Tepesch impressing early in camp

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Right-hander Nick Tepesch is making his major-league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday evening. He earned the Rangers' no. 5 starter job this spring with an impressive showing in Arizona. Following his first start of camp, Lone Star Dugout profiled the 24-year-old prospect with an in-depth scouting report and interview.

Right-hander Nick Tepesch began his spring with an impressive outing against the Kansas City Royals on Sunday, tossing two scoreless innings and facing the minimum six batters. Tepesch yielded a bunt single but induced a double play on the next pitch to erase the runner.

The 24-year-old prospect threw 15 of his 23 pitches for strikes, including a first-pitch strike to five of the six hitters he faced. He also fanned the side in the first inning before recording all three of his outs on the ground in the second.

At this point, it's no secret that Tepesch pounds the strike zone and attacks hitters. With Single-A Hickory in 2011, he issued only 33 walks in 138.1 innings. He walked just 44 batters in 162 frames between High-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Frisco last year.

During the regular season, Tepesch most often throws his fastball between 90-94 mph, sitting 92-93 and topping at 95. His fastball has some sinking life at times in the low-90s, and it'll also cut a bit on occasion.

On Sunday, his first outing of the spring, Tepesch was working at 88-90 mph with his fastball, touching 91 once. He had success with the offering, locating it down in the zone with some late life.

Selected by Texas in the 14th round of the 2010 MLB Draft, Tepesch signed for a well above-slot $400,000 bonus to forego his senior season and enter the professional ranks. A 28th-round pick of Boston out of high school, he was always regarded as a big talent.

Although Tepesch stands 6-foot-4 and touched 97 mph during his time at the University of Missouri, he largely underperformed, posting a cumulative 5.11 ERA in three seasons. He flashed consistent plus velocity as a sophomore in 2009 but was knocked around to the tune of a 6.27 ERA.

Despite the big fastball in '08 and '09, Tepesch too often worked up in the zone and didn't feature a reliable secondary pitch. As a junior in 2010, he dialed down the velocity––sitting more 88-92 mph––and introduced a cut-slider into his repertoire.

The harnessed velocity––in addition to the cut-slider––yielded the best results of Tepesch's collegiate career in 2010, though they still weren't quite as dominant as his raw stuff would suggest. That year, the righty had a 4.20 ERA in 98.2 innings, yielding 108 hits, walking 27, and striking out 75.

Tepesch fell to the Rangers in the 14th round largely because scouts weren't entirely sure what to think of the total package. While he still showed a late or supplemental first-round arm, the results, feel for pitching, and secondary stuff––despite the strike-throwing ability––simply weren't there with any consistency.

Since signing with the Rangers that summer, the Missouri native has gradually and consistently improved his game. At Hickory in 2011, Tepesch refined his cut-slider and did a better job of learning how to pitch outside the strike zone. Last year, his curveball and feel for sequencing his arsenal took a big step forward.

Tepesch had a 3.67 ERA in 28 appearances (26 starts) between High- and Double-A last season. Over a career-high 162 innings, he gave up 165 hits, walked 44, and fanned 127. His lively fastball helped him induce nearly 1.8 groundouts per airout, as well.

The upper-70s curveball was a key factor in Tepesch's development last season, going from a below-average pitch that lacked depth and bite to an average (50-grade) offering with much improved depth. As he mentions in the following interview, the curve has been a little slower to come along so far this spring (as a feel pitch, it's often the last thing a pitcher gets back during camp). He threw two on Sunday––at 77-78 mph––and both were out of the zone.

Tepesch's aforementioned cut-slider was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of his outing on Sunday. Early last season, the pitch was more of a hard cutter thrown in the upper-80s and touching 90-91 mph. But as the year progressed in Double-A, it appeared to morph into more of a true slider with longer break and a little less velocity.

On Sunday, Tepesch showed the ability to add and subtract from his slider; it was a true slider at 82-84 mph with longer break and good depth most often, but he ran it up to 87 mph with shorter cutter-like break on two occasions. Tepesch explains below that they're not two separate pitches––he just has more feel to manipulate the slider now.

As a cutter, the pitch was a definite plus. It appeared to still be a plus (60-grade) as a true slider in his debut spring outing. Between his 82-84 mph slider and 87 mph cutter, all seven were thrown for strikes on Sunday and well-located within the zone. He got a strikeout looking of Miguel Tejada with an 83 mph slider and induced swings and misses with both of his shorter cutters.

Already possessing a mature 6-foot-4 frame, strike-throwing ability, and a fastball/slider/curveball combination, there's very little room for projection remaining in Tepesch's game; for the most part, he is what he is. Tepesch isn't going to miss a ton of bats, but he'll miss some. He shows a 60-grade fastball with some life, a 60-grade slider, a 50 curveball, and a below-average changeup.

But there's still room for some development.

While Tepesch fills up the strike zone, he still must improve his within-the-zone fastball command a notch. It has gradually progressed through two professional seasons, and the added sinking/cutting life helps, but it's not quite a plus. He's also working diligently on his changeup this spring.

Even with last year's success, Tepesch was unable to harness a reliable changeup and used it very sparingly in starts. Thrown in the mid-80s and lacking much life, it was often too firm.

The changeup was a primary focus this offseason, Tepesch says, and he's trying to incorporate it more often this spring and regular season. Against Kansas City, he threw back-to-back changeups to Luis Durango––the only lefty he faced. Thrown at better velocity than last season (81-82 mph), the offering had average fade. The second was located on the outer half and induced a groundout to second, as Durango rolled over it.

Tepesch isn't far from the major leagues, and he'll likely reach Arlington at some point in 2013. He's technically in contention for the no. 5 starting spot in camp, though he may be a long shot with the likes of Martin Perez, Justin Grimm, and others currently standing ahead of him. But Sunday's outing showed Tepesch may put up a fight for the job.

Either way, the prospect is still likely to open the 2013 campaign in the minor leagues. He's a high-floor type of prospect who's a good bet to be a back-end starter––a no. 4 type––who pounds the zone with his decent four-pitch repertoire. As Tepesch showed on Sunday, he may be relatively close to actualizing that projection.

Here's Tepesch's chart from Sunday's outing. Key: B (ball), C (called strike), S (swinging strike), F (foul ball). FB (fastball), SL (slider), CB (curveball), CH (changeup):

Miguel Tejada (RH) – 89 FBF, 88 FBS, 83 SLC – strikeout looking
Max Ramirez (RH) – 82 SLC, 87 SLS, 90 FBB, 77 CBB, 84 SLF, 90 FBB, 90 FBC – strikeout looking
Johnny Giavotella (RH) – 78 CBB, 83 SLC, 90 FBB, 90 FBF, 91 FBB, 90 FBS – strikeout swinging

Luis Durango (LH) – 87 SLS, 81 CHB, 82 CH – groundout to second
Willy Taveras (RH) – 88 FBC, 88 FBB, 84 SL – bunt single
Alcides Escobar (RH) – 89 FB – 6-4-3 double play

Following Sunday's impressive two-inning stint, I sat down with Tepesch for an interview about his development. That can be found below. I've also included a scouting video from last season for those who have not previously seen him.

Nick Tepesch at Wilmington: 5/19/2012 (best viewed in full screen and HD)

Jason Cole: You had a successful 2012 season, improving across the board and having second-half success in Double-A. What did you come away with from your performance? How did you feel about it?

Nick Tepesch: I felt like I grew as a pitcher last year. I worked on becoming more consistent, and I felt like I did over the course of the year. I'm still just trying to refine my pitches and be able to command all of my pitches. I feel like the changeup has come a long way since last summer. I was really pounding that out this winter––throwing it a lot and trying to get comfortable with it. I feel like it has come a long way.

Cole: You threw the changeup two times in your two-inning outing on Sunday, correct?

Tepesch: Yeah, I threw them back-to-back.

Cole: How did you feel about it in that game?

Tepesch: I felt like I located them well. They were both down in the zone, and they felt comfortable coming out. It's just a matter of throwing it, keep throwing it, and throw it as much as possible to get the feel for it.

Cole: What did you do in the offseason to bring the changeup along? Was it just repetition?

Tepesch: It's just grabbing the grip and throwing it as much as possible––whether it be the first 10 throws of catch or whatever. And then the further I got out, maybe to 120 feet, I was still throwing it. Maybe it wasn't every throw I make, but I'd throw 10 to start with and then gradually move out. Then once I get to 100 feet, I'll throw about five more. Then I get to 120 and I'll throw five more. And I'm just really feeling the extension with it and getting the grip.

Cole: There were times in starts last season when you didn't throw the changeup very often at all. I'm assuming that your goal in 2013 is to be able to use it with a little more frequency.

Tepesch: Yeah, definitely. The changeup is a huge pitch for any pitcher. If you've got a good changeup and you can command it, it's going to make you that much better. I feel like it has come a long way and I'm getting more comfortable with it. Hopefully this year, I can mix it in a lot more and it becomes a bigger part of my arsenal.

Cole: You had 162 innings in the regular season last year, which was a bit of a jump from a big workload at Hickory in 2011. When you factor in spring training and the Texas League playoffs, you were probably up pretty close to 200 frames. How did you feel at the end of the season?

Tepesch: Yeah, I felt strong all year. I try to pride myself on being in shape and keeping the conditioning going so I can do that. I felt still pretty strong by the end of the year, and it was comfortable. Overall it felt real good.

Cole: The other day, your slider was kind of that true slider with a little longer break at 83-84 mph. Is that kind of what your cutter has naturally become, or have you made an effort to throw a longer slider like that?

Tepesch: Yeah, it is what the cutter has kind of become. But it's still, I feel like, depending on the count maybe I can add and subtract a little bit and make it a little bigger if I need to. I think I can add and subtract the break and velocity when I want to. It's just kind of gotten to that point, I guess. It's a good pitch, but like I said, it's not really a cutter anymore.

Cole: Do you feel like you have a little more command and ability to manipulate it than you did early last season when it was an upper-80s cutter?

Tepesch: Yeah, I think the longer and longer you throw a pitch, the more and more comfortable you get with it. That's something I feel like has definitely come along. Like I said, I can add and subtract to it, and I think I can throw it pretty much where I want to.

Cole: The curveball really came along last year and was a big key for you. How do you feel about it right now?

Tepesch: I feel good about it. I'm still trying to get the feel for it after the winter, but it's probably one of the last things to come along––the curveball. It's not in a bad spot right now––it's in a pretty good spot. But I've still got a little ways to go with it.

Cole: This is obviously your first big league camp. What are your thoughts? How is it so far?

Tepesch: You know, it's good. It's an opportunity, and I'm trying to learn as much as possible from everybody that's around me. Greg Maddux was hitting ground balls to me for 20 or 30 minutes right there or however long it took. But when you can learn from some people like that––not just him, but other pitchers and those guys––it's definitely something that's really special.

Cole: Even though you haven't been above Double-A yet, you pitched well on Sunday and you're kind of in contention for the fifth rotation spot right now. What's your mindset going into that competition and your outings in general?

Tepesch: Just continue to work hard and build off each start I have and do whatever I can. It's just working hard, really. I'm not really worried about outside stuff. I'm just worrying about myself and going about my business.

Cole: When you work on the side with your pitching coaches here, what are some of the things you've been focusing on most?

Tepesch: Like the PFPs (pitcher fielding practice) is a big thing––working on being able to field your position. That's almost as important as throwing the pitches. That has been a huge thing. Just overall, it has been the changeup and sequences and all kinds of stuff like that.

Cole: Talk about the sequences a little bit and, as you touched on earlier, learning how to pitch at the upper levels. How far have you come in that area since your college days?

Tepesch: I feel like I learned a lot through college. I feel like I've learned just as much, or more, since being with the Rangers. That's part of being a pitcher and a baseball player––you're never going to stop learning. I just try to soak up as much as I can each day.

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