Jurickson Profar is the shiny new toy with the Round Rock Express this year, and everyone is anxious to see the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball.
And when the team’s high-profile shortstop isn’t the focal point, fans will be fixated on third baseman Mike Olt, a big-time power source who ranks as the Texas Rangers’ No. 2 prospect.
Nick Tepesch, 24, who starts tonight’s opener against Omaha, earned a shot as the fifth man in Texas’ pitching rotation and will join the Rangers on April 9 for his major-league debut. But Express fans could see a lot of Tepesch, too, as Round Rock embarks on its third season as the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate with a revamped roster that holds much promise.
“This is the next wave of Rangers prospects,” said Round Rock’s general manager, George King. “We’re ramping back up after tailing off last year. We are a little younger than we’ve been the last couple years. There are not as many six-year free agents.”
Dependable veterans like Brad Nelson, Matt Kata, Luis Cruz and Val Majewski have moved on — Kata to the Express front office.
In their places are a bevy of prospects getting their first taste of Triple-A, including Profar, Olt, center fielder Engel Beltre and first baseman Chris McGuiness. They helped Frisco to the Texas League championship series in 2012.
On one hand, it’s exciting for fans because these are high-end talents. On the flip side, it’s a gamble because Triple-A clubs normally provide veteran pieces for the major-league affiliate when injuries hit or players don’t live up to expectations.
“It’s a bit risky,” manager Bobby Jones acknowledged. “Our No. 1 goal is to serve the Rangers. But you’ve got to remember, Profar and Olt already have been around big leaguers. If they get called up, it wouldn’t be totally foreign to them. Also, you’re talking about really talented kids.”
Profar and Olt combined for just 50 at-bats for the Rangers in 2012, but their jump straight from Double-A to the majors last September was impressive.
“Round Rock is the best place for me right now,” said Profar, 20, who drilled a home run in his first major-league trip to the plate. “I need to play every day. I want to get better at everything.”
Olt, 24, has a similar take. “There are a lot of things I can improve on,” he said. “I’m going to get some time in the outfield and learn to play there, too.
“Triple-A will be a whole new challenge. You’re facing more experienced pitchers, and I have to prove I can handle it.”
It’s also an important year for two Express returnees, left fielder Joey Butler, 27, the team’s only Pacific Coast League all-star last season, and second baseman Yangervis Solarte, 25. They need to make the jump from prospects to major-league ready.
Round Rock does have an older pitching staff, nearly all with MLB experience.
“If the Rangers need somebody there, it’s comforting because those guys have done it before,” Jones said.
Justin Grimm, 24, who pitched in five games for Texas last season, is the youngest of a group that includes veterans like Randy Wells, 30, and Brad Mills, 28.
Josh Lindblom, 25, a 6-foot-4-inch, 240-pound right-hander, is the most interesting new starter in Round Rock. Lindblom is a converted reliever who pitched well for the Dodgers and Phillies last year.
“I’ve done it some before in the minors,” he said. “It’s a role I can handle. I’ll just have to stretch myself out and use all four of my pitches.”
Express at a glance
2012 record: 69-75, fourth place in Pacific Coast League’s American South Division, 11 games out of first.
Home park: Dell Diamond, Round Rock (capacity: 8,722 seats, plus room for 3,000 on outfield berm)
Single-game tickets: $14-$18, reserved; $8-$12, home run porch; $7-$8, outfield berm. Available at stadium box office, online at roundrockexpress.com or by calling (512) 255-BALL.
Radio: KTXX (104.9)
Manager: Bobby Jones, 25 years overall, 1,5813-1,550 (156-132 in two years at Round Rock)
Coaching staff: Scott Coolbaugh (hitting); Brad Holman (pitching); Spike Owen (third base); Bryan Pearson (auxiliary)
Series to circle
April 4-7 vs. Omaha: Best to check out Jurickson Profar and Mike Olt early because there are no guarantees how long they’ll be here. The Storm Chasers have run out of Royals’ super prospects, but they’ve owned the Express for two years.
May 20-23 vs. Reno: The Aces are defending league champions, and they did not visit the Dell in 2012. Although they have a new cast, the Aces will showcase Tyler Skaggs, the No. 1 left-handed pitching prospect in the game.
June 18-21 vs. Memphis: Redbirds center fielder Oscar Taveras, 20, a five-tool wonder, is worth the price of admission. Baseball America ranks him No. 3 overall, and some scouts like Taveras better than Profar.
June 27-30 vs. New Orleans: The Marlins are starting 20-year-old RHP Jose Fernandez, a consensus top-five prospect, but he’s likely be with the Zephyrs by summer. They also could bring a terrific outfield of Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Jake Marisnick.
July 8-10 vs. Oklahoma City: The first home series against the RedHawks could put the Astros’ new pitching strategy on display. They are going with eight starters. First baseman Jonathan Singleton is a legit power prospect who should see Minute Maid by September.
Aug. 12-15 vs. Tacoma: The Rainers will likely have some of the top young arms in the minors. Tajuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton each are top-50 MLB prospects. The hitters are interesting, too, with shortstop Nick Franklin and perhaps catcher Mike Zunino.
The Express batting order should look like this:
CF Engel Beltre
SS Jurickson Profar
DH Jim Adduci
RF Aaron Cunningham
3B Mike Olt
LF Joey Butler
2B Yangervis Solarte
1B Chris McGuiness
C Eli Whiteside
1-RH Justin Grimm
2-LH Brad Mills
3-RH Randy Wells
4-RH Collin Balester
5-RH Josh Lindblom
Note: Nick Tepesch will start the opener then join the Rangers.
The historical record
*Note: switched major-league affiliation from Houston Astros to Texas Rangers
7:05 p.m. today, 104.9
Tickets: $7-$16; buy online at rrexpress.com or call 255-2255.