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Minors preview: Okla. City Redhawks (AAA)

Before I get to the Oklahoma City roster, here is a quick overview of where the top talent in the Texas system has been assigned. The number in parenthesis is the player’s rank in the organization in Baseball America’s prospect handbook.

Texas: Neftali Feliz (1)

Oklahoma City: Justin Smoak (2), Mitch Moreland (8), Max Ramirez (11), Michael Kirkman (16), Guillermo Moscoso (19), Pedro Strop (23), Craig Gentry (28), Brandon McCarthy, Derek Holland, Omar Beltre

Frisco: Martin Perez (3), Tanner Scheppers (4), Kasey Kiker (6), Blake Beavan (17), Alexi Ogando

Bakersfield: Engel Beltre (14), Tommy Mendonca (18), Michael Main (21), Jake Brigham (25), Wilfredo Boscan (27)

Hickory: Robbie Ross (7), Wilmer Font (10), Joe Wieland (12), Leury Garcia (15), Miguel Velazquez (22), Neil Ramirez (24), Andrew Doyle (29), Chad Bell, Robbie Erlin

Extended spring training/suspended/injured: Jurickson Profar (5), Danny Gutierrez (9), Luis Sardinas (13), Omar Poveda (20), Tomas Telis (26), Richard Alvarez (30), Jorge Alfaro

The main theme among the Rangers’ full season squads this season is abundant pitching and scarce hitting, illustrated by the above list, which includes 24 pitchers and just 12 position players. The AAA roster doesn’t oppose this trend, but it is more balanced. Three-fifths of the rotation - Brandon McCarthy, Derek Holland and Guillermo Moscoso - will be watched with a close eye each outing, as each could be called on when any pitching need arises. The threesome combined for 38 starts and 60 overall appearances for Texas in 2009. Lefties Michael Kirkman and Michael Ballard round out the rotation. The bullpen should be led by returnees Pedro Strop and Willie Eyre, along with returnee to the country, Omar Beltre.

The club boasts a strong set of corner bats in outfielders Mitch Moreland, Brandon Boggs and Chad Tracy, infielders Justin Smoak and Matt Brown, and catcher/1B Max Ramirez. CF Craig Gentry will receive his first extended opportunity to succeed above the AA level, and the threesome of newly acquired middle infielders who could not beat out Joaquin Arias for a spot on the opening day roster in Arlington have landed in OKC. See the full roster here and (by Thursday) here.

Five players to watch:

Michael Kirkman - While Kirkman began 2008 still kicking as a professional player, his career had fallen off the tracks. He was a fifth round choice back in 2005 and was a highly regarded talent entering professional ball, but 2006 and 2007 brought injuries and more walks than strikeouts. He’s bounced back in a big way, dominating the hitters haven California League early last season and earning a promotion to AA. He has passed first rounders Kasey Kiker and Blake Beavan to win this AAA rotation spot, and he might be just a year away from winning a role somewhere on the big league staff. The big lefty has a low 90s fastball to lead his four pitch arsenal and is back on the map in a big way.

Justin Smoak - When the Rangers drafted Justin Smoak in the first round in 2008, he joined a cluster of exciting, young position players who had not yet established themselves in the big leagues - Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Chris Davis, Elvis Andrus, Julio Borbon, Nelson Cruz, Max Ramirez and Taylor Teagarden. While things have not gone smoothly for the catchers or first baseman, all but Ramirez have established important roles for the major league club. Smoak begins this season looking to join the group. He has no spot right now, with Davis and Ryan Garko handling first base duties and Vlad Guerrero slotted at DH. But things can change, and the Rangers would love for the big switch-hitter to be ready to step in if an opening arises. In the worst case for Smoak, a strong Triple-A season will impact the club’s plans for 2011, regardless of how well Davis, Garko and Guerrero perform.

Omar Beltre - Beltre returns to American baseball six years later and two levels higher than when he last threw a pitch for Stockton of the Cal League. He has always been a serious prospect, and he still has major league stuff, but he will attempt to shake off the dust from a right arm that has seen little worthy competition from 2005-09 while facing much more advanced competition than he has faced in the U.S. Though he has a full repertoire, the club will use him in relief, as it did in 2004 when he returned from two years off from elbow reconstruction.

Derek Holland - You know all about Holland, but while he is no longer considered a prospect in a technical sense, by any measure he is one of the 3-4 most significant minor leaguers in this organization. He has a tall order in front of him if he wants to return to the big league rotation soon - Brandon McCarthy and soon Tommy Hunter will also be looking to regain their spots - but he has the talent. More than any minor leaguer aside from possibly Tanner Scheppers, Holland has the ability to become one of the most important players on the Rangers this season, despite starting the season a level lower than he would prefer.

Mitch Moreland - Moreland most likely will not be the first OKC outfielder to get a major league call if one should be needed. That distinction will probably belong to Brandon Boggs or Craig Gentry, both members of the 40-man roster. He is the best prospect of the group, though, and he carries easily the most impressive career line (.321/.387/.518) into this season. While Moreland’s bat will carry him to the majors, his glove must open the gate. Despite his terrific arm, Moreland would currently be a major step down defensively from any of the three primary corner outfielders on the big club, and being limited to first base and designated hitter would significantly raise the bar offensively. So a major question for Moreland to answer this season is whether he can become an adequate outfielder.