Former Kings to Watch this Spring
With pitchers and catchers arriving today at both Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers camps, I thought it would be good timing to take a look at some former LumberKings looking to make impacts in Major League camps this Spring.
The Future is Now for Feliz
We’ll start with a man who’s already logged Major League service time, but is looking to
emerge as the top-flight starting pitcher so many in baseball have billed him to be. He of course is fireballing right-hander Neftali Feliz (’08), who is coming off an outstanding 20-game relief stint with the Rangers in 2009. After becoming the first Ranger in history to strike out the first four men he faced, Feliz kept his fastball in the high 90′s and kept Major League hitters baffled to the tune of a .124 opponent batting average. Over his 20 games, the 21-year-old went 1-0 with a 1.74 ERA (just 6 ER in 31.0 innings) and struck out 39 while walking only eight. This performance was enough to earn Feliz the Top Prospect ranking in the entire Rangers’ organization and the #7 prospect in all of professional baseball.
There’s no question that Feliz will be on the Opening Day roster. The question is, will his stuff be good enough this Spring to earn him a rotation spot alongside former King Derek Holland (’08)? Baseball America projects him to be Texas’ #1 starter by 2013, but he’ll still need to prove himself over more than three innings to emerge amongst a host of qualified rotation candidates. Even if he remains in the bullpen, look for Feliz to rise further towards “household name” status this season.
After Feliz, first-baseman Justin Smoak (’08) is the next-most-hyped prospect in Surprise. Smoak IS Texas’s first-baseman of the future, but how ready is he to be that guy right now? The former first-round pick is coming off a huge offseason that saw him win the MVP award at the 2009 IBAF Baseball World Cup while guiding Team USA to gold. He’s also hit .292 with 15 HR and 63 RBI in just 120 games as a pro so far.
The question for Smoak is if he’s ready to unseat incumbent Chris Davis at first. His glove, by all accounts, is ready. His ability to hit for power from both sides of the plate will give him an eventual advantage over Davis, who himself has something to prove following a .238, 150-strikeouts-in-391 at-bats season. Still, Smoak struggled in a transition from double-A Frisco to triple-A Oklahoma City last year, hitting just .244 over 54 games with the RedHawks after shredding the Texas League with a .328 average. Much like Feliz, Smoak is a highly-regarded prospect (#2 with the Rangers, #9 overall) who WILL be a Major Leaguer at some point this season. Only question is, how early will his call-up be?
Moreland on the Radar
In the shadow of Smoak’s hype, Mitch Moreland (’08) has been able to go about his business very
quietly the past two seasons. A 17th-round pick by the Rangers back in 2007, Moreland started out as a first baseman with the LumberKings in 2008 prior to the arrival of Smoak. With the future of first basically locked up, the former Mississippi State Bulldog has carved a new path as an outfielder with average range and a fantastic bat.
Moreland captured the Tom Grieve Minor League MVP Award for the Rangers this Winter following a 2009 campaign in which he hit .331 with 16 HR and 85 RBI between high-A Bakersfield and Frisco. He’s certain to get a look at big league camp this season, but how long he stays there will rest part on his hitting and part on the performances of Brandon Boggs (’05), Craig Gentry (’07) and the recently-signed Endy Chavez. Former LumberKing Chad Tracy (’07) could also give him a run for his money. Moreland will most likely spend the bulk of 2010 with triple-A Oklahoma City and could possibly be a late-season call-up.
A Call to ’07 Arms
Four members of the 2007 LumberKings’ rotation are invites to big-league camp for the Rangers this season. Left-handers Michael Kirkman (’06-’08), Kasey Kiker (’07) and Zach Phillips (’06-’07) and right-hander Omar Poveda (’06-’07) will all try and show why they belong. Of the four, only Poveda has spent significant time in Rangers camp before. Kiker is the highest ranking prospect of the bunch, coming in at #6 on BA‘s list for 2010.
Who has a legitimate shot to make a Major League debut this season? I’d put my money on Poveda, who has shown flashes of dominance in Clinton (11-4, 2.79 in ’07) and Frisco (11-5, 4.14 in ’09), but has yet to log more than one start in triple-A. A good Spring and a solid few months in OKC and Poveda should be a Ranger late in the season. Kiker went 7-7 with a 3.86 ERA and yielded an opponent average of .231 while with Frisco last year, his best season since his 7-4, 2.90, 112 strikeout season with the Kings in 2007. He has a chance to crack the Texas bullpen.
Kirkman and Phillips both have tremendous upsides, but both need to show some consistency. “Captain Kirk” finally found his stuff after four tumultuous seasons, going 5-7 with a 4.19 ERA in 18 starts with Frisco last year. Phillips got acclimated to life as a reliever last season, going 2-3 with a 1.39 ERA, four saves and an eye-popping .163 opponent average between Bakersfield and Frisco. However, 2010 will be only his second season in the pen following an ’08 campain in which he went 8-9, 5.54 in 28 Cal League starts. Both are probably at least a season away.
Of course, there’s always the chance that a darkhorse emerges in camp this year. Look out for guys like Engel Beltre (’08) , Blake Beavan (’08) and Marcus Lemon (’07). You could even see the resurgence of John Whittleman (’06-’07) this season. That’s the great part about this time of year, you just don’t know until it starts.
The first games of Spring Training in Arizona start on March 3. I’ll be in Peoria, AZ watching the Mariners take on the San Francisco Giants. Blog updates to follow!