"When I was with the Blue Jays, most of the names were (at the lower levels). It's the same thing we've done here—we've created a strong base. That gives you more of a chance of those numbers low in the system being strong at the upper levels soon. We're under construction right now at the moment, but we're excited about where we're going."