Youngsters making impact for Bucs

Originally Published: February 10, 2005
By John Perrotto | Baseball America

The Pirates have talked for several years about turning their fortunes around by producing players from within.

While Pittsburgh went 72-89 in 2004, its 12th consecutive losing season, the good news was that it did have an influx of young players after relying on veteran fill-ins in recent years.

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  • The Pirates began 2004 with seven rookies. By the end of a season that included flameouts by such veteran free agents as Raul Mondesi, Randall Simon and Chris Stynes, they had 13 rookies on the roster.

    Leading the rookie brigade was outfielder Jason Bay, named National League rookie of the year after being acquired from the Padres in 2003 as part of a three-player package for Brian Giles. Bay hit .282-26-82 as Pittsburgh became the last pre-expansion era franchise to have a rookie of the year.

    Lefthander Sean Burnett turned in five consecutive quality starts, including a shutout of the Expos, until fading and then injuring his elbow, requiring Tommy John surgery. Jose Castillo showed promise as the starting second baseman, while lefthanders Mike Gonzalez and John Grabow were mainstays in the bullpen.

    "I think it was a very encouraging year from the standpoint that we had so many young players not only get experience, but contribute," manager Lloyd McClendon said.

    In the minors, the Pirates weren't able to repeat their 2003 success, when all six of their farm clubs qualified for the playoffs. However, their affiliates combined to go 354-339 for a third straight winning year, a significant achievement after Pittsburgh farm clubs had finished above .500 just once in the previous 33 seasons. Two affiliates made the postseason, with low Class A Hickory winning the South Atlantic League championship and Double-A Altoona reaching the Eastern League finals.

    The Pirates also had two of the top performers in the minor leagues in lefthander Zach Duke and first baseman Brad Eldred, who split the season between high Class A Lynchburg and Altoona. Duke topped the minor leagues in ERA by going a combined 15-6, 1.46 with 142 strikeouts in 148 innings. Eldred was the overall RBI leader as he hit .301-38-137.

    The Pirates system continues to be tilted toward pitching, as six of the top seven prospects and 16 the top 30 are pitchers. That's less pronounced than a year ago, when 10 the top 15 and 20 of the top 30 were pitchers.

    Pittsburgh looked for hitters in the draft after taking pitchers with their previous six first-round picks. They went for switch-hitting catcher Neil Walker, a high school player from suburban Pittsburgh, in the first round, then selected Eastern Michigan shortstop Brian Bixler in the second and Atlanta-area third baseman Eddie Prasch in the third.

    "We're looking for better balance and we brought some very interesting bats into the organization," scouting director Ed Creech said.

    While general manager Dave Littlefield, farm director Brian Graham and Creech continue to do their best to resurrect the team, the Pirates and Brewers still have gone longer than any two franchises in major professional sports without reaching .500. Pittsburgh's streak doesn't look like it will end in 2005, but at least there's more hope for the future than in recent years.

    1. Zach Duke, lhp
    Age: 21. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 207. Bats: L. Throws: L.
    Drafted: HS--Clifton, Texas, 2001 (20th round). Signed by: Grant Brittain.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: While the Pirates don't regret drafting John Van Benschoten with their first-round pick in 2001, it now looks like they may have found an even better prospect 19 rounds later. Duke, who grew up in Waco, Texas, idolizing fellow Midway High product Casey Fossum, signed too late to debut that season but immediately opened eyes with his performance in instructional league. He hasn't done anything to tarnish that initial impression, going 31-14, 2.21 in three minor league seasons while rapidly moving up the organization ladder. He had his best year in 2004, leading the minors with a 1.46 ERA. He allowed two earned runs or fewer in 25 of his 26 starts, including his first 22, and surrendered three in his other outing. Duke was the high Class A Carolina League pitcher of the year and finished the season with two quality starts in the Eastern League playoffs for Double-A Altoona. A year ago, he looked like he'd continue move a level a year, but now he's definitely on the fast track.

    Strengths: Duke gets his highest marks for his mound presence and poise. Quiet by nature, he never gets rattled and has a precise plan of what he wants to do with each pitch. He has the best command of any pitcher in the system. Duke's best offering is a curveball that he can throw for strikes at any point in the count. The curve has a big, sweeping movement and lefthanded batters find it unhittable. They batted just .192 with one homer in 156 at-bats against Duke last season. His fastball topped out at 88 mph when he was drafted but now reaches 93 as his body has matured. It usually sits in the 89-91 range. After fading down the stretch in 2003, Duke maintained his strength throughout the 2004 season. His performance didn't slip at all, even after his promotion to Double-A. Duke is a good athlete who fields his position and holds runners well.

    Weaknesses: Duke doesn't have the ability to overpower hitters, so he can't reach back for something extra when he needs a big out. His body continues to fill out, however, so he possibly could add velocity to his heater. Duke's changeup is an average pitch at best, and he needs to refine it because he will need a third offering against major league hitters, especially righthanders, as a starter. His changeup has improved each year, however, and could develop into a plus pitch down the road.

    The Future: Duke got his first look at PNC Park last September, when the Pirates honored him as their minor league pitcher of the year in a pregame ceremony. There's a good chance he could call Pittsburgh home by the end of this season. Duke will begin 2005 at the Pirates' new Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate, and he'll get the call to the major leagues if he comes remotely close to duplicating last year's performance. He doesn't have the pure stuff of a No. 1 starter, but his curveball and smarts give him the look of a solid No. 2.

    2. Neil Walker, c
    Age: 19. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 205.
    Drafted: HS--Gibsonia, Pa., 2004 (1st round).
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Organizational Overview
    Classification Affiliate W-L
    Triple-A *Indianapolis 63-79
    Double-A Altoona 85-56
    High Class A Lynchburg 57-81
    Low Class A Hickory 85-55
    Short-season Williamsport 34-40
    Rookie GCL Pirates 30-28
    Overall 354-339  
    *Affiliate was in Nashville in 2004.

    General manager: Dave Littlefield
    Farm director: Brian Graham
    Scouting director: Ed Creech

    Best Hitter for Average: Nate McLouth
    Best Power Hitter: Brad Eldred
    Best Strike-Zone Discipline: Rajai Davis
    Fastest Baserunner: Rajai Davis
    Best Athlete: A.J. Johnson
    Best Fastball: Jeremy Harts
    Best Curveball: Bobby Bradley
    Best Slider: Tom Gorzelanny
    Best Changeup: Zach Duke
    Best Control: Zach Duke
    Best Defensive Catcher: Ronny Paulino
    Best Defensive Infielder: Craig Stansberry
    Best Infield Arm: Javier Guzman
    Best Defensive Outfielder: Chris Duffy
    Best Outfield Arm: A.J. Johnson

    1995: Trey Beamon, of
    1996: Jason Kendall, c
    1997: Kris Benson, rhp
    1998: Kris Benson, rhp
    1999: Chad Hermansen, of
    2000: Chad Hermansen, of
    2001: J.R. House, c
    2002: J.R. House, c
    2003: John Van Benschoten, rhp
    2004: John Van Benschoten, rhp

    1995: Chad Hermansen, ss
    1996: Kris Benson, rhp
    1997: J.J. Davis, of
    1998: Clint Johnston, lhp/of
    1999: Bobby Bradley, rhp
    2000: Sean Burnett, lhp
    2001: John Van Benschoten, rhp/of
    2002: Bryan Bullington, rhp
    2003: Paul Maholm, lhp
    2004: Neil Walker, c

    Bryan Bullington, 2002: $4,000,000
    John VanBenschoten, 2001: $2,400,000
    Bobby Bradley, 1999: $2,225,000
    Paul Maholm, 2003: $2,200,000
    Kris Benson, 1996: $2,000,000

    Background: Walker became the first Pittsburgh-area player ever drafted by the Pirates in the first round when they used the 11th overall pick on him last year. Also a star wide receiver and defensive back in high school, he signed for $1.95 million. He has good bloodlines, as his father Tom and uncle Chip Lang pitched in the majors.

    Strengths: Walker is a switch-hitter with power and the ability to hit for average from both sides of the plate. He could develop into a .300 hitter capable of 30 homers a season. His power is particularly good from the left side. He has good feet and hands behind the plate, and he throws well. A better athlete than most catchers, he's a solid-average runner.

    Weaknesses: Walker's righthanded swing needs to be smoothed out a little bit. Some in the organization worry that catching may take too much of a toll on his bat. If a change of positions is in order, he easily could shift to a corner infield or outfield position.

    The Future: Walker will begin the year at low Class A Hickory. The Pirates won't rush him, but his raw talent could push him to Pittsburgh quickly.

    3. John Van Benschoten, rhp
    Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 215.
    Drafted: Kent State, 2001 (1st round). Signed by: Duane Gustavson.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: Van Benschoten hit 31 home runs to lead NCAA Division I as a junior in 2001, but the Pirates drafted him eighth overall that June as a pitcher. He made his major league debut last season, beating the Astros for his first win but getting shut down after his next start with a tired shoulder.

    Strengths: Van Benschoten has four pitches that all have a chance to be average to above-average. He has a 90-92 mph fastball with good movement and a curveball that can be outstanding at times. His slider and changeup aren't quite as advanced. He's a tough competitor who went 26 starts without losing from 2002-03.

    Weaknesses: He nibbled too much in the majors and needs better command of his pitches. That should come with more experience, as Van Benschoten pitched only in relief at Kent State. His delivery tends to get out of whack at times, which affects his location.

    The Future: He wasn't ready when he was brought to the big leagues, and the Pirates would like Van Benschoten to enjoy consistent success in Triple-A this year before they bring him back. He has the stuff to be a solid No. 2 or 3 starter once he gets more time to develop.

    4. Ian Snell, rhp
    Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 160. Drafted: HS--Camden, Del., 2000 (26th round). Signed by: Dana Brown.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: Snell has been known as Ian Oquendo at various times throughout his career, but went back to his birth name prior to last season and intends to stick with it. He finished second in the Eastern League in strikeouts and might have won the title had he not been promoted to Pittsburgh in August.

    Strengths: Snell has a lively fastball that sits around 93 mph and touches 95-96. He also throws a sharp curveball with such a late break that some opposing hitters and scouts call it a slider. He doesn't back down from anyone.

    Weaknesses: Snell needs to stay on top of his fastball, which tends to flatten out and become hittable. His changeup is improving, but he needs better command of it before he's ready for major league hitters. His small stature leads to questions about his durability. He also could use a dose of maturity.

    The Future: Snell will pitch in the rotation this season at Triple-A and likely will receive a promotion to the majors at some point. If he doesn't prove strong enough to remain a starter, he has the arm to be a fine set-up man.

    5. Tom Gorzelanny, lhp
    Age: 22. B-T: B-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 200.
    Drafted: Triton (Ill.) JC, 2003 (2nd round). Signed by: Mark Germann.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: Gorzelanny began his college career at Kansas before encountering academic difficulties and transferring to Triton, the alma mater of Hall of Famer Kirby Puckett. He moved quickly in his first full pro season, allowing two earned runs or fewer in 15 of his 16 starts in low Class A. He spent the second half in high Class A Lynchburg, then moved up to Double-A for the Eastern League playoffs, where he turned in two strong relief outings.

    Strengths: Gorzelanny throws hard for a lefthander, reaching 94-95 mph and consistently sitting at 91-92 with his fastball. He also has an above-average slider -- the best among Pirates farmhands -- that's particularly tough on lefthanders. Like Pittsburgh's other top pitching prospects, he's a battler who refuses to give in to hitters.

    Weaknesses: Gorzelanny doesn't maintain a consistent delivery, dropping his arm slot and losing command of his slider. His changeup lags behind his other two pitches. He sometimes has a hard time shaking off adversity and needs to have a shorter memory.

    The Future: Gorzelanny will begin the season in Double-A. If he polishes up his mechanics, he could see the major leagues by 2006 and become a solid middle-of-the-rotation starter.

    6. Bryan Bullington, rhp
    Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 220.
    Drafted: Ball State, 2002 (1st round). Signed by: Duane Gustavson.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: Bullington was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2002 draft, getting a club-record $4 million signing bonus after holding out for nearly five months. Owner Kevin McClatchy insisted on going the safe route with a college player, but the player picked after Bullington, high school shortstop B.J. Upton, looks like a future star. Upton made his big league debut in Tampa Bay last year, while Bullington hasn't gotten past Double-A.

    Strengths: The Pirates took Bullington on the basis of two dominant pitches, a lively fastball and sharp slider. His velocity has dropped from 94-95 mph at Ball State to 90-93 in the pros, however, and his slider hasn't had the same bite. He has compensated by showing a knack for making pitches in tight situations, and the Pirates remain optimistic he'll regain his zip.

    Weaknesses: Bullington's biggest need is to get back the stuff he showed in college. He also must refine his changeup to give him a third pitch to make it as a big league starter. Bullington has good control but could use better command-- he's hittable because he's around the plate so much with his pitches.

    The Future: Bullington will go to Triple-A with hopes of finding his fastball. This year figures to go a long way in telling whether he's a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, a No. 5 starter or a set-up man.

    7. Paul Maholm, lhp
    Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 215.
    Drafted: Mississippi State, 2003 (1st round). Signed by: Everett Russell.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: Maholm signed for $2.2 million as the eight overall pick in the 2003 draft. His first full pro season was ruined May 15, when a line drive hit him in the face, breaking his nose and the orbital bone around his left eye. He returned in August but needed more surgery to remove scar tissue around his eye, knocking him out of instructional league and the Arizona Fall League.

    Strengths: Maholm has a good feel for pitching and a strong mound presence. He also has good control of a four pitches: an 88 mph fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. Maholm's curveball and changeup are his best pitches at this point.

    Weaknesses: He doesn't have an overpowering pitch, so Maholm won't have much margin for error against more advanced hitters. It's uncertain whether he'll have any long-term effects from getting hit in the face, but the Pirates are confident he will put the incident behind him.

    The Future: Maholm will start the season in high Class A but will move quickly to Double-A Altoona if he pitches well. He has a chance to get to the major leagues by late 2006 and should be a No. 3-5 starter.

    8. Brad Eldred, 1b
    Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-6. Wt.: 240.
    Drafted: Florida International, 2002 (6th round). Signed by: Delvy Santiago.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: After ranking second in NCAA Division I with 29 homers as a senior in 2002, Eldred has continued to hit the longball as a pro. He has led the Pirates system in homers in each of his two full years, and he topped the minors with 137 RBIs last year. He was the Carolina League MVP and Pittsburgh's minor league player of the year.

    Strengths: Eldred has big-time power and dropped plenty of jaws last season with tape-measure homers. He has greatly improved his balance, swing and pitch recognition. He's also a good fielder and decent runner for a big man.

    Weaknesses: Eldred strikes out a ton and doesn't walk much, a tradeoff the Pirates will have to live with in exchange for his home runs. Already large, he must keep an eye on his weight.

    The Future: Though he drove in 60 runs in 39 games at Altoona, Eldred is ticketed to return to Double-A to start 2005. If he continues to hit like he did last year, a midseason promotion to Triple-A is likely and his big league debut is a possibility. Starved for power, the Pirates hope he develops into their cleanup hitter.

    9. Matt Peterson, rhp
    Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 210.
    Drafted: HS--Alexandria, La., 2000 (2nd round). Signed by: Bob Rossi (Mets).
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: Peterson came to the Pirates in the three-team deal that sent Kris Benson to the Mets last July. Peterson missed two starts at Double-A Binghamton before the trade with a strained side muscle, and that affected his control after he switch organizations. He uncharacteristically walked 19 batters and threw six wild pitches in his last five starts of the season.

    Strengths: Though Peterson has the frame to throw hard, he has better offspeed pitches at this stage of his career. His changeup is outstanding, particularly against hitters, and he possesses a true 12-to-6 curveball. His fastball is no slouch, as it sits at 90-92 mph and runs up to 94.

    Weaknesses: Peterson could stand to add a bit more muscle to his lanky frame. He also needs to gain better command of all his pitches. His inability to locate consistently led to 18 homers in 2004 after he gave up just four the previous season.

    The Future: How Peterson performs in spring training will determine whether he starts this season back in Double-A or gets moved up to Triple-A. He's still somewhat raw and won't see the majors until 2006, but he has a chance to develop into a first-rate starter.

    10. Nate McLouth, of
    Age: 23. B-T: L-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 170.
    Drafted: HS--Whitehall, Mich., 2000 (25th round). Signed by: Duane Gustavson.
    2004 statistics: Baseball America Player Finder.

    Background: McLouth was the Michigan high school player of the year in 2000 but lasted until the 25th round because of his commitment to the University of Michigan. The Pirates signed him for $500,000. After repeating high Class A in 2003, he had the best year of his career in 2004, leading the Eastern League in runs, hits and doubles.

    Strengths: McLouth always seems to get the sweet spot of the bat on the ball. He is an outstanding contact hitter with the strength to reach the gaps. He's getting better at working counts. He has above-average speed and is a good basestealer, with an 83 percent success rate as a pro.

    Weaknesses: McLouth saw extended duty in center field during 2003, but his range is a step short to play there in the majors. He saw more time last year in right field, where his arm is adequate. To play regularly in right in the majors, he'll have to develop more home run power.

    The Future: The hard-nosed McLouth will begin this season at Indianapolis and will become a legitimate candidate to start on a corner for the Pirates in 2006 if his homers increase. At worst, he'll be a fourth outfielder in the majors.