Smiling comes easily to Ronald Guzman, the good-natured top prospect on the Round Rock Express.
Hitting can be difficult, even if it’s been a piece of cake this year. The 22-year-old Dominican is batting .320 and looks like the Texas Rangers’ first baseman of the future, but Guzman wasn’t a natural growing up.
“When I started playing Little League, I was like 6, and I wasn’t good batting,” Guzman said. “Everybody has to get in the game in Little League, so sometimes I’d only have one at-bat. If I got a hit, they had to keep me in and let me run the bases because, if not, I was going to start crying.
“Even then, I loved the game so much, I didn’t want to go off the field, especially after the times I got on base. So I tried to make them keep me in. Looking back, that’s something I always think is funny.”
The humble Pacific Coast League standout is getting on base a lot these days, leading the Express, home to Salt Lake this weekend, with 49 hits and 27 runs scored. Guzman is second in home runs with five and RBIs with 20.
Not bad, considering the Rangers’ No. 4 overall prospect, according to MLB.com, once fancied himself as the guy blowing away batters.
“I was a pitcher. I wanted to be the next Randy Johnson,” the 6-foot-5-inch left-hander said of the 6-10 fireballer.
That changed when Guzman started finding a swing that worked for his body and became a force at the plate. Coaches also tugged at his desire to remain on the field.
“They told me if you’re going to pitch, you’re not going to be able to hit, and I’m like, ‘Ah, I don’t think that’s going to be fun.’ I wanted to be out there every game, so I decided to play outfield.”
Rangers farm director Paul Kruger scouted Guzman extensively in the Dominican Republic before Texas gave the 16-year-old a $3.45 million signing bonus in 2011.
“He was an outfielder with a big arm,” Kruger said. “We moved him to first base, partly because we didn’t have many true first basemen in the system. At 6-5, he’s got a great wingspan and presents a big target.
“At the plate, he’s figuring out how to minimize body movement and trust his hands. With that kind of frame, sometimes it takes longer to get everything in sync. We’re quite pleased with his improvement. He’s having a tremendous season.”
Size can cut both ways.
“I feel like I can get to some pitches other guys can’t,” Guzman said. “But I’ve also got a bigger strike zone to cover. I’ve got to stay short and quick.”
Guzman profiles as a gap hitter, the opposite of the all-or-nothing approach of current Rangers first baseman Mike Napoli.
“We’ve slotted Ronald into that 3 hole, and he keeps the line moving,” Round Rock manager Jason Wood said. “He’s been told not to try to do too much. With two strikes, he’s taking the ball the other way. It’s nice to see that out of a young player.
“He’s hitting the ball all over the place and not worried about power. When he needs to, he can drive the ball.”
Wood envisions Guzman eventually being a 20-home-run hitter in the major leagues.
“Right now he’s working on being a contact-type hitter,” Wood said. “With his swing and leverage, along with the quick hands, the power will come.”
Rangers right fielder Nomar Mazarra said earlier this spring: “There’s a lot he can do with that smooth, left-handed stroke. I know he’ll be here with me before too long.”
Possibly later this season, if Napoli can’t raise his .181 average.
Teammates and club officials laud Guzman’s mental development. A fatal wreck late in 2014 in the Dominican Republic — when a motorcyclist ran into his SUV, flipped over and died — left a lasting impact. Guzman, initially detained by police, was cleared of any wrongdoing.
“That was a tough time, but it helped me mature a lot and get my mind straight,” he said. “It was an awful thing, but God knows it wasn’t my intention, and I didn’t have any fault in this. But I thought about it a lot, and it made me refocus on my own life.”
These days, when Guzman wants to chill away from the field, he’ll watch a movie or hustle his teammates in 2K Games or Mortal Kombat on PlayStation 4.
“Am I good? Yeah, I’m good,” he said, laughing. “Sometimes, I let them win, because if I don’t, they’ll never play me.”
THE RANGERS’ PIPELINE
The top five prospects, according to MLB.com, and how they’re doing:
Rank, Player…..Pos….Age…..2017 season
1. Leody Taveras…..OF…..18…..Low-A…..The young Dominican has been impressive, batting .287 with 23 runs and 20 RBIs at Hickory.
2. Yohander Mendez…..SP…..22…..Double-A…..A spring disappointment, the Venezuelan lefty rebounded with a 3.47 ERA over 8 starts.
3. Ariel Jurado…..SP…..21…..Double-A…..The Panamanian righty, 20-7 over 2015-16, has a 4.11 ERA with just 28 K’s in 46 innings.
4. Ronald Guzman…..1B…..22…..Triple-A…..At .320, he’s batting nearly 50 points above his career average, and his strikeouts are down.
5. Brett Martin…..SP…..22…..High-A…..The lefty from Morristown, Tenn., carries a 3.12 ERA and 34 strikeouts in 26 innings.
NEXT FOR EXPRESS
Saturday-Monday: vs. Salt Lake (Angels), at Dell Diamond, 6:05 p.m. Saturday, 1:05 p.m. Sunday, 7:05 p.m. Monday
Tuesday-May 26: vs. Las Vegas (Mets), at Dell Diamond, 7:05 p.m. each night
For results of Friday’s Express-Bees game, go to statesman.com.