The South Atlantic League is no joke, even though it’s four steps away from the major leagues.
It’s a mix of college-seasoned hitters and pitchers running into some of the top prep pitchers and hitters selected in the previous few drafts.
Players are tested, many times for the first time as professionals.
So, just imagine the challenge for a teenager who had never thrown a pitch in pro ball.
That’s what faced the No. 5 player in the Star-Telegram’s countdown of the top 10 Texas Rangers prospects.
No. 5: Cole Winn, RHP
Age: 19 (Nov. 25, 1999)
Weight: 190 pounds
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How acquired: 1st round, 2018 draft
The endless supply of sunny southern California days will be replaced this off-season by the chill and threat of snow in the rapidly growing area north of Denver.
Cole Winn is returning to his home state after a two-year detour that took him to Orange County for one of the most competitive prep baseball leagues and to become the 15th overall selection in the 2018 MLB draft.
The right-hander has lined up an indoor facility where he can long toss and work out with other minor-league ballplayers. His goal is to constantly improve his five-pitch arsenal, and the drive to do so is an intangible the Rangers fell in love with during the draft process.
He will also get older, turning 20 next month. But his first year of pro ball might have aged him more than that.
The 19-year-old Winn opened his professional career at Low A Hickory, and his first six starts saw him stub his toes repeatedly. By season’s end, though, he had learned how to navigate lineups and looked ready for whatever the Rangers throw at him next.
“After I got adjusted to everything and got used to the situation up there, I felt like I did a lot better and I felt like I finished up pretty strong in the second half. That was really good for me.”
Winn said that the was giving hitters too much credit early on and felt the need to be perfect with every pitch. That led to a 9.35 ERA after six starts and the realization that wasn’t doing the things that made him successful during his prep days.
He went on the attack, using all five of his pitches. The results followed, as he went 4-1 with a 2.81 ERA in his final 12 starts. Overall, he went 4-4 with a 4.46 ERA in 68 2/3 innings, and he issued only five home runs.
“It was like, ‘Why wasn’t I doing that to start with,’” he said.
Winn throws two fastballs, with the four-seamer topping out at 95, but he commands both of them. He throws his heater up and down, in and out, and complements it with two breaking pitches and a changeup that could become a plus offering.
Early on, “it was just a normal, typical 19-year-old,” Hickory manager Matt Hagen said. “His last three months of work, it’s a really good stat line. The way he finished was really good.”
The Rangers have never been shy about pushing their young prospects, though general manager Jon Daniels said the brakes have been tapped in most cases recently. Winn, though, came with the experience of pitching for at prep powerhouse Orange Lutheran High as a senior.
Winn was an exception to the new lower speed limits on the Rangers’ farm.
And he’s good.
“He’d been in some pressure spots before, and we though he could handle the transition,” Daniels said. “From a stuff and a command standpoint, he had the weapons on the mound to do it. The first month or two, it was a challenge. He really made that adjustment, and that’s what we want to see all the time.
“We want we put guys at a level that ultimately it going to challenge them and then make an adjustment to it. He did that, so that part was pretty rewarding.”
Top 10 Rangers prospects
No. 10: Sherten Apostel, 3B
No. 9: Nick Solak, 2B
No. 8: Joe Palumbo, LHP
No. 7: Ricky Vanasco, RHP
No. 6: Leody Taveras, CF
No. 5: Cole Winn, RHP
No. 4: Thursday
No. 3: Friday
No. 2: Monday
No. 1: Tuesday