Up-The-Middle Prospects Drive Hickory's Success

HICKORY, N.C.—The Rangers cruised to their second straight American League pennant last year thanks in part to a strong up-the-middle alignment of shortstop Elvis Andrus, second baseman Ian Kinsler and catcher Mike Napoli.

Texas' low Class A Hickory affiliate follows a similar formula this season as they pursue a playoff berth in the South Atlantic League. The Crawdads sit one game out of first place in the Northern Division's second-half standings, their success a reflection of the contributions of catcher Jorge Alfaro, second baseman Rougned Odor and shortstop Luis Sardinas, three of the youngest position players in the league.

"I am a firm believer that if you have two true up-the-middle players at a level it is very impressive," Rangers special assistant Tony Fernandez said. "But on this team every (position) has a true up-the-middle guy who has a chance to develop."

Alfaro, Odor and Sardinas have impressed scouts as they've made their full-season debuts.

"When you come to (the SAL), you can NP (non-prospect) a lot of the guys, but these are three guys you can get excited about," one American League scout said. "This is one of the more exciting collections of talent I have seen in a while. These three are very good and very young. I think all three have futures in the big leagues."

The fact that the Rangers' teen trio landed in Hickory together is no coincidence. Alfaro and Odor ranked among the short-season Northwest League's top prospects last season, while Sardinas accomplished the same feat in the Rookie-level Arizona League.

In the grand scheme of things, Texas has been a heavy spender on the international amateur market, acquiring premium position talent like no other organization. In fact, all eight of the Rangers' starting middle infielders on their four full-season clubs—including No. 1 prospect Jurickson Profar at Double-A—were acquired internationally.

Even though Alfaro, Odor and Sardinas have missed time with injuries this season, the talented trio is ahead of the development curve.

"We are trying to get the gaps between the good and bad performances to narrow so that they can have consistent approaches and create confidence," Rangers farm director Tim Purpura said. "But they have all grown tremendously since spring training and are very fun to watch."

The Complete Package

The Rangers signed Alfaro out of Colombia for $1.3 million, paying up because he has a rare combination of tools for a catcher. Athletic and muscular at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he already has a well-developed upper body at age 19.

"He is the complete package as a catcher," Fernandez said. "You don't see catchers who can run like him. He has a plus-plus arm and can hit with power."

A scout put a future 70 grade on Alfaro's power, and that power is showing up in games. Through 217 plate appearances he's batting .278/.341/.459 and nearly half his 54 hits have gone for extra bases. Like many young power hitters, though, Alfaro still is learning how to hit and has struck out in nearly 27 percent of his PAs. He is constantly working to not lunge when he sees a pitch he likes.

"It is an everyday deal with him," Perez said. "It is trying to get that break instead of continuing onto his front foot. He is starting to realize he doesn't have to go out there and get the ball. He has some of the quickest hands in the organization and he is just learning to trust them."

To help keep his weight back during his stride, Alfaro has widened his hitting base after standing upright in recent years. He previously held his hands close to his head, preventing an optimal swing path.

"It is a matter of minimizing movement, that's why his base is wider and he's getting farther back with his hands," Perez said. "We want it to be one move back and fire because he has got pop."

Alfaro injured his hamstring in April and missed nearly two months after re-injuring the hamstring during rehab. Behind the plate, he has quick feet and one of the strongest arms in the minors.

"Now that is an 80-grade arm," the scout said. "He will have to work on his receiving, but the raw material is there."

'Prototypical Two-Hole Hitter'

The youngest player in the SAL, Odor won't turn 19 until next spring training. Despite an advanced feel for the game, he signed out of Venezuela for $425,000, the less than either Alfaro or Sardinas.

"He is very mature for his age—I thought he was much older when I first met him," Fernandez said. "He takes good swings and has an idea of what he wants to do when he is pitched with authority. The numbers do not lie. Anytime you see someone that young putting up numbers like that you know you have someone special"

Despite batting just .224 in 40 games since the all-star break, Odor has been a league-average performer this season with an overall batting line of .261/.312/.410 through 386 plate appearances. His .722 OPS compares favorably with the SAL average of .723. The list of players to accomplish that at the low Class A level since 2006 is short, totaling 14 players and including big leaguers Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Jesus Montero, Giancarlo Stanton and Justin Upton. (The list also includes top prospects such as Profar, Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor, Astros first baseman Jonathan Singleton and Blue Jays center fielder Anthony Gose.)

Though sound defensively, Odor faces a tough profile as a second-base prospect. The majority of today's regular and semi-regular big league second basemen spent their minor league careers at shortstop, and the lone international amateur to rise from low Class A to the big leagues while playing exclusively the keystone is the Astros' Jose Altuve.

Odor stands 5-foot-8 and is a strong 185 pounds. A scout graded him out as a "45 runner right now," and the organization knows maintaining that speed will be the key to him staying up the middle.

"The biggest thing he can do is to maintain his speed," Tingler said. "As he gets older and matures he needs to stay with his agility and speed workouts because maintaining his speed is going to be a big part of his game."

Odor's physicality and natural strength have produced 33 extra-base hits, including eight home runs, but his power can get him into trouble at times.

"For as young as Odor is he is pretty strong—at times to a fault—because he knows he has enough juice and sometimes it gets him in trouble," Hickory batting coach Josue Perez said. "He has a pretty fluid swing, one of the best in the organization, but he just needs to continue to modify that swing and not try to do too much with it."

Odor hit the Hickory disabled list with a separated shoulder in June, but the hard-nosed second baseman returned quickly.

"He is a total gamer," the scout said. "He is a prototypical two-hole hitter at the big league level, because he uses the whole field well and can probably hit .275-.285 with 12-15 home runs."

Expectations Of Weight

The 19-year-old Sardinas signed for $1.2 million out of Venezuela, a country with a long tradition of slick-fielding shortstops such as Luis Aparicio, Omar Vizquel and the Rangers' own star Andrus.

"There are a few things I am looking for when watching players and he has what I am looking for to be a special player," Fernandez said. "To me, Sardinas is a natural shortstop—he has the build, the arm, the speed."

Fernandez ought to know. He was one of the premier shortstops of his day, winning four straight Gold Gloves from 1986-89.  

Standing 6-foot-1, Sardinas is a long, lean and angular shortstop with quick feet, agility and fluid actions. He has a slim waist and broad shoulders, and a scout compared him physically with a less-developed version of White Sox shortstop Alexei Ramirez.

Sardinas weighed 150 pounds when he signed in 2009, but he currently weighs about 167 after adding 10 pounds within the last year. The Rangers have a regimented weightlifting program for Sardinas and monitor his weight daily because added bulk will be imperative as he matures.

"If there is one thing that scares me about Sardinas, it's how skinny he is," the scout said. "He will have to work hard to keep weight on. He needs to become stronger to improve his hitting."

His lack of physicality has resulted in a lone home run and singles-heavy batting line of .296/.349/.354 through 323 plate appearances. But the switch-hitting Sardinas has shown good contact skills by striking out in just 12 percent of PAs, the seventh-lowest rate in the league among qualifiers. He also has 28 stolen bases in 37 attempts.

Additional strength also could keep Sardinas healthier. He missed time in each of the past two seasons with shoulder injuries, the most serious of which occurred last year when he dislocated the joint during a swing, had surgery and played in just 14 games in the AZL. He missed two weeks this June with another shoulder injury.

"The biggest thing we are focusing on with Sardinas is finishing with two hands to take stress off both shoulders," Rangers field coordinator Jayce Tingler said. "Every once in a while he will get out of it and finish one-handed."

Despite the missed development time, Sardinas remains an talented player with enticing upside.

"Sardinas could have three 70-grade tools in his glove, arm and run," the scout said. "His hitting is improving, but even if it doesn't fully develop he will have a place in the big leagues solely because of his defense."