Rangers have more power arms on the way
Relievers Font, Bonilla and Mendez have talent, but still need experience in Minors
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Wilmer Font, Lisalverto Bonilla and Roman Mendez have "big" arms, the kind of power arms the Rangers love to collect and stash away in their farm system.
They have the kind of big arms that get a young kid discovered by a Latin American agent at 13, signed by a Major League team at 16 and then sent hurtling through the farm system on pure power alone.
They have the kind of big arms that light up radar guns at around 95 miles per hour and get pitchers put on the 40-man roster so they aren't stolen away by other power-hungry organizations. That allows them to come to Major League camp and draw big crowds when they throw their bullpens on the backfields.
The challenge is to turn these "big" arms into Major League pitchers and that's the task facing the Rangers this season with Font, Bonilla and Mendez. If the Rangers are successful, it could help revitalize the top half of a farm system that has given up a lot of talent through trades the past few years.
"All three are talented," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "What they all have in common is talent, youth and inexperience."
"They are pretty intriguing," manager Ron Washington admitted. "But they need command. They need to learn their craft and they need to learn how to pitch. When they're finally ready and show up, then I'll get excited. But the one thing they need to be in the big leagues is command and pitchability. That only comes with experience and success."
Font, ranked the sixth-best prospect in the Texas organization by MLB.Com, is the only one of the three who has pitched in the big leagues, having pitched in five September games for the Rangers over the past two seasons. He also differs from Bonilla and Mendez in that he relies mainly on one pitch.
Font, despite missing all of 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery, has a fastball that's clocked at 95 miles per hour and he throws it around 80 percent of the time. His slider and changeup only get nominal use. Relying mainly on the fastball, Font has struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings in the Minors but also walked 4.8.
Mendez and Bonilla, who were acquired in trades from other organizations, both have three "plus" pitches. In addition to a fastball that is clocked in Font's range, they also have an above-average breaking ball and changeup.
The Rangers are still just getting an idea of what Bonilla can do. He was one of two pitchers acquired from the Phillies for Michael Young last offseason and split time between Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Round Rock. He was overpowering at Frisco and underwhelming at Round Rock.
His Frisco numbers included a 0.30 ERA, 50 strikeouts and nine walks in 30 innings and an opponent's batting average of .152. At Round Rock he had a 7.95 ERA, 24 walks and 53 strikeouts in 43 innings. Opponents hit .299 off him.
"The main difference was in Frisco I had more focus and more concentration," Bonilla said.
Bonilla gets in trouble when he nibbles with the fastball rather than challenging hitters and relying too much on the offspeed stuff to put them away. If the command of the offspeed pitches is erratic, Bonilla gets in trouble.
"These guys are young and trying to figure out their way," said Steve Buechele, who has managed all three at Frisco over the past two years. "It's easy to overpower hitters with your stuff at the lower levels. But the higher you go, you've got to have a plan and be able to locate your fastball. If you've got that kind of fastball, utilize it and pitch off it."
Buechele said Mendez has "electric" stuff. Like Bonilla, Mendez has three "plus" pitches. He also has a suspect elbow that has put him on the disabled list twice in the past two years. Mendez was 2-0 with a 1.82 ERA in 16 games at Frisco last season through the end of the May before a stress fracture in his elbow brought his season to an end.
Despite his troubles, Mendez is still on the 40-man roster. He is the last of three players acquired from the Red Sox for catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on July 31, 2010.
"It shows they have a lot of confidence in me," Mendez said. "Some teams would have given up on me by now. The Rangers have given me a great chance."
None of these three pitchers are expected to be on the Opening Day roster. They are not ready and not wanted yet. Instead they could be among the first sent back when the Rangers start trimming their Spring Training roster.
All three need innings, they need mound time and they need experience. In a combined 18 professional seasons, these three pitchers have averaged just 63 innings per year. They've had a combined four seasons when they've thrown over 100 innings as opposed to a combined six seasons when they've thrown less than 50 innings.
The big arms have carried them through the farm system and got them to Major League camp. They'll need more than that to make it for good in the big leagues.
"You're talking about power arms but, to paraphrase [former Astros manager] Larry Dierker, experience is a tough teacher," Maddux said. "It gives you the test first and the lesson later. They need to learn their lessons and they'll be better pitchers for it."
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.