Part 20 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers' Minor League system.
The Rangers were heading to Anaheim for the second series of the 2008 season, but Don Welke, senior special assistant to the general manager, wasn't going with the club. The legendary scout was dispatched to a high school baseball game 2,100 miles away, in Niceville, Florida.
Welke was among dozens of scouts on hand for a game that would feature Niceville High left-hander Brett DeVall, an Aflac All-American whom Baseball America suggested "had distinguished himself [that] spring as the top pure high school left-hander" eligible for that June's amateur draft. DeVall probably wasn't going to be a serious consideration for Texas with its first-round selection, 11th overall (a pick that would be used on first baseman Justin Smoak), but the Rangers wanted to be prepared in case DeVall was still on the board when their second-round pick (57th overall) came around.
Making their own 600-mile trip to the Florida Panhandle was the Lexington Christian Academy high school squad, whose ace Robbie Ross was slated to be DeVall's mound opponent and was generating his own draft buzz. Niceville had four times as many high school students as Lexington Christian and was a state power in baseball. DeVall, toting "the best fastball among prep lefties" in the country per Baseball America, had better stuff than Ross and nearly half a foot on him in height. Ross and his Eagles were the underdogs against DeVall and his own Eagles, in every sense.
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
Welke came away from the game, a 2-1 duel that lasted less than 90 minutes, fired up about what he'd seen. The two runs DeVall allowed matched his season's total to that point, and he punched out 11 hitters, but it was Ross who made the bigger impression on Welke. A walk, hit batsman, and passed ball put Niceville runners on second and third with no outs in the final frame, but Ross buckled down and induced a groundout and two strikeouts to seal the upset win, with the game's final pitch clocking in at 94 mph, the highest reading the 18-year-old had registered all day.
"DeVall was the more heralded kid and Niceville was the stronger program, but Robbie really dialed it up with the game on line," Welke recalls. "He showed me something. He's an outstanding competitor."
Two months later Atlanta used its first pick, 40th overall, to select DeVall. Texas chose Ross at number 57.
Fast-forward three years: Ross is putting the finishing touches on a breakout season between High Class A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco. DeVall is out of organized baseball, having been released at the end of spring training by the Braves.
Ross had a strong pro debut for Short-Season A Spokane in 2009 (2.66 ERA in 15 starts, 76 strikeouts and 17 walks in 74.1 innings) and earned a mid-season promotion in 2010 after a strong first half for Low Class Hickory (2.59 ERA in 16 starts, 62 strikeouts and 20 walks in 94 innings). But he struggled in the offense-friendly Cal League in the second half, posting a 5.37 ERA in 11 Bakersfield starts despite 49 strikeouts and 17 walks in 52 frames. Given a season-ending opportunity to make a playoff start for Frisco, he allowed seven runs over three innings of work.
But Ross wasn't discouraged. He used the second-half struggles, the first of his baseball life, as motivation. Even though he'd continued to generate extraordinary groundout rates with a tremendous sinking fastball, he recognized the need to keep making adjustments.
"I felt like I needed to get more comfortable throwing my fastball to both sides of the plate," says Ross, "and more consistent with all my pitches, to the point where I could go to any of them in any count." Rangers Minor League pitching coordinator Danny Clark adds credit to Ross for tightening his slider and responding to a challenge to use his changeup more often.
The results have been dramatic. After struggling against High Class A hitters last summer, Ross (9-4, 2.26) was in the top five in the Carolina League in opponents' batting average, ERA, strikeouts, and victories at the time of his promotion to Frisco. And he's been even more dominant in the Texas League, posting a 2.84 ERA in four starts, scattering 20 hits and two walks in 25.1 innings while setting 23 down on strikes.
Ross's Pelican teammates Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland pushed their way to Frisco before Ross did, and in fact it was the trade of those two to San Diego that triggered Ross's own promotion to the Texas League. But that didn't faze the left-hander. Neither would getting to Arlington as a reliever, something that circumstances could dictate. "I want to get to the big leagues any way I can," says Ross. "If that means coming out of the bullpen, so be it."
Another Kentucky native, left-hander Scott Downs, rocketed through the Minor Leagues as a starting pitcher but didn't establish himself in the big leagues until after he'd been traded three times, released, and converted from starter to reliever. Now he's the Angels' most effective weapon out of the bullpen, in the first year of a three-year, $15 million contract that follows a three-year, $10 million deal he'd signed with Toronto. If Ross turns out to be a reliever who can come in to get a groundout or an out on strikes, as he's done in the Minor Leagues, there could be worse outcomes.
It's too soon for Texas to decide the role in which Ross figures to help most. For now, particularly with Erlin and Wieland having moved on, he settles in as one of the Rangers' top pitching prospects, having made tremendous strides in 2011.
"Robbie has really escalated his development this year," says Welke, whose trip to Florida in April 2008 helped pave the way for the Rangers to draft him two months later. "He has the stuff to be a Major League pitcher, and I believe he is a winner."
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.