Second time a charm for top prospects
Crow, Scheppers hope '09 Draft brings first-round results
When talking about the most promising and exciting prospects in the Draft Class of 2009, the names of right-handed pitchers Aaron Crow and Tanner Scheppers are among the first ones mentioned.
That's not really surprising, however, since both held the same distinction a year ago.
Crow, the 2008 ace for the University of Missouri -- where he was 13-0 with a 2.35 ERA, including a string of 43 scoreless innings -- was taken with the ninth overall pick last spring by the Washington Nationals. While accounts of the negotiations vary, there is little disagreement with the assessment that they were contentious. The two sides never came close to a mutual ground, and the difference was estimated at anywhere between $700,000 and $900,000.
Scheppers, a junior at Fresno State in '08, was 8-2 with a 2.93 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 71 innings before he suffered a stress fracture in his pitching shoulder, ending both his season and his college career. He fell to the second round before the Pittsburgh Pirates took him with the 48th overall pick and, not surprisingly, a significantly lower bonus than he would have merited as a healthy first-round pick. Scheppers also opted to take his chances with the 2009 draft.
Now just three weeks away, there is little doubt that both pitchers will hear their names called in the first round on June 9.
"I think probably as far as Crow's concerned, it's not going to be a whole lot different than it was a year ago, probably top 10," said an AL scouting director. "Scheppers' stuff puts him in the same place but it will come down to how clubs view his medical situation. But both are first-round guys."
The pair have followed similar paths in many ways for much of the past year, most notably by opting to sign with independent league clubs to showcase themselves.
This was the tact that Tennessee ace and now Royals right-hander Luke Hochevar took in 2005 after opting not to sign as a supplemental first-round pick with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Instead, he pitched for the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association and ended up being the No. 1 overall pick the next year by Kansas City.
Crow and Scheppers made their regular-season debuts one day apart. Crow took the mound May 15 for Fort Worth, striking out nine in five innings of scoreless two-hit ball.
Scheppers pitched the following night with the St. Paul Saints, also in the American Association, and had similar five-inning success. Scheppers allowed five hits, allowing one run while striking out three batters.
Neither pitcher views their current situations as their long-term employment but rather as ideal scenarios where they can face quality live hitting, stay sharp in lieu of college ball and show scouts how they've continued to develop in the past year on their own.
In Scheppers' case, however, there has been one additional crucial goal: to prove that he is 100 percent healthy.
"I've never felt better," Scheppers declared. "It is definitely a relief."
Scheppers' injury was not your "typical" baseball injury, not a strained ligament or sore elbow or even a torn rotator cuff. The fact that he didn't have surgery might seem heartening, but for some teams it also left his status unresolved.
Though he was back on the mound by mid-summer, showcasing privately with the Pirates, the injury and uncertainty cost Scheppers the kind of first-round bonus money his advisers wanted. The two sides were never able to come to terms and parted ways by the August 15 deadline.
Scheppers said the experience was as educational as college itself.
"I've learned that baseball really is a business, and not all just fun and games and sweet as pie," he said. "There's a business aspect of it. Luckily, I have great people working for me, people who really care about me, so I can just go soak in the baseball part and go out and play."
Scheppers was in Arizona, where he spent the first few months of 2009 in intensive workouts at Athletes' Performance, an elite training facility with a branch in Tempe. Those who have watched Scheppers this spring say he looks better than ever with smoother and easier mechanics. His fastball remains lively in the mid 90s and his power curve continues to improve.
|"Since I'm not playing college ball, there is nothing I could do to make my stock go up or down anyway, so I realized the less I thought about it and worried about it the better off I am."|
|-- Aaron Crow|
That said, his draft status may also be affected by how different clubs view his medical history.
"Command and control have been issues and with the kind of arm injury he had, it's a concern," said the scout. "Everything looks good, but the medical is a question mark. If it weren't for the medical, he'd be the second pick in the draft."
In Crow's case, there are no medical concerns, and his transition from college to "real life" was a little more gradual than that of Scheppers.
He has remained a Missouri Tiger both at heart and in reality, living in the same apartment with the same roommates who had been his teammates a year ago. He continued to work out in Columbia, using Missouri's facilities, throwing bullpen to his catchers and pitching to his former teammates so he could continue to face live hitting.
"It made it a little easier," he said of being able to remain with his friends. "But at the same time, being there and doing everything with them but then having to watch the game from the stands was tough."
Like Scheppers, Crow spent a few months in the intensive workout regimen of Athletes' Performance and has been doing everything he can to improve on the mound and off, to prove to scouts and the baseball powers that be that he is worth every bit of his first-round hype.
That effort seems to have been working.
"He's the same guy he was last year, and that's fine," said the scouting director. "His stuff is comparable."
The biggest improvement, Crow said, has been with his changeup.
"I worked a lot on it during the offseason because it was definitely my weakest pitch, and I wanted to get it to the same level as my fastball and slider," said Crow, whose fastball is consistently in the 90s and offset by a plus slider. "Now I can throw it for strikes and get more action on it."
Crow also found the 2008 Draft process to be educational, and one he's tried to treat as a positive learning experience, even if the situation itself was contentious.
"It's been a learning experience to realize what I can do to change things and what's out of my hands," he said. "I have a better grasp on that now, and don't worry about stuff I can't control."
For example, Crow has stepped away from the Internet and the rest of the news media.
"Last year I would always be excited to look and see where I was projected to go [in the Draft] and stuff, but this year I've really tried to ignore it," he said. "Since I'm not playing college ball, there is nothing I could do to make my stock go up or down anyway, so I realized the less I thought about it and worried about it the better off I am."
Both Crow and Scheppers know their respective independent league forays will be over by the time Draft day arrives, and while neither have made -- or at least divulged -- their plans for the big night, they both said they plan to spend it at home with the families.
Though with the 2009 Draft being, for the first time in its 44-year history, a prime time evening event, odds are that Scheppers at least won't be repeating his 2008 Draft day itinerary.
"I was taking a nap when I got picked," he recalled with a laugh. "I figured that would take my mind off of it."
Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.