Farm crop: Rangers' top 20 prospects

Farm crop: Rangers' top 20 prospects

Through Tuesday, the Rangers' minor league clubs had a 3.30 ERA collectively, limiting the opposition to a .229 batting average (and only 16 home runs in 24 games), striking out 7.8 batters and walking 4.1 per nine innings, and coaxing more groundouts than flyouts at all four affiliates.

Meanwhile, the hitters on the organization's four farm clubs were struggling out of the gate, hitting .246/.324/.348.

It's far too early in the season to start handing pitchers tickets to Arlington or to be concerned that the system is weak at the plate, but if you're not going to be clicking on all cylinders right away, it's obviously far more encouraging, given where this franchise is and where it intends to be soon, that the pitchers are the ones stepping up right now. And they're stepping up in a big way.

This week's Top 20 Rangers prospects:

1. DEREK HOLLAND, LHP, Triple-A Oklahoma City (number 1 last week)

Holland gave up four runs on five hits and three walks in four innings in his AAA debut on April 13. Statistically, it was his worst outing since May 2008. But consider that, due to the lag between spring training and the minor league openers, plus the rainout of the lefthander's first scheduled RedHawks start, he'd had 11 days off between appearances. Nothing at all to worry about.

2. NEFTALI FELIZ, RHP, Triple-A Oklahoma City (2)

Though Feliz fired four scoreless innings in his AAA debut on April 10, he walked six along the way. Not only had Feliz never issued that many free passes in a game in his pro career, he walked only eight hitters in the entire month of May last year (in six starts) and again in July (five starts). When his command comes back, expect media speculation to get rolling as to whether he might be asked to help the big league bullpen, and how soon.

3. JUSTIN SMOAK, 1B, Double-A Frisco (3)

Smoak has exploded out of the gate from the left side of the plate, hitting Texas League righthanders at a .308/.474/.462 clip in 13 at-bats (five walks and two strikeouts), but is just one for nine from the right side -- his lone hit against a lefty was a home run off Cardinals prospect Tyler Norrick, who had yielded only 16 homers as a pro, a stingy one for every 16 innings.

4. MARTIN PEREZ, LHP, Low A Hickory (5)

The 18-year-old posted a 1.42 ERA over his final five regular season starts for Spokane last summer, fanning 22 and allowing 20 hits in 25.1 innings against hitters four and five years older than he was. How did he fare in his 2009 debut, facing hitters who, like Perez, were good enough in 2008 to be promoted from the short-season leagues to the South Atlantic League? Four hitless innings (six strikeouts, three walks), starting what would be a three-man no-hitter in the seven-inning opener of an April 11 Crawdads twinbill.

5. MICHAEL MAIN, RHP, High A Bakersfield (4)

Main teed it up against fellow 2007 first-rounder Tim Alderson on Wednesday night, and neither blue-chipper was especially sharp, as each allowed 10 hits, Main over three innings and Alderson over four. In two Blaze starts, Main has allowed nine earned runs in 7.2 innings, giving up 14 hits and five walks while striking out eight.

6. MAX RAMIREZ, C, Triple-A Oklahoma (6)

Ramirez will hit -- he always does -- but he's basically in spring training right now after his disjointed March that was spent primarily on Team Venezuela's bench in the World Baseball Classic. Maybe the best evidence that he hasn't found his rhythm yet is not the .222 batting average, but rather the fact that, through 18 at-bats, he had not yet drawn a walk. A career .410 base-reacher, the pure hitter consistently walks once for every six at-bats.

7. WILMER FONT, RHP, Low A Hickory (9)

The thought of Font bottling up his high-octane stuff for short doses out of the bullpen is scary. The relief role to start the season is probably just an effort to control his workload early after his lost 2008, but those six strikeouts in four scoreless innings, courtesy of the big 18-year-old facing hitters four years his senior, just might be enough to get you excited about the idea of Font closing games one day. They can't all become starters, at least not if they're going to remain Rangers.

8. BLAKE BEAVAN, RHP, High A Bakersfield (10)

When you see high school numbers for first-round picks like Beavan -- 139 strikeouts and four walks in 73.1 innings as a senior -- it's normal to discount them on the notion that 16-year-olds from Burleson probably don't stand much of a chance, no matter where the pitch is. But the 20-year-old walked only 20 batters in 121.2 innings last year, facing significantly older competition, and in his Blaze debut on Saturday, no Modesto hitters drew a walk in his six strong innings (one run, four hits, six strikeouts).

9. JULIO BORBON, CF, Triple-A Oklahoma City (8)

Borbon is getting the bulk of the center field starts for a RedHawks club that starts three outfielders capable of the center spot (Brandon Boggs and Greg Golson flank him most nights). He had hits in five of his first six games, but has yet to draw a walk himself, after serving notice that he'd made a breakthrough in that department in the Arizona Fall League.

10. ENGEL BELTRE, CF, High A Bakersfield (7)

It's not nearly as surprising, but more of an issue, that Beltre hasn't drawn a free pass yet. The 19-year-old has only three hits (.097 batting average) through his first 31 California League at-bats, and zero walks despite leading off every game for the Blaze. His potential is limitless, but his .308 on-base percentage atop the Clinton lineup a year ago was unacceptable, and he's not showing any more command of the strike zone out of the gate this season.

11. JOE WIELAND, RHP, Extended Spring Training (11)

Wieland, 19, is starting the 2009 season in extended spring training, but could join the prospect-studded Hickory rotation this month.

12. KASEY KIKER, LHP, Double-A Frisco (14)

Much has been made, including in this space, of the possible breakout season Kiker could be in store for, moving from the hitter-friendly California League to Frisco in 2009. So far, so good: in his RoughRider debut on Friday, the 21-year-old blanked Springfield on two hits and one walk in five innings, fanning five. Kiker is scheduled to start Frisco's home opener tonight.

13. WILFREDO BOSCAN, RHP, Low A Hickory (12)

There have been years when this would have been the Rangers' number one prospect. Boscan isn't a radar gun monster but has an advanced idea on the mound, particularly for a kid who won't turn 20 until after the season. Coming off a 9-1, 3.12 season for Spokane, he's gotten out to a 1-1, 0.84 mark in two Crawdads starts, scattering four hits and two walks in 10.2 innings, and fanning seven.

14. THOMAS DIAMOND, RHP, Triple-A Oklahoma City (UR)

Derailed from what appeared to be a direct path to Arlington by Tommy John surgery in March 2007, Diamond has found his rhythm again but in a new role. Working out of the RedHawks bullpen, the 26-year-old has pitched twice, allowing one hit (a solo home run) and no walks in 3.2 innings, getting five of his 11 outs on strikes. Considering the state of the big league bullpen (and Dustin Nippert's setback), Diamond could be on the verge of earning his major league debut soon.

15. OMAR POVEDA, RHP, Double-A Frisco (15)

Poveda has posted the following walk rates in his four pro seasons: 2.1 per nine innings, 2.4, 2.6, and 4.0. While those numbers are very good overall, the trend is not what you'd like to see as hitters get more selective, and in his first two Frisco starts this year, Poveda has walked an unacceptable seven opponents in seven innings.

16. JOSE VALLEJO, 2B, Double-A Frisco (16)

Spring talk of a transition into a utility role, to enhance Vallejo's versatility as he nears the big leagues, has been quieted by the organization's decision to play him every day at second base so far, as he's done throughout his five pro seasons. Off to a .208/.208/.250 start, with two multi-hit games and three hitless efforts.

17. TIM MURPHY, LHP, High A Bakersfield (17)

Less than a year out of college, the lefthander is already pitching every fifth day in High Class A. In his first two starts, he has two solid numbers: six strikeouts in 8.1 innings and a 1.86 groundout-to-flyout rate, but he's allowed 10 earned runs on 10 hits and eight walks.

18. GUILLERMO MOSCOSO, RHP, Double- A Frisco (UR)

Acquired from Detroit (along with teenage righthander Carlos Melo) for Gerald Laird in December, Moscoso was more effective as a starting pitcher (1.65 ERA) than as a reliever (3.72 ERA) for the Tigers' High A club in 2008, but one peripheral stood out. When pitching in relief, Moscoso fanned 29 hitters and walked just one in 19.1 innings of work. Texas decided after spring training to put him in the Frisco bullpen, and the early returns have been excellent. In his first two appearances, he has allowed one hit (a double) and one walk in 4.1 scoreless innings, fanning five.

19. KENNIL GOMEZ, RHP, High A Bakersfield (19)

Gomez's anticipated return to the mound got off to a solid start, as he held a strong San Jose lineup to two runs in five innings of work, fanning four and coaxing more than twice as many groundouts as flyouts, a tremendous rate in keeping with the 21-year-old's history.

20. JAKE BRIGHAM, RHP, Low A Hickory (UR)

Returning from Tommy John surgery usually brings a somewhat rough re-acclimation, as command generally trails physical recovery by a few months. But Brigham, who had the procedure done in November 2007 and missed the 2008 season, celebrated his return to the mound with 5.1 scoreless innings of work on Saturday, scattering three singles and a walk while setting four down on strikes. The 21-year-old has had success at every stop and, before the injury, had increased his velocity to the mid-90s, touching 97. The Rangers will likely monitor his workload carefully after the lost season, but that doesn't mean an in-season promotion is out of the question if Saturday's dominance becomes routine.

Off the list this week: Neil Ramirez, Tommy Hunter, Corey Young

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.