Part 5 in a season-long series projecting a hypothetical 25-man roster made up solely of prospects from the Texas Rangers Minor League system.
There are many different paths to the ninth inning. Some big league closers got the job only after not succeeding as big league starters (Joe Nathan, Joel Hanrahan and Eric Gagné, for example). Some were made into relievers after developing as starters on the farm (Neftali Feliz, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon).
Some learned how to close on the farm (Brian Wilson, Francisco Cordero), and some came out of college as closers (Huston Street, Chris Perez, Drew Storen), while the path for some got rolling only after failing on the farm as position players (Carlos Marmol, Sergio Santos).
In projecting who in the Rangers' Minor League system might be the closer on a hypothetical future 25-man roster, there might be yet another path: the disabled list.
Tanner Scheppers came into pro ball with a history of shoulder issues that caused him to slide all the way to 2009's supplemental first round despite being ranked by many as a top-10 talent. Texas used the 44th pick (compensation for losing outfielder Milton Bradley to the Cubs via free agency) to take the 6-foot-4 right-hander, paying him an above-slot $1.25 million to sign. The Rangers were thrilled to add an arm of his stature to the system.
"Tanner has all the ingredients to be an impact Major League pitcher," says senior special assistant to the general manager and veteran scout Don Welke, who was one of the Rangers' most vocal believers in Scheppers at Draft time. "He hadn't pitched a lot since he was converted [from shortstop] to the mound in college, but the arm and the breaking ball and competitive drive were all there."
Invited to big league Spring Training in 2010 before he'd ever thrown a Minor League pitch, Scheppers flashed upper-90s velocity and a sledgehammer curve in camp and generated speculation that he'd be in Arlington before the end of the season.
Because he'd thrown so few innings over the previous 12 months, Texas started him out in relief with Double-A Frisco, and the Texas League provided no challenge. In 11 innings, he punched out 19 hitters and allowed one run on three hits and no walks, earning a promotion to Triple-A Oklahoma City. After striking out 27 in 19 Triple-A innings (13 hits and 10 walks, 1.89 ERA), he was shut down for a week, a preplanned move designed to manage his workload. It was coming out of that break when the Rangers began to transition Scheppers to the rotation.
And it was then that his season took an unexpected turn.
Jamey Newberg's hypothetical 25-man roster made up of Rangers prospects
In six RedHawks starts, the strikeout numbers were still strong, but Scheppers posted a 5.86 ERA, allowing the Pacific Coast League to hit .328 off him. The Rangers returned him to the bullpen, but his numbers didn't recover. The league hit .327 off him from that point forward, his fastball command was inconsistent, and as the big club marched toward the playoffs, Scheppers was no longer a consideration for a late-season promotion.
But in spite of the difficulties Scheppers had in 2010 after he was moved into the Triple-A rotation, the organization was not dissuaded. Club officials believe he can be more valuable as a starting pitcher. Minor League pitching coordinator Danny Clark sees him as a starter, an athletic pitcher with velocity he can sustain. Scheppers himself wants to start.
Scheppers reported to big league Spring Training working with the starters and was opening eyes in live batting-practice sessions. But he experienced lower back stiffness in his second game, leading the Rangers to shut him down for a couple weeks and ultimately place him on the Triple-A Round Rock disabled list to start the season.
Once activated, he made one Express start, going only two innings before being pulled and landing right back on the disabled list on April 17 with what's been diagnosed as a pinched nerve. He is long-tossing now, but the timetable for his return to a mound is still indefinite.
When Scheppers does rejoin Round Rock, having logged only a couple of innings since March, he'll obviously need to be ramped up gradually, with short stints at first as he gets stretched out again.
If the velocity and command are there, along with a healthy back, the temptation to address the big league bullpen's glaring need for a power arm from the right side may be too great to leave him on the farm. If the choice is to give up a couple of key prospects to go get a high-priced, second-tier setup man, or to see first if Scheppers can come in and give Texas some bottled lightning, it's easy to imagine the Rangers giving the 24-year-old a shot. Had he not run into the lower back issue, he might be getting seventh- or eighth-inning outs for Texas right now.
Scheppers dreams of starting, but admits that a return to the bullpen, at least at the outset, might not only make sense from a health standpoint but could also hasten his path to Arlington.
"I'll be happy either way, starting or relieving," Scheppers said. "Long term, I'd love to start. But right now, I'd love just to play again."
Rangers GM Jon Daniels acknowledges that big league circumstances could determine how Scheppers, like Feliz before him, is asked to make his initial impact.
"Tanner is a talent that we're just focused on getting healthy right now," Daniels said. "What role he ultimately fills will be dictated by his development and team needs."
Assuming those team needs don't change drastically by the time Scheppers gets back on a mound and into rhythm, that pinched nerve is going to have him initially working in short bursts on the farm, a turn of events that could conceivably make the young right-hander a big league relief pitcher before long. He wouldn't be asked to come up and close games, but neither was Feliz in his first summer, and sometimes the path to closer is not the most predictable one.
Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.