Of Johnny Whittleman, and the beginning of an era

We are about to travel to Rangers Nerdville for a few minutes, so bear with me. How many of you remember 3B prospect Johnny Whittleman? Ten additional points if you recall the monster home run he hit in the 2007 Futures Game.

As Texas’s 2nd round pick in the 2005 amateur draft, there was once a time I swore on Whittleman’s future. Granted, it was an era where position prospects in general were something of a novelty in the Rangers bleak farm system, even with Edinson Volquez, Thomas Diamond and Eric Hurley forming a three-headed monster on the pitching end. Basically if you weren’t dreaming on Johnny Whittleman to be a meaningful contributor someday, you weren’t dreaming at all.

Objectively, it can be noted that Whittleman had one truly strong minor league campaign. As a 20 year-old playing at Clinton in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League in 2007, he generated a .271/.382/.476 (141 wRC+) slash line with 14 HRs in 406 plate appearances. That was the year he somehow ended up in the same Futures Game as Clayton Kershaw, Justin Upton and Joey Votto. That’s baseball, they say.

After 2007 Whittleman began his path to washing out as a prospect, spending the next three years fluctuating between the California (High-A) and Texas (Double-A) Leagues, with a similar lack of success at both stops. He ventured to the Royals organization for the last two seasons of his career, going 2-4 with a pair of singles in his only professional appearance in a Triple-A game.

He retired in 2012.

In many respects, Whittleman represents the end of an awful era of non-pitching prospects in the Rangers organization. Only a few weeks after Johnny’s moment in the sun in the Futures Game, then-GM Jon Daniels made the franchise-altering Mark Teixeira trade (you know the names by now), as well as moving Kenny Lofton to the Indians (for C Max Ramirez) and Eric Gagñe to the Red Sox (for David Murphy and OF Engel Beltre). That was it.

The new direction of the organization was stamped that day. No longer would it metastasize with a high-priced free agent here and a John Koronka there, but rather an all-out assault on acquiring talent at every level.

It’s been a decade since the change in philosophy, and no one with a relationship to the team — from Daniels, all the way down to the last fan who has been following all these years — regrets that decision. From 2008-2015 the Rangers produced 6 winning seasons, 5 postseason appearances (if you count Game 163 vs. Tampa Bay in 2013), 3 AL West Crowns and 2 American League Pennants. To a large degree, that 2007 trade deadline was the springboard to the franchise’s relevant success (namely, back-to-back World Series appearances in 2010 and ’11), and at least partially why the club remains competitive to this day.

But now, a new nucleus is forming. Even with 20 year-old Nomar Mazara’s hasty graduation to the major leagues, the Rangers remain stockpiled with talent at the lower levels. On Friday Baseball America released its first Prospect Hot Sheet of 2016, and it included 4 Rangers: Joey Gallo (1), Andy Ibañez (3), Travis Demeritte (5) and Dillon Tate (13).

Everyone is familiar with Mazara, Gallo and Lewis Brinson, and I’m assuming you remember Jurickson Profar still plays baseball for Texas’s Triple-A affiliate. Each member of that quartet is a better prospect now than Johnny Whittleman ever was. But together they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Here are how they, as well as a few other choice prospects, have produced over the first week and a half:

Gallo: .333/.432/.778 (12-36), 4 HR, 1 3B, 2 2B, 7 BB (2 IBB), 10 K
Profar: .297/.395/.378 (11-37), 3 2B, 5 BB, 7 K
Brinson: .286/.350/.429 (10-35), 1 3B, 3 2B, 2 BB, 6 K
Ibañez: .439/.489/.732 (18-41), 1 HR, 1 3B, 7 2B, 4 BB, 9 K
Demeritte: .378/.415/1.027 (14-37), 6 HR, 2 3B, 2 2B, 2 BB, 14 K
Tate: 10.2 IP, 1 run (0 ER), 9 hits, 16 K, 1 BB

This is without mentioning Luis Ortiz, who was on many top-100 lists before the season, or Brett Martin, or Ronald Guzman or Jairo Beras or Josh Morgan.

Top to bottom, the Rangers have never had more talent spread across their minor league affiliates. The only other season that compares was 2007, as is the basis for this entire article, with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Elvis Andrus, Neftali Feliz, Matt Harrison, Max Ramirez, David Murphy, Blake Beaven, Michael Main, Kasey Kiker and more; obviously there were washouts and some, like Beaven and Main, were traded to bolster a pennant chase.

The difference now, as compared to then, is the Rangers have the luxury of being competitive in the meantime. They don’t have to wait multiple years for Andrus and Harrison and Feliz to hatch into big leaguers. Instead, the burden is having too much talent, and not enough space.

As far as prospects go, history is bound to repeat itself. Of all the aforementioned names in the current farm system, some won’t make it past Double-A, while others will be traded to help obtain pieces for the big league roster.

That is, after all, the point of any farm system: To help the MLB parent team.

So while we’re a long way removed from 2007, the course of the franchise has remained intact. It’s why Texas’s front office is regarded among the best of a handful of MLB teams. Whether it be the Astros, Cubs, or more immediately the Phillies and Braves, complete rebuilds aren’t exactly a foreign concept in the modern era. The Rangers did it a decade ago.

I miss Johnny Whittleman, and I wish he had graduated to the big leagues so all of us believers could have cashed in. But I do not miss that we once needed our prospects to succeed so that the Texas Rangers would succeed.

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