Day One of the Draft: Bold business as usual.

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If you’re still worried about the impact that the potential sale of the
Rangers could have on business as usual – and by that I mean the sort of aggressive
business this franchise annually conducts in the draft – then you’re probably
the one reader who emailed me last night insisting that the reason the Rangers
took the two pitchers they did with their first two picks – Klein High School
lefthander Matt Purke and St. Paul Saints righthander Tanner Scheppers – was
because they’d be easy not to sign,
given their expected demands.

 

But the Tom Hicks-Jon Daniels-Ron Hopkins drafts have never let
signability get in the way of zeroing in on the right player, and if you choose
to dismiss the good feelings that the organization generated after last night’s
results, or the waxings of your trusty unobjective Rangers blogger, then turn
your attention instead to what the national experts had to say last night:

 

Baseball America‘s John Manuel: “First-round
winners: My winners are Colorado, Texas and I’ll also say Minnesota
and Cleveland,
popping the Twins and Indians for getting White and Gibson so late in the first
round.”

 

BA‘s Jim Callis: “In terms of
value where they got guys, I’ll say Rockies
(Matzek, Wheeler), Indians (White), Rangers (Purke), Twins (Gibson if healthy),
Brewers (Arnett).”  And: “How about the
Rangers getting Purke at 14 and Scheppers at 44?  If those guys stay healthy and reach their
ceilings, and you package them in a rotation with Holland and Feliz . . . . Wow.”

 

BA had Purke (taken 14th
overall by the Rangers) ranked as the draft’s number 10 prospect, and Scheppers
(taken 44th overall) number nine.

 

Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein: “[Texas] could have had two picks in the first
12 and not done this well.”  Goldstein
rated Purke as his number 10 draft prospect, and Scheppers number six.

 

ESPN and Scouts Inc.’s Keith Law had Scheppers at number four,
and Purke number 12.  “It’s a hell of a
pair if they get them both under contract.”

 

John Sickels had Scheppers ranked ninth overall, and Purke 10th. 

 

Think what you will about the franchise’s financial situation, but if
the draft budget was going to be slashed this year because of it, there were
plenty of qualified first-round candidates the Rangers could have chosen with
the confidence that they could sign them at slot, rather than waste a pick or
two and dump the opportunity to add more young talent. 

 

Every national expert evaluated both Purke and Scheppers as top-half
first-round talents.  The Rangers will
unquestionably have to pay well above slot to sign them.  Given this franchise’s consistent willingness
to do just that, even though the economic situation may be different now, don’t
think for a second that the Angels or A’s or anyone else was relieved to hear
the team already owning baseball’s strongest farm system name Purke and then
Scheppers with its first two picks. 

 

The Rangers’ four Day One selections:

 

1 (14th overall). 
MATT PURKE, LHP, Klein High School (Tex.)

(scout: Randy Taylor)

(last year’s first-round pick: Justin Smoak; recent
Rangers first-round picks include Blake Beavan, Michael Main, Kasey Kiker,
Thomas Diamond, Mark Teixeira, John Danks, Carlos Pena, John Mayberry Jr.; best
number 14 pick in last 25 years: Jason Varitek [Mariners, 1994])

 

Much was made of the Rangers’ decision two years ago to pass on high
school righthander Rick Porcello, presumably because of his expected demands of
more than $5 million to sign plus a major league contract.  Some reports suggest that Purke – who is
advised not by Scott Boras like Porcello but by SSG (Select Sports Group), a
Houston-based agency whose clients include Nolan Ryan and which is owned in
part by Don Sanders, the Mexia-born entrepreneur with whom Ryan owns the Round
Rock Express and Corpus Christi Hooks (and could be in line for an ownership
stake in the Rangers, according to multiple reports) – might be seeking a
Porcello deal.

 

The situation is not the same. 

 

First, nobody is suggesting that Purke (or anyone in this draft after
Stephen Strasburg) is in Porcello’s class. 

 

Second, in 2007, Texas
had five first-round picks, going above slot to sign two of them (Julio Borbon
and Neil Ramirez).  It’s possible that, based
on the draft budget, Texas decided not to take Porcello and handicap what the
club wanted to do with its other four first-rounders.  Not only might it have busted the club’s
draft budget, but how do you go to Beavan or Main (whichever fellow high school
righthander Texas
took that day) and tell them you won’t go above slot, even slightly, while agreeing
to give Porcello $7 million and a big league contract? 

 

Third, and most importantly, after Texas called Purke’s name last night, he
told reporters:

 

“I don’t think [signing] will be difficult.  It might take some time but I want to play
baseball and I want to play for the Texas Rangers.  I think the negotiations will end up being
pretty easy.”

 

And:

 

“We’re going to work hard to get something worked out.  I told them that I would negotiate and do
what I can to be in a Rangers uniform.  I
think we’ll get a deal done.  I want to
be wearing the red, blue and white.”

 

Count on this getting done.  It
may drag until close to the August 17 deadline to sign, but it will get done
(and not in the same neighborhood as last year’s 14th pick,
Minnesota’s Aaron Hicks, who signed for slot at $1.78 million, let alone the league’s
recommended $1.6 million slot [a 10 percent reduction] for 2009).  Purke not only has a TCU commitment as
leverage but also the fact that he’ll be a draft-eligible sophomore in two
years (by virtue of his summer birthday), but there just seem to be too many
easily connected dots to worry that talks could ultimately break down short of
a deal.  The Rangers had the 18-year-old
in town for a Sunday workout – which included a meeting between Ryan and other club
officials and Purke’s family – and came away confident that the 14th
pick in the first round wouldn’t be wasted if it was spent on the Klein
lefthander.

 

Purke came into this draft with a long track record of success and
plenty of projectability, causing industry experts to deem him and California prep Tyler
Matzek as the top two lefthanders in the draft. 
A wiry 6’3″, 180, Purke is expected to fill out and, in the process, add
a tick or two to a fastball already full of late arm-side tailing life and sink
that sits 89-92 and touches 95.  Nolan
Ryan’s observation: “He’s got exceptional late movement.  It’s really unique.  It’s as much movement as I’ve seen from a
lefthander in years.”

 

Purke complements the heater with a developing changeup and a slider
that was good enough that BA calls it the
third-best secondary pitch among all high school pitchers eligible for this
draft.  BA
added that Purke could be the third-quickest high school prospect in this draft
to reach the big leagues, but there’s a real chance that his career could get
started at Fall Instructs, just as Robbie Ross’s did a year ago, should
negotiations last into mid-August.  And
that’s what often happens with above-slot signings, so as not to taunt the
league’s express recommendation against them.

 

As a sophomore at Klein (which also produced big leaguers David Murphy,
Josh Barfield, and Chris George), Purke went 5-3, 1.43 in 49 innings, punching
out 66 hitters as he scattered 38 hits and 16 walks.  As a junior, he started the season firing two
straight no-hitters, finishing the year with a 12-1, 0.37 record, fanning 147
in 76.2 innings and giving up 18 hits and 17 walks.  As a senior, he posted a 4-2, 1.18 mark,
setting 91 hitters down on strikes in 47.1 innings while permitting only 18
hits and seven walks.  The reason for the
relatively low inning count in 2009, according to Purke, was not any physical
issue but instead the result of a number of Bearcat games getting rained out
early in the spring.  Good.

 

Purke has extensive experience on a big stage, having pitched for Team USA during the
summers preceding his sophomore, junior, and senior years.  He made six appearances in those three
seasons (1-1, 3.68), striking out 27 and issuing six walks in 22 innings,
including a complete-game, four-hit shutout over Mexico last summer (11
strikeouts, no walks).  He also pitched a
scoreless inning last summer in the Aflac All-American Game at Dodger
Stadium.  Purke has been exposed to a
high level of competition and succeeded, and the Rangers love his makeup and
competitiveness. 

 

A number of experts thought that Purke’s perceived bonus demands could
kick him to the back of the first round (not unlike Porcello in 2007), perhaps
to the Angels at 24 or 25 or the Yankees at 29, if not out of the first
altogether.  But Texas wasn’t going to let him get past the
14th slot.  When the pick was
announced, Goldstein remarked during a live Baseball Prospectus roundtable: “BOOM.  Texas was thought to
have economy issues, but in the end, they get the best lefty in the draft with
Matt Purke.  A steal at 14 on pure
talent.”

 

Last year’s first-round Rangers selection, Justin Smoak, was instantly
called a theft because his price tag pushed him past teams unwilling to pony
up.  Same goes for Purke, another example
of a player whose talent and upside carried the day for the Rangers, even
though they knew there would be a premium cost to bring the player in.

 

 

1-Supp (44, pick awarded for loss of Milton
Bradley).  TANNER SCHEPPERS, RHP, St. Paul Saints (formerly Fresno State
University)

(scout: Derek Lee)

(last year’s supplemental first-round pick: none;
past Rangers supplemental first-round picks include Julio Borbon, Tommy Hunter,
Neil Ramirez, Colby Lewis, Chad Hawkins; best number 44 pick in last 25 years:
Joey Votto [Reds, 2002])

 

I was so stunned that Scheppers was still on the board when pick number
44, the Rangers’ compensation for Milton Bradley’s departure to Chicago, came
around that I started typing his name in this email before Jimmie Lee Solomon
even got the words “With the 44th pick” out of his mouth.  The upside with this choice is huge.

 

Scheppers was ranked by BA as the
number 10 prospect going into last year’s draft, but the Fresno State junior
fell to pick number 48 (Pittsburgh) after missing a start two weeks before that
draft with shoulder tenderness (while the injury was described as a stress
fracture, it was muscular rather than in the bone, distinguishing it from
Brandon McCarthy’s recurring condition). 
He didn’t sign with the Pirates (reportedly seeking a $2 million bonus),
but instead of returning to college for his senior year he hooked on with the
St. Paul Saints of the independent American Association. 

 

Scheppers was relatively effective for the Saints this spring, going
1-1, 3.32 in four starts, but far more importantly he was healthy.  As late as two weeks ago, BA had him going ninth in this draft (right before Purke in
that particular mock).  But the shoulder
history and potential bonus demands obviously scared lots of teams off,
including some more than once, before Texas
took him at number 44.

 

Texas wasn’t completely surprised by Scheppers’s availability, even
though most draft projections suggested it would have been appropriate for the
6’4″, 200-pound righthander to have gone off the board not only before the
Rangers’ pick at 44, but perhaps even before the club’s choice at number
14.  Figuring that there was a real chance
that the 22-year-old could fall to the back half of the supplemental first
round, the Rangers quietly brought him in for a pre-draft physical with team
physician Keith Meister.  Dr. Meister
cleared Scheppers’s shoulder (as did Angels team physician Lewis Yocum a few
weeks ago), and the Rangers, comfortable that his velocity and breaking ball
were back, popped him at 44.

 

Asking yourself why the Angels, given Dr. Yocum’s assessment, didn’t
use number 24 or 25 or 40 on Scheppers themselves?  It might go back to the same possible basis
for Texas passing
on Porcello two years ago.  Los Angeles had not only
those three picks in the first plus supplemental first, but also 42 and
48.  If Scheppers was tagged as one of
the Angels’ five first-rounders, they might have invited a big problem getting
the other four signed.

 

Scheppers’s overpowering fastball, which sits in the mid-90s and
touches 98 with life (reportedly lighting the gun up once at 101 in his final
Saints start before the draft), was considered second only to Strasburg in this
year’s draft class.  He mixes in a power
curve and a change, and is mechanically sound (perhaps more so than Strasburg).  A former shortstop who didn’t begin pitching
until his high school senior season (registering 93 on the radar gun and showing
enough to prompt Baltimore to use its 29th-round draft pick on him
in 2005), he’s athletic with a classic pitcher’s build. 

 

In his breakout junior year at Fresno State
in 2008, Scheppers went 8-2, 2.93 with a save in 11 starts and one relief
appearance, permitting 54 hits (.202 opponents’ average) and 34 walks in 70.2
innings while setting 109 down on strikes. 
Four hitters took him deep.

 

On the short list of the people credited with turning Scheppers from
that high school thrower into a frontline pro pitching prospect is Ted Silva,
the former Rangers prospect (his 17-4, 2.91 season in 1996 earned him the club’s
Nolan Ryan Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors) who was the Fresno State
pitching coach during Scheppers’s sophomore year. 

 

Jason Churchill of ESPN suggests that Scheppers could ask for a bonus
in the $4 million range.  I’d be
surprised if his bottom line is that high, but he’s almost certainly going to command
first-round money – possibly early first-round money.  Interesting comment from Law: “If Scheppers
is healthy, I’d pay him and try to get him to the majors by August.”

 

The Scheppers pick wouldn’t have made as much sense for Houston or San
Diego or another franchise in need of a massive influx
of minor league talent.  The risk of
missing with a premium pick, particularly one that will cost more than slot to
sign, would be too great for an organization with a relatively weak farm
system. 

 

But an added benefit of the tremendous health that the Texas minor league
system enjoys is that risks like Scheppers make more sense to take.  If he doesn’t work out, it certainly won’t
cripple the system. 

 

But if he does, it’s a virtual consensus that he could be the steal of
the draft.

 

 

2 (62).  TOMMY
MENDONCA, 3B, Fresno
State University

(scout: Butch Metzger)

(last year: Robbie Ross; previously: Johnny
Whittleman, Matt West, Vincent Sinisi, Nick Regilio, Jason Bourgeois, Jason
Grabowski; best number 62 pick in last 25 years: Andre Ethier [Athletics,
2003])

 

The above parenthetical tells the story.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the
Rangers haven’t produced a solid major leaguer in the second round since Roger
Pavlik in 1986.  You’d have to look all
the way down to the 11th round to find one as barren for the Rangers
over those 20-plus years.  And two of the
club’s last three second-round selections have been spent on third
basemen.  While it’s certainly too soon
to write Johnny Whittleman (age 22) or Matt West (age 20) off as prospects, it’s
fair to say that neither has taken off yet like the organization had hoped.

 

The Rangers are vocal about their “best player available” philosophy on
draft day, but in this case, particularly since the organization tends to favor
adding up the middle, the use of yet another second-round pick on a third
baseman has the appearance of a choice made to address a relative weakness in
the system. 

 

Mendonca, older than West but younger than Whittleman, is a highly
decorated college player with power that should play at any level and plus
defense at the hot corner, but there are questions about his ability to make
contact.  A teammate of Scheppers at Fresno State
in 2007 and in 2008, Mendonca was the College World Series Most Outstanding
Player in 2008, the 2009 Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year, and Fresno State’s
career home run leader with 57 bombs in his three Bulldog seasons.  He hit .339/.447/.721 this season, with 27
homers (third in the country) and 78 RBI in 62 games.  BA, which made Mendonca
a first-team Pre-Season All-American, ranked him as the number three power
hitter among college players eligible for this draft.

 

But Mendonca also set a Division I record as a sophomore with 99
strikeouts, vulnerable in particular to offspeed pitches.  BA believed
enough in his power and defense, however, to project him into the third
round.  The Rangers believe in him even
more, making the left-handed slugger the club’s third second-round third
baseman selected in four seasons.

 

Two added notes of interest: Goldstein sees him as a Russ Branyan-type
bat . . . with much better defense.  Law
believes Mendonca could be a candidate for a switch at some point to
catcher.  

 

But in this system, it makes sense that Mendonca, if signed, will stay
at third base unless he plays his way off the position.

 

 

3 (93). 
ROBBIE ERLIN, LHP, Scotts Valley HS (Calif.)

(scout: Butch Metzger)

(last year: Tim Murphy; previously: Hank Blalock,
Taylor Teagarden, Evan Reed, Chad Tracy, Michael Schlact, Barry Zito, Ryan
Dempster, John Hudgins; best number 93 pick in last 25 years: Javier Valentin
[Twins, 1993])

 

The second straight selection recommended by Northern California/Nevada
area scout Butch Metzger (the former big league pitcher who was responsible for
last year’s fourth-round find, righthander Joe Wieland), Erlin is a small
lefthander in the mold of Robbie Ross – a pitcher whose draft position might
have been stronger if he’d only been a little taller.

 

Erlin, whose commitment to Cal Poly is not expected to be a big hurdle,
commands an 89-91 mph fastball and adds a plus curve.  He went 9-1, 0.63 as a high school senior in
2009, striking out 125 batters in 62 innings – 45 of which were consecutively
scoreless.  There are no questions at all
about his makeup or his mechanics.  It’s
just Erlin’s physical stature that seems to bother some industry experts.

 

But not all of them.  From
Manuel: “The Rangers keep taking intriguing arms with third-rounder Robbie
Erlin.  I like it when scouts say, ‘If he
were taller he would have been a first-rounder.’  That means first-round arm type of value in
the third round.  Texas is just hot right now as a franchise.”

 

That last sentence is the kind you might be used to seeing in this
space, even if you won’t hear it trumpeted from 1000 Ballpark Way, where they’re not
known for patting themselves on the back. 

 

But when you hear it from the people who make a living evaluating
baseball organizations, over and over again, it ought to ring true, even if it
never gets old.  Day One of the 2009
draft was, it appears, bold business as usual for the Rangers, and that’s not
only good news from the standpoint of the consistently relentless effort to add
young talent but reassuring as well, hopefully dispelling any fear that the
potential sale of the team might have meant a cutback in going after the right
player as other teams back off due to sticker shock.

 

 

You can read more from Jamey
Newberg
at www.NewbergReport.com.

 

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