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Farm Crop: Rangers top 20 prospects

Farm Crop: Rangers top 20 prospects

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One of the real enigmas in the Rangers system the last few years has been Frisco third baseman Johnny Whittleman, whose command of the strike zone is among the best of any hitter in the organization but whose power and hit tools have only shown up in spurts.

Coming into 2009, Whittleman had slugged just .402, hitting 34 home runs in 432 games, the rough equivalent of 10-12 homers a year. But in his first 67 games of the season, the 22-year-old had not gone deep, slugging just .305, an obviously unacceptable rate for a corner player.

Then, on Independence Day, Whittleman went deep two times, kicking off a torrid streak in which he's hit six home runs in nine games while continuing to walk as often as he strikes out.

Whittleman needs to have a much better second half to put himself squarely back on the map and find his way onto a list like this one, but had he gone to the University of Texas rather than signing in 2005 out of high school as the Rangers' second-round pick, this would just be his first full pro season. It's time for the left-handed hitter to turn the corner, but he's still young. At a position that's among the thinnest in the system, Whittleman has a chance to stand out if this burst of power is a sign of what's to come the rest of the summer.

This week's Top 20 Rangers prospects:

1. JUSTIN SMOAK, 1B, Triple-A Oklahoma City (number 1 last week)

Find it within yourself to appreciate Smoak's sluggish 3 for 29 start in AAA. There's always a silver lining to a blue-chip prospect's first taste of on-the-field adversity, and it can be a good thing when he experiences it, even in a small dose, at the minor league level. It should come as no surprise, incidentally, that despite Smoak's frustrating first couple weeks as a RedHawk, he's maintained his patience at the plate, drawing seven walks while striking out eight times.

2. MARTIN PEREZ, LHP, Low A Hickory (2)

In his last five appearances, Perez has a 1.42 ERA over 19 innings (which doesn't count the scoreless frame in the South Atlantic League All-Star Game), striking out 25 while issuing five walks -- in spite of the fact that he's the youngest pitcher in the 16-team league. Good grief. I can't say any more good things about Perez than I already have in this space over the season's first three months. He's the last player in the Rangers farm system I'd be willing to trade.

3. NEFTALI FELIZ, RHP, Triple-A Oklahoma City (3)

The 14 highest velocity readings in Sunday's Futures Game, featuring dozens of baseball's best prospects, came on Feliz pitches in his one inning of work. They ranged from 98.0 to 101.4 miles per hour. From the stretch. In the rain. Since issuing 25 walks in 38.1 innings through May, Feliz has walked only three batters in 31 innings. All that's left before the 21-year-old announces his readiness for big league bullpen work is the important consecutive-day assignments, which should come by the weekend. Orlando Hernandez could get a look before Feliz due to the July 20 out in the former's contract if he's still on the farm, but even that's not a lock the way Feliz has been throwing of late.

4. JULIO BORBON, OF, Triple-A Oklahoma City (4)

In my 2009 Bound Edition, which I published over the winter, I wrote: "It's too soon to say whether Borbon is on his way to becoming Carl Crawford on the one hand, or Corey Patterson on the other, or even Jacoby Ellsbury, whose own future is cloudy." He's not quite the track star that Crawford is and makes much better contact than Patterson did. Ellsbury really is the appropriate comp, right down to the premier defensive ability that lacks only arm strength. Showing no atrophy from his week and a half in Texas, Borbon has hit .333/.417/.429 in 21 at-bats since returning to Oklahoma City.

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

In a different year or in a dozen other systems, Font would be the cover story. The one stain on his first-half numbers was his inability to avoid the base on balls; he issued 30 walks over his first 39.1 innings, which played a huge part in his 4.35 ERA. Since then, over five appearances, the imposing 19-year-old has issued only six walks in 23.2 frames, maintaining the strikeout-per-inning rate and posting a 4-0, 1.52 mark in that span. He's now thrown three straight scoreless starts, including a 5.2-inning effort last night that was the longest yet of his three-season career.

6. KASEY KIKER, LHP, Double-A Frisco (6)

Kiker extended his scoreless streak to 21 innings before a third-inning run (and nothing more) in his Sunday start. Up until this unconscious run, the left-hander had walked 36 hitters in 65 innings, a borderline unacceptable rate considering that hitters will swing at fewer pitches out of the zone once he graduates from Double-A. But in his last four starts, he's issued only six walks in 25 innings. It will be interesting to see if Kiker, who is regularly logging 90-100 pitches per start , holds up through the summer, considering he's already at 90 innings, having thrown a career high 121.2 frames in 2008.

7. BLAKE BEAVAN, RHP, Double-A Frisco (5)

In three July starts, Beavan has done a terrific job keeping the ball on the ground (1.72 G/F rate) and issuing just one walk, but he's set only two of 76 batters down on strikes over 18 innings of work. After going 5-4, 4.30 for Bakersfield in the spring, the 20-year-old is 1-2, 5.97 in six Frisco starts, allowing the Texas League to hit .322 off him. Interestingly, his two outstanding RoughRider starts (combined 1.93 ERA) came against Corpus Christi and Springfield, the two clubs he's faced a second time. In those encore engagements, his ERA is 9.64.

8. JOE WIELAND, RHP, Low A Hickory (8)

The Rangers' 2008 4th-rounder is now 7-2, 2.58 in 22 career appearances, striking out four times as many hitters as he walks and consistently coaxing more groundouts than flyouts. In innings one through four, Wieland has a 2.55 ERA and .257 opponents' average; in innings five and six, the ERA is 13.50 and opponents are hitting .391.

9. MAX RAMIREZ, C, Triple-A Oklahoma City (10)

The Rangers won't come out and say this, but what they have to be hoping for is that Ramirez can come back from his second 2009 stint on the disabled list due to wrist problems and do the kind of offensive damage in the second half that he did in 2008, and in the process give the club the kind of off-season trade chip that they were probably hoping they would have had as we approach the July 31 trade deadline.

10. MICHAEL MAIN, RHP, High A Bakersfield (7)

It's been a nightmare 2009 for Main, who has been sidelined by an undiagnosed illness that, according to at least one Internet report, will cost him the remainder of the season. There is no limit to his upside, but after logging only 54 innings this year -- and just 140.2 over his three-year career -- his workload will probably be monitored carefully as he's eased back into action in 2010.

11. ROBBIE ROSS, LHP, Short-Season A Spokane (16)

Ross's Friday start was his first not to record more strikeouts than innings pitched - and all he did was blank the Eugene Emeralds on two singles and two walks in five frames, setting five down on strikes. He continues to lead the league in punchouts (and should distance himself even further when he takes the ball tonight), fanning 39 while issuing only six walks in 25.1 innings, and when Northwest League hitters manage to put the ball in play, the lefthander is keeping the ball on the ground at an impossible rate of 6.20 groundouts for every flyout. Like Font, Ross would be the kid everyone is talking about if he were in a number of other organizations.

12. MITCH MORELAND, OF, Double-A Frisco (11)

Alarming consistency: Moreland has hit at least .325 in each month of the season. Between Bakersfield and Frisco, the outfielder-first baseman has reached base at a .406 rate, walking nearly as often as he strikes out. Like Ramirez, he's another player whose greatest value to Texas may be as a trade piece.

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

Boscan's first seven starts were so good (4-3, 1.21, .169 opponents' average, 24 strikeouts and six walks in 37.1 innings) that a miserable five-game run since then (0-1, 7.41, .361 opponents' average, eight strikeouts and six walks in 17 innings) has the 19-year-old's overall numbers at a respectable 4-4 with a 3.15 ERA. It's important to remember that he's a good three years younger than most of his competition.

14. GUILLERMO MOSCOSO, RHP, Triple-A Oklahoma City (13)

I'm not crazy about the flyball tendencies, but Moscoso is dominating Pacific Coast League hitters, having allowed only three runs (1.04 ERA) on 16 hits (.178 OBA) and four walks in 26 innings, setting 19 down on strikes. Everything moves, and the changeup has been a huge pitch for the righthander in AAA, as he's held left-handed hitters to an anemic .130/.184/.152 slash line in 46 at-bats.

15. ENGEL BELTRE, CF, High A Bakersfield (14)

Beltre is in the midst of his best walk-to-strikeout month of the season, walking 63 percent as often as he fans after a 17 percent rate coming into July. But this month had also been his weakest when he puts the ball in play (.176 average and .235 slug) - that is, until last night, when he had his best game of the season, going 4 for 5 with a triple against Visalia, stealing a base, driving in a run, and scoring another. The effort raised his season batting average to .227.

16. OMAR POVEDA, RHP, Double-A Frisco (17)

Poveda's strikeouts are down this year, his walk rate hasn't returned to the levels they were at a couple years ago, and his plus plus changeup hasn't neutralized left-handed hitters as it's done in previous seasons, but the righthander is getting results, sitting at 8-3, 3.50 in 12 Frisco starts. Inexplicably, when the 21-year-old gets ahead in the count, the Texas League is hitting .259/.427/.435 against him, while the league hits just .183/.182/.276 when he's behind in the count.

17. TIM SMITH, OF, Double-A Frisco (15)

After a .376/.406/.484 June with the RoughRiders, Smith has slipped to .174/.333/.348 in July. He's drawing walks at a higher rate than at any other point in the season, however, a sign of maturity for a young hitter struggling at the moment to find base hits.

18. MICHAEL KIRKMAN, LHP, Double-A Frisco (19)

The sailing hasn't been as smooth since Kirkman was promoted to AA, but it's not supposed to be, especially right away. Following his best Frisco start of the season, a six-inning scoreless effort (two infield singles, one walk, five strikeouts) against Arkansas, the same club tagged him with his worst start of the year six days later, getting to him for six runs on eight hits and a couple walks in three frames.

19. ZACH PHILLIPS, LHP, Double-A Frisco (20)

Like Kirkman, Phillips has seen his peripherals suffer since a promotion from Bakersfield to Frisco, as his hittability, walk rate, strikeout rate, and groundball rate have all taken a hit. Yet, despite all that, the left-hander maintains an ERA of 0.00 in his 11.2 RoughRider innings, spanning four relief outings.

20. MIGUEL DE LOS SANTOS, LHP, Dominican Summer League (UR)

De Los Santos proved to be mortal on Tuesday, the first time he's been asked to pitch on consecutive days this season. Coming into the game, the 20-year-old left-hander had allowed two hits in 20.2 innings, striking out 48 hitters and permitting one run. On Tuesday, he surrendered four runs (two earned) on one hit, two walks, and a wild pitch in two-thirds of an inning. Of course, he did record both outs on strikes.

Off the list this week: Mike Bianucci

Ten pitchers to watch: Richard Bleier, Fabio Castillo, Kennil Gomez, A.J. Murray, Yoon-Hee Nam, Matt Nevarez, Carlos Pimentel, Ryan Tatusko, Matt Thompson, Corey Young

Eight hitters to watch: Joaquin Arias, Craig Gentry, Greg Golson, Marcus Lemon, Erik Morrison, David Paisano, Miguel Velazquez, Johnny Whittleman

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. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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