Rangers' pipeline transporting top pitching talent
Four-fifths of current rotation rose through club's Minor League ranks
ARLINGTON -- The Rangers, doing everything they could to build up their young pitching, took Matt Purke with the 14th overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. A left-hander out of Houston Klein High School, Purke turned down a huge signing bonus from the Rangers to attend TCU.
That was a huge blow to the Rangers' pitching plans, but they made up for it the following year. On the recommendation of Midwest scout Dustin Smith, the Rangers took right-hander Nick Tepesch in the 14th round out of the University of Missouri. Tepesch has been for the Rangers what they were hoping to get when they drafted Purke.
"There were a couple of factors that probably caused him to slip and allowed us to get him down there," Smith said. "The first being that he was somewhat inconsistent during his sophomore and junior seasons at Mizzou as far as his performance goes. He always showed good stuff, but for whatever reason he was up and down, and I think some teams wondered why he wasn't consistently performing better.
"The second is that there were some signability concerns. A lot of teams were unsure of exactly how much it was going to take to sign him. In the end we rolled the dice and ended up giving him third-round money to sign. We were comfortable with him and his makeup and felt like he was a guy that was going to go out and figure things out."
Tepesch, 2-1 with a 2.53 ERA after four Major League starts, has figured things out and is one reason why Texas' pitching staff enjoys a unique distinction. The season is only a month old, and the Rangers have the only Major League starting rotation that is entirely homegrown. There is not one member of Texas' rotation who has ever pitched a single game in the Major Leagues for another organization. No other team right now can say the same thing.
There are some footnotes. Yu Darvish has only pitched for the Rangers, but he was a superstar in Japan. Matt Harrison, who is currently on the disabled list after undergoing back surgery, was originally drafted by the Braves and was in Double-A when he was traded to the Rangers in 2007.
Alexi Ogando was originally signed by the Athletics but as an outfielder. The Rangers, stealing Ogando on the recommendation of A.J. Preller in the Minor League phase of the 2005 Rule 5 Draft, were the ones who turned him into a pitcher.
The Rangers -- with Derek Holland, Justin Grimm and Tepesch -- are also just one of three teams in the American League with three starting pitchers who were originally drafted by them. The Rays have four and the Yankees have three, but one of them is Andy Pettitte, who left in 2004 as a free agent, returned three years later and also retired for one season.
The Rangers also have four relievers -- Tanner Scheppers, Robbie Ross, Joe Ortiz and Michael Kirkman -- who have spent their entire careers in the organization. That means 10 of 13 Texas pitchers this year have never spent a day in the Majors with another organization.
This is a significant achievement for an organization with the avowed goal of developing pitching from within.
"All scouting is tough," general manager Jon Daniels said. "But scouting guys who have yet to pitch in the big leagues -- or in the case of Darvish, pitch in the states, or with Alexi, just pitch at all -- is even harder. Our guys have just done remarkable work. And then to see the improvements in guys like Grimm and Tepesch, you know the coaches are getting through to them. It's great to see our guys rewarded for their hard work and commitment."
Daniels has emphasized pitching from the day he was named general manager in 2005. Club president Nolan Ryan stepped up the emphasis when he returned to the organization in 2008, and it accelerated when the Rangers installed Mike Maddux as the pitching coach, Andy Hawkins as the bullpen coach and Danny Clark as Minor League pitching coordinator in 2009.
Special pitching instructors Greg Maddux and Mark Connor have supplemented the work of veteran Minor League pitching coaches Brad Holman, Jeff Andrews, Steve Mintz, Ryan O'Malley, Oscar Martin, Bryan Shouse, Jose Jaimes and Pablo Blanco, and Keith Comstock has filled a huge role working with injured pitchers as the rehab coordinator in Surprise, Ariz.
All of this is the result of a five-year commitment to rebuild the Rangers' pitching staff after a 20-year run as an organization known primarily for offense. Two trips to the World Series showed Texas could acquire enough pitching to win.
Having the lowest ERA in the Major Leagues as of Monday morning is another indication the Rangers can build a pitching staff from within. And as of Monday morning, Triple-A Round Rock led the Pacific Coast League in team ERA, the Double-A Frisco Roughriders were third in the Texas League and Class A Myrtle Beach was second in the Carolina League.
"I think it's a reflection of our development people and Mike and Andy all being on the same page," Ryan said. "It's a reflection of their approach to it and what they're teaching. It's also the kids buying into it. If you look at Grimm and you look at Tepesch, they don't really overwhelm you with their natural ability. But they're buying into the program, they're working at applying the principles and it's paying dividends."
Texas' promising young pitching did not keep the club from pursuing free agent Zack Greinke in the offseason. But the Rangers have also seen mediocre free-agent starters command 3-4 year contracts in an excessive of $10-plus million annually, and that only reinforces their determination to develop pitching from within.
"What you're seeing is a philosophy of pitching in our system and we've stayed the course and we are committed to developing pitching within our system," Ryan said.
The wave has not crested yet. Martin Perez, long considered the Rangers' No. 1 pitching prospect, suffered a broken arm in Spring Training at a time he was throwing extremely well. He has reached the point where he is appearing in games in extended spring training and should be ready for Round Rock in the near future.
Luke Jackson, the 45th overall pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, is 3-0 with a 1.27 ERA in five starts at Myrtle Beach, and should be ready soon to make the big jump to Double-A Frisco. At that point, he would join a rotation that includes Neil Ramirez (2-0, 2.22 ERA) and Carlos Pimentel (2-1, 2.63). The lights-out Frisco bullpen includes Wilmer Font (0.83 ERA, three saves) and Ben Rowen (2-0, 1.00 ERA) as well as three relievers -- Randy Henry, Jacob Brigham and Roman Mendez -- who have yet to allow a run.
There have also been setbacks. Left-hander Kevin Matthews, the 33rd overall pick in the 2011 Draft, just underwent shoulder surgery and will be sidelined until at least midseason. Right-hander Cody Buckel, who is ranked as the 85th-best prospect in baseball by MLB.Com, is off to a terrible start at Frisco because of baffling control problems.
David Perez, Justin Miller and Matt West are in various stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery. Round Rock -- with the exception of reliever Johan Yan -- is devoid of homegrown prospects.
But Tepesch and Grimm -- a fifth-round pick in 2010 out of the University of Georgia -- have proven that quality young pitchers can emerge from the pack and move quickly through the system. A year ago at this time, Tepesch was at Myrtle Beach. The Pelicans' current rotation includes Jackson, Jerad Eickhoff (2-2, 5.59), Nick Martinez (2-2, 3.27), Victor Payano (1-2, 4.76) and Alec Asher (2-1, 3.74). Eickhoff, a 15th-round pick in 2011 out of junior college, has been mentioned by Rangers officials as somebody to watch.
Then there is right-hander C.J. Edwards, a 48th-round pick out of a rural South Carolina high school in 2011. Currently at Class A Hickory, Edwards has made 18 starts and one relief appearance over the past two seasons and is 6-4 with a 1.98 ERA. He has struck out 114 and walked 32 in 90 innings.
The pitching is still coming through the Rangers' system.
T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.