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Texas has faith in Scheppers for Opening Day start

SAN ANTONIO -- The injuries were a problem, but beyond that, general manager Jon Daniels said he enjoyed Spring Training and was re-energized by what's taking place with the Rangers in player development.

That was reinforced by the announcement that four of the five spots in the Opening Day rotation will be filled by homegrown talent: Tanner Scheppers, Martin Perez, Robbie Ross Jr. and Nick Martinez.

Scheppers had a particularly outstanding Spring Training, showing signs that he can develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter. The Rangers reinforced that belief by naming him as their starter on Opening Day -- 1:05 p.m. CT on Monday against the Phillies -- to replace Yu Darvish, who is starting the season on the disabled list with stiffness in his neck.

It is something that Scheppers couldn't imagine during a Spring Training where his goal was simply to make the rotation.

"No, not at all," Scheppers said. "This is definitely not what I expected. It's unfortunate for Darvish, but definitely excited for the opportunity, and I'm going to go out there and do what I know to do. It's a dream come true, and I'm really excited to go out there and pitch on Opening Day."

Scheppers didn't find out he would be the Opening Day starter until he was told by manager Ron Washington on Wednesday morning.

"He deserves it," Washington said. "He has a power arm, he's work hard and he's shown me that he has the stamina. He's pitched in a lot of pressure situations for us and done well. He has really thrown the ball well this spring."

The Rangers have always had high expectations for Scheppers since they took him with the 44th overall pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. Texas was fortunate Scheppers fell in its lap.

He was a top prospect as a pitcher at Fresno State, but a right shoulder injury cut short his junior year in 2008. Before he went down, Scheppers was 8-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 12 games for a Fresno State team that went on to win the College World Series. The injury dropped his Draft ranking; otherwise, he might have been a Top 10 pick.

The Pirates selected him in the second round of the 2008 Draft, but they couldn't sign him. Scheppers was pitching with the St. Paul Saints in the independent league in 2009, when the Rangers took him as a supplemental pick, which they received for losing free agent Milton Bradley. They went way over slot and paid a $1.25 million signing bonus to land him.

That was the same Draft the Rangers took Matt Purke in the first round, but they couldn't sign him. Coming away with Scheppers helped offset Purke.

"A lot of ups and downs, for sure," Scheppers said. "I think everything happens for a reason. I had a lot of experiences through time and it has put me in a position to be successful, and I feel like I can do it."

In the beginning, the Rangers weren't sure if Scheppers was better suited for starting or relief work. The issue seemed to be decided in 2011, when Scheppers came to Spring Training as a candidate to be in the rotation and he came down with a nerve injury in his back. It took him until mid-June to get healthy again, and the Rangers decided to develop him as a power reliever rather than push him as a starter.

That seemed to be a wise course. One year later, Scheppers was in the Rangers' bullpen, and in 2013, he developed into one of the best setup relievers in the game. He went 6-2 with a 1.88 ERA while holding opponents to a .214 batting average.

He also didn't rack up big strikeout numbers. Scheppers had problems early in his career getting his 96-plus-mph fastball down in the zone. But once he did that, he learned to be economical and pitch to contact. His 14.1 pitches per inning last season was tied for the fewest in the American League among pitchers with at least 70 innings. He also had the 22nd-highest ground-ball rate in the AL among that group.

That's going to be crucial, because there is still an unknown about how Scheppers will handle the stress and endurance test in his first full season as a starter. He is the first pitcher to make his first Major League start on Opening Day since Fernando Valenzuela with the Dodgers in 1981. But Scheppers has sought out the advice of Hall of Fame-bound special assistant Greg Maddux and others, and he believes he has an idea of what it will take to get through a full season.

"I think if I keep on my routine, I've got a lot of great people around me helping me out giving me tips and letting me know what I need to do to be successful and stay healthy," Scheppers said. "As long as I do that, I think everything else will take care of itself."

Pitching comes with risk in any situation, that's the nature of the position. But this is a right-hander who throws harder than any other pitcher on the team with a slider to go with it, and Scheppers is working on a changeup to round out his repertoire. If he can handle the workload with the same stuff he carried as a reliever, the Rangers may have something special.

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for Read his blog, Postcards from Elysian Fields, and follow him on Twitter @Sullivan_Ranger.

Texas Rangers, Tanner Scheppers