Rangers Have More Help In Sight With Perez, Scheppers
Their first run as teammates didn't last a month, but Martin Perez and Tanner Scheppers figure to have plenty of time to renew acquaintances down the road. With Neftali Feliz installed as the Rangers' closer, Perez and Scheppers are the Rangers' top pitching prospects still in the minors, and both lived up to that billing in the first month of the season at Double-A Frisco.
The Rangers have already gotten an infusion of homegrown pitching talent in Feliz and Derek Holland (who, while no longer prospect eligible, is tearing it up Triple-A Oklahoma City, going 4-1, 0.93 through six starts), and Perez and Scheppers represent the headliners of the next wave heading to Arlington. Perez has opened the season 2-0, 2.49 through five starts for Frisco, while Scheppers sported an ERA of 0.82 after 11 innings out of the bullpen before being promoted to Oklahoma City last week.
Perez, who turned 19 shortly before Opening Day, is the Texas League's youngest player, but that's nothing new for the Venezuelan lefthander. This is the third straight year Perez has been his league's youngest player, following his stints as a 17-year-old in the short-season Northwest League in 2008 and as an 18-year-old in the low Class A South Atlantic League last year. None of that has ever daunted Perez though, as he's been noted for demonstrating professionalism and maturity beyond his years.
"He knows what he wants," Frisco pitching coach Jeff Andrews said. "He's advanced in the sense that he's not afraid to go after it. I don't think that's typical of a lot of 19-year-olds, who may be unsure of themselves and what direction they want to go or if they're talented enough or if they've worked hard enough. That's the difference, to me, that separates him the most."
The only time Perez has appeared out of his element came late last year, when Texas promoted him straight from low Class A Hickory, where he'd gone 5-5, 2.31 and made the SAL all-star game, to Frisco in early August. Perez tried to do too much after making that sizable jump over high Class A, as his mechanics came and went and he struggled to a 1-3, 5.57 mark in 21 innings for the RoughRiders.
If Perez was intimidated in his first look at Double-A, he certainly got it out of his system. The Perez who dominated for four months at Hickory last year has resurfaced, dominating TL hitters with a changeup that's gotten him compared to Johan Santana before. Perez's being a fellow Venezuelan lefty of similar stature to Santana at 6-foot, 178 pounds also contributes to those comps, along with his low 90s fastball and sharp curveball.
"You're looking at a very athletic kid," Andrews said. "He's a very natural thrower in the sense that his arm works very well and it works well in coordination with his body. He has nice fluid movement with everything that he does."
The Rangers emphasized the development of Perez's changeup last year, dictating that he throw a number of them in each outing to maintain its progress. Those efforts showed in Perez's holding righthanded batters to a .220/.284/.311 line while at Hickory last year, though they shelled him once he got to Double-A as Perez battled his mechanics and overthrowing, allowing righties to hit .356/.377/.525 off him in 59 at-bats. That number has come back in line this year as Perez's changeup has rounded back into form. He's held TL righties to a .235/.339/.333 line in 51 at-bats so far, while lefties are hitting a minuscule .207/.324/.345 after 29 at-bats.
Texas was careful with Perez's workload last year, as just two of his 27 appearances at Hickory and Frisco last year lasted more than five innings, and that trend has continued into this year. He's yet to exceed 80 pitches in any of his outings, the last two each coming to an end after five innings at nearly identical pitch counts of 79 and 80. Andrews said Perez is being watched closely, while any decisions regarding his workload will come from higher levels of the organization.
While Perez has almost always been ahead of the curve in advancing his way up the Rangers' minor league chain, Scheppers came to Frisco along a much different path. He opened the 2008 college season as the ace of Fresno State's staff and a potential first-round pick, but a shoulder injury kept the righthander off the mound during the Bulldogs' improbable national title run and dropped him to the second round of the 2008 draft, where he was taken 48th overall by the Pirates but didn't sign. Scheppers pitched for the independent St. Paul Saints last spring, hoping to improve his stock, but lingering questions about his health still caused him to last into the sandwich round, where he taken 44th by Texas and signed for $1.25 million.
Scheppers got a taste of affiliated ball late last year, pitching 11 innings in the Arizona Fall League and posting a 5.73 ERA, before the Rangers gave him the aggressive assignment of going straight to Frisco to start the year. Scheppers made just six appearances for the RoughRiders but Texas League hitters were no match for him over his short stint there.
Scheppers struck out 19 over his 11 innings of work and permitted just three hits. He was only scored upon once, giving up a solo home run to Arkansas' Brian Walker (Angels) on April 13. He was spotless otherwise, and didn't walk a single hitter. A starter in college, Scheppers worked two-inning stints out of the Frisco bullpen, but the Rangers stressed that he use all three of his pitches—a mid-90s fastball, plus curveball and developing changeup—even though he probably didn't need to in order to have success against Double-A hitters, keeping the option open that he could return to a starting role in the future.
"We're taking a kid that's still in his first professional season and there's still the idea that you want him to use all his pitches, to develop all his pitches, give himself a sense of can he throw them for strikes, what to use ahead in the count, etc.," said Andrews, interviewed prior to Scheppers' promotion to Triple-A. "And he's done that. A lot of times, guys will get caught up in the moment on the field and say, 'I can just use my slider' or 'I can just use my fastball and get through these two innings,' but he hasn't done that. His grasp of the big picture is pretty good."
The Rangers bumped Scheppers up to Oklahoma City late last week, raising the chances he'll be in the big league bullpen by the end of the year, and he saw his first Triple-A action Tuesday night. Ironically, the first mound Scheppers took for the Redhawks was in Omaha at Rosenblatt Stadium, where he missed out on pitching for Fresno State in 2008. Scheppers entered the game against the Omaha Royals in the seventh inning and allowed two men to reach base before getting a double play to end the threat. He then retired the first two men in the eighth before giving up a solo homer to O-Royals first baseman Scott Thorman, and finished his outing having allowed a run on three hits with two strikeouts over two innings.
Andrews added that there weren't any glaring issues for the 23-year-old to work on. The biggest challenge he's faced so far was just to make sure he got all his pitches in. He'll have bigger challenges to face soon enough.
"He does a lot of things very well," Andrews said. "He holds runners well. He fields his position well. He commands his fastball well. He can throw a breaking ball to get under swings. He can throw a changeup for a strike. He does a lot of things well."