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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.
2. Sean Burnett, lhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-1. Wt.: 170.
Background: The Pirates drafted Burnett in the first round in 2000, a year after making his Wellington (Fla.) High teammate Bobby Bradley a first-rounder. While Bradley has yet to get past Class A because of a variety of arm problems, Burnett has gone 40-19, 2.64 in 31/2 pro seasons. He was the Eastern League’s 2003 pitcher of the year.
Strengths: More impressive than his stuff, Burnett has outstanding control and keeps the ball in the park. His best pitch is a changeup that falls off the table. He also throws a good curveball and a slider that he picked up in 2002.
Weaknesses: Burnett’s other pitches offset the fact that his fastball usually sits in the 85-88 mph range. His low strikeout rate hasn’t hurt him yet, but it continues to decline and could be a factor when he reaches the majors. Because of his slight build, stamina will always be a question. Burnett missed the EL playoffs with a sore elbow but returned to pitch in instructional league.
The Future: As a lefty who induces ground balls, Burnett seems to be a perfect fit for PNC Park. He figures to move into the Pirates rotation after spending 2004 in Triple-A.
3. Jason Bay, of
Age: 25. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 200.
Background: Bay has been a traveling man the last two years, getting traded from the Expos to the Mets to the Padres to the Pirates. Pittsburgh acquired him and lefties Oliver Perez and Cory Stewart in August as part of the Brian Giles trade. He finished the year as the Pirates’ left fielder and drove in eight runs against the Cubs on Sept. 19, one short of the club record.
Strengths: Bay doesn’t have an overpowering tool but does most everything well. He hits for power and average while showing solid plate discipline. He also is a good runner and a high-percentage basestealer. He has enough athleticism for center field and has enough arm for right.
Weaknesses: Bay, a Canadian, is a little older than most prospects, meaning he probably won’t get much better. While he continued to walk in the major leagues, he expanded his strike zone and struck out far more often than he did in the minors.
The Future: Bay will be the Pirates’ starting left fielder in 2004, as that position is more difficult to play in PNC Park than right. The Pirates hope he fulfills comparisons to Jeff Conine.
4. Bryan Bullington, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-5. Wt.: 220.
Background: There was considerable debate within the organization, but owner Kevin McClatchy wanted to go the safe route with the No. 1 overall pick in 2002. So the Pirates chose Bullington, a college pitcher, over high school star B.J. Upton. Bullington didn’t make his pro debut until 2003 because he didn’t sign for a club-record $4 million until late October 2002.
Strengths: Bullington has a projectable pitcher’s body and the makings of a power fastball/slider combination. He throws from a three-quarters arm slot, which gives his pitches more movement. His curveball improved and he got experience throwing his changeup, a pitch he didn’t need often in college.
Weaknesses: Bullington’s fastball topped out at 90 mph this season, 3-4 mph below where it was in college, and his slider didn’t have consistent bite. The Pirates attribute the lack of velocity to his long layoff between college and the start of his pro career.
The Future: Bullington will get tested at Double-A Altoona in 2004. Despite the pedigree of the first overall pick, he projects as a No. 2 or 3 starter, likely reaching the majors sometime in 2005.
5. Blair Johnson, rhp
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 200.
Background: After getting Bryan Bullington, the Pirates used the first pick of the second round of the 2002 draft to take Johnson, a raw high school pitcher from Kansas. He pitched two innings that summer because of a sore shoulder. He started 2003 in extended spring training before breaking through in his second Rookie-level Gulf Coast League season.
Strengths: Johnson’s fastball reaches 95 mph but shows more movement when he dials it down to 91-92. He complements his heater with a good curveball and a changeup that improved markedly in 2003. He likes to challenge hitters inside.
Weaknesses: Johnson needs to be more consistent with the arm speed of his changeup. He got hit hard in the South Atlantic League playoffs after moving up to low Class A, a sign he needs more innings against better competition.
The Future: Johnson has the makings of a top-of-the-rotation starter. He’s still young, and the Pirates aren’t likely to rush him with plenty of other pitching prospects in the system. Look for Johnson to return to Hickory in 2004 and arrive in Pittsburgh in 2007.
6. Ian Oquendo, rhp
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 160.
Background: A small Delaware high school righthander, Oquendo drew scant attention from scouts when the father of Pirates lefthander Dave Williams recommended him to the team. Oquendo has gone on to be almost unbeatable, going 36-9, 2.48 in 31/2 pro seasons. He led the system with 14 wins and was Pittsburgh’s minor league pitcher of the year in 2003.
Strengths: Oquendo has a lively fastball that reaches 95 mph and sits comfortably at 91-92. His best pitch is a hard curveball that has such late break that many confuse it for a slider. He’s also an outstanding athlete who fields his position well.
Weaknesses: Oquendo’s changeup needs work. He was suspended for two weeks in 2002 after an argument with Hickory pitching coach Scott Lovekamp but showed newfound maturity in 2003.
The Future: Oquendo spent the final month of 2003 in Double-A and needs at least another half-season there. It’s conceivable he could be ready for the major leagues late in 2004, but the following season seems more likely. With his slight stature and two above-average pitches, he could wind up as a closer in the big leagues.
7. Freddy Sanchez, ss/2b
Age: 26. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 180.
Background: Sanchez was the Red Sox’ top prospect until they parted with him to acquire Scott Sauerback and Jeff Suppan in July. The Pirates planned for Sanchez to take over at second base in September, but he played just one game at Triple-A Nashville before being shut down with a stress fracture in his right ankle.
Strengths: A career .323 hitter in the minors, Sanchez sprays line drives to all fields and has a good understanding of the strike zone. He has good pop for a middle infielder and drove the ball better than ever in 2003. He also wins high marks for his enthusiasm, hustle and instincts.
Weaknesses: Sanchez has played a lot of shortstop, but his slightly below-average arm makes him better suited for second. His ankle problem may hurt his speed and range, which were average to begin with.
The Future: Sanchez will battle Bobby Hill, another touted young infielder acquired in a midseason trade, for the starting job at second base. He could go back to shortstop, particularly if Jack Wilson, a former summer league teammate, doesn’t improve offensively.
8. Paul Maholm, lhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 215.
Background: A 17th-round pick by the Twins out of high school in 2000, Maholm opted to attend Mississippi State. That proved to be a wise move as he went eighth overall in 2003. As with Bullington, McClatchy’s desire for safer college talent played a role in Pittsburgh’s decision.
Strengths: Maholm has an advanced feel for pitching as he changes speeds well, moves the ball around in the strike zone and does the little things like hold runners and field his position. Both his curveball and changeup are above-average pitches. His fastball rarely tops 90 mph and sits at 88 but is effective because of Maholm’s ability to locate it.
Weaknesses: Maholm’s lack of pure stuff did not hurt him in the short-season New York-Penn League, but it remains to be seen how he’ll fare against higher-caliber hitters. He also needs to tighten his slider, though the Pirates may ask him to concentrate on his curve.
The Future: Because Maholm faced strong competition in college, the Pirates are likely to challenge him and send him to high Class A in 2004. Maholm figures to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the majors, perhaps as early as 2006.
9. Cory Stewart, lhp
Age: 24. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 180.
Background: The Pirates acquired Stewart in the trade that sent Brian Giles to the Padres. Drafted by Cincinnati in 1998 and released two years later after having shoulder surgery, he signed with San Diego in 2002 after one season in the independent Texas-Louisiana League. He was the Padres’ best pitching prospect at the time of the trade.
Strengths: Stewart is a rare lefthanded starter who can overpower hitters with a fastball. It tops out at 94 mph and usually works at 88-92, and it has good movement. He complements his heater with a big-breaking curveball. He’s mentally tough, shown by his rise from indy ball refugee to prospect.
Weaknesses: Stewart’s changeup is below-average, and he tends to telegraph it. His curveballs can be erratic, and he must improve his secondary pitches in order to remain a starter. He also loses concentration at times.
The Future: Stewart will go to Triple-A in 2004 and should get a chance to make his major league debut late in the season. His live arm makes him an intriguing starting prospect if he can refine his curve and changeup.
10. Ryan Doumit, c
Age: 22. B-T: B-R. Ht.: 6-0. Wt.: 190.
Background: Injuries to his back, knee and hand have dogged Doumit since he turned pro. He finally had the first healthy season of his career in 2003 after being placed on the 40-man roster the previous winter. His 458 at-bats nearly doubled his career high, and he led the high Class A Carolina League in doubles.
Strengths: Doumit has a lot of offensive upside for a catcher. He’s a switch-hitter who can hit for average and has emerging power, especially from the left side. He improved his plate discipline when he got regular at-bats, though he still needs work in that area. He also moves well behind the plate and has a strong arm.
Weaknesses: Doumit is a streaky hitter and needs to be more consistent. Despite his good defensive tools, CL teams ran on him. He needs to become more accurate with his throws, and some question his game-calling and receiving ability.
The Future: Doumit will catch in Double-A in 2004 and is on track to reach Pittsburgh in 2006. Incumbent Jason Kendall will have two years left on his six-year, $60 million contract if he hasn’t been traded by then. Doumit has the stuff be a No. 1 catcher in the majors.