While the local sports world is ready to hang a banner at AT&T Stadium that reads, “We only lost by two points!” after the Cowboys bungled their first game of the season, something kind of special is happening just down the road in Arlington. We’re actually starting to see some of the pieces that might compose the Texas Rangers’ next competitive team produce at the big-league level.
I’m not suggesting anyone on the current roster should size their fingers for a championship ring just yet, but promising auditions from young pitchers such as A.J. Alexy, Taylor Hearn, Spencer Howard, Glenn Otto, and others have provided a glimpse into a near-future in which professional baseball is preferable to genital torture.
If you couple those auditions with some of the prospects making noise down in the minors, fans of the Rangers might become downright weepy. If nothing else, the team’s current rebuild appears to be headed in the right direction.
Three Rangers farmhands appear on the most recent Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list, tripling the organization’s reps from last year. Texas’ highest ranked player was Jack Leiter, whom the team selected second overall in July’s MLB draft. Son-of-Al is shooting up prospect rankings despite never having toed the rubber professionally. As long as he continues not to pitch, he may very well be a Top-10 prospect.
If Leiter pans out, he’ll represent a rare species in North Texas — a Rangers’ draftee whose career hasn’t cratered. Most of the kids on the big-league roster who are currently making noise were all acquired via trade or wiped off the minor league trash pile. The Rangers are basically the raccoons of the scouting world.
The most recent example of a Rangers youngun coming through is Tyler Hearn, whom the front office acquired via a trade with Pittsburgh in the Keone Kela deal. On Sunday, Hearn hurled his third straight quality start, giving up three runs on five hits, with no walks and two strikeouts in six innings of work. Hearn hasn’t walked any batters over that three-game stretch, which is great. He also hasn’t struck out many, which is troubling. Three games is an honest-to-goodness sample size that suggests he’s got enough stuff to keep himself around. He’s not a lock for the rotation next year, but he’ll be on the roster.
When the team traded Yu Darvish back in 2017, the headline prospect coming back to Texas was oft-injured outfielder/DH Wille Calhoun. While Wee Willie has shown some pop at the plate, he can’t stay on the field. Most casual observers saw A.J. Alexy as a throw-in lottery ticket coming to Texas. Even in the Rangers’ so-so system, he’s been one of the org’s less heralded young pitchers. Before being roughed up in Monday’s relief outing, Alexy became the first pitcher in MLB history — since the current mound distance was established in 1893 — to go five shutout innings or longer and allow one hit or fewer in each of his first two career appearances, both starts. Like Hearn, he’s still going to have to earn his spot in the rotation next year.
Of all the prospects the Rangers have acquired via trade in the last couple of years, none have arrived with as much fanfare as Spencer Howard, whom the team pilfered from Philly in the trade that sent veteran hurlers Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy, as well as farmhand Hans Crouse. Like Alexy, Howard was nipple-twisted by the Astros on Monday evening, and even before then, the results have been mixed. He looked untouchable in his first outing back from the COVID list last week against Arizona and then pretty terrible ever since as the coaching staff tinker with his mechanics.
The stuff is more important than the results right now for Howard, who was the No. 1 or 2 prospect for the Phillies heading into 2020 before several shoulder injuries and a velocity drop caused his stock to fall. Though he hasn’t recaptured the upper-90s heat that made him a hot name among those who follow prospects, he’s shown enough to make you believe there’s a middle-of-the-rotation dude somewhere in that 6’3” frame.
Few Rangers pitching prospects have impressed in their debut as much as Glenn Otto, who was a part of the Joey Gallo haul at this season’s trade deadline. Otto has flashed the stuff that’s beginning to turn heads, despite coming off what was unquestionably the worst start of his three-game career at the Major League level against Oakland.
Otto’s peripherals are still a bright spot. Even during his loss against Oakland, he struck out five while walking just one. In 13 career innings, Otto has 16 strikeouts to two walks and has yet to allow a home run — the holy trinity of controlling what he can control.
The high strikeout rate, low walk rate, and nonexistent home run rate led to Otto’s FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) standing at 1.62, even as his ERA ballooned to 6.92. Those numbers will likely veer somewhere toward the middle, but Otto’s FIP, nonetheless, is tantalizing. He’s another guy I don’t think will leave the big-league squad, even if he’s ultimately banished to the bullpen.
Aside from pitchers, Adolis Garcia has cooled off since his hot start, but he continues to be one of the best stories in baseball. “El Bombi” was salvaged from the Cardinals’ scrap heap last season, and he’s hit 29 home runs and played respectable defense in center and right fields. D.J. Peters, who was cast off by the Dodgers, has shown mutant-like power and a keen eye at the plate. If he ever figures out how to make contact regularly, he could turn into a bona fide star. That’s a huge “if.” Both players will enter camp as incumbents next season, and they’ll be given every opportunity to keep their jobs.
This may traditionally be the time of year North Texans forget about baseball, but at least the Rangers’ current rebuild is giving us a few names to remember. Those kids may amount to little more than a few empty lockers by this time next year, but at least we can think along with the front office as they sort it all out — which is more than anyone can say about the football team that plays one parking lot over in Arlington. You know, the one ready to throw a parade after a loss.