The Hickory Bunch: One Year Later

The Texas Rangers had a unique collection of prospects last year playing for the Hickory Crawdads in the Low-A South Atlantic League. Few teams could boast a talent group like catcher Jorge Alfaro, outfielder Lewis Brinson, third baseman Joey Gallo, first baseman Ronald Guzman, outfielder Nomar Mazara, second baseman Ryan Rua, outfielder Nick Williams, and pitcher C.J. Edwards. The tools in that group were excellent, even if the actual performances were spotty in some cases.

How are these guys doing in 2014? Let's take a look.

Jorge Alfaro, C: Currently hitting .257/.307/.397 (wRC+100) for High-A Myrtle Beach, with 10 walks and 49 strikeouts in 192 plate appearances. Alfaro continues to have problems with strike zone judgment and his prospect status still relies more potential than production. He has great defensive tools but has coughed up 11 passed balls and six errors in 34 games, unacceptable ratios no matter how good your tools are. He's also played 10 games at first base but his prospect status is much less impressive at that position. He turns 21 next month so he still has youth on his side.

Lewis Brinson, OF: Brinson has returned to Hickory this year and is hitting .287/.333/.425 (wRC+114) with five walks and 27 strikeouts in 94 plate appearances. He has been limited to 22 games by a quad injury. His production has been virtually the same as last year when he posted a 117 wRC+. He continues to impress with his glovework and at age 20 he still has time to resolve his strike zone issues.

Joey Gallo, 3B: Gallo is having a monster campaign for High-A Myrtle Beach, hitting .327/.459/.747 with 18 homers, 41 walks, and 54 strikeouts in 209 plate appearances for a wRC+ of 223. He still strikes out a lot but not as much as last year, and adjustments to his swing have made him a more complete hitter. He's on pace to double his walk rate, which is likely a combination of a genuinely better eye and extreme caution on the part of the pitchers.  He's also playing much better defensively. Gallo's breakout looks genuine to me and he will be tested in Double-A at some point this year. He's still just 20.

Ronald Guzman, 1B: Guzman is having a poor season, hitting just .221/.287/.321 in a return engagement at Hickory, with a very poor 74 wRC+. He has 11 walks and 31 strikeouts in 150 PA. He's only 19 and still young for the level, which is a good thing given his completely inadequate production for a first baseman. Scouting reports haven't changed much: he has enormous potential as a power hitter but doesn't know how to tap it yet.

Nomar Mazara, OF: Mazara is similar to but not quite as bad as Guzman, hitting .230/.299/.365 for a wRC+ of 88 while repeating the level. He has 17 walks and 39 strikeouts in 197 PA. His feel for hitting is a little better than Guzman's but still disappointing, but like Guzman he is still just 19.

Ryan Rua, 2B: The oldest and least-toolsy guy in the group, Rua is having a fine season for Double-A Frisco, hitting .297/.376/.494 with 21 walks, 37 strikeouts in 194 PA for a wRC+ of 149. He's split his time between second base and third base, projecting better at the former position with Gallo coming up behind him. Rua is 24 and doesn't have the physical upside of the rest of the group, but he's a proven performer who has adapted to Double-A.

Nick Williams, OF: Williams has an impressive slash line for High-A Myrtle Beach, hitting .298/.346/.462 in 171 at-bats for a wRC+ of 129. The caveat is poor strike zone judgment with 51 strikeouts and only eight walks on the docket, caused by persistent trouble with breaking balls and changeups. Age 20, Williams has spent time at all three outfield positions this spring but likely fits best in a corner, with Brinson being a superior defender. Williams has the potential to hit for both power and average if his pitch recognition issues don't eat him up at higher levels.

C.J. Edwards, RHP: Edwards made 18 starts for the Crawdads last summer before being traded to the Chicago Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. He made four starts for Double-A Tennessee this year and performed well (2.61 ERA, 20/8 K/BB in 21 innings) but is currently on the disabled list with "shoulder inflammation." Age 22, he's a top pitching prospect if healthy.

CONCLUSION: Of the eight players in the Hickory Bunch, we have one massive breakout (Gallo), one guy performing well in Double-A (Rua), one guy putting up nice numbers in High-A but with some caveats (Williams), one guy in High-A who is not living up to his full potential (Alfaro), three who returned to Hickory who are stagnating or slipping (Brinson, Guzman, Mazara), and one guy who got off to a good start in Double-A but got hurt (Edwards).

What does all of that mean? Maybe not much. We're only one third of the way through the season and a lot can change, plus with the exception of Rua, all of these guys remain quite young. The only firm conclusions I will comfortably draw are that Gallo is for real and that Rua can be/should be a solid role player.

We'll revisit this later in the year when we have more data.

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