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A year ago, an American-Statesman photo shoot on the Round Rock Express media day brought together three elite prospects at Dell Diamond, all of them itching to do some serious damage for the Texas Rangers’ top farm club. Nomar Mazara. Joey Gallo. Jurickson Profar.
The Express started the season on the road and, by the time the team returned a week later for the home opener, Mazara already was in the big leagues. Not long afterward, Gallo and Profar were called up to Arlington, too.
The phenoms were gone, the air was out of the balloon, and Round Rock followed up a Pacific Coast League division title with a ho-hum 71-72 season, finishing 12½ games out of first.
This year’s team, which will open play Thursday night at Dell against defending division champ Nashville, couldn’t look more different. The word mature comes to mind.
First baseman Ronald Guzman is the only top-30 Rangers prospect on the roster, according to MLB.com, checking in at No. 4.
“No doubt, it’s a veteran-type team,” Express manager Jason Wood said Tuesday. “Those kids like Mazara and Gallo were in the process of putting together a (development) plan and had to plug holes above (Triple-A) early (in the season). These guys this year have had plans, and now they’re trying to lengthen their careers.”
The “guys” Wood referenced include:
- Third baseman Will Middlebrooks, 28, who played three years for the Boston Red Sox and won a World Series ring.
- Outfielder Travis Snider, 29, who’s logged 1,783 big league at-bats.
- Starting pitchers Dillon Gee, 30, a former 13-game winner for the Mets, and Nick Martinez, 26, who’s made 50 starts for the Rangers.
In some ways, they all feel at home.
“I’ve pitched at Dell Diamond before, going all the way back to the state tournament,” said Gee, a Cleburne High and Texas State alum. “I also pitched against the Longhorns here in 2007. I like the park, the area, and I kind of feel like a hometown guy here.”
Gee was 8-9 with a 4.68 ERA for the Royals last year but was cut loose after needing surgery when blood clots were found in his right shoulder and lungs.
“It was kind of scary,” he said, “but I feel good now. Obviously, the main thing for me is to prove I’m healthy.”
Middlebrooks is another native Texan, from Liberty-Eylau High in Texarkana.
“I always hated playing against the Rangers,” he said. “With their bats, they were never out of games. So the opportunity to join them and get back in the state was appealing.”
Snider is from Kirkland, Wash., and spent eight big-league years with Toronto or Pittsburgh, so he’s looking forward to warm weather.
“Yeah, bring it on,” he said. “I’m coming off my worst year, so I needed a change of scenery. I have a relationship with (Rangers manager) Jeff Banister and some of the staff, so I felt they could help me get back on track.
“It’s not always pretty with me, but I take a football mentality to the game. That will play well here, right?”
Martinez expects the Express to win more games because of their considerable experience. Prospect-heavy teams often learn on the fly.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who’ve been in the majors, and they know it’s important to catch somebody’s attention here so they can get back there,” he said. “We have a few young guys with whom we can share our knowledge.”
Wood said the rotation should be a strong suit.
“When these guys get hit, they won’t get scared,” he said. “They’ve been through it all so many times. Younger starting pitchers often don’t react as well to a little adversity.”
Offensively, Wood touts the middle of his order, with veteran Express standout Jared Hoying hitting third, followed by Middlebrooks and Snider.
He said he lacks a natural leadoff hitter but will try 36-year-old middle infielder Doug Bernier in that role.
“Doug has so much experience, he’ll know how to give us quality at-bats there,” Wood said. “He’s been around a long time.”
Like the rest of his team.
Nashville at Round Rock
When: 7:05 p.m. Thursday (gates open at 6:05)
Pitchers: Nashville’s Daniel Gossett (10-6, 2.69 in 2016) vs. Round Rock’s Tyler Wagner (1-4, 3.04)
Tickets: $10 to $16 ($7 for lawn)
Series: Five games through Monday. Saturday’s start is at 6:05 p.m.; Sunday’s is at 1:05 p.m.
Promotions: Thursday, schedule magnet and fireworks. Friday, fireworks. Saturday, Bob Schneider concert. Monday, $1 hot dogs and sodas.
Projected batting order
2B Doug Bernier
SS Jason Martinson
CF Jared Hoying
3B Will Middlebrooks
LF Travis Snider
1B Ronald Guzman
RF Cesar Puello
DH Preston Beck
C Brett Hayes
1-RH Tyler Wagner
2-RH Allen Webster
3-RH Dillon Gee
4-RH Nick Martinez
5-RH Eddie Gamboa
Note: RH Anthony Bass also figures into the mix
RH Keone Kela