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Rangers aim to change early draft struggles

Staff Writer
Waxahachie Daily Light
Texas Tech's Josh Jung (16) throws the ball to first base during the game against Maine, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2018, at Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park in Lubbock, Texas.

By Evan Grant

The Dallas Morning News

ARLINGTON — There are two ways to consider the Texas Rangers’ place in the reconstructed, abridged major league baseball draft beginning Wednesday.

There is the glass-half-full approach: With the ability to sign unlimited numbers of undrafted free agents after the five mandated rounds, it’s a great chance to wow some kids with some good, old-fashioned recruiting.

And then there are facts, which would best be summed up in almost Churchillian words: Rarely in the course of baseball history has so little been owed to so many.

Put simply: The Rangers have a dreadful history in the early rounds of the draft, and that predates current scouting director Kip Fagg. Heck, it predates the franchise in its current state. Second, their draft position — 14th overall — makes things even riskier. After the first 10 picks, weighing a prospect’s floor vs. his potential ceiling becomes more subjective and riskier.

This year, teams are having to weigh those risks without the benefit of a spring season to watch and scout players or any in-person visits. That only adds to the risk.

So what’s it going to be, Kip: the safety of a higher talent floor or a gamble on a sky’s-the-limit ceiling?

“I don’t think our process has changed from what we have done in the past,” Fagg said last week. “We see them in the summer; we saw them the year before. We didn’t get the full gamut of looks this year, but we have background. Maybe it hampers some of the Northern-area guys because they didn’t get any kind of season at all.”

But wait for it …

“We are still going to go into the draft as we always have: We are going to look at things and find the best player and take him.”

Except that last year, the Rangers did drastically alter their approach or at least put more emphasis on major-conference college players. College picks, particularly college hitters, are considered safer because they are older, more developed and a bit more predictable. The route for college hitters to the big leagues has gotten much more direct, and that gives them more immediate value.

The Rangers used both of their first-round picks in 2019 on Big 12 hitters: Josh Jung of Texas Tech and Davis Wendzel of Baylor. Of their six picks in the first five rounds, five were college players. Over the previous five years, only seven of their 26 picks in the first five rounds had been four-year college players. And only three came from conferences considered power baseball leagues.

“The way this draft is shaped, you’re going to have more comfortability with the college guys just for the fact we have history and we’ve seen them a lot more,” Fagg said. “With the high school (players), we’ve had a shorter window to evaluate.

“I think the college group is a little deeper this year than the high school group as a whole, so maybe you might think we’d lean that way, but there’s still a lot of good high school pitchers and players, too. I believe we’re going to have opportunities on both ends.”

In its most recent mock draft, Baseball America projected 26 of the 37 first-round picks to be college players.

If the Rangers go for reliability, a college hitter is going to be the likely choice. There are two college catchers, North Carolina State’s Patrick Bailey and Ohio State’s Dillon Dingler. There are a couple of refined middle infielders, Baylor shortstop Nick Loftin and Mississippi State’s versatile Justin Foscue. There is an intriguing, athletic center fielder, UCLA’s Garrett Mitchell, whose diabetes makes him more of an uncertainty. And there is North Carolina first baseman Aaron Sabato, whose power might be the best tool among the available hitters.

The pitching group is even harder to peg in the teens, with the likes of Tennessee’s Garret Crochet, Oklahoma’s Cade Cavalli and perhaps Texas Tech’s Clayton Beeter among the possibilities.

Then there is high school pitcher Nick Bitsko, who has been one of the biggest risers on the board after some sensational metrics during Driveline Baseball workouts.

What is clear, though, is that the Rangers are fighting their own history. They’ve been good at finding value after the first 10 rounds but have a poor first-round history. With a draft position in the teens, their track record is even worse.

The potential upside is this: After the first five rounds, when teams can sign an unlimited number of picks, providing they don’t spend more than $20,000 on anyone, the emphasis becomes on selling the organization. Here, the Rangers believe they have an advantage. They have long prided themselves on relationship-building with prospects. Now, with their new dorm and sports science lab in Arizona, a brand new stadium in Arlington and attractive minor league affiliates, they have some extras to sell.

“We have a very good culture going on here and a lot of resources to offer players,” Fagg said. “On the player development side, we have put a lot of time and effort and resources into doing that. We sell our people.

“That’s kind of one of the biggest things with me and the Texas Rangers. All clubs have the bells and whistles, but how do you use them? We preach the family piece of it. That’s a good thing; people buy into that. It’s a little different culture here than most places.”

Oklahoma's Cade Cavalli pitches during a bedlam baseball game between Oklahoma State University (OSU) and the University of Oklahoma (OU) at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Saturday, May 11, 2019.