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Old meets new in the TL
San Antonio wrote a riveting tale last season in the Texas League, winning the crown behind some fabulous pitching and arguably the league's best player in Chase Headley. Will the Missions be able to repeat as league champion or will newly christened Northwest Arkansas become the best the Double-A circuit has to offer?
The Naturals are expected to sport one of the best pitching staffs in Minor League Baseball this season with two starters featured on our list of top 10 Texas League players to watch this season. Here's a look at the duo and the eight other players, in no particular order, who we think are worth keeping an eye on.
1. Kyle Blanks, 1B
The 6-foot-6, near-300-pounder continued to punish the ball last season, hitting 24 homers and driving in 100 runs at Lake Elsinore. He finished third in the California League in homers and extra-base hits (59) and fourth in RBIs. Blanks even stole 11 bases and hit four triples, an indication that he's nimble for his size. Overall, Blanks hit .301 (.280 with 23 homers against right-handers) and trimmed his strikeout rate to once every 4.7 at-bats, down from once every 3.7 at-bats in the Midwest League in 2006. He committed nine errors, putting him in the middle of the pack among Cal League first basemen.
2. Max Ramirez, C
Ramirez certainly gets around. He'll start his third consecutive season with a new organization but his travels are due to his being in demand rather than no one wanting him. And though he seems to change area codes as often as he changes clothes, all the movement hasn't hampered his ability to hit. Ramirez is a career .304 hitter and combined to hit that mark last year at Class A Advanced Kinston of the Carolina League and Bakersfield of the Cal League after the Rangers acquired him from Cleveland. He had career highs in homers (16) and RBIs (82). He committed nine errors in 703 total chances and threw out 33 of 113 runners (29 percent) attempting to steal.
3. Brennan Garr, RHP
We chose Garr as an "Under the Radar" player when we previewed the Rangers earlier this month on MiLB.com. We're also predicting big things for him in the Texas League this season -- he won't be out of the baseball limelight much longer. A 2006 ninth-round pick from Northern Colorado, Garr played a great deal of third base in college. The Rangers, however, thought he was more capable of making his mark as a pitcher, and last year he showed why. Garr appeared in 41 games at three levels, going 0-3 with a 2.03 ERA and five saves. He struck out 75 and walked 32 in 62 innings while allowing three homers. He also reached the Texas League, where he posted a 2.57 ERA in six appearances for Frisco.
4. Adam Ottavino, RHP
Ottavino had a remarkably consistent season pitching for Palm Beach in the Florida State League in 2007. He compiled a 12-8 mark and a 3.08 ERA, striking out 128 in 143 1/3 innings after going 1-3 in April. He won six consecutive decisions during an eight-start stretch in June and July, posting a 2.23 ERA in those games. The Cards made him the 30th overall pick in the 2006 draft and he responded by putting up impressive numbers in his first full season as a pro. His fastball often hits the mid-90s and his offspeed offerings are nearly as impressive.
5. Eli Iorg, OF
Iorg has the pedigree to succeed in the game having come from a family that is stocked with Major League talent. Before tearing an elbow ligament last spring, he showed that he shared those talents as well. The former first-round selection out of Tennessee was hitting .296 with five homers and 24 RBIs through 162 at-bats for Salem before going down. Though he's a bit older (he turned 25 this month), the club doesn't see his age as a detriment. He has the makeup to contribute in Houston before long -- possibly as soon as this September. Iorg stole 42 bases in 2006 and had 14 when he was hurt last season. It's just a matter of how well he can recover from the surgery and losing most of 2007 to injury.
6. Dexter Fowler, OF
Fowler also celebrated a birthday earlier this month, turning 22. Injuries have slowed him in each of the last two seasons -- he played in only 99 games in 2006 because of an ankle sprain and a broken hamate bone limited him to 65 games last year. Still, he managed to steal 63 bases during those two seasons and has shown flashes of power (he has 14 homers in 870 at-bats). Fowler can also draw a walk; he had 44 in 245 at-bats last year, and has a .376 career OBP. The athletic switch-hitter (he almost went to Harvard to play basketball) has to prove he can stay healthy over the course of a full season this year.
7. Brandon Hynick, RHP
What will Hynick do for an encore? He's won two consecutive Pitcher of the Year awards and was named MiLB.com's Class A Advanced Pitcher of the Year as well after going 16-5 with a 2.52 ERA last season in the Cal League. He struck out 136 in a Minor League-leading 182 1/3 innings. He showed the Major Leaguers a thing or two this spring by appearing in his first big-league camp, impressing the Colorado brass with his pinpoint control. Hynick won't overpower anyone but he has proven to be entertaining to watch.
8. Daniel Cortes, RHP
Cortes came over from the White Sox in 2006 for Mike MacDougal, and while his numbers haven't been as gaudy as some of Kansas City's other pitching prospects -- he was 8-8 with a 3.07 ERA in 24 Carolina League starts -- he is no less dominating on the mound. He fanned 120 in 123 innings last season, walked only 45 and was fourth in the league in ERA. Cortes went 6-0 with a 0.77 ERA in his final eight starts, striking out 48 while walking 12 in 47 innings. He's got a mid-90s fastball and a nice fall-off-the-table curve that keeps hitters honest. Cortes turned 21 earlier this month and this season should be a key year for him. He was 5-15 with a 4.77 ERA in his 42 appearances (33 starts) prior to 2007, leaving this year in the Texas League as a true test of his progress.
9. Rowdy Hardy, LHP
Hardy has been underrated and overlooked by many baseball people since the Royals signed him as a non-drafted free agent out of Austin Peay. Yet he led the Carolina League in victories (15) a year ago and was named the Royals' organizational Pitcher of the Year by MiLB.com in 2007. He finished second in the league in ERA (2.48) and will anchor a staff at Northwest Arkansas that features four of last year's top six Carolina League ERAs. Hardy walked only 16 in 167 innings and had a WHIP of 0.96. He's not a burner by any stretch, relying more on control and finesse to get by. But he has a nickname that folks around the league will love as much as they enjoy watching him pitch. (His real first name is Lenny).
10. Hainley Statia, SS
Though slight of build -- he's only 5-foot-11 -- the Curacao native has been named an All-Star in each of his last two seasons, first in the Midwest League and then the California League. He's a career .290 hitter that really developed at the plate last season, driving in a career-best 74 runs while batting mostly second for Rancho Cucamonga. He hit .325 over the second half last season. Statia also stole 29 bases. Though he had 23 errors, he led Cal League shortstops with a .965 fielding percentage.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.