SweetSpot: Nick Tepesch

Matt Garza cures part of what ails Rangers

July, 24, 2013
7/24/13
11:50
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If not for an untimely three-base throwing error on a ground ball back up the middle, Matt Garza might have held the Yankees scoreless all night in his Rangers debut. Overall, Garza went 7⅓ innings, allowed five hits, walked none and struck out five on 95 pitches.

Garza made a great first impression as part of a new and improved Rangers rotation. Beginning in spring training, Rangers starters have been ravaged by injuries or lackluster performance all season long. They are one of eight teams with one or zero starters to have made 20 or more starts at this point in the season.

The litany of injuries started early. Martin Perez, one of several candidates for the fifth slot in the rotation in spring training, had his left forearm broken by a line drive hit back up the middle in March. Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz both had to undergo elbow surgery last year and have yet to return to action this season. Matt Harrison had to deal with an inflamed nerve in his back, and he might not return until late August.

The Rangers opened the season with rookie Nick Tepesch in the rotation, soon followed by Justin Grimm. Neither made matters better for the Rangers: Prior to his inclusion in the Garza trade with the Cubs, Grimm posted a 6.37 ERA in 17 starts with the Rangers, while Tepesch was at 4.85 in 16 starts before landing on the DL with inflammation in his right elbow after his start on July 6.
[+] EnlargeMatt Garza
Layne Murdoch/Getty ImagesIf not for one misplay, Matt Garza might have finished his Rangers debut unscored upon.

Through it all, Derek Holland and Yu Darvish have been the backbone of the Rangers pitching staff. Holland has a 3.10 ERA and Darvish has a 2.86 ERA and a league-leading 161 strikeouts. Sabermetrically, both rank in the top 10 among AL starters by Expected Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP), a stat that estimates ERA based on strikeouts, walks, and fly balls. Darvish has a 2.82 xFIP, second best in the league, while Holland ranks 10th at 3.48. If the playoffs were comprised of best-of-three series, the Rangers would be good to go. They just had no one to rely on beyond those two.

Enter Garza. He had been fantastic all season with the Cubs, posting a 3.17 ERA over 11 starts since making his season debut on May 21 after recovering from a right lat strain. The Rangers entered tonight 10 games over .500 and only three games behind the Oakland Athletics. Replacing whatever amalgamation of starters the Rangers would have ended up using in the No. 5 spot -- while pushing everyone else down a spot -- Garza is a tremendous boon with a little more than two months remaining.

This is not to say that Garza is the panacea for all that ails the Rangers. They still have issues in the outfield, as the combination of David Murphy in left and Leonys Martin and Craig Gentry in center haven’t added up to big numbers on offense. The Rangers are also worried that right fielder Nelson Cruz might be suspended like Ryan Braun for his involvement in the Biogenesis issue. According to reports, the Rangers have expressed some interest in right fielders Alex Rios of the White Sox and Hunter Pence of the Giants.

Garza was one half of the equation for fixing the Rangers in season. With the addition of an outfielder before the deadline, the Rangers will have everything they need to compete for the AL West title and go to battle in the postseason. A top four of Harrison, Darvish, Garza and Holland is as formidable as any in baseball. The Rangers' bullpen has been unhittable for four months.

As for Garza himself, he simply has to continue doing what he has done throughout his career, which is rely on fastballs and sliders to induce ground balls and limit home runs. Since 2007, his ERA has had a remarkably thin range between 2.87 (2013) and 3.95 (2009). That is the type of consistency the Rangers will need as they prepare for what they hope is a second-half surge that pushes them into postseason action.

 
Jesse Chavez is essentially the 25th man on the Oakland A's roster. He started the year in Triple-A, got called up, got sent down, got called back up and is working as the low-leverage guy out of the bullpen. Before Thursday, he hadn't pitched since June 5, and the final scores of games he'd appeared in (without a decision) were 6-1, 10-2, 11-5, 6-2, 6-1, 6-3, 10-2, 9-6 and 8-1.

Chavez is the definition of a journeyman right-hander, having pitched for the Pirates, Braves, Royals and Blue Jays before the A's purchased him from Toronto last August. He was a typical Billy Beane acquisition: He has a pretty good arm, fastball in the low 90s, but what Chavez hadn't had was much success at the major league level, with a 5.74 ERA over 191 career innings.

But sometimes you need that 25th guy to come through, and Chavez's other asset is that he had started for Triple-A Sacramento. That ability to pitch multiple innings came into play in Thursday's 18-inning marathon in Oakland, the A's finally pushing across the winning run with a blooper and broken-bat flare off Mariano Rivera, winning 3-2. Chavez was the big hero, however, pitching 5.2 innings of one-hit, scoreless relief. He has a starter's repertoire, with a cutter, curve and changeup. He got two big outs when he entered with two runners on in the 13th, striking out Kevin Youkilis and Vernon Wells on curveballs.

In the 14th, A's manager Bob Melvin had the guts to intentionally walk Robinson Cano with runners on first and second; Mark Teixeira popped out to shortstop, missing a hittable fastball. From there it was smooth sailing, as Chavez retired the side in order in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th innings. Not bad for your garbage-time reliever.

[+] EnlargeJesse Chavez
AP Photo/Eric RisbergJesse Chavez got the win for the A's in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief, with one hit and seven strikeouts.
"The last guy they threw was the best guy we faced all day," Teixeira told MLB.com. "That guy is nasty."

It's one of those games that will be remembered if the A's end up winning the American League West. It's that kind of bullpen depth that fueled their second-half surge last season and has fueled their strong start this season. The A's are 33-0 when leading heading into the ninth inning. They're 6-2 in extra innings. When tied through seven innings they're 8-1. This is a tough team to beat late in a game.

The A's have won 11 consecutive games at home and 21 of their past 26, and while they were 7 games behind the Rangers in mid-May, they now lead the division by two games, after the Blue Jays beat Yu Darvish and the Rangers 3-1, dropping the Rangers to 4-8 in June. Injuries to Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland have hurt, but that gets us back to roster depth.

Who is the favorite to win the West? Here's a quick rundown comparing the two teams.

Lineups
Oakland: .246/.328/.397
Texas: .264/.327/.436

Entering Thursday's games, the Rangers had the higher wOBA, but the A's had the slightly better park-adjusted offense. The A's have gotten huge performances from Josh Donaldson and Coco Crisp, and while some regression might be in order, Donaldson also looks like a much-improved hitter from last season, as Jerry Crasnick wrote. On the other hand, Josh Reddick (.187) and Chris Young (.169) should improve.

For the Rangers, the offense is trending downward. In 2011, they averaged 5.3 runs per game; in 2012, 5.0; this year, 4.4. Adrian Beltre and Nelson Cruz are doing Adrian Beltre- and Nelson Cruz-type things, but Elvis Andrus and David Murphy are struggling right now. If Murphy doesn't pick it up, the Rangers might look to add an outfielder.

Advantage: A's.

Starting pitching
Oakland: 29-24, 4.01 ERA; .249/.298/.398; 6.1 innings per start
Texas: 25-21, 3.77 ERA; .251/.311/.391; 5.9 innings per start

The rotations have posted similar numbers, but once you adjust for ballpark, the Rangers' staff has performed better, led by Darvish and Derek Holland. FanGraphs WAR rates the Rangers' starters at 8.6 Wins Above Replacement, third-best in the majors, and the A's 12th-best at 5.0.

The good news for the A's is that Jarrod Parker pitched well again Thursday. After posting a 7.34 ERA through his first seven starts, he's gone 4-1 with a 2.40 ERA over his past seven, with a .183 average allowed and WHIP under 1.00. His changeup is back to the deadly weapon it was last year, as batters have hit .118 against it in those most recent seven games.

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The Rangers have succeeded even though Matt Harrison has spent most of the season and the disabled list and Colby Lewis all of it. Alexi Ogando is also out again with shoulder inflammation. The Rangers received some solid work from Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm early on, but those two haven't been quite as strong lately, and you have to wonder if the injuries won't catch up to the rotation at some point, at least until Lewis and Harrison return.

Edge: Even. The Rangers have been better so far, but moving forward I think the A's close the gap.

Bullpen
Oakland: 12-3, 2.89 ERA; .227/.289/.358
Texas: 13-7, 3.29 ERA; .240/.313/.368

The Texas bullpen has also been outstanding, especially the back three of Joe Nathan, Tanner Scheppers and Robbie Ross. Neal Cotts has added some depth as well. Scheppers has been the big surprise, with a fastball that sits at 94-96 mph and touches 98; he's always had a good arm but might finally be putting it together. He doesn't have a big strikeout rate (21 in 32.1 innings), and I do wonder if he keeps pitching this well. Batters are hitting just .170 off his fastball even though Scheppers' strikeout/walk ratio with the pitch is just 10.9.

Edge: A's. The Rangers have a good pen, but once you get into the fifth, sixth and seventh guys, I think the A's have the advantage.

Defense
Oakland: minus-20 Defensive Runs Saved
Texas: plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved

Ultimate Zone Rating has the clubs essentially even -- Texas at minus-0.3, Oakland at minus-1.3. The big problem area for the A's has been shortstop Jed Lowrie at minus-8 DRS. Chris Young, who usually rates very well in the outfield, has also rated poorly at minus-5 DRS. Of course, if he doesn't start hitting, he's not going to get much playing anyway behind Crisp, Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Edge: Rangers.

The A's were my preseason pick to win the division, and they look like the better team right now. What do you think?

NL's latest rookie crop shining bright

June, 2, 2013
6/02/13
12:40
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When it comes to this year's rookies, as fans I think we sort of came into this season like the kid at Christmas the year after you got the bike and the pony, or the new car and the Red Ryder BB gun. Because, let’s face it, the year after Mike Trout and Bryce Harper arrived on the scene had to be something of a letdown, right?

Turns out, not so much, at least not in the National League. The difference is that this year the kids are all right on the mound. Hyun-Jin Ryu has been one of the few bright spots on a Dodgers team desperate for something worth bragging about beyond its price tag. But the Cardinals’ Shelby Miller just got his ERA down to 1.82, almost a full run lower than Ryu’s, while catching the Korean southpaw in the win column for at least a day, what with Ryu set to take the mound Sunday.

It’s a showdown between a pair of outstanding candidates who press many of the hot-button issues about Rookie of the Year voting every season. Some fans -- and perhaps more than a few voters -- might favor the future value they anticipate when they see Miller. Some might have qualms about voting for a foreign leagues veteran, MLB-rookie status or no. But as long as Miller keeps pitching like a man who belongs with teammate Adam Wainwright in the conversation on who the best pitcher in the league might be, two months into the season it’s Miller’s race to win -- if he pitches all year.

[+] EnlargeShelby Miller
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesShelby Miller improved to 6-3, and lowered his ERA to 1.82, in the Cardinals' win over the Giants.
That said, it is a long season, and as the Nationals' decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012 reflected, pitchers might be excused for factors that have nothing to do with performance.

Happily, the NL field for first-year talent is wider than that tandem, even as Miller and Ryu contend for headlines. Just from among the hurlers, Jose Fernandez might have to labor in relative obscurity with the Marlins, marooned in the depths of a new-park hangover that has many Miami fans and voters asking themselves the coyote-ugly question about their franchise a year or two too late. But that has nothing to do with Fernandez’s talent, on full display as he mowed down Mets on Saturday. Like Miller, he’s striking out more than a man per inning, good enough to put him in the top 10 among NL starters in K/9. If it weren’t for Ryu and Miller, even in the spring of Matt Harvey, we’d be talking about Fernandez a lot more. So you can imagine how Julio Teheran, doing well as a rotation regular on a first-place Braves team, feels.

This year, you can really only say one NL rookie position player is generating anything like the same buzz. Atlanta's Evan Gattis deserves the love he’s getting, not for the backstory but for the production. This is not Chris Coste 2.0 -- not that a guy like Coste wasn’t as easy to root for as Gattis, but when you’re slugging north of .600 two months into the season, you’re not a passing fancy, you’re somebody hitting so well that demoting an eight-figure salary becomes something more than merely speculative.

Gattis is doing for position players what Miller and Ryu have done for the pitchers in terms of sucking all the oxygen out of the room. As a result, Jedd Gyorko of the Padres might not merit more than a courtesy mention now, but I wouldn’t count him out over the next four months. Gyorko has the power to slug .450 or better despite having to call Petco Park home as a rookie; if he cranks 60 extra-base hits while helping the Padres finish around .500, that’s an amazing season.

You could say much the same for the pair of rookies starting up the middle for the Diamondbacks. However overmuch attention has been given to Kirk Gibson’s clubhouse makeover or the likely big-picture penalties for trading away Justin Upton, the work Arizona is getting from Didi Gregorius at shortstop (and A.J. Pollock in center field) has helped propel the Snakes to first place in the NL West. As easy as it might be to say Gregorius has been helped by the D-backs’ bandbox ballpark, three of his four homers have come on the road. If he starts slugging at home, too, how do you count out a slick-fielding shortstop with power on a first-place team?

Even with their delayed call-ups, by this time last year Trout and Harper had already been strutting their stuff. Trout was putting up an .887 OPS for an Angels lineup that needed all the help it could get overcoming Albert Pujols’ slow start. Harper was hitting .274/.357/.504 in a little more than a month. They might not have been brought up until the end of April, but you already knew we were in for something special. But this year’s class? Its players might not compare directly, but they’re doing more than enough to pay attention to, now and down the stretch.

The American League, on the other hand ... well, you have to give the Rangers some unexpected due. I don’t know if anyone really expects Justin Grimm or Nick Tepesch to still be in this conversation at the end of June, let alone September, but their contributions have clearly helped keep the Rangers' riding to the league’s best record. But Conor Gillaspie? Yan Gomes? That they're among the top WAR-generating rookies in the AL so far just means that nobody has shown enough, for long enough, with the expectation that he’ll still have a job at the All-Star break. I wouldn’t rule out Nick Franklin or Jurickson Profar in partial seasons. I also wouldn’t rule out that the eventual AL Rookie of the Year hasn’t been called up yet. Or possibly even drafted yet -- who said Christmas comes just once per year?

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
Quick thoughts on Tuesday's games …

  • Ahh, just a few short days ago the New York Yankees were 1-4 and the butt of jokes across baseball land. Now they've won three in a row after beating the Cleveland Indians 14-1. Andy Pettitte allowed just an Asdrubal Cabrera home run in his seven innings. He's 40 and looks as good as ever. Remember when Robinson Cano was hitting .130? This is why you should never look at first-week statistics unless you're Chris Davis' agent. In his past two games, Cano has seven hits, including three doubles and three home runs, and is now hitting .303. For the Indians, the rotation shuffle might already be starting. Carlos Carrasco made his first start since Tommy John surgery in 2011, wasn't effective and got ejected after hitting Kevin Youkilis. Brett Myers, Cleveland's scheduled starter for Wednesday, pitched the final 5.1 innings Tuesday, so Terry Francona will need to find a different starter, which maybe isn't the worst thing since Myers has already allowed seven home runs.
  • [+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
    AP Photo/Jeff ChiuTim Lincecum had another bumpy outing, but the Giants comeback got him off the hook.
    Tim Lincecum had another shaky outing. After walking seven in his first start, he walked four in this one but did manage to scuffle through six innings. Through four innings he had thrown 71 pitches -- 37 strikes, 34 balls -- and had twice walked opposing pitcher Juan Nicasio. He was, as the ball/strike ratio indicates, all over the place. He was a little better his final two innings -- 33 pitches, 24 strikes -- but he certainly didn't placate any concerns. It ended up being a tough loss for the Colorado Rockies, off to a nice start, as the San Francisco Giants rallied from a four-run deficit.
  • Caught a little bit of Nick Tepesch's debut for the Texas Rangers, a 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. He pitched into the eighth inning, allowing four hits, walking three and striking five, flashing a low-90s fastball, slider and a curveball that worked on this night (the Rays went 1-for-8 with four Ks in plate appearances ending with the curve). Tepesch was the surprise winner of the No. 5 slot in the rotation, but it appears he knows what he's doing out there. Todd Wills of ESPNDallas.com has the reaction from Tepesch's teammates.
  • Wild 8-7 victory for the Washington Nationals over the Chicago White Sox on a hot April night in D.C. Jake Peavy and Gio Gonzalez were locked up in a 1-1 duel through four innings, but then Ian Desmond homered in the fifth and Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche homered in a four-run sixth. LaRoche later added another home run off Matt Thornton (his first two hits of the year after an 0-for-15 start). Peavy said he ran out of gas in the sixth; game-time temperature was a humid 81 degrees. Gonzalez labored through 99 pitches in his five innings, but escaped with just one run. The biggest takeaway from this game, however, is that Rafael Soriano struggled again, giving up two runs in the ninth on Alex Rios' two-run homer, although still absurdly getting credit for the save. Just something to watch. One more thing to watch: Bryce Harper is hitting .379 but hasn't drawn a walk. Let's see if pitchers can take advantage of that aggressiveness (and then see how Harper adjusts).
  • Kudos to the Houston Astros for their 16-run explosion against the Seattle Mariners. They even limited their strikeouts to 10! (They went 22-for-37 when putting the ball in play.) The eight combined home runs at Safeco were the third-most ever in a game there; there were nine twice in 2004. Mariners rookie starter Brandon Maurer was terrible, giving up seven hits and a walk while retiring only two batters. As good as Maurer looked in spring training to win a rotation spot, it's a reminder that he wasn't exactly dominant last year in Double-A, striking out 117 in 137.2 innings with 48 walks. His slider has been up in the zone and batters are 7-for-12 against it.

Rangers' Nick Tepesch tops surprise moves

March, 30, 2013
3/30/13
10:00
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Though the vast majority of roster spots are already won before spring training even begins, it is worth following every game in March down to the wire to see how teams handle those few remaining slots. Will the veteran trying to resuscitate his career beat out the up-and-coming rookie? Does the prospect with the fallen star have enough to beat out the hordes of veteran retreads known as non-roster invitees?

Now at the end of March, many of those roster questions have been answered, and some will surprise you. Here are a few that shocked me.

Rangers name Nick Tepesch as fifth starter
Nick Tepesch is 24 years old and has thrown exactly 90.1 innings above Single-A ball, yet he will be the Rangers' No. 5 starter when the regular season begins. It wasn't like the Rangers were bereft of options -- they auditioned Robbie Ross, Randy Wells, Derek Lowe and Justin Grimm, but ultimately landed on Tepesch, who posted a 6.50 ERA in 18 spring innings. The Rangers, arguably the favorite in the AL West anyway, might have given themselves some more certainty by going after Kyle Lohse.

Twins give the Opening Day nod to Vance Worley
If Vance Worley were still with the Phillies, he would likely start their home opener, the fourth game of the season. Now with the Twins, he is the ace of the rotation and will get the honor of pitching on Opening Day. With a rotation that includes Mike Pelfrey, Kevin Correia, Liam Hendriks and Cole De Vries (Scott Diamond starts the year on the DL), Worley pretty much wins by default. Still, it's shocking to see a guy who had never even been a No. 3 ascend all the way to No. 1 in a rotation, even if it is the Twins.

[+] EnlargeScott Kazmir
AP Photo/Gregory BullScott Kazmir, once considered an elite prospect, has won the No. 5 spot in Cleveland's rotation.
Scott Kazmir wins Indians' fifth starter job
As a can't-miss prospect with the Mets, then as part of the Rays' rotation from 2005-08, the sky was the limit for the left-handed Kazmir. A slow start with the Rays in 2009 and his pending free agency led to a trade with the Angels and Kazmir simply hasn’t been the same since. Since 2009, Kazmir has a 5.54 ERA in 299 innings. He spent all of 2012 with the Sugar Land Skeeters, an independent league team, hoping to mount a comeback, but he finished with a 5.34 ERA. The Indians, though, without much to write home about in the starting rotation, were enthused by his 3.46 spring ERA and named him the fifth starter ahead of Carlos Carrasco. Some guys in baseball you can't help but pull for, and Kazmir is one of them. Here's hoping all of his hard work has paid off.

Padres will platoon rookie Jedd Gyorko at second and third base
Over the past two seasons in the minors, Gyorko has hit 55 home runs and posted an OPS well above .900. There was a distinct possibility, as spring training began in late February, that Gyorko could have owned the everyday job at second base. Unfortunately for the Padres, they suffered injuries at both second base (Logan Forsythe, plantar fasciitis) and third base (Chase Headley, fractured left thumb). Their solution was, surprisingly, not to put Gyorko at second or third (he's played both positions). Instead, they will shift Gyorko between second and third depending on the pitching matchups. When a left-handed starter is on the hill, as there will be on Opening Day against the Mets, Cody Ransom will start at third base and Gyorko will start at second. When a right-handed starter is on the hill, Gyorko will move to third and the left-handed hitter Alexi Amarista will start at second. Though Gyorko should get regular at-bats, the back-and-forth nature of this platoon might only slow his development on defense. For example, the Phillies over the years shifted Domonic Brown back and forth between left and right field -- ostensibly, two easier positions to transition between -- and his defense has lagged behind his other skills. Maybe it works out in the end for the Padres, but it would make more sense to put their prize prospect at one position, then deal with the other position with what's left.

Rockies give third base job to Chris Nelson, send Nolan Arenado to Triple-A Nelson was impressive in a half-season's worth of plate appearances last year. He posted an .810 OPS, which included a .310 batting average, but his defensive metrics at third were terrible (-18 Defensive Runs Saved in 647 innings). Arenado is more of a power threat, but his defense still needs work, which is one reason the Rockies decided to have him start the season with Colorado Springs in Triple-A. The Rockies also don't want to start his arbitration clock earlier than is necessary. Though a left side of the infield that includes Troy Tulowitzki and Arenado is fun to think about, the Rockies likely aren't competing for a playoff spot this year, so there is no reason to rush Arenado.

Tigers option Bruce Rondon to Triple-A
A common claim from the numbers-savvy is that paying lots of money for an established closer is inefficient since the most important moments in the ballgame can and often do occur earlier, in the seventh and eighth innings. The Tigers were breaking from normative baseball philosophy in naming Rondon, a 22-year-old who has pitched eight innings above Double-A, their closer going into 2013. They said no to Jose Valverde and a host of other closers. However, early in spring, manager Jim Leyland wasn't impressed with Rondon’s erratic control, which led to his being sent down on Thursday. Now the Tigers will be using a closer-by-committee -- a combination of Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Al Alburquerque. Despite Leyland's traditional approach to game strategy, the closer-by-committee is probably the best and most efficient way the Tigers could have wound up utilizing the bullpen.

Blue Jays name JA Happ their fifth starter
The squeaky wheel gets the grease. Happ, who has the fifth-worst ERA (5.08) among starters over the past two seasons, was not happy with the Blue Jays when he found out his job in the starting rotation wasn't guaranteed. GM Alex Anthopoulos responded by not only giving him the fifth spot (thanks to Ricky Romero's awful spring that led to a demotion to Class A), but a two-year, $8.9 million contract extension as well. While giving Happ the rotation spot isn't by itself outrageous, the combination of the two makes me wonder what the Jays see in the lefty.

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