The 2019 season opened Thursday night for full-season minor-league affiliates, meaning clubs Low A and above, and the Texas Rangers sent some of their best prospects to the mound.
That included top prospect Hans Crouse, the high-upside right-hander whose fastball approaches 100 mph and is complemented by two sliders and a work-in-progress changeup, starting for Low A Hickory.
Tyler Phillips, the Rangers’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, took his premium control to the mound for High A Down East. Earlier in the day, Baseball America said that he has the best control of any pitcher in the minors.
Left-handers Brock Burke and Taylor Hearn started for Double A Frisco and Triple A Nashville. They should be familiar to anyone who paid attention to Rangers spring training.
They are two of the four prospects closest to the majors, along with Jonathan Hernandez and another lefty, Joe Palumbo, and could very well pitch for the Rangers this season.
Meanwhile, more pitching prospects are stuck at extended spring training in Surprise, Ariz., building arm strength for their summer assignments. Right-handers Cole Winn, Owen White and Mason Englert could skip the Arizona League and make their pro debuts at Short-Season A Spokane.
The Rangers will be paying attention to what all of them do each time out, but especially the advanced prospects because of the issues with rotation depth.
“I reached out to all of them pretty much today to let them know I was thinking about him.” Woodward said. “There are some guys down there that can really really help us. They all made a pretty significant impact on me. I saw the stuff. I saw the conversations on how the stuff is going to play.
“We are still getting them to the mentality that, ‘Let’s execute our pitches as if Mike Trout’s hitting.’ Because that’s what going to happen at some point.”
Here’s a closer look at the four prospects, all of them on the 40-man roster, closest to the majors:
The lefty from Royse City saved his best spring outing for last, as he dazzled Woodward and others March 24 in the exhibition game at Nashville.
Woodward saw the conviction with all of Hearn’s pitches, and Rangers hitters returned to the dugout saying they were unable to pick up any difference in his arm speed when throwing a fastball and a slider.
Hearn, the prize of the Rangers’ trading haul last summer, knows he might be only a Rangers rotation injury away from making his MLB debut, but he also knows he can’t look too far ahead.
“I’m going to try to not think about it too much,” Hearn said. “It’s easier said than done, but if I continue to go out there and pitch like that, who knows. I’m not trying to put a timetable on it, but just waiting for them to call my number.”
Hearn opened his season Thursday night with a loss, but he had dominant stuff. He struck out nine with no walks in five innings, but allowed four runs on six hits.
If first impressions count for anything, Burke could be on his way to the majors sooner than expected.
Part of the three-team Jurickson Profar trade, Burke came from Tampa Bay and delivered three scoreless innings in two Cactus League starts. He has the stuff, but also had a calm but commanding way about him on the mound.
The Rangers look at Burke as a late bloomer, having had a shortage of games in high school in Evergreen, Colo. He started to blossom last season in the Rays organization, and was their Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Burke was a tough-luck loser Thursday for Double A Frisco after allowing an unearned run in five innings. He also didn’t issue a walk while striking out four.
Burke heeded the Rangers’ spring advice of using spring training to prepare for the season rather than trying to pitch like he was trying to win a roster spot.
“I’m trying to treat it like most of these veterans are treating spring training, trying to get ready for the season no matter where it is,” he said in March. “The guys were saying, ‘It’s your first big-league spring training, but you still need to do what you need to do for the season, and not try to blow it out for spring training.”
This righty is now a veteran of big-league spring training, having pitched in the past two, and he continues to impress with his stuff.
His fastball can be electric and approaches triple digits. His slider and changeup can be plus pitches and make him next to unhittable when he’s on his game, as he was to start last season at High A Down East.
The transition for Double A didn’t go as smoothly, with control issues plaguing him, and Hernandez will open this season back at Frisco. But he will do so armed with a better understanding of pitch sequencing and the importance of locating.
His upside has him rated as the Rangers’ No. 3 pitching prospect, behind only Crouse and Winn.
“Historically he has done a good job of taking that next step year after year,” said Paul Kruger, the Rangers’ director of minor-league operations. “Combined with the mental and physical preparation he went through during the off-season we feel like he is poised for big things this year.”
Palumbo was also in his second big-league spring training this year, but he has pitched on only one of the two.
He was finishing up recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2018 before making his way back into a competitive setting and finishing his season at Double A.
“I can participate now,” he said last month.
Like the other prospects in camp, he didn’t have a very good chance to make the Opening Day roster and tried to listen, learn and not get hurt.
Palumbo’s fastball can reach the mid-90s, and his delivery has some deception in it make things more difficult on hitters. The lefty will open back at Frisco after impressing Woodward with how fiercely he competed and with that nasty slider he throws.
“Every time I get the ball, I’m trying to show them what I can do and keep making impressions the best I can,” Palumbo said. “Over the years, being in the minor leagues, I got more competitive. It took me a little time to figure it out, but now I don’t care who you are with the bat, how many home runs you hit or batting titles you’ve won. It’s all business out there.”