It was a different world when Nomar Mazara signed with the Rangers in July of 2011. Yoenis Cespedes was a relative unknown to Major League Baseball fans, and would not be signed for another seven months. Mike Trout was still a week away from his big league debut. Bryce Harper was in Single-A. Justin Verlander and CC Sabathia were the two best pitchers in the American League (by bWAR). And Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee were still at the top of their game, finishing second and third in the NL Cy Young vote. Despite this veritable lifetime of baseball that has passed, Mazara is still a couple of months shy of his 21st birthday - such is life for most players signed in the J2 period.
They grow up so fast, don't they?
When the Rangers signed Mazara, he was praised for his huge raw power, though there were questions about his ability to hit quality breaking stuff and premium velocity (to be fair, this may be the most common concern with prospects in general). Checking in at between 6'3" and 6'5" and around 180 pounds, the lanky outfielder swung from the heels, and promised to add even more power as he matured and added good weight. As is usually the case with 16-year-old signees, most expected Mazara to move through the minors at a slow and steady pace as he refined his swing and learned the game. The Rangers had other plans.
When Mazara made his full-season debut in 2013, he was the second-youngest player in the South Atlantic League. He struggled a bit, batting .236/.310/.382, but in a pitcher-friendly league that line represented a 101 wRC+, and his 13 HR put him in the top-20. When he repeated the level in 2014, he remained one of the ten-youngest players in the league, and he raked this time around - Mazara hit .268/.358/.470, and ranked 5th in the league with 19 HR, and 13th in wRC+ (130). He skipped High-A entirely, and spent the last month of his 2014 as the youngest player in the Texas League, where he hit .306/.381/.518 in 24 games.
Heading into 2015, Mazara was a consensus top-100 prospect, though opinions were decidedly split - Baseball Prospectus ranked him 40th, MLB.com 54th, and Baseball America 87th. He helped his case tremendously last year, though, batting .284/.357/.443 (123 wRC+) with 13 HR in 111 games as the second-youngest player in the Texas League, earning a late season promotion to Triple-A. And it was there that he put an exclamation point on his 2015, batting .358/.409/.444 as, you guessed in, the youngest player in the Pacific Coast League.
This off-season, the opinions on Mazara have been far less varied (and much more glowing). He was ranked 5th by Baseball Prospectus, 8th by us, 9th by Keith Law, and 18th by MLB.com, Baseball America remains the lowest on the pole, ranking Mazara all the way down at ... 21. Of course, not all of this is due to his production; instead, it is mostly due to the process that led to his breakout in 2015.
Mazara has had terrific bat speed and serious raw power for as long as he has been a prospect, but his approach was raw (albeit advanced for his age) when he first signed. He has improved in this respect every year, however, and his contact skills have improved as a result of this. In fact, Mazara's hit tool may well be ahead of his in-game power at this point in his development, and he seems a safe bet to hit .280 or better at the highest level. The 20-year-old utilizes the entire field, hits the ball with authority to all fields, and is able to cover the entire plate - there is swing and miss in his game, to be sure, but that goes hand-in-hand with selectivity. All things considered, he may have the most intriguing combination of upside and a high floor of any prospect in baseball. One scout went so far as to say "if there’s any prospect right now that I’d feel comfortable saying .300 hitter, 30 homer guy, it’s him."
To some, Mazara is a bit boring as a prospect, as the term 'high floor' is bandied about with regularity. He lacks the 80-grade raw power of Joey Gallo and the toolsiness and athleticism of Lewis Brinson, both of which he is inevitably grouped with as a Rangers prospect. That being said, Mazara is among the safest prospects in the game, and there is nothing boring about a guy that is as likely as anyone to hit .270 with 20-plus home runs. As of this writing, the only question is when he will get his shot, with the newly signed Ian Desmond slated to be the starting left-fielder, and Shin-Soo Choo signed through 2020. To be fair, I can't imagine a forward-thinking organization like the Rangers hold back a prospect that is capable of anchoring the middle of a lineup for years to come.
With Mazara's talent, it is simply a matter of when he gets the opportunity to shine.