ARLINGTON -- At Triple-A Round Rock, Martin Perez is working on his fastball command and poise on the mound. Neil Ramirez, after a rough Spring Training, is showing the ability to throw all three pitches for strikes. Tanner Scheppers is starting to get his fastball down in the zone to go with his terrific secondary pitches.
Right-handers Barret Loux and Justin Grimm have been outstanding at Double-A Frisco, Jacob Brigham is starting to come on with some of the best pure stuff in the system and Carlos Pimentel, back in the Roughriders' rotation, is showing signs of re-establishing himself as a legitimate prospect.
Class-A Myrtle Beach right-hander Cody Buckel caught people's attention by throwing four scoreless innings during an intrasquad game designed to get Yu Darvish work, and Buckel, has taken that into the season. After six starts, he is 3-1 with a 1.31 ERA and a league-leading 41 strikeouts in 34 innings.
The Rangers felt when they took Luke Jackson with the 45th pick of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of a Florida high school he had a chance to be something special, and he is 2-1 with a 3.46 ERA at Class A Hickory. But a Rangers official suggested quietly at the end of Spring Training to keep an eye on Class A right-handers Jerad Eickhoff and Nick Tepesch and left-hander Victor Payano.
Tepesch is 1-2 with a 3.29 ERA at Myrtle Beach, where the Pelicans have the lowest team ERA in the Carolina League, while Eickhoff is 3-2 with a 3.71 ERA and Payano is 2-0 with a 2.96 ERA at Hickory.
They all have much more work ahead of them, but the first month of the Minor League season has been a reminder that pitching depth remains the strength of the Rangers' farm system. At all four levels, the organization is still stocked with talented "big arms" that are the result of the franchise's relentless pursuit of young pitching.
"So far so good," said Danny Clark, who is in his fourth season as the Rangers' Minor League pitching coordinator. "It seems like guys are really stepping up. We're really happy with what we have seen at this point."
Maintaining a high level of young pitching has not been easy. The Rangers' main goal the past two years has been to win at the Major League level, and they have not been shy about including young pitching in trades. Over the past two years, the club has given up 10 pitchers in trades designed to reinforce the Major League team. That includes three who are currently pitching in other teams' rotations: Tommy Hunter with the Orioles, Joe Wieland with the Padres and Blake Beavan with the Mariners.
But Perez has long been seen as the Rangers' No. 1 pitching prospect, and they still feel that way even though he is 2-2 with a 4.54 ERA in six starts at Round Rock.
"He had a very productive big league camp, but the inconsistency is still there," Clark said. "He's still giving up runs early, but we're not seeing the big innings like we used to. Instead of giving up four or five runs, it might be two or three. The biggest thing is working on the command of his fastball."
Ramirez, who did not pitch well in Arizona, is 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA in five starts after allowing six runs in one inning in his last start against Oklahoma City. Prior to that, he had back-to-back starts of six scoreless innings against Omaha and New Orleans, allowing a combined seven hits and one walk while striking out 10.
"We're seeing more quality strikes in the zone with all three pitches," Clark said.
Perez is ranked second on MLB.com's Top 20 list of Rangers prospects, while Ramirez is eighth. Loux is ranked 19th and Grimm is not listed at all, but both threaten to move up quickly if they build on what they have done so far in Frisco. Grimm is 5-1 with a 1.62 ERA, while Loux is 5-0 with a 1.63 ERA, putting them 1-2 in ERA in the Texas League.
"They have both pitched exceptionally well," Clark said.
They also represent the Rangers' aggressiveness when it comes to pursuing pitching. The Diamondbacks took Loux with the sixth overall pick in the 2010 Draft out of Texas A&M and signed him to a $2 million bonus, but they backed out of the deal because of concerns over his right shoulder and he ended up being declared a free agent by the Commissioner's Office. The Rangers moved in to sign him in November 2010, and so far, the shoulder has held up fine.
The Rangers took Grimm with in the fifth round out of the University of Georgia, where he posted a 5.49 ERA during a rather mediocre junior season. But Rangers scouting director Kipp Fagg had followed Grimm since high school and knew he had a great arm. The club felt he was worth the risk and signed him to an $825,000 signing bonus, well above the $150,000 slot price for a fifth-round pick.
Loux, pitching like a No. 1 Draft pick, has been able to command all four pitches, including a 94-mph fastball, and Grimm has developed a plus changeup to go with his 90-plus fastball and excellent curve. They are two reasons why the Rangers have maintained their pitching depth in the farm system even though Kasey Kiker, their No. 1 pick in 2006, was a bust and the organization was unable to sign Matthew Purke, their No. 1 pick in '09.
What they have done is made the critical jump from Class A to Double A, the biggest step for Minor League prospects, and Buckel could soon join them in Frisco after the way he has pitched at Myrtle Beach. Others like Jackson, Payano, Eickhoff and Tepesch will end up having to take the same big step before they can really be regarded as serious prospects rather than just names on the list.
There are others worth watching, including Hickory right-hander Will Lamb, a second-round pick out of Clemson last year who is just now fully recovering from some Spring Training tendinitis, and Myrtle Beach right-hander Kyle Hendricks, an eighth-round pick out of Dartmouth who doesn't throw hard but may have the best aptitude and feel for pitching in the system.
Three pitchers in the Rangers' Top 20 Prospects list remain in extended Spring Training. Right-hander Matt West (18) is still recovering from a sprained right elbow and David Perez (16) is still trying to work out some delivery and mechanical issues. Left-hander Kevin Matthews (12), who was the 33rd overall pick last year out of high school in Georgia, has been held back to this point simply because the club wants to monitor his innings.
"His delivery needed a little cleanup, too," Clark said. "He was throwing across his body and now his delivery is more in line to home plate."
But it's not always about being a high draft pick. Hickory right-hander Nick Martinez, an 18th-round pick out of Fordham last summer, has 22 strikeouts to three walks, a testament to the work he has put in so far and why he has caught people's attention.
"We have some talented pitchers," Clark said. "The biggest thing with a lot of them is just getting them to be consistent. That's the name of the game, closing that gap on their inconsistency. They'll have a really good game and then one that's not so good, but they're all learning."
The main thing is the talent is there. The Rangers have worked hard over the past five years to become a pitching-rich organization. The early evidence suggests they still are.
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.