Pittsburgh Pirates: Top 10 Prospects With Scouting Reports

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, 2007.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

For years, the Pirates have said the key to building a winning team is scouting and player development. Yet seemingly each winter, they would add fading veterans to provide quick fixes.

After going 67-95 in 2005, Pittsburgh traded for Sean Casey and signed Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa. That plan backfired badly, as the three combined to hit just 23 home runs and drive in 106 runs en route to another 67-95 season in 2006. But those failures finally spurred the Pirates to do more than just pay lip service to the idea of building from within. After a 30-60 record before the all-star break, they benched Burnitz and Randa and traded Casey to the Tigers. Pittsburgh went 37-35, its first winning record after the break since 1992--which also happens to be the last season it finished on the positive side of .500.

For a change, the Pirates went into the offseason legitimately feeling they had put together a nucleus of young players who could help the franchise end its string of 14 consecutive losing seasons. That's just two shy of the major league record set by the 1933-48 Phillies.

The biggest reason for optimism is that Pittsburgh finished the season with four starting pitchers 24 or younger in Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Ian Snell. The Pirates also have the 23-year-old heir apparent to closer Mike Gonzalez in Matt Capps, who set a franchise rookie record by pitching in 89 games.

Gonzalez was used to acquire 27-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche, who hit 32 home runs for the Braves last season. He'll add punch to a lineup made up entirely of players 28 or younger, led by Jason Bay, who has one National League rookie of the year award and two all-star berths in three years, and surprise National League batting champion Freddy Sanchez.

After infusing so much youth into their big league roster, however, the Pirates now have a thin farm system with few premium prospects. Most of their younger players were drafted during Mickey White’s three-year run as scouting director from 1999-2001, which included taking Snell in the 26th round in 2000 and Duke in the 20th round in 2001.

One of Dave Littlefield’s first moves after taking over as general manager midway through the 2001 season was to fire White and replace him with Ed Creech. Creech's last three first-round picks—outfielder Andrew McCutchen (2005), catcher Neil Walker (2004) and righthander Brad Lincoln (2006)—are Pittsburgh's best prospects, but his drafts haven't been as deep as White's.

It's hard to pin all the blame on Creech, though. Pirates ownership went through a period where it overruled the scouting department’s desire to draft high-ceiling prospects in favor of going the conservative route with college players. The franchise now has new owners in charge, with the Nutting family buying out most of the team's other partners and installing Robert Nutting as chairman of the board. He replaces Kevin McClatchy as the club's controlling owner, though he has said the revamped ownership group supports McClatchy (who remains the club's CEO) and Littlefield.

1. Andrew McCutchen, of   Born: Oct. 10, 1986B-T: R-RHt: 5-11Wt: 170
 Drafted: HS--Fort Meade, Fla., 2005 (1st round)Signed by: Rod Sidwell
Andrew McCutchenBackground: A first-team All-American and Florida's high school player of the year in 2005, McCutchen hit .709 with 11 homers as a senior at Ford Meade High, located in the heart of phosphate mining country in central Florida. He spent time singing in the choir at the church where his father is a youth minister, writing poetry and drawing when he wasn’t leading the state in hitting. McCutchen also was a potential big-time football recruit as a wide receiver until suffering a serious right knee injury in his sophomore season and undergoing reconstructive surgery. He comes from an athletic background, as his father was a running back at Division II power Carson-Newman (Tenn.) and his mother was a Florida junior college volleyball standout. The 11th overall pick in the 2005 draft, McCutchen signed for $1.9 million and immediately jumped on the fast track to the major leagues. Baseball America rated him the No. 1 prospect in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League in 2005 and in the low Class A South Atlantic League in 2006. He skipped a level and jumped to Altoona last August, and he had no trouble performing in Double-A as a 19-year-old.

Strengths: McCutchen already has shown the ability to hit for average with his quick wrists and simple swing, and he's also developing over-the-fence power as his body begins to fill out. He already drives the ball to all fields, and scouts project him as a .300 hitter with 20-25 homers a season in the major leagues. He especially wears out lefthanders, batting .318/.469/.549 with eight home runs in 154 at bats against them in 2006. McCutchen has tremendous speed, which he uses to cover plenty of ground in center field. He's a potential Gold Glover. His arm is his only tool that isn't a plus, but it's average and he hits the cutoff man and throws to the right base. He also wins high marks for his attitude, maturity and passion for the game.

Weaknesses: While McCutchen has a better concept of the strike zone than most hitters his age, his plate discipline slipped in his first full season and will need refinement. Though he has succeeded on 40 of 50 steal attempts in pro ball, he has the speed to be much more dangerous on the basepaths. He says his primary goal for 2007 is to improve his basestealing knowledge. Once he does, there's no reason he couldn't contend for stolen base titles once he reaches the majors.

The Future: McCutchen has advanced faster than the Pirates could have hoped when they drafted him. He'll likely open 2007 back in Double-A, putting him in position to spend September in the majors if he continues to progress. He has leadoff skills but he has hit primarily out of the No. 3 slot in pro ball. With his power continuing to develop, Pittsburgh envisions him as a middle-of-the-order hitter.
Hickory (Lo A).291.356.446453771322041462429122
Altoona (AA).308.379.474781224403128201
2. Neil Walker, c   Born: Sept. 10, 1985B-T: B-RHt: 6-3Wt: 211
 Drafted: HS--Gibsonia, Pa., 2004 (1st round)Signed by: Jon Mercurio
Neil WalkerBackground: After starring at Pine-Richland High, Walker became the first Pittsburgh-area player ever selected in the first round by the Pirates. He hurt his left wrist swinging a bat in the Arizona Fall League after the 2005 season and had surgery that November. He missed the first six weeks of 2006 and had limited power all season, though he did make it to Pittsburgh for the Futures Game.

Strengths: Walker is a rarity, a switch-hitting catcher with the potential to 30 home runs a season. He has plus power from the left side, though it was muted as he recovered from his wrist surgery. He also makes good contact at the plate. He's a good athlete with average speed. His arm is strong and he has a quick release.

Weaknesses: Because he doesn't walk much, pitchers at higher levels could exploit Walker's lack of patience. He threw out just 29 percent of basestealers in 2006 because his sloppy footwork costs him accuracy. His receiving also needs refinement, though he's doing better at shifting for balls.

The Future: The Pirates might get more long-term production out of him by shifting him to another position, and he has the athleticism to handle third base or the outfield. Ronny Paulino's presence might also dictate a move for Walker, but he'll start 2007 as a catcher in Double-A.
Lynchburg (Hi A).284.345.409264327522133519413
Altoona (AA).161.188.35531550023140
3. Brad Lincoln, rhp   Born: May 25, 1985B-T: L-RHt: 6-0Wt: 200
 Drafted: Houston, 2006 (1st round)Signed by: Everett Russell
Brad LincolnBackground: Lincoln was the Conference USA player of the year in 2006, when he went 12-2, 1.69 and hit .295 with 14 homers as a first baseman/DH. He went fourth overall in the draft and signing for $2.75 million, but he was limited in his pro debut and instructional league by a strained right oblique.

Strengths: Lincoln’s fastball sits at 92-93 mph and touches 97, breaking bats with its boring action. He also has a two-seam, 88-91 mph version that induces grounders. His hard curveball may be a better pitch than his fastball, and he commands them both well. Though he's just 6 feet tall, he does a good job of throwing downhill. As a hitter, he has more raw power than almost any Pirates farmhand.

Weaknesses: His biggest need is to gain more consistency with his changeup, which should come as he uses it more often in pro ball. It should become an average pitch. His velocity was down in his pro debut, but that was likely just the combination of fatigue after pulling double duty in college and his oblique injury.

The Future: The Pirates usually downplay their draft picks, but they believe Lincoln could be a No. 1 starter. He likely will begin 2007 at high Class A Lynchburg with an eye on making his major league debut no later than 2008.
GCL Pirates (R)000.00220086019.222
Hickory (Lo A)126.75440016252610.368
4. Yoslan Herrera, rhp   Born: April 28, 1981B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 200
 Signed: Cuba, 2006Signed by: Rene Gayo/Louie Eljaua
Yoslan HerreraBackground: Herrera defected from Cuba after being left off the nation's Olympic roster in 2004 because of injury. He impressed Pittsburgh general manager Dave Littlefield during a workout last August in the Dominican Republic, and signed a three-year, $1.92 million major league contract (including a $750,000 bonus) in December. Loathe to participate in the international market in recent years because of soaring costs, the Pirates hadn't signed a Cuban since the 1950s.

Strengths: Herrera has a good feel for pitching with an above-average curveball and a splitter that drops off the table. He has good mound presence and was a disciple of Jose Contreras when both pitched for Pinar del Rio in Cuba.

Weaknesses: His fastball has fringy velocity, sitting at 88 mph and touching 92, though some scouts project Herrera to work in the low 90s once he gets established in the United States. He'll have to adapt to a new culture, a challenge that has undone several Cuban defectors in the past.

The Future: Herrera will have a chance to compete for a job in Pittsburgh's rotation this spring, though he may need some minor league seasoning after not pitching competitively for nearly three years. He projects as a possible No. 3 starter.
Did Not Play--Signed 2007 Contract
5. Josh Sharpless, rhp   Born: Jan. 26, 1981B-T: R-RHt: 6-5Wt: 235
 Drafted: Allegheny (Pa.), 2003 (24th round)Signed by: Jon Mercurio
Josh SharplessBackground: Sharpless was lightly recruited by colleges out of high school in suburban Pittsburgh because he pitched just 19 innings as a senior after getting mononucleosis. He spent four years at Division III Allegheny (Pa.) before signing for $1,500 as a 24th-rounder. He returned home twice in 2006, first for the Futures Game in July and then when the Pirates called him up in August.

Strengths: Sharpless put up video-game numbers in the minors (2.20 ERA, 12.5 strikeouts per nine innings) and succeeded in the majors because hitters have such a difficult time picking up his pitches. He throws straight over the top, and his outstanding slider breaks so big and so late that batters have almost no time to react. His 92-mph fastball occasionally hits 95 and looks faster because of his long wingspan.

Weaknesses: He has struggled with his control at times, most notably after his big league callup. However, Sharpless began throwing more strikes after Pirates pitching coach Jim Colborn made a mechanical adjustment late in 2006. He's not athletic and doesn't field his position well.

The Future: Sharpless has a good chance of winning a middle-relief job in Pittsburgh during spring training. If can find the strike zone consistently, he has the ability to eventually become a setup man and perhaps even a closer.
Altoona (AA)200.86140082180930.114
Indianapolis (AAA)112.4523001333211530.250
Pittsburgh 001.50140001270117.175
6. Steven Pearce, 1b   Born: April 13, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 5-11Wt: 198
 Drafted: South Carolina, 2005 (8th round)Signed by: Jack Powell
Steven PearceBackground: Pearce turned down the Red Sox as a 10th-round pick after hitting .346 with 21 homers for South Carolina's 2004 College World Series team, then batted .358 with 21 homers as a senior and went in the eighth round in 2005. He has continued to slug his way through the lower minors, leading the short-season New York-Penn League with 26 doubles in his pro debut and hitting 26 homers in his first full season.

Strengths: Pearce generates his power with bat speed and an aggressive approach. Though he looks to punish pitchers, he's also willing to take a walk. Pearce is solid defensively at first base, with decent range and soft hands.

Weaknesses: Pitchers can fool Pearce with offspeed stuff and he has particular trouble staying back against changeups. At 5-foot-11, he presents a small target for a first baseman. He's a below-average runner but will take an extra base on occasion.

The Future: Like most of Pittsburgh's best prospects, Pearce will open 2007 in Double-A. That will be a good test after he has been old for his previous levels. The Pirates lack power on their major league club, so an opportunity awaits when he's ready.
Hickory (Lo A).288.363.6061603546131123815321
Lynchburg (Hi A).265.348.4823284887271146034657
7. Brian Bixler, ss   Born: Oct. 22, 1982B-T: R-RHt: 6-1Wt: 190
 Drafted: Eastern Michigan, 2004 (2nd round)Signed by: Duane Gustavson
Brian BixlerBackground: Bixler was the Mid-American Conference player of the year in 2004, setting Eastern Michigan records for hitting (.453) and runs (74) and league marks for hits (110) and hitting streak (32 games). After a lackluster first 1½ pro seasons, he made the high Class A Carolina League all-star team and reached Double-A in 2006, batting better than .300 at both stops.

Strengths: The most improved player in the system in 2006, Bixler tightened his strike zone, which allowed him to be more productive at the plate. He has gotten stronger over the last two years, giving him decent gap power. With above-average speed, he's a threat to steal bases and beat out infield hits.

Weaknesses: Bixler strikes out too much, particularly for a top-of-the-order hitter. He can improve the frequency and the success rate (71 percent) with which he steals bases. His arm and range are average at best, so he faces an eventual move to second base.

The Future: Coupled with Pittsburgh's lack of middle-infield prospects in the upper levels, a good spring performance could push Bixler to Triple-A Indianapolis to start 2007. With shortstop Jack Wilson signed through 2009 in Pittsburgh, it would be easier for Bixler to push underachieving Jose Castillo off second base.
Lynchburg (Hi A).303.402.4342674681162533355818
Altoona (AA).301.363.407226366813131916576
8. Brad Corley, of   Born: Dec. 28, 1983B-T: R-RHt: 6-2Wt: 198
 Drafted: Mississippi State, 2005 (2nd round)Signed by: Everett Russell
Brad CorleyBackground: Corley set himself up as a possible first-round pick by hitting .380 with 19 homers as a Missisippi State sophomore, but he hit just five homers as a junior after breaking a thumb while trying out for Team USA the previous summer. He led both the system and the South Atlantic League with 100 RBIs in 2006, his first full pro season.

Strengths: Corley has good tools, including plus power and a strong arm. He struggled early in his pro debut, leading to talk the Pirates had overdrafted him in the second round, but he shortened his swing and began to hit better. Primarily a right fielder, he has enough speed to get by in center if needed.

Weaknesses: The knock on Corley in college was that he lacked plate discipline, and his 109-18 K-BB ratio as an older player in the SAL shows that he hasn't made much progress. Pitchers continually get him to chase high fastballs and breaking balls in the dirt.

The Future: His tools are intriguing, especially in an organization lacking power-hitting prospects, but Corley will have to make more consistent contact to become a big league regular. He'll move up to high Class A to start 2007.
Hickory (Lo A).281.323.4385348715032216100181099
9. Todd Redmond, rhp   Born: May 17, 1985B-T: R-RHt: 6-3Wt: 210
 Drafted: St. Petersburg (Fla.) JC, 2004 (39th round)Signed by: Rob Sidwell
Todd RedmondBackground: Redmond led St. Petersburg (Fla.) to a runner-up finish at the Junior College World Series championship in 2005, then signed with the Pirates as a draft-and-follow. He finished second in the New York-Penn League in ERA during his pro debut, and continued to impress in 2006, ranking fourth in the South Atlantic League in wins and ERA.

Strengths: Redmond has exceptional command of his low-90s fastball and gets a lot of swings and misses with it, particularly up in the strike zone. He complements his fastball with an outstanding changeup and a solid curveball. He's very efficient with his pitches, which should allow him to work deeper into games as he gets older, and wins high marks for his competitiveness.

Weaknesses: He lacks a dominant pitch, and Redmond's stuff may not play as well against more experienced hitters. He gives up a lot of flyballs, which could be a problem if he stops missing bats.

The Future: Redmond likely will start 2007 in high Class A with an eye on a midseason move to Double-A. If he continues to prove himself, he could fit into the majors as a No. 3 or 4 starter.
Hickory (Lo A)1362.752727001601371333148.227
10. Mike Felix, lhp   Born: Aug. 13, 1985B-T: L-LHt: 5-11Wt:190
 Drafted: Troy, 2006 (2nd round)Signed by: Darren Mazeroski
Mike FelixBackground: After barely playing as a sophomore at Auburn, Felix transferred to the Troy at the urging of high school teammate Jared Keel. Felix starred as a two-way player for the Trojans in 2006, and the Pirates jumped on him in the second round of the draft and signed him for $725,000. Pittsburgh also landed Keel in the 31st round and sent them both to short-season Williamsport.

Strengths: Felix has a big-breaking curveball that is tough on lefthanders, though they batted .379 against him in his pro debut. At times, his fastball will reach as high as 93 mph. He's a good athlete, drawing comparisons to Mike Hampton for his hitting and fielding ability.

Weaknesses: Except for the curveball, the rest of Felix’s arsenal is nondescript. His fastball usually sits around 88 and his changeup is below average. He's inconsistent with his control and command, regressing after making progess at Troy during the spring.

The Future: Felix will open his first full season as a starter in low Class A. If he can't improve his command and his changeup, his ceiling will be limited to being a setup man. With his curveball alone, he should be able to become at least a lefty specialist.
Williamsport (SS)163.56131300484133349.236

Photo Credits: McCutchen, Sports on Film
Walker: Steve Moore
Pearce: Tom Priddy
Bixler, Felix: Mike Janes
Corley: Rich Abel