Ezequiel Duran used the AFL to boost his stock among a crowded group of infielders in the Rangers minor league system. Rusty Jones, Hickory Crawdads

Baseball

What Does the AFL Mean for the Rangers? Two Skyrocketing Prospects.

Ezequiel Duran and Owen White were among the stars of the Arizona Fall League. The ramifications could stretch well beyond 2021.

The minor league season has its own phases, each designed for fewer participants than the last. Upward of a couple hundred minor leaguers report to Surprise, Arizona, for spring training. At the end of camp, some are released, with the rest farming out to affiliates in Texas, North Carolina, or the Dominican Republic, or staying back in Surprise for extended spring training. Once the regular season ends in September, roughly 70 Rangers prospects gather in Surprise for Fall Instructional League, and in mid-October comes the final segment, the Arizona Fall League, which lasts six weeks. 

Teams are permitted to assign seven players to one of the AFL’s six rosters. The Rangers, Yankees, Nationals, Reds, and Royals may have used different criteria to decide which players to send to the Surprise Saguaros, but in general, the idea is to take advantage of an opportunity to get extra development for a group of prospects who, for one reason or another, could use it.

The AFL draws to a close this week, and with it, 2021 on the Rangers farm. The way things have shaken out in Arizona, the headline is clear: of the four right-handed pitchers and three “infielders” — catcher Sam Huff was once again limited to first base before he was shut down with a minor knee setback — whom Texas sent to the fall league, two have dazzled. Infielder Ezequiel Duran and righty Owen White have stood out not only among the Texas delegation but from the prospect-studded league as a whole.

White and Duran, who were the Rangers’ two representatives in last Saturday’s Fall Stars Game (most teams had just one player selected), competed in the AFL for different reasons. Like fellow Texas AFLers Huff, Justin Foscue, and Tim Brennan, White missed a large chunk of the 2021 season with an injury — in his case, a broken hand 10 batters into his first start of the year — and the Rangers wanted to get him the added innings. Duran, on the other hand, was healthy all year and, in fact, nearly doubled his career-high workload. The Rangers simply wanted to see more.

At the time of July’s trade of Joey Gallo and Joely Rodriguez to the Yankees, Duran and fellow middle infielder Josh Smith were widely considered the top two pieces in the deal, which also included pitcher Glenn Otto and second baseman-outfielder Trevor Hauver. Duran and Smith were High Class-A teammates both before and after the trade, though the Rangers eventually promoted Smith (who is nearly two years older) to Double-A. Duran’s summer was less impactful, a considerable dropoff statistically from the year he’d been having in the New York system. His AFL performance has been far more encouraging.

Texas had scouted Duran closely as a teenager in the Dominican Republic and had seen the growth in his game since he signed with New York in 2017. He’d increased both his extra-base hit rate and his walk rate with each promotion, while his strikeout rate came down. He squarely fit the profile that the Rangers are looking to develop system-wide: better at-bats with the capacity to do damage.

“He’s always had the ability to impact the baseball at an elite level,” says Rangers scout Jonathan George of Duran, whom he’s scouted for three years. “It’s that different sound off the bat, the electric hands. The chases were bad when he was younger, and he would get himself out at times, [but] each year [we saw] his approach getting better and better, his spin recognition getting better and better, his balance at the plate better and better — all while not losing any bat speed or impact. It’s been a consistent progression.”

Duran was in the midst of a breakout season when the trade was announced. He was among the High-A East leaders in just about every key offensive statistic, hitting .290 with 12 home runs and 12 steals in just 67 games and posting a .907 OPS. He maintained the power output with the Rangers (seven homers in 38 games) but hit just .229 with a .695 OPS in the same league. The 22-year-old was primarily playing shortstop for the first time as a pro, and on top of that, in George’s estimation, he was trying to do too much at the plate. “Anytime a player gets traded as part of a deal for a big-league talent of Gallo’s caliber, it’s only human nature to try and prove yourself immediately and make a good impression,” George says.

Rangers coaches worked with Duran to quiet his leg kick and eliminate extra movement in the swing, and he was able to rebound in a big way in the fall league. Going into the season’s final week, he had his OPS at .895 with only seven strikeouts in 64 plate appearances and was among the prospect league’s leaders in extra-base hits. He played third base in Saturday’s Fall Stars Game, a position at which he spent much of his fall even though he hadn’t played there professionally aside from three times in his first week after the trade to Texas.

On Friday, the Rangers will add Duran to the 40-man roster to make sure he’s protected from this winter’s Rule 5 Draft. They’re a year away from the same decision on White, but based on the pitcher’s work this summer — and this fall — his eventual addition to the roster is just as foregone a conclusion. For White, 2021 has been the latest chapter in an extraordinary story. For the organization, the importance of his AFL assignment goes well beyond getting him added reps.

In five starts for the Saguaros, as well as his dazzling one-inning performance in the Fall Stars Game (strikeout-groundout-groundout, with eight strikes in nine pitches), White has nearly doubled the innings he’s thrown as a pro. Bad luck had followed him around until now. The 2018 second-rounder was tactically shut down for the rest of his draft summer and then tore an elbow ligament the next April, requiring Tommy John surgery. Then, when his rehab was complete in the summer of 2020, there was no minor-league season to play due to COVID-19. When he was finally turned loose this May, White broke his hand in the third inning of his pro debut when punching the ground in frustration after making a throwing error. White wouldn’t pitch again until mid-August.

He was worth the wait. The North Carolina native was dominant in seven starts for Low Class-A Down East, facing more batters each time out. In 30 2/3 innings, he scattered 21 hits (.191 opponents’ average) and 10 walks, piling up an astonishing 50 strikeouts. He was then asked by Texas to head 2,000 miles west to the AFL.

“More than anything, it was about him gaining experience that he can use and learn from moving forward into next season,“ says Jordan Tiegs, who was White’s pitching coach at Down East and will move into a coordinator’s position for the organization going into 2022. “I think the AFL for Owen was more about seeing how his stuff plays against better competition and developing a better understanding of what works or doesn’t work well right now for him. … He hasn’t had a lot of opportunities to truly gauge how hitters react to his pitches, let alone experience all the other things you deal with and learn from by pitching in real games.”

The experience has gone extremely well for White. With possibly one start remaining, he has a 4-0, 1.16 record in five Saguaros starts and a league-high 23 1/3 innings. Despite being younger and less experienced than most opponents he faced, he held batters to a .143 average with a four-pitch mix that features low-to-mid-90s velocity and a wipeout curve that helped him average a strikeout per AFL inning.

Mike Anderson, a special assistant to Rangers general manager Chris Young, saw White this month and came away excited about far more than the repertoire that helped the 22-year-old blow through hitters in the summer and fall league. 

“[He has] the ‘it’ factor,” Anderson says. “His poise, focus, ability to adjust, trust of [his] stuff over the plate, competitiveness. Owen is pitching like a seasoned veteran. [It’s] hard to believe he’s had so few pro innings.”

MLB.com senior writer Jim Callis speculates that White will be named the AFL’s Most Valuable Pitcher, and it’s hard to imagine otherwise. Duran won’t win any league awards, but he has shown the Rangers he can make adjustments and finish strong after what has been by far the most demanding year of his career. The two will likely be Double-A teammates in 2022, possibly as soon as Opening Day. For now they’ll settle for being two of the prospects the organization is most excited about — even though it wasn’t until August that they really got their Rangers careers going.

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