There will be minor league baseball in 2021. Which, y’know, wasn’t the case in 2020.
That reminder is one of the first things that jumped out to me while reading the “Break Camp” roster released by the Frisco RoughRiders yesterday, the full version of which features a column labeled “last team” that notes when and where each player suited up most recently.
Twenty-two of the 24 names listed haven’t played in a professional game since 2019, with the exceptions being Sherten Apostel, who got into seven games with the big league club last season, and 2017 fifth-round pick Jake Latz, who killed off some pandy time in indy ball with the Sugarland Skeeters.
Pandemics don’t really appear to care about the development paths of minor league baseball players, and there are several guys debuting at the AA level in 2021 whose development, at least in terms of the prototypical climbing of the organizational ladder, has gone a little wonky.
The ‘Riders will have 19 players who have never played at or above the AA level, and a handful of those are skipping the High-A level altogether. Compare that to 2019 when only nine AA newbies were assigned to Frisco.
The next thing I noticed is the number of prospects and general dudes of interest that are going to be playing at Dr. Pepper Ballpark in 2021. Some would have naturally progressed to Frisco in 2021 whether there was a season last year or not, but there’s more than a couple eager promotions in there as well (those aforementioned High-A skippers), perhaps as a sign that we’re getting this rebuilding show on the road. Or otherwise because there’s no short-season level anymore and they don’t have anywhere else to put ‘em. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Eight of Baseball America’s ‘Rangers’ Top 30 Prospects’ will start out at AA, along with some guys who didn’t crack the top 30 but who are definitely worth a look. Quite a few high draft picks, quite a few guys acquired from trading notable big league dudes, some 40-man rosterees, and a couple hot international signings as well.
Most notable is probably the stacked pitching staff, both the rotation and the bullpen.
You’re gonna want to get out and watch a Hans Crouse start, for sure. The fan-favorite prospect got a taste of big league ball as a Spring Training invitee (where he had the pleasure of giving up a monster shot to Shohei Ohtani) and will be skipping the High-A level on his way to Frisco. He pitched in Hickory in 2019 but now Hickory is High-A and Down East is Low-A. Got that?
Crouse is one of the guys that was primed for a breakout season in 2020 and instead got to sit at home for a year. The Rangers 2nd round pick in 2017, Crouse missed time in 2019 due to bone spurs in his elbow and had mixed results when he pitched. He had surgery prior to the non-existent 2020 season, and when he wasn’t at the Rangers’ summer camp and then wasn’t at their fall instructionals due to personal reasons, people started to get a little worried.
But the “personal reasons” were a pregnant fiancé. He’s healthy and ready to roll in 2021. He’s still Hans Crouse. He’s still sitting in the mid-90s with the fastball, the slider is back in use after being shelved by the bone spurs, and now he’s working an improved changeup into the mix too. He’s still gonna talk to himself on the mound and he’s still gonna shimmy. It’s gonna be fun.
Rangers’ 2018 first-round pick Cole Winn is the highest ranked prospect on the roster (#3). Winn is also skipping High-A and unfortunately just has not gotten to pitch, which is going to be an extremely common note across all of the minor leagues. Since being drafted almost three years ago he’s pitched 68.2 innings, officially. He’s kicked around the alternate sites and he popped into a Spring Training game long enough to start a tire fire, but he just needs to be able to get into a routine of playing games and pitching every five or six days.
Winn has a fastball that lingers in the mid-90s as well and he’s got a lethal curve, and like a lot of guys his future is going to depend on whether he’s got three or four MLB-caliber pitches or one or two MLB-caliber pitches. But for the now, in 2021, priority number one is getting him innings.
They’ll have some dudes filling out the rest of the rotation as well. A.J. Alexy, acquired in the Yu Darvish trade, will also have “actually pitching” as his main priority in 2021. Tyler Phillips and “That’s Gold” Yerry Rodriguez, both of whom are on the Rangers’ 40-man, will both
make their AA debut start the year at AA, which is probably where both of them would’ve been last year. Also Noah Bremer and Tim Brennan, 6th and 7th round picks respectively who I’m probably going to confuse each other for the entire season. Alex Speas, 2nd rounder in 2016, and lefty Jake Latz both look like bullpen pieces who could rise quickly if they bring things together.
Another one in that ilk is Fernery Ozuna, a 25-year-old righty ‘pen piece. Check out this list of career notes: position player turned pitcher, hasn’t pitched since 2018 (and that was the first season of his conversion to the mound), two Tommy John surgeries, he’s 5’8” and 170 pounds...and he touches triple-digits with his fastball and shows surprising command.
We’re talkin .— Rangers Player Development (@TEXPlayerDev) April 12, 2021
Fernery Ozuna with the Day 1 HEAT. pic.twitter.com/NYdPCZjYpJ
There’s also a healthy mix of both prospects and characters with the bats as well.
Just, visually speaking, the first one you’re gonna notice is the banner pic boy, Baylor’s own Davis Wendzel. The feral-looking Wendzel was selected 41st overall in 2018 and he’s got all of 19 professional at-bats. That’s a bummer. The Rangers are challenging him in 2021, both with his placement in AA and by apparently giving him a big chunk of time at shortstop, which Jeff Wilson said will be the case. His best position is third base, but, hey, whatever man, try it out. He saw a decent amount of time at short in Spring Training, and if he can be serviceable there it would add quite a bit to his already very versatile defensive resume.
Steele Walker is another college bat slash AA-debutant. Walker and his 80-grade name, however, have about 700 pro at-bats to this point, and he spent the 2019 season pretty much shredding both the Sally League and the Carolina League. Drafted out of OU by the White Sox and then acquired by the Rangers in the Nomar Mazara trade, Walker profiles as a corner outfielder, and he needs to hit. He’s done just that, through his college and pro careers thus far, and if he continues to, and perhaps certain big league corner outfielders get traded later in the season, Walker could be playing in Arlington by the end of the year.
And then there’s Bubba Thompson. /: Another fan favorite who, maybe along with Hans Crouse, needed the 2020 season to happen more than just about anyone else on the roster. Thompson spent the 2019 either injured or floundering against High-A pitching, posting an OPS of .573 in just 57 games due to a broken hamate and a bum ankle.
Thompson has premiere athleticism and was drawing D1 football interest out of high school, and that’s carried him to okay centerfield play and great baserunning. But he’s gonna either need to hit more or play better in center to be anything more than a tweener, especially with some dude named Evan Carter breathing down his neck now.
Sherten Apostel will also be making his AA-debut, although he got a cup of coffee with the big league club last year. He came over in the Keone Kela trade, and it’s a little interesting that he’s starting out in Frisco instead of Round Rock, with, I’m assuming, fellow big-hitting righty Curtis Terry getting the starting 1B job at the AAA level. But Apostel has things to work on for sure, most notably his defense at first.
Beyond those big prospects are some interesting names like Matt Whatley, 25-year-old catcher and former 3rd round pick, and Julio Pablo Martinez, a Cuban defector who the Rangers gave a $2.8 million bonus to in 2018. JP is an outfielder with some pop who will probably share time in CF with Bubba. Josh Stowers will be there too, he of the Rougned Odor trade. And don’t sleep on Jax Biggers, another 80-grade name who plays decent defense at five different positions.
It’s a very, very fun looking roster, at a level that’s been rather sparse for the Rangers the last few years due to the rash of trades in the early/mid-2010s that left a sizeable gap in their minor league talent pool (which I wrote about once upon a time). It’s the best looking Frisco roster since 2015 when Gallo and Mazara and Brinson and Alfaro all spent significant time there. It’s especially exciting if you live in a place where you can get to Dr Pepper Park and you can lay your human eyes on a big group of dudes who have a legit shot of cracking into the majors here in the next year or two. I’m looking forward to the possibility of seeing some real progress, and some direction in the rebuild.
But, first and foremost, I’m just excited that there will indeed be minor league baseball in 2021.