Tonight: Austen Williams (RH, 4-3, 4.36 at two lower levels) and Ariel Jurado (RH, 2-1, 1.63 in Arizona Summer League Rangers);
Friday: Connor Bach (LH,1-0, 3.31, two lower levels) and Luis Ortiz (RH, 0-0, 1.29 at Hickory);
Saturday: Luis Reyes (RH, 1-5, 3.71 two lower levels) and Reed Garrett (RH, 6-1, 4.06 at Spokane, Wash.).
Sunday: Drew Van Orden (RH, 2-4, 4.30 two lower levels) and Brett Martin (LH, 1-4, 5.40 at AZL Rangers).
“It seems like all of the guys returning are 20 or younger, but it can be nothing but positive for those guys.”
The group’s veteran is first baseman Ronald Guzman. Guzman, 20, is in his third season in Hickory. He hit .272 during an injury-plagued 2012 season, struggled with off-the-field issues at times last year, and hit .218 in 118 games with just six homers.
With Guzman’s 6-foot-6 frame noticeably filled out this spring, Ragsdale’s hoping a mature attitude will show on the field.
“I think that’s part of the thought process,” Ragsdale said. “He has played great and has been great every day of spring training and since he’s been here.
“We look for him to continue that into the season and see where that goes.”
Also back is second baseman Travis Demeritte, the Rangers’ first-round pick in 2013. A fast start last year pushed him to a team-high 25 homers, the most in Class Low-A and by any teenager in the minors. But as the heat of summer wore him down, it helped pad a high strikeout total of 171 – sixth most in the minors.
“I think he’s one of the guys that realized how hard a first full season is, how hard it can be and how tough it can be,” Ragsdale said. “I’m excited for him is to see how he comes out this year and (is) able to handle longer stretches of the season and put some better at bats together.”
Michael De Leon returns at shortstop. He was a defensive wizardry last season, smashing the club’s single-season record with a .967 fielding percentage (11 errors in 330 chances). Still just 18 and with a bevy of talented shortstops up the Rangers chain, De Leon will likely stay put in Hickory.
Perhaps the most talented infielder is a newcomer Josh Morgan, the Rangers’ third-round pick in 2015 out of Orange (Calif.) High. Named by Baseball America as the Rangers’ 10th-best prospect, he led the Arizona Rookie league last summer with a .468 on-base percentage.
“J-Mo is a baseball player,” Ragsdale said of Morgan who will begin the season at third, though he will play other infield spots. “He can do a lot of different things.
“He knows how to play the game, kind of the intangible type things. He really puts good Abs (at bats) together….
“He knows how to play the game the right way -- a very good baseball player.”
Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who had a brief stay in Hickory last year, will fill in around the infield, while catcher Kevin Torres will spell Guzman on occasion at first.
Behind the plate will be Jose Trevino – a sixth-round pick last June out of Oral Roberts who received rave reviews from Ragsdale about his leadership.
Jairo Beras returns in right field and is looking to springboard a strong second half of 2014 into a stellar season. After limping to a .201 average in the first half, Beras bounced up to .276 in the second half with 18 extra-base hits
“With Jairo, can he build off of where he ended last year…,” said Ragsdale. “It was a huge night and day between the first and second halves, and we want him to build off of the second half continue to do that this year.”
Also returning is Eduard Pinto, who after an early-season demotion to Spokane (Wash.) led the Northwest League with a .335 average.
Starting in center field will be Jose Cardona and in left is Luke Tendler, a product of North Carolina A&T.
The pitching rotation will also feature a couple of returnees, including first-rounders Luis Ortiz (2014) and Collin Wiles (2011). Ortiz comes with a blistering fastball mixed with a slider and changeup.
“He can do a lot of things, especially for a high school kid coming out,” Ragsdale said. “He can do some things with the ball that you don’t see a lot of from high school kids.”
Also returning in the rotation is Kelvin Vasquez, who missed the second half of the season with a forearm injury.
Rounding out the rotation is Ariel Jurado, who will start tonight’s opener, Brett Martin and Reed Garrett.
Highlighting the bullpen corps will be Kevin Matthews – a 2011 first-round selection who missed the previous two years with shoulder surgeries – and South Iredell High product Chris Dula, who Ragsdale said opened eyes in the spring with a heavy sinker.
Lenoir-Rhyne grabs exhibition win over Hickory Crawdads
Hickory tied it in the bottom half of the inning. Luke Tendler doubled to right, then later scored on a sacrifice fly by Jairo Beras.
The Bears responded and took the lead for good in the third inning against Wiles. Brantley Rumford and Matthew De La Rosa opened the inning with back-to-back singles, then advanced a base on Ryan Perkins’ sacrifice.
Rumford scored on a wild pitch with Vieitez walking on the pitch. Colby Dishmond walked, then David Newcomer singled in two runs to make it 4-1.
The Crawdads cut it to 4-3 in the sixth inning on an RBI double by Ronald Guzman and a groundout by Travis Demeritte.
Hickory threatened in the seventh inning by getting the first two runners on, but Tad Ratliff struck out Josh Morgan to end the inning.
An inning later, the Crawdads had two singles and had a third runner reach on an error. But on Tendler’s single, strong throws by right fielder Will Thompson and Rumford at second cut down Ricky Valencia trying to score.