Spring Training Dish: Pirates Camp

Editor’s note: Assistant editor Chris Kline is spending three weeks
covering spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League. Today’s stop:
Pirates camp. Coming Thursday: Catching up with the Devil Rays.

BRADENTON, Fla.–With one visit to Bradenton, it can be easily seen
just how much the Pirates are living in the shadow of the Steel
Curtain–as the gift shop at McKechnie Field prominently displays
Steelers’ Super Bowl gear among the No. 25 Sean Casey jerseys.

In
a lot of ways, this is a franchise in search of an identity; and the
Pirates’ brass is excited, not only about the free agents they’ve
brought in this offseason, but especially about the youth that
continues to grow and inject new life in a club that hasn’t had a
winning season since 1992.

“You look around here and see the
guys coming back to work out here with the minor league guys,” Pirates
field coordinator Jeff Bannister said. “It inspires these guys to work
that much harder because they know they have a chance to contribute
with the big league club if they continue to work hard and learn how to
play the game.”

Aside from the players the system graduated
to the big leagues last season, the organization is also hyped for the
2006 All-Star Game at PNC Park this July. They’re just hoping there are
more reasons to visit Pittsburgh this summer than the all-star
festivities and fans hitting the park on the way to Steelers’ camp in
nearby Latrobe this August.

We sat down with Pirates farm
director Brian Graham–in between dodging random throws by second
baseman Jose Castillo at his moving golf cart around Pirate City–to
talk about keeping the system stocked with depth after losing so many
players to the majors last season, the lack of impact talent other than
Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen, and what in the world happened to
righthander Matt Peterson after he came over from New York in the Kris
Benson deal two years ago.

Baseball America:
Pitching is where the organization is deepest. How do you feel about
the overall pitching depth in the system after graduating guys like
Zach Duke and Ian Snell?

Brian Graham:
I feel real good because the pitching depth that has gone to the big
leagues should be there for a few years. And that gives our younger
guys the chance to catch up and matriculate to the Double-A, Triple-A
level from the lower A ball levels. But when you have the Dukes and the
Maholms and the Burnetts and then Gorzelanny and Van Benschoten waiting
in the wings with guys like (Matt) Capps and (Josh) Sharpless at the
higher levels, you certainly feel like you’ve gotten pitchers to the
level where they need to be.

BA: One area where you
seem to lack is impact talent. Other than Neil Walker and Andrew
McCutchen, there isn’t much in the way of potential star players. What
is your response to the lack of impact talent in the system?

BG:
Certainly you have to draft quality players, but at the same time they
have to develop. For us to understand if a player’s a star player
they’ve got to pitch or play at the major league level for a few years
before we can really evaluate that. Certainly Duke has a chance to be a
star player, guys like (Andrew) McCutchen, (Neil) Walker,
Castillo–they have a chance to be star players. But the evaluation
process is difficult because you don’t really know that until they’ve
played at the big league level for a few years.

BA: What has impressed you about most about McCutchen’s first spring training?

BG:
McCutchen is a tremendously talented player physically. This is a guy
with great hands, hits the ball to right field consistently, has very
good command of the strike zone, runs very well, is an above-average
defensive player with great baseball instincts and probably what makes
him special is he has such a good feel for the game. He understands
what pitchers are trying to do to him and he has a good two-strike
approach to hitting. You watch him on the bases when he takes an extra
base or gets a good jump off a pitcher and say to yourself, “That’s
been learned at some point,” but there’s a lot of God-given talent
there that’s also making him a good player.

BA: Are
you surprised at all with how well Tom Gorzelanny pitched in big league
camp this spring? (Gorzelanny was later sent to minor league camp.)

BG:
It doesn’t surprise me because his pure stuff might be better than Duke
and Maholm, but Duke and Maholm command the ball better. They both have
an extraordinary maturity to them. They have a great feel for how to
pitch, what pitch to throw, reading hitters’ swings; both Maholm and
Duke understand game situations and have great poise. If they get a
couple balls hit hard off them, they’re OK. They’ll settle back in and
get a ground ball.

Gorzelanny isn’t at that point yet from a
maturity standpoint or an experience standpoint. But, his stuff is very
good. He just needs more innings.

BA: Matt Capps has
been one of the true success stories in the organization. I saw him get
rocked in his one start in the Carolina League in 2003 and then it was
a similar story in 2004 in Hickory. What has been his route to success
developmentally?

BG: Matt Capps is
one of the best success stories I’ve ever been around in professional
baseball. This is a guy who had a 10 ERA in 2004 as a starter in (low
Class A) Hickory. He’d pitch the first couple innings at 93-94 (mph)
and by the fourth inning he was throwing 86. For whatever reason, his
body didn’t allow him to maintain the velocity and he threw so many
strikes because his mentality was to challenge the hitters that he gave
up a tremendous amount of hits per innings and his ERA was 10. So we
sent him back to (short-season) Williamsport in ’04 and he struggled
there too.

Coming into last season, (pitching coordinator)
Gary Ruby and I felt that if he couldn’t maintain his velocity, it was
a time for a move to the pen. Quit trying to develop his pitches
because his mentality is attack the hitters, go right after them and
throw strikes. So we made him a reliever and it continued through the
season.

We moved him up to Double-A, then Triple-A and then
the big leagues by the end of last year and now he’s having probably
the best spring of any pitcher in camp up there this year.

BA:
Outfield depth looks solid, but how do you feel about what’s left in
the system after graduating guys like Chris Duffy and Nate McClouth?

BG:
I like our depth–Rajai Davis has been having a very good spring
training in big league camp coming off a solid offseason in winter
ball. And you look at the future of the Pirates and you see Jason Bay
for four more years and you see (Chris) Duffy as a guy who can
definitely fit in, and McClouth behind him, it gives you some time as
an organization to develop players. We’ve got Davis and certainly
McCutchen down the road; but we’ve also got Adam Boeve as a righthanded
bat who could help at some point. We’ve got Ray Sadler, who could also
help out there as well.

BA: Clayton Hamilton is an interesting arm you got over the offseason. What are your impressions of him?

BG:
He’s a little unorthodox in his delivery, and I think hitters are going
to have a tough time picking his stuff up. But he’s going to have to
throw strikes to have some success. He’s a performance guy. When I look
at him, I don’t see him gaining 3-4 mph on his fastball and I don’t see
his breaking ball getting measurably better. What I see is a guy who,
if he throws strikes and commands the baseball, he can perform his way
to the big leagues. Nice body, good arm. He is what he is–he’s just
going to have to perform his way to the big leagues.

BA:
Any surprises early in camp? Anyone who has stood out to you? I’ve
heard good things from Wardell Starling, who was pretty inconsistent in
the Carolina League last year . . .

BG:
He had a tough year last year as a guy who was a fourth-round pick a
couple years ago and he’s now trusting his stuff and pounding the
strike zone with his fastball. That makes his offspeed stuff so much
more valuable if he can throw that 92-93 mph fastball in the strike
zone and try to get early-count outs. Starling is understanding that
now and for me made the biggest strides this far into camp.

(Craig)
Stansberry had a great major league camp and he continues to hit well
over here. McCutchen is having a great spring all the way around and
for him to do that at 19 years old is impressive. He looked like he
belonged in his first spring training. It’s very pleasing to see some
of our position players doing what our pitchers have been doing.

BA:
Matt Peterson certainly hasn’t lived up to the expectations the
organization envisioned getting him back in the Kris Benson deal two
years ago? What’s gone wrong with Peterson?

BG:
Pete just hasn’t regained the velocity he had when we traded for him.
He’s been inconsistent. He’s one of those guys with a good arms when
you see him long toss and when you see him throw fastballs in the
bullpen–he just hasn’t gotten over the hump. At some point, it’s got
to click in, but we just haven’t found the right button to push. He’s
been 86-88 (mph) and we’re talking about a guy who was consistently 93
at one point. If we knew the answer we’d get it fixed. Two or three
different pitching coaches have taken a shot at him and it hasn’t
worked yet.

SPRING NOTES

• Catcher Neil Walker
will begin the year in extended spring after having surgery to repair a
ligament in his left wrist. The injury occurred in the Arizona Fall
League and the Pirates don’t expect him back until mid-April at the
earliest. He is expected to report straight to high Class A Lynchburg
upon his return. Right now, Walker is only cleared to go through
one-handed hitting drills, all from the left side.

• Righthander Jonathan Albaladejo
has trimmed down heading into this spring, and getting his weight under
control–along with moving to the pen–could finally allow him to move
quickly through the system. Sunday, Albaladejo dominated during an
intrasquad game, spotting his fastball and locating his curveball to
both sides of the plate. Albaladejo, who has primarily been used as a
starter, had a lot of success in the Puerto Rico League over the past
two winters working out of the pen. While his fastball velocity hasn’t
improved (he’s still 88-91 mph), the Pirates hope his velocity will
increase with a better body and improved repetition of his delivery as
he concentrates on shorter stints as a reliever.

• One interesting arm to watch this season is 19-year-old Dominican righthander Jose Rafael De Los Santos.
While he is making his debut in the States after pitching last season
in the Dominican Summer League, De Los Santos has a free and easy
delivery he repeats well and is armed with a fastball in the low 90s,
slider and changeup.

• Athletics outfield prospect Javier Herrera
will likely miss the entire season after being diagnosed with an
injured elbow ligament that will require Tommy John surgery. Herrera,
the organization’s No. 2 prospect, was sent to the minors after a stint
in big league camp. After reporting to the minor league camp, he
reported pain in his elbow. Dr. Doug Freedberg in
Phoenix confirmed the injury and told Herrera that he would need
reconstructive elbow surgery. The 20-year-old Venezuelan hit
.275/.374/.444 last season at low Class A Kane County with a 5-for-12
cameo at Triple-A Sacramento.

Contributing: Casey Tefertiller.

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