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."
"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.
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(c) Jamey Newberg
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