Prospect three-day weekend

We’re far enough into spring training to have a large enough sample size to see what many of our prospects are working with.* Prospects are starting to get their red tags in the locker and head for the minor league fields while others look lost in their first attempt to hit big league pitching. And sometimes, our first extended look at a prospect just leaves us with more questions than when we started.

*Please spare me, stat guys. I know two weeks of games isn’t enough to constitute a “large enough sample size” from a mathematical standpoint, but it’s enough to gauge velocity for pitchers and pitch recognition and bat speed for hitters, so it’s enough for our purposes.

Enter Tanner Scheppers.

The story of Scheppers is well documented. A top college pitcher heading into the 2008 season, Scheppers battled arm trouble and dropped to the second round, where he was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates. He did not sign, instead spending the season pitching in independent ball. He was drafted again in 2009, this time by the Texas Rangers in the supplemental portion of the first round, and signed for $1.25 million.

The Rangers started Scheppers out in Double-A last season, using the former college starter as a reliever in hopes of expediting his ascent through their farm system. His dominance of the Texas League prompted a promotion to Triple-A after just a month of affiliated baseball. In mid-June, the Rangers moved Scheppers back into a starting role for six starts, although the difference in workload was not substantial considering Scheppers never threw more than 4.2 innings as a starter and repeatedly threw two and three innings at a time in relief appearances. By mid-July, Scheppers was shifted back to the bullpen as the big league club prepared for the stretch run. It was assumed that Scheppers was a candidate for a late-season call-up to bolster the Rangers’ playoff bullpen, but the call never came.

Overall, Scheppers struggled in Triple-A, but scouts drooled over his arsenal of pitches, especially as a reliever. In fact, Keith Law of ESPN.com saw Scheppers “up to 98 [mph with his fastball] with a hellacious breaking ball and a lightning-quick arm.” Scheppers entered Rangers camp this spring with a chance to make the Rangers team.

But the team has ideas of turning him back into a starter. Scheppers, who also throws a slider and change-up, but typically ditches them as a reliever, does have the four-pitch mix to be a starter and in the past has shown the ability to sustain velocity throughout games. And, at 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, he has an ideal starter’s build. The decision for the Rangers comes down to whether they feel they have a glaring need for a potential back-of-the-bullpen power arm in 2011 or whether they can afford to be patient and let Scheppers develop his third and fourth pitches, build up his stamina, and be a more valuable pitcher down the road.

Scheppers appeared in a split-squad game on Thursday, March 3 for the Rangers, and was slated to pitch three innings. He couldn’t make it out of his first.

Law, the same ESPN.com scout who had raved about the velocity and devastating breaking ball he had seen from Scheppers last season described the performance as “alarming,” saying that Scheppers looked like “a virtual non-prospect, a “put the gun down” player if he wasn’t a once-famous draft prospect,” and reported that he threw only as hard as 92 mph and sat between 88-91.

It was reported after the game that Scheppers had been suffering from some lower back stiffness, which could contribute to a lack of velocity. An MRI the next day confirmed no structural damage, but Scheppers was withheld from his next appearance. He has not pitched since.

What happens with Scheppers remains to be seen. The Rangers will have to watch his velocity closely and see if the drop is related to the back issues or lingering problems with his shoulder from his college days. Also to be considered will be whether a power-armed pitcher with an injury history can handle the rigors of throwing 100 pitches at a time or whether he may be better suited for a relief role.*

*Not that throwing three-to-four days per week has proved to be any less strenuous on a pitcher’s arm.

Regardless, the Rangers have to be concerned about the extreme drop off in ability from the end of one year and the start of the next, meaning that Scheppers’ story is far from over.

Odds and ends

Two teams have already sent some notable prospects down to minor league camp. The Pirates included top catching prospect Tony Sanchez in their first round of cuts while the Cardinals sent their last two first-round picks, 3B Zack Cox and RHP Shelby Miller over to minor league camp. Cox is the only one of the three on a major league roster and therefore was the only one who needed to be optioned, but he should be in St. Louis long before the team runs out of minor league options for him.

Two players are making it extremely difficult for their teams to send them away from their respective camps.

Mark Trumbo has hit everything in sight…hard, batting .387 on the spring, with four doubles and three homers in just 30 at-bats. The Angels still hope to have Kendry Morales back by Opening Day, but even if he is, they may have to find a spot in the lineup for Trumbo.

Over in Indians camp, Lonnie Chisenhall is hitting .550 in 20 at-bats, and is receiving consideration for the starting third base job despite not yet being on the 40-man roster. The team would prefer to send Chisenhall to Triple-A to start the season, and likely still will considering the 22-year-old has yet to appear above Double-A, but with the Indians’ third base job unsettled at best, Chisenhall is showing himself to be the best option if the team wanted to put its best nine on the field.

Alas, it’s rarely that simple.

References & Resources
http://www.baseballamerica.com/online/majors/organization-reports/texas-rangers/2011/2611373.html
http://texas.rangers.mlb.com/news/boxscore.jsp?gid=2011_03_03_texmlb_chnmlb_1
http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/blog?name=law_keith&id=6180694
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110304&content_id=16821148&notebook_id=16821268&vkey=notebook_tex&c_id=tex&partnerId=rss_tex
http://mlb.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20110305&content_id=16831454&notebook_id=16831458&vkey=notebook_tex&c_id=tex&partnerId=rss_tex
http://www.mlbprospectwatch.com/mlb_prospect_watch/2011/03/pirates-cut-sanchez-3-others.html
http://www.mlbprospectwatch.com/mlb_prospect_watch/2011/03/cardinals-option-cox-to-minors-cut-miller.html

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