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Starter or reliever? Rangers mull Scheppers' future

Right-hander will stretch out during rehab assignment to keep options open

ARLINGTON -- Decision time approaches for the Rangers and right-handed pitcher Tanner Scheppers.

Scheppers is on the disabled list with inflammation in his right elbow, but he has been throwing in the bullpen without issue, and the next step is living batting practice. Once Scheppers does that, he should be ready to go on a medical rehab assignment.

That's when the Rangers need to made their decision: Do they bring Scheppers back as a starter or a reliever? Recent events have made it a more complicated decision.

"It's a big decision, but that's what we do," manager Ron Washington said. "We make big decisions."

The Rangers are at least planning to stretch out Scheppers during his rehabilitation assignment so they have the option of bringing him back as a starter. If the need arises, they can cut it short and bring him back as a reliever. There are short-term and long-term considerations.

Almost everybody has an opinion about what to do with a hard-throwing right-hander who was one of the top setup relievers in the American League in 2013 before moving into the rotation this season. Scheppers was 0-1 with a 9.82 ERA in four starts before going on the disabled list.

Scheppers has made it clear he wants to start but will take whatever role is available. Two weeks ago, it appeared as if Scheppers was almost certainly going back to the bullpen. Yu Darvish and Martin Perez were pitching well, and Colby Lewis and Matt Harrison appeared to be over their major injuries. The Rangers seemed to have a greater need in the bullpen.

That need has not lessened, but the rotation took big hits last week when the Rangers announced Perez and Harrison would be sidelined for the rest of the year and beyond. Perez is having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery Monday and Harrison's long-term future is uncertain until he decides how to deal best with his serious back problems.

They have been replaced by second-year starter Nick Tepesch and rookie Nick Martinez. They join Darvish, Lewis and converted reliever Robbie Ross in an ad hoc rotation that is 12-14 with a 4.43 ERA on the season. The Rangers have used nine starters in just 44 games.

Scheppers could fit in either spot. As much as the Rangers have been trying get their rotation settled, they still have future reinforcements coming when Joe Saunders and Derek Holland are ready to come off the disabled list. Scott Baker could also start if needed.

Scheppers could come back quicker right now as a reliever. A move back to the bullpen also does not preclude starting in the future. Kenny Rogers failed in his first two attempts to make the Rangers' rotation and did not become a starter for good until his fifth season in the Majors.

"It will be an organizational decision," pitching coach Mike Maddux said. "All decisions are certainly important. He's a very talented pitcher who could help us in a variety of roles."

The Rangers will take into consideration the future as well as the present. There are those who see Scheppers as a future front-of-the-rotation pitcher, a right-hander with a 95 mph fastball, knockout slider and improving changeup who could end up being a No. 1 starter.

It is a tempting package for a team that must prepare for life beyond 2014 with uncertain futures for many of its starters besides Darvish and Holland. Lewis is a free agent after this season, while Ross, Tepesch and Martinez are still trying to establish themselves as starters.

There are others who see Scheppers as too fragile to handle the workload as a starter. He had a shoulder injury in college, a back issue a few years ago in his first attempt to be a starter and now an elbow issue that really began in Spring Training. Given that history for a pitcher who turned 27 in January, the prudent course may be to keep Scheppers in the bullpen where he may have a future as the Rangers' closer.

The Rangers' biggest success in moving a reliever into the rotation came in 2010 when C.J. Wilson became a starter and 15-game winner. The next year, Alexi Ogando made the same move and won 13 games, although he wore down at the end of the season. Instead of letting him build on that success, the Rangers moved Ogando back to the bullpen in 2012 so that Neftali Feliz could go from All-Star closer to starter.

Feliz made seven starts that season before needing Tommy John surgery and is still trying to get back to full strength and peak performance. Ogando spent 2012 as a reliever, then tried to move back into the rotation in 2013 only to run into repeating shoulder problems that put him on the disabled list three times. He is now back in the bullpen while Ross tries to become the latest pitcher to make the transition. Ross is 1-4 with a 4.78 ERA in nine starts.

"It's a different challenge and a different mindset as a starter," Washington said. "A lot goes into it to be able to do it at the Major League level. It's tough."

That's what is in front of Scheppers. The decision will likely have to be made when he goes out on his rehab assignment. If the Rangers decide to stretch him back out as a starter, it could take a month and four or five outings. Getting him back as a reliever could take potentially half the time.

"First we have to get him healthy," general manager Jon Daniels said. "When we do that, we'll sit down and talk with him first before we make a decision."

That time appears to be coming soon.

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