Top Ten Prospects: Pittsburgh Pirates
Complete Index of Top 10s
By John Perrotto
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
Losing has become perpetual for the Pirates, who have finished below .500 for 11 straight seasons since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The 2004 season will mark the 25th anniversary of their last World Series berth. And Pittsburgh doesn’t appear ready to win anytime soon. Claiming the team somehow has lost $30 million since moving into beautiful PNC Park in 2001, owner Kevin McClatchy plans to take the payroll down to at least $35 million in 2004 after it was at $54 million to start 2003.
The Pirates began slashing in the second half of the 2003 season. They gutted their roster by trading Brian Giles, Kenny Lofton, Aramis Ramirez, Scott Sauerbeck, Randall Simon, Jeff Suppan and Mike Williams. Pittsburgh did add interesting young players—including outfielder Jason Bay, middle infielders Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez, and lefthanders Oliver Perez and Cory Stewart—but in some of the deals their only accomplishment was shedding salary. Compounding Pittsburgh’s woes is its lack of impact prospects ready to step into the major leagues. Instead, most of the talent is at least a year away.
Things are looking up for the Pirates at the minor league level, however, and its player-development plan is more solid than it has been in years.
General manager Dave Littlefield and farm director Brian Graham have emphasized winning. In Graham’s two seasons overseeing the system, the Pirates have finished second and first in minor league winning percentage, topping all clubs with a .581 mark in 2003. Each of the six affiliates had winning seasons in both 2002 and 2003. All six reached the playoffs in 2003, with short-season Williamsport winning the New York-Penn League title. The Pirates’ entry also captured the Rookie-level Dominican Summer League crown.
Pittsburgh has had 32 players make postseason minor league all-star teams over the past two seasons, more than any organization. A steady flow of talent has come into the system thanks to solid drafts by scouting director Ed Creech and his predecessor, Mickey White.
The Pirates have put a strong emphasis on pitching, to the point that the system has a dearth of impact hitters. Their philosophy is to stockpile live arms, with any excess being available to trade for bats. Their top picks in each of the last six drafts have been pitchers.
It remains to be seen whether the plan will pay off. What is certain is that fans are restless, as a drop of nearly 800,000 in attendance at PNC Park from its inaugural 2001 season to 2003 attests.
“I think our farm system is real close to the point where it is ready to start supplying a lot of players at the major league level, and that’s what we’re going to need in order to be successful over the long haul,” McClatchy said. “We’re never going to be able to go out and just buy a team on the free-agent market. We need the nucleus of our team to be homegrown and then supplement it with free agents and trades.”
Top Prospect: John VanBenschoten, rhp
Age: 23 Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 215 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: Former Pirates scouting director Mickey White, always an unorthodox sort, stunned the scouting community in 2001 when he drafted VanBenschoten in the first round as a pitcher. While VanBenschoten was at Kent State, he also led NCAA Division I with 31 homers that spring and most teams saw him as a prototypical right fielder. He has certainly justified White’s decision, however. VanBenschoten has gone 24-12, 3.02 in 62 pro starts and was a standout in the 2003 Futures Game. He also pitched for Team USA in the Olympic qualifying tournament, delivering three scoreless innings in a quarterfinal loss to Mexico. VanBenschoten went 26 consecutive starts at one point without losing: his last eight at low Class A Hickory in 2002, then all nine at high Class A Lynchburg and his first nine at Double-A Altoona in 2003. The Pirates used VanBenschoten as both a pitcher and DH in his debut season with short-season Williamsport in 2001, but he has stayed strictly on the mound the last two years. He showed he still had his hitting stroke this season by going 4-for-12 (.333) with two doubles for Altoona.
Strengths: VanBenschoten has the makings of four average to plus pitches, the best of which is a 90-93 mph fastball that reaches 95 and has good movement down in the strike zone. His curveball is an above-average offering that he consistently throws for strikes. His slider and changeup continue to get better. VanBenschoten is athletic, which allows him to repeat his delivery and help himself in the field. In fact, his fluid mechanics make his heater look even faster. He’s free-spirited with a terrific sense of humor, and he rarely gets rattled him on the mound. He’s confident without being cocky.
Weaknesses: VanBenschoten tired late in 2003, losing five straight decisions in the second half and getting knocked out in the first inning of his only playoff start against eventual Eastern League champion Akron. The Pirates say his stamina won’t be a long-term problem and had no problem letting him pitch in the Olympic qualifying tourney. VanBenschoten has yet to gain full confidence in his changeup, a pitch he’ll need to succeed in the majors. He’s vulnerable when he leaves his pitches up in the strike zone. He still needs more experience pitching against high-caliber competition after concentrating on hitting in college.
The Future: After making great strides in his three pro seasons despite his inexperience, VanBenschoten looks like he can be a frontline pitcher in Pittsburgh’s rotation. He has adapted to each level of the minors and likely will spend all of 2004 at Triple-A Nashville before getting a September callup. He should join the Pirates for good in 2005.