On the surface, a 102-loss season looks really bad for the Texas Rangers. So does finishing with a top-three pick in back-to-back seasons. However, it doesn't take much digging to see how things could be turning around, even as early as the upcoming season.
In Baseball America's 2022 preseason organizational rankings, the Rangers wound up in the No. 9 spot, two notches higher than the previous installment. It's also an astounding 15 slots higher than where the club's farm system stood one year ago, which is the biggest jump in baseball over that span.
Three prospects lead the way, making BA's top 100 list: Jack Leiter, Josh Jung and Cole Winn, the club's first-round picks in 2021, 2019 and 2018 respectively. Though 12 clubs boast more prospects in the top 100, the Rangers earn a top-10 nod due to the farm system's exceptional depth.
The performance from the top picks helps propel the Rangers forward. The only major hiccup of Jung's first professional season was a stress fracture in his foot that delayed his start to the campaign. Even so, the Texas Tech product slashed .326/.398/.592/.990 with 19 home runs and 61 RBI in 78 games between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock.
Winn led the Frisco starting rotation and established himself as one of the best hurlers at the Double-A level. Before he was promoted to Round Rock near the end of the season, Winn went 3-3 with a 2.31 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings in 19 starts for the RoughRiders, and was also the American League's starter in the Futures Game at the All-Star break.
2020's first-round pick Justin Foscue had a successful professional debut, making his way to Frisco after posting a monster 1.143 OPS in 33 games at High-A Hickory. Owen White, a second-round pick in 2018, bounced back from a fractured hand and set the Arizona Fall League ablaze with a 1.91 ERA in 28 1/3 innings over six starts, winning the league's Pitcher of the Year award.
The Rangers also went the route that most rebuilding teams go, trading their top big-league talent in exchange for prospects to help restock the farm. Texas cashed in on the value of fan-favorite Joey Gallo at July's trade deadline, receiving four prospects from the New York Yankees in return: Ezequiel Duran, Josh Smith, Trevor Hauver and Glenn Otto.
The return injected more life into the organization. Otto made his big league debut and the right-handed pitcher had some nice moments in his first exposure to Major League hitters. Smith needed only nine games with Hickory before getting the call to Frisco, where the former LSU shortstop posted an .857 OPS in 39 games. Duran and Hauver—two more middle infielders (though Hauver may eventually transition to the outfield)—established themselves with Hickory, and Duran had a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League, posting a .944 OPS in 19 games.
The Rangers also landed former Philadelphia Phillies top prospect Spencer Howard in exchange for Kyle Gibson and Ian Kennedy, who both drastically increased their trade values in the first half of the 2021 season. Howard's first stint with the Rangers didn't result in strong numbers. However, the right-handed pitcher began a lot of side work with the Rangers' coaching staff, making some mechanical adjustments that will be put to the test in 2022.
What has really helped the Rangers farm system along is standout performances from unexpected names. Evan Carter might have been a second-round pick in 2020, but the selection came with plenty of criticism since Carter was virtually an unknown heading into the draft. Carter began to show his ability at instructs in the fall following the draft, then had a strong start to his professional career.
Despite being one of the youngest players in all of professional baseball, Carter slashed .236/.438/.387/.825 and stole 12 bases in 32 games. His plate discipline impressed scouts, along with his baseball instincts, IQ and five-tool potential. A back injury ended his season in June, but he should be good to go in 2022.
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Perhaps the biggest development of the farm system in 2021 was Dustin Harris. Originally the second name in the Mike Minor trade, Harris wowed many in the industry with a breakout campaign. After posting an .872 OPS in 73 games for Low-A Down East, the corner infielder was promoted to Hickory and performed even better (1.073 OPS in 37 games).
Between the two levels, Harris slashed .327/.401/.542/.943 with 20 home runs and 85 RBI in 110 games. The Rangers recognized Harris' play, naming him the Tom Grieve Player of the Year. In addition, The Athletic's Keith Law included Harris in his top 100 prospect rankings, coming in at No. 92.
One final note on the Rangers farm. After several years of impactful injuries, the overall health of the organization was strong. Cole Ragans made his return to the mound after not logging a professional pitch since 2017 due to two Tommy John surgeries. He did quite well at Hickory before he took some lumps after a promotion to Frisco. In addition, highly-touted pitching prospect Ricky Vanasco made his return from Tommy John surgery and participated at instructs in the fall.
Among significant injuries, T.K. Roby suffered an elbow sprain in June and missed the remainder of the season (he was able to return and take part in instructs alongside Vanasco). Top catching prospect Sam Huff also had his season significantly affected by injuries, with a hamstring issue interrupting spring training, then knee surgery delayed his season until July.
Perhaps having the worst luck in the organization (Ragans might have something to say about that), 2017 first-round pick Chris Seise suffered a torn ACL in May. This came after a right shoulder surgery forced him to miss all of 2018, a left shoulder surgery limited him to 21 games in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the entire 2020 season.
Looking Forward to 2022
Jack Leiter's professional debut will arguably be the farm system's most anticipated event of the season. The Rangers took him at No. 2 overall in 2021, fully believing he has the ability to lead the starting rotation in the future. 2023 is probably the earliest you may see him at Globe Life Field.
Followed closely behind Leiter's debut will be Josh Jung's big league call-up. While it is yet to be determined when the former Red Raider will dress in Rangers red, white and blue for the first time, it's a foregone conclusion that it will happen sometime this year. If Cole Winn has a strong performance in the first half of the Triple-A season, perhaps he also gets the call to Arlington this year.
Whether it's the top guys or several other notable names (Davis Wendzel, Ronny Henriquez, Sherten Apostel, Steele Walker or Bubba Thompson), some of the most exciting names in the Rangers' farm system will begin graduating to the big leagues in the near future.
It wasn't that long ago the club had one of the top farm systems in baseball, but failed to hit on many of those prospects. If you're looking for optimism, the Rangers began seriously altering their player development department, including changes to the staff and draft strategies. The club also began targeting more polished position players with perhaps a lower ceiling than the high-risk, high-reward types. The Rangers are also very deep with hitters who have strong hit tools, giving them better odds to hit on more prospects.
Obviously, the future is not yet written for any of these players. They have to put it together and make a successful jump to the Show in order for the Rangers to become competitive once again. 2022 will be a year where fans begin receiving answers on the changes made to player development.
As far as the work done by the front office to improve the organization, it's not going unrecognized in the industry. The turnaround by the club is impressive. Now it just needs to play out on the diamond.
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