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Newberg Report: Mendez worth the wait

Newberg Report: Mendez worth the wait

Newberg Report: Mendez worth the wait
Part 7 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers Minor League system.

Before the Rangers traded Mark Teixeira in July 2007, they were offered packages that promised more immediate help than the five players they agreed upon with Atlanta. From a public-relations standpoint, it might have been an easier sell to the fan base to bring in big league talent from the Angels or D-backs, but Texas was more interested in taking a risk on talent with greater upside, even if the payoff was further away from being realized, if at all.

It was an educated risk.

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Hours after the announcement of the Teixeira trade, in which Texas acquired rookie catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Minor Leaguers Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison and Beau Jones, the Rangers made another deadline deal, shipping reliever Eric Gagné to Boston for rookie left-hander Kason Gabbard and Minor Leaguers David Murphy and Engel Beltre.

Beltre was 17 years old and had played all of 34 Minor League games. But Texas was basing its interest on more than just five weeks of rookie ball.

It's not often that impact trades involve prospects toiling at the lower levels of the Minor Leagues, but when the Rangers insisted on Feliz from Atlanta and Beltre from Boston -- even though those two players were competing in the far reaches of the short-season leagues, populated mostly by teenagers and newly drafted college players -- it was partly because Texas had scouted those players heavily and had developed a book on them.

Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
No. 1 starter: Martin Perez
No. 2 starter: David Perez
No. 3 starter: Neil Ramirez
No. 4 starter: Cody Buckel
No.5 starter: Luke Jackson
Long reliever: Barret Loux
Right-on-right: Johan Yan
Left-on-left: Joseph Ortiz
7th-inn. reliever: Justin Grimm
RH setup: Roman Mendez
LH setup: Robbie Ross
Closer: Tanner Scheppers
Catcher: Jorge Alfaro
First baseman: Chris Davis
Second baseman: Luis Sardinas
Shortstop: Jurickson Profar
Third baseman: Mike Olt
Left fielder: Engel Beltre
Center fielder: Leonys Martin
Right fielder: Nomar Mazara
Designated hitter: Ronald Guzman
Backup catcher: Kellin Deglan
Utility IFer: Leury Garcia
Corner IFer: Christian Villanueva
Fourth outfielder: Jordan Akins

A few weeks before the Rangers and Red Sox got together on the Gagné deal, Boston had signed 16-year-old right-hander Roman Mendez out of the Dominican Republic for $125,000. While Texas probably didn't ask Boston to include Mendez (who had yet to throw a professional pitch) the same month in which he'd signed, the Rangers -- who had attended Mendez's amateur tryouts and saw him throw in the upper 80s at age 16 -- evidently began to express interest in the young hurler shortly thereafter.

It would take the Rangers three years to acquire Mendez, moving Saltalamacchia to Boston on the anniversary of both the trade that netted them Saltalamacchia in the first place and the last significant deal between the two clubs, the one that sent Gagné to the Boston bullpen. The July 31, 2010, trade, in which Texas shipped Saltalamacchia to the Red Sox for three Minor Leaguers -- Mendez, first baseman Chris McGuiness and catcher Michael Thomas (whom the Rangers have converted to the mound) -- didn't fetch nearly as many headlines as the two July 2007 deals, but the way that Mendez is developing, it could end up making a significant impact for Texas.

Like Feliz and Beltre before him, Mendez was a player of interest for Texas for some time. "Roman was a guy our international scouts were familiar with as an amateur and we'd tracked him as a pro," says Rangers director of pro scouting Josh Boyd. "He was an important guy for us -- it wasn't the first time we'd asked about him in a deal with Boston. They have a deep and attractive system that we've scouted pretty thoroughly over the years."

If Mendez's name came up when the Rangers shipped Wes Littleton to Boston for a player to be named later in November 2008, following the teen's first pro season (spent entirely in the Dominican Summer League), the Red Sox didn't bite. The teams ultimately settled on 27-year-old Minor League relief soldier Beau Vaughan to complete the trade.

Rumors were persistent that same winter that the clubs were discussing Rangers catchers (Saltalamacchia, Gerald Laird, Taylor Teagarden, Max Ramirez) and Red Sox pitchers (Clay Buchholz, Justin Masterson, Daniel Bard, Michael Bowden, Nick Hagadone), and it would stand to reason that Mendez was on the Rangers' radar during those talks, from which no deal ever materialized.

When Boston expressed interest in reacquiring Gabbard from the Rangers in April 2009, Texas probably brought Mendez's name up then, too, even though the Red Sox had held him back in extended spring training. Boston wasn't going to move Mendez for Gabbard, though, and Texas accepted cash in the deal.

Mendez, assigned to the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, took a major step forward that summer. His fastball was up to 93-95 mph with explosive life, and he was pairing it with a swing-and-miss slider and a developing change. In 49 2/3 innings of work, he issued only eight walks while fanning 47, holding the league to a .184 batting average and posting an ERA of 1.99.

Texas and Boston got back together in December 2009, agreeing to swap infielder Mike Lowell and cash for catcher Max Ramirez before Lowell's failed physical killed the deal. Texas undoubtedly tried to involve Mendez somehow.

The Red Sox decided to challenge Mendez, age 19 at the time, with a two-level jump to start the 2010 season, assigning him to Low A Greenville in the South Atlantic League. Facing hitters a few years older, he struck out 18 batters in 15 innings over six starts but was hit hard (.392 opponents' average, 11.40 ERA).

Boston pulled him back to extended spring training and reassigned him to short-season Class A Lowell when the New York-Penn League's season got under way in June. While Mendez regained some level of effectiveness, he was still having issues repeating his arm slot and release point, walking more than five batters for every nine frames.

But Texas still coveted the wiry 6-foot-2 right-hander with, as Boyd puts it, "a bull whip attached to his shoulder," and when Boston revisited the idea of acquiring Saltalamacchia from Texas in July, Mendez was the player the Rangers zeroed in on.

Texas and Boston finalized a deal hours before the July 31 deadline, with Mendez and McGuiness (and eventually Thomas) headed to the Rangers. Two days later, Mendez threw five scoreless innings in his debut for short-season Class A Spokane, touching 98 on the radar gun. In his third start, however, he felt some discomfort in his forearm while making a play on a bunt, and Texas shut him down for the summer, getting him back on a mound several weeks later during Fall Instructional League.

The Rangers assigned Mendez this spring to the South Atlantic League, where he'd pitched for Boston a year ago, and the results have been much better. In nine starts for Hickory, he has the 14-team league's sixth-lowest ERA (2.64), jumping out to a 5-1 record while striking out 43 and issuing 20 walks in 47 2/3 innings. And the Rangers will point out that this is a kid still learning how to pitch, a raw 20-year-old succeeding against older hitters.

If Mendez is able to clean up his delivery and bring along the changeup, there are some who believe he has the potential to fit at or near the top of a big league rotation. If he's unable to develop consistency with the change, the vicious fastball-slider combination could profile in the ninth inning. Whether he continues to start or ends up working out of the bullpen, the Rangers are thrilled with his progress, and despite his age, he's a lock to be added to the 40-man roster this winter, when he and several other key prospects (including Martin Perez, Neil Ramirez, Jake Brigham, Jose Felix and Tomas Telis) will need to be considered for roster protection in order to be shielded from the Rule 5 Draft.

The ultimate role for Mendez isn't yet clear, but what's unquestioned is that if he's healthy, there will be room somewhere on the pitching staff for an arm like his, a "bull whip" that the Rangers had on their watch list for years before finding the right opportunity to acquire him from Boston. Even if he doesn't start and doesn't close, Mendez has the tools to develop into a power arm who can handle the eighth inning and get the ball to the closer -- a critical role that the Rangers, incidentally, have been waiting for someone to seize this season.

It will take some patience with Mendez, who has electric stuff but is still a work in progress, a few years away from Arlington at best. But the Rangers are used to being patient with the projectable righty, having tried several times to pry him loose from Boston until finally getting their man.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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