Texas Rangers

Is Julio Pablo Martinez, opening 2019 at Low A, further behind than Rangers anticipated?

The Surprise Recreation Campus hasn’t been vacated now that the Texas Rangers have broken spring camp and headed to Arlington for their season opener Thursday.

In fact, the big-league club makes up only a small part of the annual spring population.

Minor-leaguers still have a week’s worth of games before heading to full-season affiliates, at least those who aren’t staying for extended spring training, and rosters are starting to take shape.

Among the likely assignments is Julio Pablo Martinez, the No. 2 Rangers prospect by Baseball America, going to Low A Hickory while No. 3 prospect Leody Taveras and No. 9 prospect Bubba Thompson go to High A Down East.

Martinez, the backup plan after missing out on Shohei Ohtani, was initially projected to start his career in the U.S. at Down East or even Double A Frisco. Instead, he started with the short-season A team in Spokane, Wash.

He played in the Arizona Fall League, but is going to open 2019 only at Hickory, and that leads to a question: Is Martinez not as advanced as the Rangers believe he was when they signed him to a $2.8 million bonus a year ago?

He’s on the right track, but there’s a log jam at his position at Down East is forcing the Rangers’ hand.

“At the end of the day, he’s got to play center field,” said Paul Kruger, the Rangers’ director of minor-league operations. “That’s his calling card. That’s what we signed him for, and that’s what we think he can do.”

Taveras and Thompson are also center fielders, and they will split time there at Down East. Martinez will be the everyday outfielder at Hickory, where he will also live in his own housing rather than in a hotel surrounded by teammates.

The Rangers believe that is another significant adjustment for the Cuban defector.

Ultimately, the goal is to jump-start all three and perhaps allow them to force the Rangers to move one of them to Frisco. Taveras is the leading candidate for that assignment if he can start quickly and shows that he has solved whatever slowed him last season at High A.

“The idea there’s going to be quick movement,” Kruger said. “Can we get these guys off to a good start?”

A big-league city

Rangers manager Chris Woodward spent the 2008 season at Triple A Nashville, well before First Tennessee Park was built and opened in 2015, and got to know the city while playing in the aging – and moldy – Hershel Greer Stadium.

The new park, just north of downtown, is a massive upgrade from Greer Stadium and in many ways surpasses Dell Diamond in Round Rock. The clubhouses and batting cages are behind the dugouts at First Tennessee Park, for instance.

Aesthetically, the view south into downtown gives the home of the Sounds a big-league feel. Woodward said that Music City is another key part of the agreement.

“If you were to put this city in the big leagues, it would be a top-five for most players,” Woodward said. “It is a big-league city. I actually played here in 2008. I had never been to Nashville. I had spent a lot of time in the major leagues up to that point, so I had seen a lot of major-league cities. When I came here, I was like, ‘This is a great city.’ It’s ready to handle a major-league team.”

The Rangers agreed to a four-year player development agreement in September after Round Rock joined the Houston Astros. The Rangers became the first MLB team to play in Nashville since June 1999 when they played a group of players likely to start the season at Triple A.

Sunday’s game was played before a franchise-record 11,824 fans.

Hearn dazzles

Left-hander Taylor Hearn, the prize of the Keone Kela trade who could be the first Rangers prospect in the majors this season, allowed only one unearned run in five innings and struck out seven pitching against the Rangers.

Hearn struck out five through two innings, including four straight batters. Three of them have made the Rangers’ Opening Day roster.

“It was good to see everything I’ve been working on in spring training is paying off,” Hearn said. “Just throwing sliders in hitter’s counts, not trying to give them a fastball in that kind of count, and just trying to continue to execute.”

The Rangers wanted to see Hearn working on his slider, finishing it off, making it sharper and disguising it better. Woodward said that Hearn might have been tipping the pitch.

He wasn’t Sunday, as many Rangers hitters were returning to the dugout unable to get a read on Hearn’s pitches as he kept his arm speed the same. Woodward said that Hearn’s fastball hit 97 mph.

“Ooh, man, that was good,” Woodward said. “I’ve been impressed all spring.”

The Rangers are hoping to avoid calling upon Hearn, one of their top-10 prospects, early in the season even though he will be at Nashville and is on the 40-man roster. They want to see him get more experience in the minors.

General manager Jon Daniels said there are ways to do that even though the sudden retirement of Jason Hammel thins out their rotation depth.

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