Neftali Feliz could find himself in the same situation this winter. He's at 23.2 innings now, and at his current average of about 4-6 innings per week, he's probably going to fall short of the 50 innings required to wipe out his rookie status. So with that in mind, he and fellow big leaguers Julio Borbon, Pedro Strop, and Guillermo Moscoso reappear on this list, though teammates Elvis Andrus, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day, and Taylor Teagarden -- who will be rookies no longer in 2010 -- do not.
The Minor League season-ending Top 20 Rangers prospects:
1. NEFTALI FELIZ, RHP, Texas
What more can be said? Feliz has been absolutely untouchable since his early August promotion, adding an element to the Rangers bullpen that changed games. Before allowing a run in Game One of Tuesday's doubleheader, he'd gotten his ERA down to 0.41 and opponents' batting average to .070, marks that both led baseball at the time. He also had 28 strikeouts and one walk, making him one of only two big league pitchers in the last 40 years to register at least 25 strikeouts before issuing their second walk. Among the most fascinating decisions facing the Rangers this winter will be whether to leave Feliz in the bullpen rather than give him a chance in camp to win a rotation spot, as he'd been groomed to do until about five weeks before his arrival in the big leagues.
2. JUSTIN SMOAK, 1B, Triple-A Oklahoma City
Smoak encountered his first professional adversity when he ran into Triple-A pitching in early July, less than 11 months after he'd signed as the Rangers' number one draft pick in 2008. In 54 games with Oklahoma City, the switch-hitting first baseman hit .244/.363/.360, showing solid patience as he has at every level but seeing his production drop off after a .328/.449/.481 run at Frisco. He'll play for Team USA in the 2009 Baseball World Cup before he shuts things down for the winter, and he'll come to camp in February as baseball's top first base prospect and a candidate to impact the big club at some point in 2010.
3. MARTIN PEREZ, LHP, Double-A Frisco
After a couple Frisco starts in which the 18-year-old -- the youngest player in the Texas League by two years -- uncharacteristically but understandably struggled, Perez was better in his final three RoughRiders efforts, culminating with a quality start on Labor Day (six innings, three runs on five hits and no walks) in which he not only threw 65 percent of his pitches for strikes but averaged only 11 pitches per inning. It was his longest Double-A effort in terms of innings pitched and yet the fewest pitches he delivered in any of his five Frisco starts. His upside is scary.
4. JULIO BORBON, OF, Texas
If you read enough trade deadline columns this year, you learned that Borbon was on a short list, along with Holland and Feliz and Smoak, of the players just about every team peddling veterans to Texas asked GM Jon Daniels about. And that was before he came up to Texas for good, putting together what currently stands as a sensational .320/.386/.467 slash line, with 13 stolen bases in 14 tries over 23 games. He's making progress defensively and should go into 2010 as a strong candidate for an everyday role.
5. WILMER FONT, RHP, Low A Hickory
Font will go into 2010 with a chance to be next season's Perez, a pitcher who could jump onto the doorstep well ahead of schedule. The 19-year-old appeared to hit a bit of a wall late in August but finished his season with one of his sharpest efforts of the year, giving up two runs, both unearned, on three hits and no walks in five innings, fanning six. In 24 Hickory starts and five relief appearances, Font ends up with an 8-3, 3.49 record, fanning 105 and issuing 58 unintentional walks in 108.1 innings.
6. KASEY KIKER, LHP, Double-A Frisco
Kiker, one of the 10 youngest pitchers in the Texas League, hung around the circuit's strikeout leaders all season, finishing with 120 punchouts in 126 innings of work. His ERA jumped a full run over his final five appearances (an 0-2, 9.47 stretch), but his final 7-7, 3.86 mark was more than respectable. He's still a year away from needing protection on the 40-man roster, and should be a member of the Oklahoma City rotation when the 2010 season gets under way.
7. ROBBIE ROSS, LHP, Short-Season A Spokane
Ross's debut season ended with the 20-year-old perched among the Northwest League's top five in both ERA (2.66) and strikeouts (76 in 74.1 innings). The Rangers' 2008 second-rounder finished strong, giving up one earned run on seven hits and one walk over 11 innings in his final two starts, fanning eight. Ross has a chance to be the club's best second-round selection in more than two decades.
8. MAX RAMIREZ, C, Triple-A Oklahoma City
Ramirez came into the season as a lifetime .311/.410/.512 hitter in six minor league seasons, but slogged through an injury-marred 2009 that saw him hit just .234/.323/.336 in 274 Oklahoma City at-bats. If both wrists are finally healthy, expect Ramirez to head to the Venezuelan Winter League and begin to recapture some of his offensive chops before heading into 2010 with one option remaining.
9. MICHAEL MAIN, RHP, High A Bakersfield
Main's tough 2009, a season ravaged by non-baseball-related health issues that shouldn't affect him in the long term, was thought to have ended early in June, but he's returned to the mound the last few weeks and pitched well in short spurts. After never pitching in relief in his three pro seasons, he's shown up twice out of the Bakersfield bullpen over the last week, giving up two singles and one walk in four scoreless innings, fanning four. He'll presumably remain in relief for the Blaze's playoff run, hoping to put together a couple more positive outings before heading into the 2010 season at full health.
10. BLAKE BEAVAN, RHP, Double-A Frisco
It took a rain delay last Thursday to prevent Beavan from notching his fourth quality start out of five to end his terrific season, a 163-inning campaign in which he was better in some ways in AA (4-4, 4.01) than in High A (5-4, 4.30). Just as stunning as his Frisco walk totals (13 in 15 starts) were his low strikeout numbers (3.4 per nine innings). It's going to be interesting to see what the Rangers do with Beavan's approach in 2010. He's still two years away from Rule 5 eligibility, so time is on the club's side.
11. JOE WIELAND, RHP, Low A Hickory
It wasn't a great year statistically for the 19-year-old Wieland, who went 4-6, 5.31 in 18 Hickory starts and a relief appearance and allowed the South Atlantic League to hit .299. But he kept his bases on balls down all season (just over two unintentional walks issued per nine innings), fanned 73 hitters in 83 frames, and induced 1.45 as many groundouts as flyouts. One of the youngest pitchers in the league, the big right-hander has tremendous upside and has plenty to build on going forward.
12. MITCH MORELAND, OF, Double-A Frisco
Moreland hit .331/.391/.527 between Bakersfield and Frisco, with 38 doubles, 16 home runs, and 85 RBI in a season cut short after just 116 games due to a broken foot. There was some question this time last year as to whether his offensive production was merely a function of his advanced age for Low Class A, and the Rangers spent some time in the off-season toying with the idea of converting the part-time college closer into a situational left-hander professionally. Not any more. Moreland turned 24 over the weekend and will likely go into 2010 hitting in the middle of the Oklahoma City order.
13. WILFREDO BOSCAN, RHP, Low A Hickory
Boscan's 2008 (9-1, 3.12) was relatively quiet, as was the 19-year-old's 2009 (6-8, 3.59). He's not a radar gun monster and not a bonus baby -- Texas signed him out of Venezuela in 2006 for what was reported to be just $15,000 -- but he's a smart kid who understands how to pitch. Assuming good health, his methodical, station-to-station march ought to take him eventually all the way to Arlington.
14. ENGEL BELTRE, CF, Double-A Frisco
Texas made the interesting decision to assign Beltre to Frisco a week ago, once he'd finished rehabbing a broken bone in his right hand, and though he only managed a double in 14 trips, he did put the ball in play, striking out only two times. All told, the raw center fielder hit just .223/.278/.318 in 381 at-bats this year (mostly in Bakersfield), with only 17 walks, a particularly troubling number considering the organization would like to see him take advantage of his plus speed by getting on base any way he can. The 2010 season will be a big one for Beltre, who will need to be protected on the 40-man roster a year from now.
15. PEDRO STROP, RHP, Texas
Strop has had two very good big league appearances and one disastrous one, but regardless of what he does the rest of the way, his season -- and particularly his summer -- has been an unqualified success. After consistent improvement every month of the season, the converted shortstop stolen from the Rockies a year ago fired 14.2 scoreless innings in August, spanning 10 relief outings between Frisco and Oklahoma City. In that stretch he scattered six hits and two walks while setting 12 down on strikes, earning a call to the big leagues at the end of the month. He'll likely start the 2010 season pitching in late AAA relief.
16. GUILLERMO MOSCOSO, RHP, Texas
Moscoso's big league usage has been sporadic and largely in low-leverage settings, but despite bouncing up and down between Frisco, Oklahoma City, and Texas, he's had a terrific season, particularly in his 12 Tripple-A appearances. As a RedHawk, the 25-year-old essentially averaged a quality start, going 5-4, 2.31, issuing only 15 walks in 70 innings (and fanning 60), and holding the Pacific Coast League to a .218 average. Moscoso could be next season's Doug Mathis, doing odd jobs and quietly establishing himself as a dependable big league pitcher.
17. MICHAEL KIRKMAN, LHP, Double-A Frisco
Kirkman capped his breakthrough season with his finest effort of the year, limiting Corpus Christi to two singles and two walks over seven scoreless innings on Sept. 2nd, setting six Hooks down on strikes as he completed a 9-8, 3.48 season between Bakersfield and Frisco. The 22-year-old will be eligible for the Rule 5 Draft this winter if not added to the 40-man roster in November.
18. OMAR POVEDA, RHP, Double-A Frisco
Because Poveda has been around a while (he signed in 2004), it might surprise you that he was one of the Texas League's 10 youngest pitchers this season. At 11-5, 4.14, the big right-hander was one victory short of sharing the Texas League lead, and that's despite missing a month in the middle of the season due to a hand injury.
19. LEURY GARCIA (Low A Hickory) / JURICKSON PROFAR (2010 contract) / LUIS SARDINAS (2010 contract)
Texas shouldn't need a shortstop until your grandchildren are grandparents, but in very short order the organization has added three more premium talents at the position who should start to make some noise in 2010. Garcia didn't hit much for Hickory this season (.232/.288/.286) but has Rafael Furcal tools, while Profar (from Curacao) and Sardinas (from Venezuela) were high-dollar additions in July. All three are plus defenders and switch-hitters with speed, and each has a real chance to be a key prospect in this system before long.
20. TOMAS TELIS, C, Short-Season A Spokane
Telis earned a late-season promotion to Spokane after an outstanding Arizona League campaign (.322/.333/.470 - including a .377/.392/.597 August), and he didn't let up against Northwest League pitching, going 8 for 20 (.400) with two home runs and a double. After serving as the AZL club's primary catcher, Telis didn't don a glove for Spokane until the Indians' season finale. One reason Texas was not unwilling to trade Manny Pina to Kansas City in a Minor League deal last week was that there's a group of young Rangers catchers stepping forward to put themselves on the map. The 18-year-old Telis, a converted shortstop, is right in that mix.
NOTE: Recent trade acquisition Danny Gutierrez was inadvertently left off this list. The 22-year-old right-hander figures to be somewhere in the Nos. 10-15 range.