Part 10 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers minor league system.
Jayson Werth was a high school catcher when Baltimore chose him in the first round of the 1997 First-Year Player Draft. High school catchers, for a number of reasons, take a long time to develop. But the Orioles were not deterred, even if they knew they'd need to exercise plenty of patience with Werth.
"Jayson not only had power and could fly, he was from a world-class athletic family," recalls Rangers senior special assistant to the GM Don Welke, who was an assistant to Orioles GM Pat Gillick at the time and was involved in scouting Werth in advance of the Draft. "We wanted to try to keep him at catcher first because we always felt the outfield would be an easy transition if catching didn't work out. We knew we needed to be patient."
Welke knew the family well. Werth's father played college football and Minor League baseball. His mother was a track star who competed in the U.S. Olympic trials. His stepfather, Dennis Werth, played for the Royals and Yankees. His grandfather, Ducky Schofield, was a big league infielder, and his uncle, Dick Schofield, was an infielder on the Blue Jays club that won the World Series in 1993. Welke was an advance scout for that Toronto club.
The Rangers had been in the mix to sign outfielder Engel Beltre out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 when Boston came away with the 16-year-old for a reported signing bonus of $600,000. During the recruitment process, Rangers senior director of player personnel A.J. Preller and scout Rodolfo Rosario got to know Beltre's family, an effort that gave Texas confidence that the outfielder would be worth the investment to sign -- even if plenty of patience would be required, as is the case with most Latin American prospects, the best of whom sign two years before their United States counterparts are draft-eligible.
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
The first measure of patience Texas had to exercise was to acquire Beltre in the first place. Having lost out to the Red Sox in July 2006, the Rangers insisted that he be included a year later when they sent reliever Eric Gagné to Boston at the Trade Deadline. By all accounts, left-hander Kason Gabbard and outfielder David Murphy were the agreed part of the deal that didn't fully get done until minutes before the deadline, when the Red Sox finally relented and included Beltre -- who had all of 34 games of stateside experience, at the lowest of the six levels in the Boston system. How many of Beltre's underwhelming 125 Gulf Coast League at-bats (.208/.310/.400) Texas had seen is unclear, but the organization had a book on him that dated back to his amateur days in the Dominican Republic.
The Rangers recognized the player's tools, believed in his potential to translate them into results, and understood who he was and where he came from when they made him one of the youngest players ever traded. Texas began right away to challenge Beltre with aggressive assignments, but they knew they'd need to be patient.
Hanley Ramirez took time to develop as a Minor Leaguer before putting it all together. So did Torii Hunter and Raul Ibanez, and of course Nelson Cruz is a poster child for the late baseball bloomer. Carlos Gonzalez, a player whose game Beltre's ceiling is sometimes said to resemble, may not have been the Minor League disappointment that the others were to one degree or the other, but neither Arizona nor Oakland would have traded Gonzalez had they believed he would turn into the player he is.
Beltre performed well in his one month with Texas following the July 2007 trade, and the Rangers pushed him in 2008, assigning him to Low Class A Clinton at age 18. The youngest player in the Midwest League, he led the circuit in hits and runs scored, though he drew only 13 unintentional walks all season as the LumberKings' primary leadoff hitter.
A promotion to High Class A Bakersfield followed in 2009, and Beltre struggled in the generally offense-friendly Cal League. His walk rate improved only marginally, he struck out more often, and he hit only .227, missing nearly two months in the second half with a broken bone in his right hand.
Although he finished the 2009 season with a brief look in Double-A Frisco, Texas returned Beltre to Bakersfield to start the 2010 season. The organization moved him from the top of the order to the number three spot in the lineup, and the young outfielder took to the change. He hit .233 in April but then .347 in May and .406 in June, prompting a promotion to Frisco and leading the Rangers shortly thereafter to refuse to include him in the Cliff Lee trade with Seattle. Beltre would hit .254/.301/.337 with eight stolen bases in ten attempts over two months with the RoughRiders, a respectable set of numbers considering that, at age 20, he was facing considerably older competition.
Back in Frisco in 2011, Beltre has had a forgettable first half. He was suspended for 15 games after a late-April incident in San Antonio, when several fans initiated a verbal confrontation with the Frisco dugout and Beltre allegedly threw something into the stands. He's played roughly the same amount of Double-A games in 2011 as he did in 2010, and his walks are down, his strikeouts are up, and his numbers across the board have regressed -- though he did have four straight multi-hit games this week (9 for 20), striking out only twice in that stretch.
There's clearly plenty to buy into as far as Beltre's future is concerned. Though it's the third year that he's played in the Texas League, he's still one of its youngest players at age 21, and he remains perhaps the toolsiest player in the entire system.
"Engel's fun to watch," says Rangers director of professional scouting Josh Boyd. "There's a lot of untapped potential in there. He has all the offensive tools, and can run, throw and really defend in center field."
But at some point youth doesn't cover up for those moments of immaturity, and tools no longer excuse a lack of production and erratic approach.
Though Beltre was added to the 40-man roster over the winter, Julio Borbon and Craig Gentry remain ahead of him on the depth chart, and newly acquired Cuban center fielder Leonys Martin is coming fast behind him. Still, as Welke points out, "Engel is still very young and has all the tools to evolve into a very productive Major League center fielder. He loves to play the game and approaches it with kid-like enthusiasm. Patience is a virtue with that type of player."
Welke, who was in the Dodgers' front office when Werth -- with his third organization -- finally broke through, recalls the patience the Orioles had to exercise after drafting the toolsy prospect. "Jayson always showed flashes, but it took some time for the physical and mental parts of the game to come together in a consistent manner," Welke said.
That's where the Rangers sit with Beltre right now. The Twins stuck with Hunter for years and saw his performance catch up with his potential. Ramirez and Ibanez put it all together with their second teams, Werth and Gonzalez with their third, Cruz with his fourth.
It may take another trade before Beltre's upside translates into consistent results. When Texas was adamant that the young outfielder be included in its 2007 trade with Boston, the Rangers were in a position to think more long-term than the Red Sox, who were trying to win with Gagné right away. Now that Texas is a consistent contender, it may turn out that some other team peddling a veteran arm will put the Rangers in the position Boston was in four years ago, willing to exchange Beltre's significant ceiling for more immediate help.
There ought to be plenty of clubs out there willing to make the investment in the 21-year-old, which will include committing a certain degree of patience with a player who has always been younger than his competition, showing flashes not only of competing at each level but also, at times, providing glimpses of the type of young center fielder capable of doing it all.
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.