Rangers have strength in foundation

Taveras, Thompson lead prospects showing off at lower levels

Leody Taveras entered the season as the third-youngest player in the Carolina League. (Ben Sandstrom/MiLB.com)

By Gerard Gilberto / MiLB.com | December 17, 2018 10:15 AM

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

Just two years removed from a 95-win season, the Rangers have finished under .500 in consecutive seasons, including a last-place finish and 67-95 record last year. Potential Hall of Famer and third-base stalwart Adrian Beltre retired, 2015 Manager of the Year Jeff Bannister was fired, and trades of Cole Hamels, Keone Kela, Jake Diekman and Alex Claudio indicated the team is ready for a rebuild.

A major renovation such as this one needs time. Fortunately, Texas' strength lies within its youth, and those young players are blessed with versatility. Only six of the Rangers' top-30 prospects were acquired in a trade, with No. 6 Taylor Hearn holding the highest ranking on the list, and just one player among these organization All-Stars played more than five games above the Class A Advanced level. That was Willie Calhoun, also the only member on the list who didn't play more than one position this season. 

Rangers Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Yohel Pozo, Hickory (117 games)

The 21-year-old drew comparisons to Twins backstop Willians Astudillo for having both a low walk rate (3.8 percent) and a low strikeout rate (5.2 percent) in 2017. Pozo was more selective in 2018 and surpassed the previous season's base on balls total (eight) in 36 games, 18 fewer than last summer. But as his walk rate increased (5.8 percent), so did his strikeout percentage (10.8). The 6-foot, 220-pounder led all Rangers' Minor Leaguers with 29 doubles, batting .264/.312/.411 with 10 homers, two triples and 49 RBIs for the Class A Crawdads..

"The kid loves to hit," Texas catching coordinator Chris Briones told the Hickory Daily Record in June. "We'd love for him to get to where he loves the defensive side and the practice that goes into it."

Pozo threw out 18 of 58 would-be base stealers and sported a .991 fielding percentage in 63 games behind the plate. A 2009 Little League World Series participant, he also played 10 error-free games at first base.

The Maracaibo, Venezuela, native, who was involved in a hazing scandal during the 2016 Dominican Summer League, was cleared by the organization and Dominican Republic authorities last year. His father, also named Yohel Pozo, was a Rockies catching prospect who ascended to Triple-A in 1996.

Video: A poke for Hickory's Pozo

First baseman -- Heriberto Hernandez, DSL Rangers (60 games)

The Bonoa, Dominican Republic, native put on quite a display in his first season in affiliated ball in his home country. Hernandez, who celebrated his 19th birthday Sunday, led all qualified Rangers' Minor Leaguers in on-base percentage (.464), slugging percentage (.635) and OPS (1.099).

He stood second in all levels of baseball behind Cardinals prospect Malcolm Nunez (238) with a wRC+ of 200, better than MLB.com's top-ranked prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., third at 194, and three-time MVP Mike Trout (184). Fellow Rangers prospect Curtis Terry was fourth on that list with a wRC+ of 186 in 67 games, eventually leading to Northwest League MVP honors with Class A Short Season Spokane. Though he saw the bulk of his workload at first base (26 games), the December 2017 signee got into 14 games behind the plate, committing three errors and catching 10 base stealers in 27 chances at rookie ball.

Second baseman -- Yonny Hernandez, Frisco (four games), Hickory (115 games)

Although the 20-year-old Venezuelan played more games at shortstop (65) than second base (51), his 5-foot-9, 171-pound stature better fit the profile of a second baseman. He does possess the speed necessary to be a versatile defender and it led to brilliant results on the basepaths. Hernandez led all Texas players with 46 stolen bases, eighth-best in the Minors this season. He was caught stealing 15 times and was successful in both of his attempts with the Double-A RoughRiders.

Hernandez's stint in the Texas League lasted just one series in San Antonio, in which he had three hits in 11 at-bats and scored three runs in his final game with the club on May 13. He batted .260/.371/.327 with two homers, three triples, 12 homers, 58 walks, 56 runs scored and 40 RBIs.


Organization All-Stars by MLB affiliate »


Third baseman -- Diosbel Arias, Spokane (61 games)

Playing alongside fellow Cuban Julio Pablo Martinez -- the club's No. 2 prospect, Arias displayed brilliant bat-to-ball skills, finishing with a Northwest League and organization-leading .366 batting average. Arias left Cuba as a 19-year-old in 2015 and signed for $700,000 last year. He played eight games of affiliated ball before this season and finished with a .942 OPS, three homers, two triples, 15 doubles and 44 RBIs.

"I'm here to help the team win. Every night," Arias told The Spokane Spokesman-Review through an interpreter in July. "That's what we're looking for and that's the focus."

Arias played 35 games at third base, 11 at shortstop and 11 at second. He was listed as the third baseman on both the midseason and postseason All-Star teams. 

Shortstop -- Anderson Tejeda, Down East (118 games)

The Rangers' 10th-ranked prospect entered his second full season as a 19-year-old and ended it as the system's leader with 76 runs, 74 RBIs and 205 total bases. Tejeda was named Carolina League Player of the Week twice, and said after a two-homer game in late May that he'd adjusted to an opposite-field approach. The strategy stuck, and the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder posted career highs in homers (19) and RBIs while hitting the ball to center (29.6 percent) and the opposite field (30.8 percent) more than ever in his professional career.

"I feel the biggest adjustment I've been able to make has been laying off bad pitches," Tejeda told MiLB.com through interpreter and Class A Advanced Down East trainer Alex Rodriguez. "I'm not chasing like I was last year. When you go after good pitches, you're more likely to get the barrel of the bat on the ball."

The Bani, Dominican Republic, native made 19 errors in 105 games at shortstop and one in 12 games at second base. He rates out as an average defender with an above-average arm and showed terrific instincts during an eye-opening night in Winston-Salem, making a highlight-reel grab on a popup that deflected off a teammate's glove.

Video: Down East teams up for unique double play

Outfielders

Bubba Thompson, Hickory (84 games)

The 20-year-old Alabama native decided to forego a path toward big-time college football after being drafted 26th overall last June. Thompson signed a $2.1 million bonus but tendinitis in both knees limited him to 30 games in 2017 and held him in extended spring training to start this season. When he returned to full strength, well after his own assessment of a clean bill of health, Thompson quickly showed that he picked the right sport.

"To do what he's done, you look at him, and I'm convinced, if he stays healthy, he's going to be a 30-home run, 40- to 50-stolen base plus-defender in center fielder," Rangers assistant general manager Jayce Tingler told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "I think he's got a chance to be an impact player."

The club's No. 9 prospect batted .289/.344/.446 with eight homers, 41 extra-base hits, 42 RBIs and 32 stolen bases during the regular season. HIs breakout year was highlighted by a huge second half in which he hit .300 in 220 at-bats and swiped 25 bags. The 6-foot-2, 186-pounder struck out 104 times (28.7 percent of his plate appearances) with 23 walks (6.3 percent) and admitted to some defensive issues, which should start to fade with more playing time. He made only two errors and recorded six assists, but still feels there's room for improvement in his center-field play.

Leody Taveras, Down East (132 games)

The top-ranked Rangers prospect didn't post eye-popping numbers, but was still impressive at age 19 as the third-youngest player in the Carolina League. Taveras batted .246/.312/.332 with 21 extra-base hits -- including a system-leading seven triples -- 65 runs scored and 48 RBIs -- similar numbers to the previous season, but he still flashed the potential of a five-tool player.

"He's mature beyond his years. I would say that most kids are expected to go out there and perform at this level with the lofted profile that he possesses," Down East hitting coach David Hook told MiLB.com. "He's expected to be our No. 1 prospect and he's expected to do well and perform. And I think he carries that so well. But that's what makes him him. He doesn't really get caught up in any of that. He knows that this is a stepping stone because he's looking to improve and get to another level. That's what makes him such a joy to coach, really." 

MLB.com's No. 54 overall prospect stole 19 bases, one fewer than last season, and walked a career-best 51 times. An above-average defender, Taveras made seven errors and recorded 13 assists in 123 games in center.

Video: Taveras' two-run triple for Hickory

Willie Calhoun, Round Rock (108 games)

After making his Major League debut and finishing the regular season with the big club last September, Calhoun considered his reassignment back to Triple-A to be a "slap in the face." His April numbers showed his devastation and it took some time for him to come around, but the patience had a worthy payoff. Calhoun batted .333 with an .850 OPS over 69 games from the start of May until his return to the Majors on July 19. He had hits in all but 13 games and 24 multi-hit performances over that span.

"There's no doubt about it, Willie has matured as a hitter, as a person," Round Rock hitting coach Howard Johnson told MiLB.com on July 15. "He's always been able to hit and never really had any struggle until this year at the start when he dug himself a bad hole. But he just kind of worked his way back and not tried to look down the road too far, just take each game at a time, and I think that's been the secret for him."

The 24-year-old returned to the Express for a 14-game stint in August, but again finished the season with Texas after rosters expanded in September. He finished with a .294/.351/.431 slash line, nine homers and 47 RBIs, which was 22 fewer long balls and 46 fewer RBIs than last year in 54 fewer at-bats. Calhoun led all Rangers' Minor Leaguers with 32 doubles.

The California native broke in as a second baseman, but gained some playing time in the outfield before being traded from the Dodgers to Texas in the Yu Darvish deal at last year's deadline. He's played just three games at second since the trade, exclusively sticking in the outfield and at designated hitter in 2018.

Designated hitter -- Sam Huff, Hickory (118 games)

The 20-year-old split the Crawdads' catching duties with Pozo almost evenly, but got more playing time as a DH, bashing 19 homers and driving in 55 runs over 415 at-bats. Huff made the most of his hitting coach Chase Lambin's patient, yet assertive "tiger mentality" against Greenville on July 26 and slugged three homers in a seven-inning contest. The 2016 seventh-rounder batted .241/.292/.439 and collected 22 doubles but struck out 140 times.

Offseason MiLB include

Honorable mention -- Veteran Tommy Joseph led the Rangers' system with 21 homers, his third consecutive year with at least 20. The 27-year-old signed with the LG Twins of the Korean Baseball Organization in November.

Right-handed starter -- A.J. Alexy, Hickory (22 games, 20 starts)

The 20-year-old joined the organization with Calhoun and shortstop Brendon Davis as part of the Darvish deal and posted a 6-8 record, 3.58 ERA, .229 average against and an organization-leading 138 strikeouts in 108 innings in his first full season with the club. Alexy credited much of his success to mental toughness and a healthy rapport with his catchers, Pozo and Huff.

"I sat down with myself the past week and my pitching coach and catcher, and it was all about changing my mentality. I had the good tempo going and my teammates were pumping me up," Alexy told MiLB.com after taking a no-hitter into the sixth and recording a career-high 12 punchouts against West Virginia on May 4. "My main focus was to throw strikes as much as possible, first-pitch strikes. I changed my windup recently and it makes me easy and simple, and I guess that helped."

The Rangers No. 18 prospect completed six innings on six occasions and racked up double-digit strikeout totals in three starts. A 6-foot-4, 217-pounder from Pennsylvania, Alexy held Kannapolis without a hit for six innings on June 7, leading to South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Week honors. 

Left-handed starter -- Joe Palumbo, Frisco (two starts), Down East (six starts), Rookie-level Arizona League (three starts)

The 30th-round selection in the 2013 Draft earned his place on the 40-man roster with a 2.78 overall ERA and 59 strikeouts while holding opposing batters to a .206 average over 49 1/3 innings. The club's seventh-ranked prospect was diagnosed with a tear in the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow in February 2017 and underwent Tommy John surgery. He was activated in July after three rehab stints in the AZL and made six starts for Down East, going 1-4 with a 2.67 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 27 innings. 

Palumbo struck out 20 batters over 10 1/3 innings in his final two starts with the Wood Ducks before being elevated to Frisco on Aug. 22. He allowed one run in each of his first two Double-A starts, completing 9 1/3 innings and striking out 10, eight in his debut on the circuit against San Antonio.

Relief pitcher -- Demarcus Evans, Hickory (35 games)

The hulking fireballer gained a better command of the strike zone and it led to 16.6 strikeouts per nine innings, the highest rate among Minor League relievers in 2018. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound right-hander compiled a 4-1 record, a 1.77 ERA and 103 whiffs over 56 innings, holding opposing batters to a .149 average and converting each of his nine save opportunities.

"I was in my head a lot [before this year]," Evans told MiLB.com in November. "The Rangers coaches told me I've got the stuff to do it, told me to stop thinking so much and just throw it down the middle."

The 25th-round pick in 2015 was used mainly as a starter over his first three seasons before moving to the bullpen, ditching his changeup and fine-tuning his fastball-curveball combination.

Gerard Gilberto is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @GerardGilberto4. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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