The brightest star so far in Texas Rangers camp is Nomar Mazara, who is rated as the No. 5, No. 18 and No. 21 prospect in the game by three prominent publications.
He looks like a can’t-miss prospect nearly five years after the Rangers shocked many and angered others by signing him to a $4.95 million bonus as a 16-year-old international free agent.
The same day Mazara agreed to terms — July 2, 2011 — fellow 16-year-old Ronald Guzman also joined the Rangers for a cool $3.35 million.
The duo from the Dominican Republic were linked together in prospect lore and were put on the same development path the next summer.
Guzman, though, was derailed, first by knee and finger injuries in 2013, then by immaturity, and then, it seemed, by a tragedy.
Mazara, meanwhile, has seen his career take off. He has a spot on the 40-man roster and in big-league camp, and he should be a regular in the Rangers’ lineup next season.
But he remains close to his J2 classmate Guzman, and they have been together twice already this spring during Cactus League games with Guzman serving as a just-in-case player from the minors. They might some day play together for the Rangers in games that count after Guzman got his career back on track in 2015 following a life-changing accident late in 2014.
“I can feel it,” Guzman said Thursday. “My confidence is back, and where I’m at right now with my swing and with my body, I feel like I’ve been improving a lot and I know what I need to work on. I’m in a good place right now.”
He was in a terrible place — a jail cell— in November 2014 after he was involved in a fatal traffic accident.
A motorcyclist hit Guzman’s SUV near his hometown of La Vega in the northern part of the Dominican Republic. The driver was thrown by the impact to the side of the road and was killed instantly.
Tests revealed that the driver had been under the influence of alcohol, and Guzman was cleared of any wrongdoing. Word, though, had spread about the wreck and that he had been detained a few days by local police during their investigation, and Guzman became the subject of unwarranted speculation.
He found an escape in the capital city of Santo Domingo, where Mazara took Guzman in for a month and helped him sort through the incident that has made him stronger.
“It made me more mature,” Guzman said. “I learned a lot from it, what happened after it, the people around me and people saying stuff. I took a step back and was like, I need to do what I need to do and not worry about what people are going to say.
“The only person that I need to say sorry to or I need to talk to is God, and he knows what my intentions were and he knows what really happened. People can say a lot of stuff. But in my mind I know what happened, and I know that I’m good with God, so that’s the most important thing.”
Guzman started at Low A Hickory for a third straight season, and the Rangers essentially told him that he could play his way to the next level with a fast start. Guzman responded by batting .309 in 24 games and playing well at first base to earn a bump to High A.
He struggled initially at the new level, even at hitter-friendly High Desert, but took off after an adjustment to his swing. Guzman was named the Rangers’ Minor League Player of the Month for August/September after batting .322 with 20 extra-base hits and 20 RBIs in 38 games.
He ended up batting .277 at High A, and finished 2015 as the Rangers’ minor-league leader in RBIs with 87. Over eight playoff games, Guzman hit .370 with six RBIs and a team-best seven walks, and he was rewarded with a stint in the Arizona Fall League.
“The thing that he did was he stayed with his program and plan once he and the hitting coaches made a few adjustments with his hands,” said Spike Owen, the High Desert manager in 2015. “He trusted it, and sure enough, it started coming. Hopefully it’s a steppingstone for him to continue to improve.”
The accident was never broached during his High A days. Owen said that Guzman was as professional on and off the field after a few mistakes in 2013 and 2014 — including missing a team bus — led to questions about his maturity.
Guzman, though, is still only 21 years old, or a college junior. He is fluent in English, and his parents wouldn’t let him sign with the Rangers until he had graduated high school.
But the accident has been the defining moment in his life and career.
“He’s still finding his way,” farm director Mike Daly said. “He comes off very mature, but it’s a challenge. You go through stuff when guys are 16 and 17. He has grown a lot. The accident that Guzman had to deal with forces you to grow.”
Guzman is ticketed to open 2016 at Double A Frisco. The Rangers still believe in him at the plate, more of a gap-to-gap hitter than a home-run threat. But at 6-foot-6, Guzman has started filling out during off-season workouts with Mazara and is starting to show more power.
He’s not a finished product, nor is he too old to dismiss as a prospect, even though the Rangers left him unprotected for the Rule 5 draft and no other team selected him.
Maybe Guzman and Mazara will be together some day in Arlington after all.
“If he hadn’t been hurt, probably we’d still be together,” Mazara said. “He’s good. He’s going to be with me at some point.”