Brighter Days Ahead in Pittsburgh?

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Brighter Days Ahead in Pittsburgh?
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As I mentioned in the previous post, Baseball America liked the Pirates’ selecting Jamison Taillon and Stetson Allie with their first two picks of the draft. 

Also, I recently wrote a post about five top minor league prospects, which got me thinking if there were any other top prospects knocking on the door of the Show.

I noticed that Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata are looking pretty good for the Pirates’ top farm team, the Indianapolis Indians. The Bucs recently called up former first round pick Neil Walker, and yet another former first round pick Brad Lincoln will be making his first major league start tonight.

All of this has got me wondering whether brighter days might finally be ahead for the Pirates.

As I’m sure you know, the Pirates have been the laughing stocks of baseball for more than the last decade. The only team that comes close since the turn of the third millenium is the Royals, and even K.C. has had more success than the Bucs.

The Pirates’ record of futility has meant that the Pirates have had consistently high 1st Round picks in the Draft for almost a decade.

What has happened to those draft picks?  Are any in the pipeline that look really good?  Let’s take a look.

Here are the Pirates’ 1st Round picks since 2001, when they’ve never had a pick lower than 11th overall:

2001 (8th overall) John Van Benschoten RHP, Kent State University .  Van Benschoten was a two-way threat in college, recording a 2.81 ERA with 63 Ks in 48 IP as a reliever and spot starter, and also hitting .440 with an insane 1.533 OPS (he hit 31 dingers in 225 at-bats his junior year). 

He hit extremely well as a freshman and sophomore also, so he was a legitimate hitting prospect, but the Bucs decided his professional career lay solely as a pitcher.

It was a mistake. As a pitcher, Van Benschoten has been a major bust. He received cups of coffee (and light snacks) from the Pirates in 2004, 2007 and 2008 and didn’t pitch well in any of them.

The Pirates finally gave up on Benschoten after the 2008 season.

He played for the White Sox AAA team in Charlotte last year, pitching poorly. 

He got another chance this year in the Yankees’ organization, but he’s currently on the Disabled List and hasn’t pitched since May 6. He’s now thirty years old, and his career is in serious trouble.

I am always astounded when I see a team take a player who hit as well as Benschoten did in college, and give him no opportunities whatsoever to hit in the minor leagues. 

Benschoten’s career minor league OPS through the end of 2009 was .602, which isn’t good, but that’s in only 140 ABs in spread out over six minor league seasons.

In fairness to the Bucs, Benschoten didn’t hit well in 75 ABs in the New York-Pennsylvania League in 2001. However, that is an extremely limited sample size in which to decide he’s got no future as a hitter.

The thinking in some major league organizations, if a player is solely developed as a pitcher or a hitter, he will advance more quickly at one if he gives up the other. I don’t know that I agree with that.

If a player can do both, why not give him at least some opportunities to do both?

A few years back (2003 and 2004 actually) Brooks Kieschnick was able to resurrect his major league career for a couple of seasons with the Brewers as a relief pitcher/pinch hitter. He’d been a two-way threat at a major college program, but when the Cubs drafted him, they decided to develop him solely as a position player/hitter.

Kieshnick only went back to pitching when his career as a position player failed.  However, his versatility gave him a certain value for a couple of years in Milwaukee.

Right now, pitcher Micah Owings has more value to a National League club than an AL one, because he can be used as a pinch hitter. In fact, with a career major league ERA of 4.99 and an .858 OPS (in 180 major league ABs), one has to wonder if he shouldn’t have been developed as a position player in the first place.

2002 (1st overall) Bryan Bullington RHP, Ball State . One of the biggest draft busts of the last decade, Bullington was a legitimate prospect who hurt his arm in 2005 as he was right on the verge of establishing himself as a major league pitcher. He missed all of the 2006 season and wasn’t the same pitcher when he came back in 2007.

Bullington managed cups of coffee with the Bucs, the Indians and the Blue Jays in 2007, 2008 and 2009.  He pitched well enough for the Omaha Royals early this year to get a cup of coffee from the Royals. 

However, he didn’t pitch well in three relief appearances and was sent back to AAA.

Bullington is 29 this year, and may yet have a legitimate major league career.  However, it won’t be for the Pirates.

2003 (8th overall) Paul Maholm LHP, Mississippi State .  Maholm is the first really successful pick in this list, but he’s still really a third or fourth starter without enough stuff to become a first or second starter.

He’s 28 this year, so while he might surprise people with one great year going forward, I doubt he’s going to get any better on a long-term basis than he is now.

Given the injury rate pitching draft picks suffer, getting a consistent third or fourth starter out of the 8th pick of a Draft constitutes success.  However, you aren’t going to make the play-offs much if you don’t do better than Maholm with at least some of your top picks.

2004 (11th overall) Neil Walker C, high school. Walker was drafted as a catcher, but has played mostly second base since being called up to the Pirates a couple of weeks ago.

I’m not sure what I think of Walker long-term. His career minor league OPS of .750 in over 2,400 ABs is not impressive.  However, much of that was as a catcher, and his hitting has picked up, and substantially so this season, once he was moved out from behind to the plate.

Walker had a fine .951 OPS at AAA Indianapolis when the Bucs called him up, and he’s continued to hit through his first 50 ABs at the major league level (.890 OPS so far).  He’s 24 this year (turns 25 on September 10), which is a good, but certainly not great, age at which to establish one’s self as a major league regular.

If his 2010 batting numbers are for real, he’ll be a good player for the Pirates.

2005 (11th overall) Andrew McCutchen CF, high school . The Pirates’ best selection of the decade, at least from what we’ve seen so far. He’s still only 23 and has established himself as a major league star. McCutchen is obviously what you are looking for in your high first round picks.

The only knock on McCutchen is that fangraphs doesn’t like his center field defense.  He will probably have to move over to one of the corner outfield positions when Jose Tabata is ready for the major leagues.

2006 (4th overall) Brad Lincoln RHP, U of Houston . As mentioned above, Lincoln makes his major league debut tonight.  That being said, I’m not overly impressed by Lincoln as a possible major league star.

Lincoln blew out his elbow shortly after starting his professional career and had to have Tommy John surgery, which cost him all of the 2007 season.  He’s come back from it, though, pitching well in 2009 and so far in 2010.

This year, after 11 starts at AAA Indianapolis Lincoln was 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA and a line of 68.1 IP, 54 hits, seven HRs and 14 walks allowed and 55 strikeouts. 

Lincoln is currently 11th place in the International League in ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts.  Good, but not especially so.

Lincoln is 25 this year, and we’ll see if he has what it takes to be a successful major league starter.  At this moment, he looks like a less healthy Paul Maholm to me.

2007 (4th overall) Danny Moskos LHP, Clemson .  Another highly drafted college pitcher who has underwhelmed as a professional. Moskos was primarily used as a reliever in college, although he made ten starts his junior year; it’s unusual to draft a college reliever this high.

The Pirates started him out in pro ball as a starter, but his strikeout rate plummeted, and they moved him back to the bullpen for the 2010 season.  The change has been striking, with Moskos posting a 1.42 ERA in 22 appearances at AA Altoona so far.  He is the team’s closer with 13 saves and has a line of 25.1 IP, 18 hits, no HRS and eight walks allowed and 26 Ks.

The biggest knock on Moskos in terms of him developing into a future closer for the Bucs is the fact that Moskos is already 24 years old, and still playing at the AA level.  If he keeps pitching the way he has so far this season, he’ll likely be pitching in the majors by September.

2008 (2nd) Pedro Alvarez 3B, Vanderbilt .  Alvarez hasn’t made the majors yet, but I’m still convinced he’ll be a major league star at some point.  He was the most highly regarded college position player going in to the 2008 Draft, a Draft loaded with sweet-swinging college hitters. He’s been slower to develop than Buster Posey in terms of professional batting average, but has shown considerably more early power.

In fact, Alvarez went 3-for-4 in today’s game against Pawtucket with a double, triple and homerun, pulling his OPS up to .924 through 60 AAA games this season.  It may only be a matter of days before Alvarez gets promoted to the big league club, particularly with Andy Laroche struggling with both the bat and the glove this year after a strong 2009 season.

2009 (4th overall) Tony Sanchez C, Boston College .  The Draft nerds were strongly of the opinion last year that Sanchez was not a top-twenty talent and that the Pirates drafted him mainly because he had agreed to a below slot bonus of about $2.5 million.

However, Sanchez played well in 41 games in the Class A Sally League last year (.976 OPS), and has played well in 50 games in the Class A+ Florida State League so far in 2010 (.883 OPS).  We won’t really find out just what kind of a prospect Sanchez is until he makes the jump to AA ball, which will probably happen around the All-Star Break.

As you can see, it’s awfully hard to build a major league team solely around first round draft picks, even if with high ones, because you only get one a year, and there are no guarantees that any of them (particularly the pitchers) will ever develop into anything.

Realistically, Paul Maholm will be long gone as a free agent by the time the young players starting with Neil Walker develop into stars. Assuming that McCutchen and Alvarez develop into major stars and Walker into a solid major league regular, the Pirates will still need to find some pitching to become a contending team.

The odds are fairly good that either Jameson Taillon or Stetson Allie will develop into a top of the rotation starter somewhere down the line, but that could easily be five or six years from now.  The odds that both Taillon and Allie will develop into top-three starters is slim, given the rate at which high school pitchers get hurt before establishing themselves as major league stars.


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