Scheppers, Crow Tackle Challenges Of Holdouts

To Aaron Crow, it's simple, really.

If scouting directors are to believe the former Missouri ace is still a first-round commodity come June, he knows he had better deliver once the curtain rises in May with the independent Fort Worth Cats.

"I just feel like I need have command of all of my pitches and throw quality strikes, be competitive and be successful down there," Crow said.

And then, pausing so his point would not be lost as he surveyed the season ahead, Crow attached these words: "I still have to be able to show that I can compete at the level I did last year."

The same goes for former Fresno State ace Tanner Scheppers. As awkward as their lead-up to the draft could be.

They were the top two college righthanders on most boards last spring before they rejected the Nationals and Pirates—for different reasons—and now Crow and Scheppers are re-marketing themselves for this year's draft by operating from a familiar playbook. Adopting a model followed by previous unsigned top picks, the pair will go through the run-up to the draft by zigzagging through private workouts and brief tours of the indy ball circuit (both in the American Association).

It will be interesting to see how they handle it. Crow and Scheppers previously enjoyed several months of college competition, not to mention summer ball, to showcase their talents. As it stands now, they'll have a month, tops, to make their case.

All this comes nearly six months after both turned down opportunities to sign pro contracts because they didn't think their offers matched their talents. Crow, the ninth overall pick, and the Nationals completely misjudged each other's bonus parameters, and didn't get close enough to compromise at the last minute. Scheppers, the Pirates' second-round pick, thought he could boost his stock this spring after bad fortune last year—a stress fracture in his pitching shoulder kept him out during the final six weeks of Fresno State's national title run.

"I'm ready to go right now," said Scheppers, who should also hit the mound in May, with the St. Paul Saints. "I think I can get even better and stronger, so I'm looking forward to it."

Asked if he felt awkward because of the extended wait, Scheppers all but shrugged his shoulders. Not Crow.

"In college, you get ready for the season as early as December," Crow said. "It's definitely odd not starting so early. Everything is pushed back two months.

"It was nice right after the season got over with. But now I'm wanting to get back out there, to start competing again."

Walked A Mile In Their Spikes

A few other high draft picks have gone through the long holdouts that Crow and Scheppers are experiencing now. And even one of those who parlayed it into a bigger payday says private workouts and being away from the structure of a college season are big hurdles to overcome.

"I don't think people understand how difficult it is," said Wade Townsend, now in the Rays system. "The way I went about it, at the time it seemed like a reasonable thing to do. But it's just not the same."

Townsend, the eighth overall pick in 2004 out of Rice, spent the 2005 spring bouncing from one private workout to another after he and the Orioles couldn't come to terms. The Rays selected him in the same No. 8 slot in 2005 and signed him for a $1.5 million bonus.

Townsend said he would recommend to Crow and Scheppers to go at their own pace and maintain a normal routine, or as close to that as possible. He acknowledged that away from the structure of the college season, his workouts could have been better.

"You get away from just pitching and you try to do too much," Townsend said. "You pressure yourself to throw X mph. But I kind of got sidetracked.

"The biggest (workout) I remember was when I come to throw for the Rays. It was 9 a.m., and I did not feel right. I just got off a plane 12 hours before. At the time, my body didn't feel right. It was just a big difference at 9 a.m. than in front of a crowd on a Friday night against a rival. Mainly I could not get up for it like I normally would have."

Townsend said he thinks it will help Crow and Scheppers to pitch in indy ball, something he did not do during his year away from competition. Others have had success incorporating indy ball into readying for the draft, most notably the Royals' Luke Hochevar and the Diamondbacks' Max Scherzer. Hochevar jumped to the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, a year after the Dodgers took him 40th overall and couldn't sign him. The Royals signed him for $3.5 million as part of a $5.25 million guaranteed major league contract. Scherzer, the 11th overall pick by Arizona in 2006, did sign with the Diamondbacks for $3 million along with a $4.3 million guaranteed major league contract, after threatening to re-enter the draft as he pitched for Fort Worth.

Hochevar and Scherzer have had more success as professionals than Townsend, who has struggled in the Rays system. But he says the most important factors for Crow and Scheppers will be mental, not physical.

"Just do whatever your body is used to doing, and do the exact same thing," Townsend said. "Keep your mind happy, and keep you mind fresh. Don't make yourself miserable mentally. Once that happens, you start losing focus."

Biding Their Time

While Crow will command significant attention once he joins Fort Worth, Scheppers could generate even more discussion as scouts gauge whether his shoulder is sound.

Had he not suffered the stress fracture last spring, Scheppers likely would have been a top 10 pick. But teams shied away before the Pirates snagged him 48th overall. Fortunately for Scheppers, he avoided surgery after meeting with Dr. Lewis Yocum, and since November has hunkered down at the Athletes Performance Institute in Los Angeles.

He also has been reunited with Ted Silva, a UC Irvine assistant who served as Fresno State's pitching coach two years ago when Scheppers first emerged on the scouting radar. Fresno State had recruited Scheppers as a shortstop but shifted him to the mound in his freshman season, then put him under Silva's watch. They have been back together for a few months.

"I was in awe how easy the ball came out," Silva said of Scheppers' first day throwing. "I think he's excited. He's going to go out there (to St. Paul) and prove to everybody he is that No. 1 draft pick that everybody expects of him."

Though Silva said he has not tracked Scheppers' fastball velocity—his agent, Greg Genske of Legacy Sports Group, says it's up to 94-95 mph—he sees the jump on his fastball and the mostly clean and easy delivery. Scheppers is also repeating the delivery, an encouraging sign considering he has not pitched competitively since May 4. The May 4 appearance ended a two-week stretch in which he threw 130, 134 and 137 pitches in three starts. His final start came just two days after Scheppers threw 10 pitches and registered two outs to close out a Friday night series opener.

Back on the mound, Scheppers is all business, and it has not been lost on Silva, who sees a more polished, mature pitcher.

"A young pitcher is going to go through the highs and lows. Now he's one step ahead of it," Silva said.  "It's not just see the sign and throw it. (His delivery is) more controlled, which allows him to repeat. It's turning him into a guy that can pitch instead of a guy that can throw 94-95."

Which is exactly what Scheppers is aiming for.

"The rehab I did really helped strengthen my shoulder," he said. "I feel the strongest I ever have in my life. I didn't even think about (a dip in velocity). And I knew I was fine in my heart."

Before the injury, Scheppers fired a fastball like a frontline starter, sitting at 92-96 mph with good movement and command. But he had trouble commanding his curve, a power 74-78 mph offering. With a cleaner and more repeatable delivery, Scheppers said he will have the same stuff with better command.

"It's stuff that needed to be done," he said. "I never had a pitching mechanics coach before, and (Silva) has helped me break it down and become a better overall pitcher."

Scheppers isn't just focused on the draft, though. He is also serving as an assistant coach for the junior varsity and freshman teams at Trabuco Hills High in Mission Viejo, Calif., and taking classes at Azusa Pacific to complete a business degree. And yes, he has made peace with the fact that he could not pitch during the Bulldogs' run to the national title.

"It was a great experience to be a part of. I was still part of the team," Scheppers said. "But this is the time to start my professional career, and I'm really excited about that."

Like Scheppers, Crow is working out at API, except he's at the outpost in Phoenix, and his itinerary calls for a gradual increase in innings before he opens in Fort Worth. Looking at the schedule, he could get up to six starts there before the draft.

"Hopefully I'll end up with a better situation this year and I'll be able to move on with my career," he said.

Crow's last college game was on May 30, just before Ole Miss eliminated Mizzou in regional play. He finished 13-0, 2.35 in 107 innings, striking out 127 against 38 walks. Scouts took note of a creative combination of velocity—he cranked his fastball up to 92-96, with a peak of 98—as well as hard sink and command, a plus slider and the makings of a changeup.

In other words, he was clearly one of the best pitchers available in last year's draft. Yet he remains an amateur after talks broke down with the Nationals. The Crow camp, led by his agents the Hendricks Brothers, and the Nationals remained millions of dollars apart until the Aug. 15 signing deadline approached. Crow dropped his demands to the $4 million range, while the Nationals came up to $3.5 million, but they couldn't bridge the gap in time.

"He needs to pitch and basically demonstrate that he's as good or better than he was last year," Randy Hendricks said. "And I'm quite confident that that's what he's going to do."

Hendricks also indicated Crow's price hasn't come down, and said if teams aren't willing to meet that price, "Don't draft him."

Crow is confident things will work out.

"I should be in the best shape of my life this season," he said. "I don't feel like I'll be behind at all. I know all the other people that got drafted last year, they got in a couple of more months (of pro experience). But I can make up that quickly. I'm still working out and getting my body ready for the season. So I don't think I'll fall behind at all."