BALTIMORE — The Texas Rangers are a team built through free agency. They famously spent half a billion dollars in a matter of hours ahead of the 2022 season on a pair of premier shortstops who have led the team to success this season, finishing second and third behind Shohei Ohtani in fWAR in the American League.
The pricy pair of Marcus Semien and Corey Seager are a big part of why the Rangers are playing in the Division Series only two years after the team lost 102 games. But on Saturday, against the 101-win Baltimore Orioles, Semien and Seager went a combined 1-for-8. The Rangers managed to take the first game of the series anyway. And in the 3-2 victory, they relied not on the established stars they paid for but on the budding ones they drafted and developed.
Josh Jung, a 25-year-old former first-round pick who was an All-Star in his rookie year, hit his first career postseason home run. And Evan Carter, a 21-year-old playing in just his 26th big-league game, had an RBI and scored a run. For Carter, the 1-for-2 night with a couple of walks caps a month-long dream sequence since he was called up Sept. 8.
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Jung and Carter are two of only three players on the roster drafted by the Rangers.
Even in a season dominated by impressive performances from the game’s youngest players, Carter stands out. Because he’s so young — older than just one player on an Opening Day roster this year. Because he has been so, so successful — a .307/.413/.645 slash line with five home runs in 23 regular-season games, during which his team went 14-9. Because that success has continued into the playoffs — only twice in 12 postseason plate appearances has he made an out.
And because he was almost completely unheralded when the Rangers took him in the second round of the 2020 MLB Draft.
“It’s incredible, truly,” Jung said of his fellow homegrown rookie. “Ever since he’s gotten here, he’s been a dude.”
‘They tell you every high school kid is different’
In Elizabethton, Tennessee, a tiny town of 14,000 in the far northeast corner of the state, the high school baseball coach used to be an FBI agent. Ryan Presnell was a college senior when the Sept. 11 attacks happened, inspiring him to go to grad school on an ROTC scholarship to get a masters in criminal justice. A few years later, after his military service was complete, he saw an article about how the FBI was about to go on a record hiring spree. Six months after filling out an application on a whim, he was headed to Quantico to become an FBI agent.
He did that for three years. But the former college baseball player, who'd coached a little in the past, felt called to return to the diamond.
“Just the pull from the profession got to be so strong that I couldn't shy away from it anymore,” Presnell told Yahoo Sports over the phone. “And I felt like that's where God wanted me.”
Which is how a former FBI agent — whose experience made him uniquely perceptive to the psychology and motivations of people around him — met a young Evan Carter.
“We've got a lot of good talent in our town,” said Presnell, who met Carter when he was a kid and later coached his high school baseball team. “But Evan obviously was one of those where everybody who was around him, even at that young of an age, kind of knew that there was something different about him.”
Part of what was different about Carter was his taste in music.
“He had the worst senior music playlist of any players ever come through Elizabethton High School,” Presnell said. But the coach saw Carter’s penchant for easy listening — “Jimmy Buffett, Dave Matthews Band” — as evidence of his maturity. Carter is, according to numerous people tasked with evaluating him, “an old soul.”
Presnell says that even though Carter had committed to Duke when he was just 14 years old, the coach realized the kid would go pro sometime during his sophomore year of high school. That’s around when Derrick Tucker saw Carter for the first time. Tucker, now a scout for the Diamondbacks, was the Rangers’ area scout covering Georgia and Tennessee. He learned of Carter from Danny Clark, the team’s pitching coordinator at the time, who knew Carter’s father growing up.
On Clark’s suggestion, Tucker took a look at Carter when he came through a tournament in Atlanta. He saw enough to make him want to keep tabs on the lanky teen as he progressed through high school, stopping in Elizabethton when he could to watch Carter play and talk to those who knew him best.
At a hamburger joint on one of these visits, Presnell made a case for Carter.
“They tell you every high school kid is different. Everybody loves their star, and they don't get to coach a lot of them,” Tucker said, “but the stuff he was saying about Evan was so genuine, so further down the line of what a normal high school coach says.”
Presnell told Tucker that Carter, who would go on to be his class valedictorian, was a high achiever with an incredible ability to focus. He said that at school, Carter was loved by everyone, even if they didn’t know he was a standout on the baseball team, and he was someone who led by example. Presnell told the scout that what was really special about Carter as a competitor and a person was “the way he treated his girlfriend,” Presnell said. “I mean, just really that simple.”
‘He will figure out a way to be different’
In December, Carter married his high school sweetheart, Kaylen. Presnell knew he would, and he convinced the Rangers that this was a sign of Carter’s high character.
“If you're going to be able to call a kid up when you're in a pennant race,” he said, “then you want a kid that's loyal to his girlfriend in high school.”
By his senior year, Carter was 6-foot-2 with a smooth swing, room to add muscle, a veteran’s grasp of the strike zone and the kind of makeup that outweighed even the physical traits.
“I’ll be completely honest with you,” Tucker said, “I think we believed in the kid probably more so than we believed in the talent.”
He said that as a 17-year-old, Carter was as poised and mature as Jack Leiter, the son of the longtime major-leaguer, when the team drafted him out of college. Yet very few teams were in on Carter at the time. Maybe he lacked some of the raw tools that shine in showcases, or maybe the commitment to Duke scared some scouts off, but Presnell also credits an intentional decision by the Carter family about what to prioritize.
“Things like church, things like family vacations — they just weren't gonna give those things up for the game of baseball,” he said. “They really clung to the fact that if he's good enough, they'll find him.”
At that point, the Rangers had found him. In December 2019, they invited Carter to a workout in Atlanta. In early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed how scouting for the draft — along with everything else — functioned.
“We had to prioritize the players really fast and spend a lot of time with the guys that you liked. More so than in a normal year, where you kind of start getting the famous guys knocked out and work your way down,” Tucker said. “And that was probably where we created an advantage with Evan. We just kind of identified him a little bit earlier in the process and really liked him.”
Said Ryan Coe, then the Rangers’ crosschecker and now the head coach at Kennesaw State University: “The whole scouting department made him a priority that year. So although he only played, like, seven games that year, we had at least two people at every game he played.”
The Rangers knew that not a lot of other teams had noticed Carter. The Royals and Pirates were interested, but for the most part, he was flying under the radar after his senior season was canceled. The Rangers worked to keep it that way, being careful about when they met with him so as to not draw attention to someone they believed would blow up as soon as the world got to know him — which is why they had to take him before word got out.
“If this guy gets a complete year, and people actually have the ability to scout him for a full season, we felt he would probably end up — worst case — in the first round, if not mid-level, like 15 to 20, in the first round,” Coe said.
The Rangers’ scouting department — not just Tucker and Coe but everyone up through amateur scouting director Kip Fagg — was confident that this was the case, confident that Carter was special. And so the fact that he did not appear on MLB Pipeline’s Top 200 or Baseball America’s list of the best 500 draft-eligible players as the 2020 draft approached was not a problem.
In fact, “It’s a great thing,” Coe said.
“If you are confident in your scouting department, and you're confident in the work you've done, those publications and lists should not matter in who you pick,” he said. “You trust your scouts, you trust your eyes, you trust your relationship with the kid.”
In the Rangers’ war room on draft day, Tucker pounded the table for Carter.
“I think what we kind of decided as a group and as a staff — definitely what I echoed — was I don't know what this kid ends up doing, and I don't know if he ends up being a doctor or a lawyer or goes to Duke and becomes a coach or whatever. But whatever he does, I think he's gonna be exceptional at it,” Tucker said. “And if we do end up taking him, and he puts all of his focus on baseball, he will figure out a way to be different.”
‘I don't want any unfair expectations for Evan’
Thirty-nine months after the Rangers took Carter 50th overall, he joined a playoff chase. The team had lost six of its previous seven games and now needed to place All-Star slugger Adolis García on the injured list.
“This will be the best pitching he's ever faced in the major leagues, and he's coming into a pennant race,” Rangers general manager Chris Young said at the time. “I don't want any unfair expectations for Evan.”
Twenty-six games later, Young clarifies: “It was not about the pressure of Evan performing. It was the pressure of where we were in the season and the struggles we were having and the perception that Evan was going to rescue us at the time.”
But even that mantle is tough to keep off Carter at this point. Jung joked after the Rangers swept the 99-win Rays in the wild-card round that teammates have started calling Carter “little savior.” In that short series, he had a couple of doubles, a home run and a stolen base to propel the Rangers to their first postseason series victory since 2011. Now, he has helped his team take an early Division Series lead over the Orioles.
“I've said so many things about him. I don't know what else to say,” said Rangers manager Bruce Bochy, who was already managing the San Diego Padres when Carter was born. “This kid has handled himself so well. When he got called up, being in the postseason, still had that calmness and that confidence that he plays with.”
Presnell got to see Carter play when the team was in Cleveland a few weeks ago. As they talked through the netting pregame, a Guardians staff member had to tell Carter that he could bring his guests onto the field. Then a Rangers staff member suggested that they take a picture on the field. The coach and the kid were equally unprepared for this aspect of being in the big leagues.
But for Carter, this is just beginning. And so, his high school coach told him: “You're gonna have to take charge of this. You're actually supposed to be here.”