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Spring Training Dish: Pirates Camp
by Chris Kline
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.
• 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.