Rangers stockpiling hitting prospects

Rangers stockpiling hitting prospects

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Rangers could have one of the best offensive teams in all of baseball this year.

To see it, all you have to do is drive up I-35 across the Red River, over the Arbuckle Mountains, through historical Pauls Valley and up to the Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City.

Get your tickets now and get there early for batting practice because the Triple-A Oklahoma City RedHawks could be loaded offensively this year. While the Rangers have worked overtime to overload their farm system with pitching over the past three years, they are also starting to restock a few lethal bats as well.

Oklahoma City is the best place to find them this year.

"They should have a nice team," said Texas farm director Scott Servais. "There should be some impact bats there."

Those bats are on view here in Rangers camp. There is little or no chance of them making the Major League team, but a lineup that includes Justin Smoak, Craig Gentry, Mitch Moreland, Chad Tracy and others has a chance to do some serious damage in the Pacific Coast League.

"We've talked about it to the extent if it did work out that way, just how much fun it will be," Tracy said.

"All of us know each other pretty well," Smoak said. "With all of us in the lineup, it could be a tough team to beat. We'll see what happens when we get there."

Smoak, a switch-hitting first baseman, is the most highly rated of the bunch. He was Texas' top pick in the 2008 First-Year Player Draft, the MVP of Team USA in last year's Baseball World Cup and was ranked ninth on MLB.com's Top 50 Prospects list in January.

Combine his Minor League totals with the World Cup, and Smoak hit .290 with 74 runs scored, 21 home runs and 79 RBIs in 441 at-bats.

But it was Moreland who was the Rangers' Minor League Player of the Year in 2009 when he hit .331 with 16 home runs and 85 RBIs at Class A Bakersfield and Double-A Frisco. It was Tracy who led the Texas League with 26 home runs and set a franchise record with 107 RBIs. It was Gentry, the leadoff hitter of the bunch, who was called up by the Rangers in September after hitting .303 with 100 runs scored and 49 stolen bases at Frisco.

All four are in Major League camp this spring and giving an occasional flash of what might be expected from them in the future.

"We have a lot more athletic talent on offense lately," Minor League hitting coordinator Mike Boulanger said. "Are all of them going to make it? No, but the more athletic hitters you have, the more chance of success you'll have."

Moreland was actually both a pitcher and hitter at Mississippi State University before being taken in the 17th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft. There was a brief flirtation with the mound after being drafted, but his extraordinary quick hands and wrists proved better suited to swinging the bat.

"It was my choice," Moreland said. "We talked it through and I tried it a little bit at both. They gave me the choice, so I said, 'Let's hit. If it doesn't work out, we can try the other.' So far, it's been a lot of fun."

If there were any doubts, they ended when he won the 2008 Midwest League batting title with a .324 average.

Tracy, son of Rockies manager Jim Tracy, was selected as a catcher in the third round of the 2006 Draft out of Pepperdine at a time when the Texas system was stocked with catchers. Within a year or so, the Rangers figured out Tracy's offensive potential was greater than his value as a defensive catcher.

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So for the past three seasons, Tracy has shared time at first base and left field while letting his offense build up to a breakout season in 2009. His 107 RBIs were the seventh most in all the Minor Leagues.

"My bat got me here, but I still have to refine my defensive credentials," Tracy said. "My bat got me in the conversation, but I've still got to work on the other side."

Gentry also had a breakout season offensively in 2009 -- his second season at Frisco -- going from .276 with a .333 on-base percentage in '08 to .303 with a .378 on-base percentage. He led the Texas League in stolen bases and was one of nine Minor Leaguers to score at least 100 runs. The Rangers called him up in September.

"A lot of hard work paid off and it was refreshing the organization paid off," Gentry said.

Gentry will bat leadoff on an offense loaded with weapons. Veteran second baseman Esteban German could bat second, and he hit .319 with a .419 on-base percentage and 35 stolen bases in 105 games at Oklahoma City last year.

Tracy, Gentry and Moreland could be in the RedHawks' outfield, but the Rangers will have to find room for Brandon Boggs, who was fast as an outfield prospect and spent half the season with the Rangers in 2008. He was derailed by a dislocated shoulder in July of last season, but if he's healthy, he can only add to Oklahoma City's firepower.

So, too, could Max Ramirez, who hit .354 in 69 games and 243 at-bats at Frisco in 2008 but just .234 in 76 games and 274 at-bats at Oklahoma City. Ligament problems in both wrists contributed mightily to the drop in his production, but he was second in the Venezuelan Winter League in home runs (13) this offseason.

Matt Brown, who averages 20 home runs and 89 RBIs for every 150 Minor League games, could be the third baseman. This is going to be a fearsome lineup at Oklahoma City.

"The No. 1 goal is to be [in the big leagues]," Gentry said. "But we understand the process and need to put our time in. Hopefully it will pay off in the long run."

Texas should have some offensive firepower depth in the long run.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.