The Texas Rangers promoted Engel Beltre to the major league roster yesterday to help cover for the suspended Nelson Cruz. Beltre was up in the majors earlier this season and has been a factor in the prospect world for several years. Let's take a look at him as today's Prospect of the Day.
Beltre was originally signed by the Boston Red Sox out of the Dominican Republic in 2006, giving him a $600,000 bonus. He debuted in the Red Sox system with a .208/.310/.400 line in 34 games in the Gulf Coast League in '07, earning enough attention to become a key prospect in that summer's Eric Gagne trade (remember that?). He moved over to the Rangers rookie ball affiliate in Arizona to finish the summer, hitting .310/.388/.583 in 22 games, but was overmatched after a late promotion to Spokane in the Northwest League, fanning 10 times in 38 at-bats and hitting .211.
The Rangers moved him up to Clinton in the Midwest League for 2008. He impressed scouts with his athleticism and tools, while hitting .283/.308/.403 in 130 games, a respectable slash line for an 18-year-old in full-season ball. He also stole 31 bases, however his strike zone judgment was awful, with a 15/105 BB/K ratio in 566 at-bats. He handled fastballs well and saw enough of them to keep his batting average up, but he was helpless against breaking stuff. At that point, scouts were more concerned with his tools than anything else and were willing to accept his weaknesses, figuring they would improve in time.
The weakness was exposed in 2009: he hit just .227/.281/.317 with 17 walks and 77 strikeouts in 357 at-bats for Bakersfield in the hitter-friendly California League. His swing mechanics were a mess and his approach an obvious problem, but the tools were still there, particularly on defense, and he was still very young.
He returned to Bakersfield in 2010 and was much more effective, hitting .331/.376/.460 in 263 at-bats. This earned him a promotion to Double-A Frisco, where his bat went silent again against better pitching (.254/.301/.337 in 181 at-bats). He combined for 18 steals at the two levels.
Beltre went back to Frisco for 2011 but it was a rough year: he hit just .231/.285/.300 with only one homer, 28 walks, and 103 strikeouts in 437 at-bats. He also drew a demerit with scouts and a suspension in April after throwing a tantrum and tossing a trashcan into the stands. He returned to Frisco for a third time in 2012, improving to .261/.307/.420 in 564 at-bats, showing more pop but still struggling with plate discipline (26 walks, 118 strikeouts).
With an apparent inability to thrive in Double-A, Beltre's stock was down entering 2013: he was being written off as a toolsy bust by Texas League observers and didn't rank in Baseball America's top 30 Rangers prospects. I had him as a Grade C myself, noting his glovework and his overall athleticism, but harboring significant doubts that he would hit enough for those things to matter much.
However, a few things have clicked this year. Moved up to Triple-A Round Rock, he's hitting .302/.360/.405, with 26 walks and 59 strikeouts in 301 at-bats. That's his best walk rate since rookie ball, and observers report he's made real progress with both his pitch selectivity and the consistency of his swing. He has been raking PCL right-handers over the coals (.352/.413/.486), but is still overmatched by lefties (just .187/.235/.220).
Beltre is listed at 6-2, 180, a left-handed hitter and thrower, born November 1, 1989. As noted above, tools aren't the problem: he's fast, has a strong throwing arm, and has developed into an excellent defensive outfielder, capable of handling all three positions. He is aggressive about using his speed on the basepaths, but isn't a great percentage stealer, just 14-for-24 this year. Still, fast is better than slow even if he still needs to improve his technique.
At age 23, Beltre remains reasonably young. His defense and speed should keep him in the majors (or at least on the edges of it) for a long time, but whether he gets beyond that to regular status or not depends on his hitting. While his bat is better than it used to be, he still has problems with pitch recognition and plate discipline, particularly against lefties.
Beltre has made enough progress to deserve an opportunity, but not enough to guarantee success just yet.