Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Pirates Winter Leagues preview

Here is a quick summary of the players the Pirates will be dispersing to various winter leagues throughout the western hemisphere in upcoming months to hone their skills so that when I post reports of how they're doing you all have some context to put it in.

Honolulu Sharks

C Steve Lerud -- Lerud was drafted as the state of Nevada's all-time leader in high school home runs in the third round of the 2003 draft, the year before Neil Walker made him essentially obsolete at the age of 20. His upside was supposed to be his bat, but he's never been healthy for long enough to prove that. In 2006, he put up an extremely mediocre .239/.330/.402 line for low-A Hickory, but it was also his first professional season with more than 200 at-bats. This winter ball experience should probably help in determining if he has any sort of future.

SS Brian Bixler -- For a long time, Bixler was the poster child (and still is to some degree) for the Pirates draft philosophy/organizational weakness under the guidance of scouting director Ed Creech. That is, valuing speed and athleticism over the ability to actually hit baseballs with any decent consistency and/or power. Such players are known in Pirates circles as "Creechlings." Bixler hit just over .300 at both levels he tried this past season, high-A Lynchburg and AA Altoona, but didn't do much else, particularly with the Curve. Pirates Minor League director Brian Graham said before the season started that he saw Bixler as a potential starting shortstop in the Major Leagues. Yikes. Let's just say I have much more faith in Brent Lillibridge

CF Nyjer Morgan -- Morgan defines the term "Creechling" exquisitely. He returned to Lynchburg for the second consecutive season as a 25-year-old in 2006, hit .300 there with no power and few walks and stole a crapload of bases, then did the same thing upon a mid-season promotion to Altoona. With Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Rajai Davis, and arguably, Vic Buttler ahead of him, he probably won't be added to the 40-man roster and thus is fodder for the Rule V draft since teams like taking speedy glove guys with hopes to use them as pinch-runners and defensive caddies. He's probably the least worth following of any of the Pirates players participating in HWB.

SP Wardell Starling -- Wardell is my favorite of the bunch. When I last saw him, he was exuberantly bouncing across the players' parking lot at Blair County Ballpark in Altoona after a stellar performance in game four of the Eastern League Division Series that forced a game 5 in Akron that the Curve eventually lost. He was originally a second-round pick in 2002, but was severely disappointing until this season, when he pitched well in his second stint with Lynchburg, then lowered his ERA upon a promotion to Altoona, although his peripherals went down some. Starling is pretty much the only right-handed starting pitching prospect above A-ball for the Pirates (unless you count Marty McLeary as a prospect, lol), but his low K rate doesn't instill a whole lot of confidence that he'll be successful at the higher levels.

RP Justin Vaclavik -- If there's one thing the Pirates like more than speedy, slap-hitting center fielders, it's relief pitchers. Vaclavik, a 7th-rounder in 2005, was the University of Houston's closer, and seems to have a future as long as he continues striking out more than a batter per inning, which he did at short-season Williamsport in 2005 and low-A Hickory this year. He also limited opponents to a .229 batting average this year.

Grand Canyon Rafters

C Neil Walker -- The Bucs drafted Walker in the first round out of Pittsburgh-area high school Pine-Richland. He is easily the biggest prospect in the bunch, projecting to have above-average power for a catcher from both sides of the plate and the ability to hit .300. His Minor League numbers have been lackluster so far, but not embarrassing. He's been in the AFL before, but it was mostly to watch and learn. This time around, he should be a priority to get at-bats, so he's worth keeping an eye on.

1B Brad Eldred -- Eldred is one of the very, very few prospects in the Pirates organization to possess any type of power hitting skills whatsoever. His pure ability to hit the ball a long way is quite frankly McGwire-esque, but he's got some severe contact issues that have prevented him from forcing his way into the Pirates lineup on a permanent basis. The other things he has going against him are that he's right-handed, and the Pirates are more interested lefty power given the Pirates three biggest power threats at the moment are all already right-handed. He's also going to be turning 27 right around the All-Star break next season, and a torn thumb ligament completely derailed his 2006 season, which the Pirates meant for him to spend at AAA working on his pitch selection. As Dave Littlefield has already specifically targeted a left-handed power bat capable of playing first base, Eldred's window of opportunity may be closing, if it hasn't already. He'll probably be one of the oldest players in the AFL, so it could be fun to see what he's capable of doing.

2B Craig Stansberry -- Despite never really being all that impressive with the bat in his college career at Rice, the Pirates drafted Craig in the third round of the 2003 draft seemingly based on his defensive reputation. He was well on his way to becoming a Creechling until he decided to sacrifice his batting average to hit for more power. Unlike most Creechlings, he seems to have a pretty good idea of how to draw a walk. He was thoroughly mediocre in his stint with the Indy Indians in 2006, so he'll probably return there. I can't imagine he'd have a worse season as a Major League regular than Jose Castillo did this past season, so there could be a future for him yet.

SP John VanBenschoten -- Perhaps the biggest mistake the Pirates have made in the draft in the past half-dozen years was drafting JVB, who led the entire NCAA in home runs as a college senior at Kent State, as a starting pitcher, a move that may have ruined his career. After impressing in his first few Minor League seasons up to AA, the Pirates assigned him to AAA to begin the 2004, where he experienced a sharp drop in velocity. During a September call-up with the Pirates, he was nothing short of awful for most of the time, although a brilliant start against the Astros showed what he was capable of. He was shut down with about two weeks left in the season due to "minor" shoulder soreness which, as is the case with every Pirates first-rounder, turned out to be extremely serious, in this case, a torn labrum. He's lost two entire years to the injury, and it's unlikely he'll be ready to help the Pirates until the end of this season at the earliest. By then, he'll be 27 years old. It sickens me to wonder what could have become of him had we drafted him as a hitter.

SP Josh Shortslef -- Southpaw Shortslef accidentally became a full-time starter in 2002 when someone ahead of him on the depth chart at short-season Williamsport got hurt, but then got hurt himself. He was fully healthy again in 2005, when he was mediocre at Lynchburg but still earned a promotion to Altoona for 2006. He started off red-hot, posting a 2.05 ERA in April, but pitching through a forearm strain in May that eventually sidelined him until August. He had a few effective outings at the end of August, but got bombed in his one playoff start. The fact that the Pirates are sending him to the AFL is a sign that they still consider him a prospect, although it's unlikely they'll protect him on the 40-man roster and he could get selected in the Rule V draft, since lefties with good arms tend to be popular. His performance this fall could be the basis on which the Pirates decide to protect him or not.

RP Brian Rogers -- These next couple of guys are all part of the seemingly endless stable of relief prospects Dave Littlefield has stockpiled. Rogers was the return from the Detroit Tigers in the Sean Casey deal this July, he's been very good since converting to the bullpen after 2004. He was promoted to AAA almost immediately after joining the Pirates, where he was just about unhittable in a brief amount of time. However, he got hit hard in his Major League cameo in September, although his walk rate and K rate were both pretty good (7/2 K/BB in 8 2/3 innings).

RP Jesse Chavez -- Acquired from the Rangers in exchange for Kip Wells, Chavez is a hard thrower who still hasn't turned his velocity into a consistent season at any level. His K rates have been pretty good for the most part, although he walks a few too many people. He and Rogers being new to the organization probably has a lot to do with their AFL selection. Also, like Shortslef, he's Rule V eligible and how he fares in the coming months could have a lot to do with his fate as far as the 40-man roster is concerned.

Team unknown at this date

C/1B Ryan Doumit -- Doumit is a very interesting case for the Pirates. After having a pretty indistinguishable Minor League career through his first six seasons after being a 2nd-round draft pick in 1999, he absolutely destroyed International League pitching for the first couple of months in 2005, earning a call-up to the big league club. He started off slowly, thanks in no small part to the erraticality with which then-manager Lloyd McClendon utilized him. In August and September, as the team spiralled towards 90+ losses, he played much more regularly, and had two solid months, all but ensuring he'd be the primary catcher in 2006. Unfortunately, he spent two separate stints on the DL, one from April 16-May 4, the other from June 6-August 23, seeming to validate his reputation for being "injury prone." Doumit's loss was Ronny Paulino's gain, as Paulino seemed to cement himself as the everyday catcher 'til Neil Walker in the eyes of management by hitting .310 and being impressive in his handling of the pitching staff. His performance when he was active was overall pretty poor, although he showed a decent ability to get on base, posting a .322 on-base percentage despite a .208 batting average, and he showed flashes of power, as 15 of his 31 hits were of the extra-base variety. Jim Tracy also experimented with Doumit at first base, which is probably what he'll be doing most of in Mexico, as he gets some much-needed regular reptitions at the plate. His intriguing power and ability to switch-hit and play more than one position could make Doumit a valuable player, even if it's off the bench.

Team(s) unknown at this date

CF Rajai Davis -- Davis is a typical Creechling, although he technically wasn't drafted by Creech but by Creech's predecessor, Mickey White. He didn't start playing baseball until midway through high school, but he has a naturally quick bat and great hand-eye coordination, enabling him to make contact more often than not, as well as excellent speed. What he does not do, however, is hit for power, draw walks, or judge fly balls well. When the Pirates called him up on August 14, management basically showed what they think of him, which is not much more than a backup, evidenced by the fact that Jim Tracy did not write his name into the starting lineup once, using him exclusively as a pinch-hitter, pinch-runner, and defensive replacement. He probably will hang around for a few years as a fifth outfielder for some team, perhaps the Pirates. I like Vic Buttler better, though.

SP Shane Youman -- There's already a pretty extensive write-up on Youman a little further down in this blog, but to recap: lefty of Nigerian descendence, former 43rd round pick, freakishly became better after moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation, made his Major League debut this summer, more than held his own, unlikely to be given much consideration for next season anyway. A strong performance in Venezuela could really help his cause, although the last two Pirates players to tear up the VWL, Jose Castillo and Yurendell De Caster, either never translated it to Major League success (Castillo) or were never given a chance (Yuri).

RP Jonah Bayliss -- One of the few good things Dave Littlefield has done during his tenure as Pirates GM was flipping the ever-so-useless Mark Redman to the Royals for anything with a pulse. Not only does Bayliss have an active circulatory system, he could turn out to be a pretty decent pitcher. Like the vast majority of pitchers who convert to relief work after starting, he experienced a sharp increase in his K rate, yet to strike out less than a batter an inning since moving to the pen. He spent most of this season as the closer for Indianapolis, and did nothing short of dominate there, striking out 67 batters in 58 innings and allowing opposing hitters to bat a meager .181 against him. He also struck out 15 in 14 2/3 Major League innings between two stints. The main issue with Bayliss seems to be control, which will be something to pay attention two this winter. He's unlikely to hurt or harm his stock no matter what he does in the VWL, though, and he'll most likely be given a chance to win a bullpen spot in Spring Training.

There may be a few more guys added to the list, a couple may drop out (particularly in the foreign leagues), but for now, this is pretty much it. Hopefully now these guys are like family to you, so you can look forward with great interest to find out how they're doing.

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