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Pirates Top 10 Prospects
By John Perrotto
Since winning three straight division titles from 1990-92, Pittsburgh has suffered through 10 straight losing seasons, the longest stretch of futility in the franchises 116-year history. However, their long history of losing in the minors came to an abrupt end last season.
General manager Dave Littlefield hired Brian Graham as farm director prior to last season, telling him to change the mindset in the system. Graham, a former minor league manager for the Indians and a big league coach for Baltimore and Cleveland, did just that.
The Pirates broke an incredible string in which their farm clubs had combined to have losing seasons in 32 of the previous 33 years. Pittsburgh affiliates didnt just win. They won big. The six clubs went a combined 399-300 (.571), the second-best mark in baseball behind Clevelands .577. The Pirates were also one of just two organizations, along with the Dodgers, to have each of their six affiliates finish with winning records. Four of Pittsburghs farm clubs went to the playoffs, and both of its full-season Class A teams won league championships.
"We are proud of the year we had," Littlefield said, "and feel this will help in laying the foundation for the future."
The Pirates made more of an effort to win by keeping most of their players as the same level throughout the season. That was a marked contrast to previous regimes that seemingly shuffled minor league rosters on a daily basis.
"Its easier to develop players on a winning team," Graham said. "Winning also builds confidence, regardless of what level of baseball youre on. It creates a better atmosphere and I firmly believe you learn better habits when youre winning, and those carry with a player from the minor leagues to the major leagues."
While the farm system has improved since Littlefield took over for Cam Bonifay in June 2001, the pipeline providing players to the major league club has yet to be built. The Pirates stocked their Triple-A Nashville farm club primarily with veteran free agents last season. Neither the Sounds nor Double-A Altoona had any players ranked among their leagues top 20 prospects.
The Pirates have assembled talent at Class A and below after three good drafts by former scouting director Mickey White from 1999-2001 and a solid one by Ed Creech, his replacement, last year.
Age: 22. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 210. Drafted: Kent State, 2001 (1st round). Signed by: Duane Gustavson.
Background: When VanBenschoten led NCAA Division I with 31 home runs as a junior at Kent State in 2001, most clubs projected him as a power-hitting right fielder in their draft preparations. The Pirates watched VanBenschoten serve as the Golden Flashes closer, however, and were intrigued enough by his mound work to surprise many by drafting him as a pitcher. VanBenschoten split time between pitcher and DH at short-season Williamsport in 2001 but stayed strictly on the mound last season and ranked as the No. 2 prospect in the low Class A South Atlantic League. He anchored the rotation as Hickory won the league championship.
Strengths: VanBenschoten has a power arm that wasnt overworked in college. His fastball reaches the mid-90s with good movement and sits comfortably at 93 mph. At the behest of the Pirates, VanBenschoten began throwing his curveball more last year and it became a plus pitch by the end of the season. He also has a slider with hard, late movement. Pittsburgh has made sure not to overextend VanBenschoten but believes hell develop into a workhorse by the time he gets to the majors. While he wont get a chance to swing a bat again until he reaches Double-A, VanBenschotens power stroke figures to make him one of the games better-hitting pitchers. Hes intelligent and takes instruction well. One Pirates executive calls VanBenschoten "the total package, everything you would want in a pitching prospect."
Weaknesses: VanBenschoten was an NCAA Division I prospect as a pitcher in high school but hasnt faced many advanced hitters. He tends to give up too many hits for a pitcher with his stuff, though the Pirates feel that will change as he gains more experience. Like most young pitchers, his changeup is erratic. He needs to refine it to have something to keep hitters off balance.
The Future: Pittsburgh will promote VanBenschoten to high Class A Lynchburg this season. While the Pirates have been criticized in some circles for not pushing him, theyre mindful of his lack of experience. He has the talent to be a No. 1 starter in the majors and eventually could skip a level and arrive in Pittsburgh by 2005.
Click here for prospects 2-10.