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Top Ten Prospects: Pittsburgh Pirates
Complete Index of Top 10s

By John Perrotto
November 23, 2005


Chat Wrap: John Perrotto took your Pirates questions
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, 2006.

The Pirates have been stressing the importance of a small-market franchise being able to build from within ever since Kevin McClatchy put together an ownership group that took control of the club on the first day of spring training in 1996. After years of trying, Pittsburgh began practicing what it has preached the second half of the 2005 season.

The Pirates began the season without one rookie on their roster. Before their 13th consecutive losing season ended, though, 12 players had made their major league debuts. That began a full-scale youth movement that the Pirates believe eventually can lead them back to respectability.

Pittsburgh’s long-suffering fans were enthused by the play of such youngsters as lefthanders Zach Duke and Paul Maholm; catcher Ryan Doumit; first baseman Brad Eldred; and outfielders Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth. Duke had the best debut at 8-2, 1.81 and finished fifth in the National League rookie of the year race. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny, righties Bryan Bullington, Matt Capps and Ian Snell, catcher Ronny Paulino, third baseman Jose Bautista and infielder J.J. Furmaniak also made cameo appearances.

“As far as having players who can help us in the future, this is the best position we’ve been in since I got here,” said general manager Dave Littlefield, who replaced Cam Bonifay midway through the 2001 season.

While the focus was on the rookies at the end of 2005, Pittsburgh also saw other players make significant progress in their second full major league seasons.

Left fielder Jason Bay built on his NL rookie-of-the-year award by hitting .306-32-101 with 21 steals in 22 attempts while starting all 162 games. Second baseman Jose Castillo began to develop power, hitting .268-11-53 in 101 games before a knee injury ended his season in late August.

The Pirates also have high hopes for 23-year-old lefthander Oliver Perez, who slipped to 7-5, 5.85 in 20 starts and missed nearly two months with a broken big toe after he kicked a metal laundry cart in frustration. He went 12-10, 2.98 with 239 strikeouts in 196 innings in 2004.

The Pirates stressed patience in player development when Littlefield took over and brought in Brian Graham as farm director and Ed Creech as scouting director. Instead of fast-tracking players to the majors, they moved them one level at a time for the most part. The players who arrived in Pittsburgh in 2005 didn’t appear overwhelmed by the surroundings.

Under Graham, Pirates farm clubs have posted a combined winning record in each of the last four seasons. Prior to that, they finished above .500 just once in 33 years.

Pittsburgh’s strength in recent years clearly has been pitching. However, that’s starting to change as the Pirates used the 11th overall pick in the last two drafts on a pair of high school position players, catcher Neil Walker (2004) and center fielder Andrew McCutchen (2005). They rank 1-2 on our Pirates Top 10 Prospects list this year.


1. NEIL WALKER , c      Age: 20 Ht: 6-2 Wt: 215 B-T: B-R
Drafted: HS—Gibsonia, Pa., 2004 (1st round)   Signed by: Jon Mercurio

Background: Walker was born to play baseball, and it has been his dream to play in the majors since he attended the 1994 All-Star Game at old Three Rivers Stadium. His father Tom pitched in the big leagues for six seasons with four teams from 1972-77. His uncle, Chip Lang, pitched for the Expos in 1975-76. His brother Matt was an outfielder in the Tigers and Orioles systems. Walker was the first Pittsburgh-area player ever selected in the first round by the Pirates after hitting .657-13-42 in his senior season at Pine-Richland High, and his charismatic nature has enabled him to handle the attention with aplomb. In addition to being a prep All-American in baseball, Walker was an all-state wide receiver in high school and received plenty of interest from major college football programs.

Strengths: Walker is a rare commodity, a switch-hitter who can produce for both average and power. Though he’s a natural righthanded hitter, he showed outstanding power as a lefthanded batter in 2005 and really has no weak side. He relishes the opportunity to hit with runners on base and projects as a middle-of-the-order run producer who should hit in the neighborhood of .300 with 30 homers per season. Walker has a strong arm and threw out 37 percent of runners attempting to steal in 2005. Though not a burner, he also runs well, particularly for a catcher.

Weaknesses: Walker could stand to take a few more walks, though he has been able to overcome that by his ability to make consistent hard contact. His defense needs plenty of work. His throwing mechanics are often inconsistent and he occasionally lapses into bad habits where he doesn’t move his feet and stabs at pitches. While the Pirates believe Walker can stay behind the plate and reach the majors, they also believe they would receive more long-term production if they removed him from the rigors of catching. With that in mind, Walker began taking ground balls at third base in the Arizona Fall League with an eye on eventually moving to the hot corner or a corner-outfield position. He has the athleticism to handle the transition to any of those spots.

The Future: How quickly Walker reaches Pittsburgh depends upon what position he ultimately plays. If he stays behind the plate, he likely won’t be ready until 2008. If he moves to third base or the outfield, that timetable easily could speed up to 2007. He’ll probably open 2006 at high Class A Lynchburg with the likelihood of moving to Double-A Altoona during the season. Walker excelled in his first season of full-season ball in 2005, then held his own as one of the youngest players in the AFL. That leads to the feeling he could get to the majors quickly and provide the Pirates with a sorely needed second elite hitter to go with Jason Bay in the heart of the batting order. They haven’t had a starting position player from the Pittsburgh area since third baseman/outfielder Bill Robinson from 1975-82, and the win-starved fans would relish having one of their own to cheer.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Hickory (Lo A) .301 .332 .452 485 78 146 33 2 12 68 20 71 7 4
Lynchburg (Hi A) .262 .244 .357 42 4 11 2 1 0 12 0 12 0 0


2. ANDREW McCUTCHEN, of       Age: 19 B-T: R-R Ht: 5-11 Wt.: 175
Drafted: HS—Fort Meade, Fla., 2005 (1st round)    Signed by: Rob Sidwell

Background: The Pirates made McCutchen their top pick after he hit .709-11-28 as a high school senior. He has good athletic genes; his father played football at small-college power Carson-Newman (Tenn.) and his mother played volleyball in junior college in Florida. He ranked as the top prospect in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in his debut.


Strengths:
McCutchen has a good blend of power and speed, often drawing comparisons to Marquis Grissom. He has wiry strength and his extra-base hit total should increase once his body fills out. He has outstanding speed (he covers 60 yards in 6.35 seconds) and a quick first step, enabling him to cover plenty of ground in center field.

  

Weaknesses:
McCutchen played at a small rural high school and is still somewhat raw in all aspects of the game. His arm is his weakest tool but still grades out as average.

  

The Future:
McCutchen is ready to log a full season at low Class A Hickory. His talent and maturity could get him to the major leagues as soon as 2008.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
GCL Pirates (R) .297 .411 .430 158 36 47 9 3 2 30 29 24 13 1
Williamsport (SS) .346 .443 .442 52 12 18 3 1 0 5 8 6 4 1


3. TOM GORZELANNY, lhp       Age: 23 B-T: L-L Ht: 6-2 Wt.: 207
Drafted: Triton (Ill.) JC, 2003 (2nd round)  Signed by: Mark Germann

Background: After starting his college career at Kansas, Gorzelanny turned into a high-round pick after academic woes prompted him to transfer to Triton JC near his Chicago-area home. He made his big league debut in September, barely more than two years after being drafted, and set a Double-A Altoona record by striking out 13 in an Eastern League playoff game.


Strengths:
Gorzelanny throws hard; his fastball sits at 90-92 mph with excellent movement and reaches as high as 95. His slider can be unhittable at times, and he really took a step forward in 2005 after he dramatically improved his changeup. He also has good mound presence and refuses to give in to hitters.

  

Weaknesses:
Gorzelanny needs to tighten up his breaking ball because it gets slurvy at times. He can solve that problem by developing a more consistent arm slot.

  

The Future:
Though he got a major league look, Gorzelanny needs to spend the majority of 2006 at Triple-A Indianapolis to become a finished product. He has the chance to become a fine No. 2-3 starter.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Altoona (AA) 8 5 3.26 23 23 1 0 130 114 6 46 124 .236
Pittsburgh 0 1 12.00 3 1 0 0 6 10 1 3 3 .357


4. PAUL MAHOLM, lhp        Age: 23 B-T: L-L Ht: 6-2 Wt.: 225
Drafted: Mississippi State, 2003 (1st round)   Signed by: Everett Russell

Background: Maholm’s 2004 season was cut short when a line drive struck him in the left eye in mid May while he was in high Class A, and his 2005 was eventful as well. An outstanding spring training led to him beginning the season in Double-A. After a trip to the Futures Game and a stopover in Triple-A, Maholm landed in Pittsburgh. Off the field, his mother died of colon cancer and his new house in Holly Springs, Miss., narrowly missed being heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.


Strengths:
Maholm has outstanding mound presence and very good command of three pitches that can be above average at times. He runs his 88-91 mph fastball in on righthanders. He also has a good curveball and a slider that’s improving.

  

Weaknesses:
Righthanders hit .265 against Maholm—compared to .173 by lefties—in part because the quality of his changeup fluctuates. He’s not overpowering, so he doesn’t have much margin for error.

  

The Future:
Maholm showed he’s ready to be a major league starter, but the Pirates’ depth might force him back to Triple-A to start 2006.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Altoona (AA) 6 2 3.20 16 16 0 0 82 73 5 26 75 .243
Indianapolis (AAA) 1 1 3.53 6 6 0 0 36 40 2 12 21 .286
Pittsburgh 3 1 2.18 6 6 0 0 41 31 2 17 26 .209


5. JOSE BAUTISTA, 3b        Age: 25 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-0 Wt.: 192
Drafted: Chipola (Fla.) JC, 2000 (20th round)    Signed by: Jack Powell

Background: Bautista got needed at-bats at Double-A in 2005 after getting just 88 while bouncing around the majors with four teams in 2004 as a Rule 5 draft pick. Baltimore selected Bautista from the Pirates, and he wound up going to Tampa Bay and Kansas City on waiver claims before landing back in Pittsburgh in the Kris Benson trade. Bautista got just 165 at-bats in 2003 because of a broken hand.


Strengths:
Bautista has a quick bat and began to show plus power in 2005. He has the tools to be an above-average defensive third baseman with good range and a strong arm. An average runner, he’s versatile with the ability to play second base and all three outfield positions.

  

Weaknesses:
He needs to smooth out some rough edges. Bautista lacks plate discipline and can be made to chase bad pitches. His hands are also a little stiff and he makes too many errors on routine plays.

  

The Future:
The Pirates have a big need at third base but believe Bautista needs to spend at least a half-season in Triple-A. He could get an extended look after the all-star break.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Altoona (AA) .283 .364 .503 445 63 126 27 1 23 90 48 101 7 3
Indianapolis (AAA) .255 .309 .373 51 6 13 3 0 1 4 4 10 1 1
Pittsburgh .143 .226 .179 28 3 4 1 0 0 1 3 7 1 0


6. NATE McLOUTH, of       Age: 24 B-T: L-R Ht: 5-11 Wt.: 186
Signed: HS—Whitehall, Mich., 2000 (25th round)   Signed by: Duane Gustavson

Background: McLouth shared Mr. Baseball honors in Michigan in 2000 but teams shied away from drafting him because of his commitment to the University of Michigan. However, the Pirates drafted him in the 25th round and persuaded him to sign for $500,000. He made his big league debut last season and hit four home runs in his final six games.


Strengths:
McLouth’s tools all grade out at average or just a little above. He plays above his tools because of his outstanding work ethic and baseball acumen. He handles the bat well, makes consistent contact, runs well and is an exceptional bunter.

  

Weaknesses:
A tweener, McLouth lacks the desired power for an outfield corner and the range for center field. His best position is probably right field, where his arm is just adequate. He has shown the ability to hit doubles in the minors and needs to start translating that into over-the-fence power.

  

The Future:
McLouth may not profile extremely well, but he consistently has overcome his doubters and should become at least a good fourth outfielder. He’ll compete for a big league job in spring training.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Indianapolis (AAA) .297 .364 .401 397 64 118 20 3 5 39 39 58 34 8
Pittsburgh .257 .305 .450 109 20 28 6 0 5 12 3 20 2 0


7. BRYAN BULLINGTON, rhp       Age: 25 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt.: 222
Drafted: Ball State, 2002 (1st round)    Signed by: Duane Gustavson

Background: Though some members of the organization preferred B.J. Upton, the Pirates made Bullington the No. 1 pick in the 2002 draft and gave him a club-record $4 million bonus. After missing the first six weeks of the 2005 season with a sore shoulder, he had a fine year at Triple-A and made his big league debut in September. However, he needed shoulder surgery to repair damage to his labrum in October and won’t be able to pitch until June.


Strengths:
Bullington regained the touch on his slider in 2005. With its late break and good tilt, it became his out pitch. He has a smooth delivery and his pitches have good movement coming from a three-quarters arm slot.

  

Weaknesses:
Bullington’s fastball hit 95 mph in college, but he never has thrown that hard since coming into pro ball. The Pirates hope he might regain velocity following his shoulder surgery. Bullington’s curveball tends to get loopy and his changeup can be erratic.

  

The Future:
Bullington will begin the season rehabbing his shoulder, slowing down his timetable. Look for him to spend most of 2006 in the minors, with a September callup to the majors most likely.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Indianapolis (AAA) 9 5 3.38 18 18 1 0 109 104 11 26 82 .251
Pittsburgh 0 0 13.50 1 0 0 0 1 1 0 1 1 .250


8. JON VAN BENSCHOTEN, rhp      Age: 25 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-4 Wt.: 217
Drafted: Kent State, 2001 (1st round)   Signed by: Duane Gustavson

Background: Van Benschoten missed the entire 2005 season because of three arthroscopic shoulder surgeries, one on his throwing arm


and two on his left arm. He led NCAA Division I with 31 home runs at Kent State during his junior season in 2001, and the Pirates surprised many clubs by drafting him eighth overall as a pitcher that June. After pitching strictly in relief in college, he reached the majors as a starter in three years.

Strengths:
Van Benschoten has the ideal pitcher’s build and a consistent 91-94 mph fastball. His best pitch is a late-breaking slider that causes many swings and misses. He also has a solid curveball.

  

Weaknesses:
Despite trying several grips, Van Benschoten never has gained complete feel for a changeup. Despite his age, he lacks pitching experience because of his college background. His mechanics can wander at times, leading to a loss of location.

  

The Future:
Van Benschoten should be ready to pitch by the time spring training begins. He went just 4-11, 4.72 in Triple-A in 2004 and needs more time in the minors. He should challenge for a spot in the Pittsburgh rotation in 2007.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Did Not Pitch-Injured


9. CHRIS DUFFY, of       Age: 25 B-T: B-L Ht: 5-10 Wt.: 183
Drafted: Arizona State, 2001 (8th round)    Signed by: Ted Williams

Background: Duffy has continued to impress the Pirates since leading the short-season New York-Penn League in steals in his pro debut in 2001. He had a strong big league camp and hit .300 for the fourth time in five years in 2005. Installed as the Pirates’ center fielder in mid July, he hit .341 until his season ended in late August with a torn left hamstring.


Strengths:
Duffy has outstanding speed that he uses to his advantage both on the bases and in the field. Though he never batted lefthanded until he got to Arizona State, he has hit consistently throughout the minors. He’s an outstanding center fielder who covers both gaps and makes highlight-reel plays. He’s also a good basestealer, though he was hesitant to run in the majors.

  

Weaknesses:
Duffy strikes out a lot for a top-of-the-order hitter who relies on speed. His arm is below average, though he compensates by making accurate throws.

  

The Future:
The Pirates’ center-field job will be Duffy’s to lose in spring training. He’s their best defensive center fielder since Andy Van Slyke, though his bat will determine his long-term future.

2005 Club (Class) AVG OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB CS
Indianapolis (AAA) .308 .358 .464 308 55 95 13 7 7 31 16 57 17 9
Pittsburgh .341 .385 .429 126 22 43 4 2 1 9 7 22 2 2


10. MATT CAPPS , rhp       Age: 22 B-T: R-R Ht: 6-3 Wt.: 231
Drafted: HS—Douglasville, Ga., 2002 (7th round)    Signed by: Jack Powell

Background: Capps made an amazing rise after posting a 10.07 ERA in eight low Class A Hickory starts in 2004. Converted to a reliever during spring training in 2005, he began the season back at Hickory and finished it in the Pittsburgh bullpen.


Strengths:
Capps attacks hitters and doesn’t back down, a style that works much better for him in short relief. His fastball routinely hits 95 mph and looks even quicker because he comes straight over the top with it. He does an exceptional job of throwing strikes.

  

Weaknesses:
Capps hasn’t been able to come up with a consistent breaking ball. He’ll need another pitch, possibly a splitter, to go with his fastball in order to get major league hitters out. He’s more hittable than he should be with his velocity because hitters can sit on his heater.

  

The Future:
Though Capps got a taste of the major leagues at the end of 2005, he needs more seasoning and will begin 2006 in Double-A. He has a chance to eventually become a major league closer if he can find a complement for his plus fastball.

2005 Club (Class) W L ERA G GS CG SV IP H HR BB SO AVG
Hickory (Lo A) 3 4 2.52 25 0 0 14 54 47 0 5 39 .239
Altoona (AA) 0 2 2.70 17 0 0 7 20 21 2 1 26 .250
Pittsburgh 0 0 4.50 0 0 0 0 4 5 0 0 3 .333


Photo Credits:
Cruz, Gallardo, Inman: Bill Mitchell
Braun, Escobar: Sports On Film
Rogers: Rodger Wood
Fielder: Andrew Woolley

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