Round Rock Express open 2012 Thursday hoping to top exciting 2011

Ryan Haddox

While the bright lights of Dell Diamond will sit dormant for the first week of the season, the Round Rock Express will open 2012 in Iowa looking to start off on the right foot.

The Express are coming off a stellar 2011 that saw them win the American South division in the Pacific Coast League with 87 wins. The downside for the Express was losing the opening series of the playoffs to Omaha in four games.

While minor league team rosters are always fluid with players moving up or down between the majors, the Express return with most of the core that led them to the playoffs a season ago. Returning are top pitching prospects Neil Ramirez and Martin Perez. Express pitcher of the year Mark Hamburger will be the opening night starter in Iowa after posting a 3.88 ERA in 62 PCL innings last summer. Out of the bullpen, the Express will feature former first-round supplemental draft pick Tanner Scheppers, who with a bit of good health and success, could find his way to the bigs before the season’s end.

In the outfield, the Express have major league talent sprinkled throughout. Former Rangers center fielder Julio Borbon got optioned to AAA after a lackluster spring training. Borbon will be trying to get back into the good graces of the major league club with a productive stay in Round Rock. Also in the outfield is highly-rated prospect Leonys Martín. Martin and Borbon will be duking it out to see who gets the first call from the majors if an injury arrives in the Rangers outfield.

In the infield, former AA third basemen Tommy Mendonca will get the nod at the hot corner — third base — for the Express. Mendonca hit .278 with the Rough Riders in 2011 and belted 25 home runs. The other corner infield spot will be held down by fellow former Rough Rider Mike Bianucci. Bianucci hit 30 home runs with Frisco while hitting a career low .243 in 535 at-bats. Both Mendonca and Bianucci arrive in Round Rock looking to raise their stock amongst scouts and general managers across baseball.

Other names to write down and remember for future reference are Jurickson Profar, Engel Beltre and Mike Olt. All three of these top prospects are starting 2012 in AA Frisco, but could quickly get the call up to Round Rock during the season if they perform up to expectations.

The first year under Rangers management provided a fresh breath of air to the Express franchise, which experienced its first winning season since 2006. If the Rangers can stay healthy and perform on the main stage, and prevent plucking at the talented core of the Express, there is reason to think another winning season is on its way at the Dell Diamond.