Tanner Scheppers and the pipeline.

While there are still a couple weeks to go, chances are the Angels, Dodgers, and Rockies will be three of the league’s eight playoff teams this season.  Part of the reason in each case was a strong farm system that fed things, through both graduations to the big club and trades of prospects for veterans.  But if you believe Baseball America, the window for those teams may not necessarily stay open forever.

BA ranked the Dodgers’ minor league talent as second best in baseball going into the 2004, 2005, and 2006 seasons.  Sixth going into 2007, and sixth again going into 2008.  But BA had them 23rd coming into this season, noting: “Decimated by trades, the Dodgers are about to hit a rut after a stunning run of impact talent through its system that produced the likes of Russell Martin, Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw.  The next wave, led by Andrew Lambo and James McDonald, doesn’t look as fruitful.”

BA ranked Colorado’s minor league talent as second best in baseball going into the 2007 season.  Seventh going into 2008.  And 20th coming into this season, as the publication noted that “[t]he Rockies got no breaks [in 2008] in the majors or in the minors,” including a numbers of setbacks on the farm.

The Angels were third in BA’s talent rankings in 2004, first in 2005, and fourth in 2006 and 2007.  But they were 10th in 2008, and then 25th coming into 2009: “The Angels have dominated the American League West in recent seasons, but that could change soon.  Oakland and Texas have two of the game’s best farm systems, while Los Angeles has given away more draft picks in the last five years than any club.  It shows in the system’s talent dropoff.”

And then there’s Arizona, which was number one going into 2006 and third going into 2007, before falling to 15th going into 2008 and then 26th coming into what will probably be a 90-loss 2009 season.  Said BA about the club’s fall: “The Diamondbacks have created a roadmap of how to tumble from the top ranking to near the bottom in near record time.  Arizona has drafted conservatively, leading to a lack of power arms and bats, and traded prospects aggressively to supplement a young, talented big league team.”

At the Rangers’ press conference yesterday announcing the signing of righthander Tanner Scheppers, Jon Daniels talked about the crucial importance of keeping the pipeline of minor league talent full.  He didn’t refer to Arizona by name, but that’s an organization that has been extremely aggressive at the big league level – making trades for Dan Haren and Adam Dunn and possibly finishing as the runner-up to Atlanta in its effort to acquire Mark Teixeira from Texas – without doing a very good job of replenishing the top end of its farm system.

Daniels is frequently asked about having what BA judged last winter to be the game’s top farm system, and he routinely responds that it’s a positive to be recognized for all the hard work the scouts and instructors have put in, a validation of sorts, but he’s quick to point out that it doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t convert to post-season success on the big league level.  

And Daniels isn’t interested in a quick flash into the post-season that’s followed by years of retrenching.  There’s an emphasis on keeping the pipeline full, and avoiding taking even a half-step back.  Trading for Danny Gutierrez when the opportunity arises.  Signing Jurickson Profar and Luis Sardinas.  Drafting aggressively – taking risk-reward chances on players like Matt Purke, and Scheppers.

Scouting director Ron Hopkins said yesterday that while he was thrilled that Scheppers was available at pick number 44 in June’s draft, he wasn’t surprised that he fell to the Rangers.  There was the shoulder issue in Scheppers’s past, some uncertainty among teams as to the soundness of the shoulder going forward, and the fact that he’d refused to sign a year earlier when Pittsburgh used the second pick in the second round on him, choosing instead to leave Fresno State for the independent St. Paul Saints.  

But the Rangers, who were at every one of his four Saints starts this spring plus another handful of bullpen sessions (in which the 22-year-old “threw free and easy – and hard – every time,” said Hopkins), were able to convince Scheppers and his advisors to submit to a full pre-draft physical, including an MRI, something that Daniels acknowledged yesterday is extremely unusual for an amateur with past health issues, and the club was comfortable that Scheppers was as unique and impressive a talent as he was thought to be a year earlier, when he’d fallen to the Pirates in the second round only because of the shoulder issue.  

In fact, Hopkins noted, maybe even more impressive after his year in the Northern League.  While Scheppers dazzled scouts with a mid-90s fastball and power curve in 2008, he’d added a slider and change in 2009, taking that deeper arsenal into action against independent league hitters, many of whom had experience at the upper minor league levels, if not the big leagues.  Said Hopkins, Scheppers started to change speeds and move the ball around more while with St. Paul, and was still sitting 95-96 – and touching 98.  Going into this draft, BA judged his fastball to be second only to Stephen Strasburg’s.

I remember on Draft Day worried that the Angels would pop Scheppers.  No club had more draft power.  They had five of the first 48 picks (reminiscent of the Rangers’ 2007 draft strength) – four of which came up before Texas’s second pick at number 44 (compensation for the loss of Milton Bradley to the Cubs).  I asked Hopkins about that yesterday, and he said he figured the Angels would go heavy on hitters early on (they took high school outfielders twice in the first round), but that we thought there was a chance that the Angels – who also had Scheppers in for a predraft physical (with Dr. Lewis Yocum) that he cleared – would call the 6’4″ righthander’s name at 40 or 42, when they took a high school righthander and a college lefty.

The part of what he said that stuck with me was that the Angels were so pitching-heavy on the farm that we thought they were less of a risk to take Scheppers ahead of our slot at 44.  Their pipeline wasn’t full.  

But the Rangers’, relatively speaking, was, and they jumped on Scheppers.  His drop into the back end of the supplemental first round is evidence of the risk other teams chose to avoid: BA had Scheppers (9th overall) ahead of Purke (10th) in its pre-draft player rankings.  So did Baseball Prospectus’s Kevin Goldstein, who had Scheppers 6th and Purke 10th.  As did John Sickels (Scheppers 9th, Purke 10th).

And then there was ESPN and Scouts Inc.’s Keith Law, who had Scheppers at number four overall, and Purke number 12.  Law suggested on Draft Day that, assuming Scheppers was healthy, “I’d pay him and try to get him to the majors by August.”

They all had Scheppers ranked ahead of Purke.  Regardless of how Texas had them ranked, Hopkins was confident that Scheppers, because of all the secondary factors, might be there at 44, and he was.  He signed with Texas – after a second physical – for a reported $1.2 or $1.25 million, a figure that’s nearly $500,000 over slot and higher than any other supplemental first-rounder got.  He didn’t get a major league contract, but an invite to big league camp is a strong possibility.

Scheppers will report immediately to the Rangers’ Fall Instructional League program in Surprise (he actually stopped in Surprise on Wednesday, the day camp opened, before coming to Arlington for yesterday’s announcement), and will then be part of the Rangers’ delegation to the Arizona Fall League next month.  Teams gets one allotted rotation spot in the AFL, which Gutierrez will fill for Texas.  Scheppers will work in relief, but Texa
s plans to prepare him in spring training to join a minor league rotation in April.  

As for the 2008 shoulder injury (a muscular issue was misdiagnosed last year as a stress fracture)?  “My arm’s never felt better,” an excited, confident, but humble Scheppers said during his presser.

When Baseball America and others rank farm systems this winter, they won’t consider Elvis Andrus, Derek Holland, Tommy Hunter, or Taylor Teagarden, all of whom have exhausted rookie eligibility in 2009.  But the Rangers will probably still fall somewhere in the top 5 range.

The minor league season for the Rangers system ended on Wednesday with Bakersfield’s round two elimination – huge thanks once again to the indefatigable Scott Lucas for keeping us informed daily on every minor league game and every development in the system all year – but from a player development standpoint, there’s no break on the calendar.  The Blaze’s final playoff game came on the same day that Fall Instructs kicked off.

And a day before Tanner Scheppers was officially added to the pipeline and the top tier of this system’s depth in prospects.


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(c) Jamey Newberg
Twitter  @newbergreport

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