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Three years ago, the Pirates took the safe bet and selected Ball State righthander Brian Bullington with the No. 1 overall pick over highly touted high school shortstop B.J. Upton.
Since then, Upton emerged as the minors’ best prospect and reached the big leagues last year, while Bullington battled his way through Double-A at Altoona. The Pirates seemed destined to go down in history forever criticized for taking the sure thing ahead of the high school project.
Upton has been back in Triple-A in 2005, struggling on defense while still hitting like crazy. And this year, Bullington has caught up. The Bucs are getting something back on their $4 million investment in Bullington as he is quietly coming into his own at Triple-A Indianapolis.
While his fastball velocity has never been where it was during his final year at Ball State, the 24-year-old is finding ways to win. Regularly clocked in the 94-95 mph range in college, Bullington's fastball sits in the 90-93 range now, complemented by a hard slider and changeup.
In his last eight starts with the Indians, Bullington is 6-1, 1.82 in 58 innings. He also has a 51-14 strikeout-walk ratio and opponents are hitting just .187 against him over that span. Overall, Bullington is 9-4, 3.04 with 74 strikeouts and 24 walks in 98 innings. Opponents are hitting .245 against him with seven home runs.
Part of the resurgence has been in his mechanics. Bullington, who missed the season’s first month due to shoulder fatigue, used to get a little long on the backside of his delivery. Indianapolis pitching coach Darold Knowles has worked with him to shorten up his arm action.
"It's been about him gaining more experience and being more consistent with his mechanics," farm director Brian Graham said. "As he's shortened up, he's had better fastball and slider command. It's been him getting more consistent through repetition.
"He's worked very hard this year to get to the point where he is and he's done a great, great job at figuring some things out."
And it seems a callup to Pittsburgh is imminent. While Graham didn't specify when, it is only a matter of time since the club has recently gone young, promoting lefthander Zach Duke, first baseman Brad Eldred and outfielders Nate McLouth and Chris Duffy.
And as for that No. 1 pick in 2002 is concerned, it isn't haunting anyone in Steeltown--at least not anymore, or not for now.
"It's a feel-good story to me," Graham said. "This kid went from entering pro ball to doing what he's doing in Triple-A after two years. It's impressive."
• Mariners shortstop Matt Tuiasosopo has been out of the lineup since Aug. 18 after cutting his left wrist in a pregame incident last weekend. The Post-Crescent of Appleton, Wis., reported that Seattle's third-round pick last year slammed his hand through the window of a door after taking infield last Friday. But the Seattle Times quoted Tuiasosopo saying it was "just an accident in the clubhouse," and he expected his stitches to be out this week. This season at low Class A Wisconsin, Tuiasosopo is hitting .285/.369/.398 with six homers in 389 at-bats.
• Devil Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said righthander Jeff Niemann, who has battled shoulder problems all season, will not be included in September callups when the rosters expand. "He's healthy," LaMar told the St. Petersburg Times. "We're going to build him up to five innings, and my gut feeling is that will be it for him." Since being called up to Double-A Montgomery, Niemann is 0-1, 3.38 in eight innings. LaMar said no decisions have been made on calling up Triple-A Durham shortstop B.J. Upton or outfielder Delmon Young, though Young will likely finish the season with the Bulls to keep his major league service clock from ticking.
• Good news for Cubs fans: Felix Pie is close to returning after going down with a bone bruise in his sprained ankle in June. "We're hoping he can spend the last seven-to-10 days (of the regular season) in Double-A and get some time in before the playoffs start," farm director Oneri Fleita told the Chicago Daily Herald. Pie's target date to return is Aug. 27. He hasn't played since June 16. In 240 at-bats at Double-A West Tenn, Pie batted .304/.349/.554 with a career-high 11 homers. Outfielder Adam Greenberg is also expected to return to West Tenn next week after sustaining a concussion in July when he was beaned with a pitch in his first big league plate appearance.
• Keep an eye on the incoming callups in the Pirates system—the organization’s last two first-round picks, catcher Neil Walker and outfielder Andrew McCutchen, are likely to be called up in the next few days. Walker, hitting .301/.331/.453 with 12 homers in 479 at-bats at low Class A Hickory, will join high Class A Lynchburg. McCutchen, who is hitting .289/.406/.430 in 149 at-bats in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, will move up to short-season Williamsport. Both will be joining the respective clubs for the playoff run.
• Mets righthander Yusmeiro Petit made his Triple-A debut Monday with Norfolk. Petit allowed three runs on eight hits, walked three and struck out six over six innings. He took the loss as Buffalo ran its record to 7-1 against Norfolk this season with the 3-1 win.
• After driving in seven on Sunday to tie for the overall minor league RBIs lead, Angels shortstop Brandon Wood took over the lead on Monday night, blasting a three-run home run (his minor league leading 39th) in high Class A Rancho Cucamonga's 9-7 loss at High Desert, giving him 109 RBIs.
• Believe it or not, righthander Andy Ashby is still around. The 38-year-old righthander, who has a career major league record of 98-110, 4.12 in 309 games including a 17-9, 3.34 year for the Padres in 1998, pitched three innings, allowing three hits and one unearned run in high Class A Lake Elsinore's 6-5 win over Inland Empire on Monday. It was Ashby's third appearance in a pro game in the last two years, as the two-time all-star has recovered from elbow and shoulder surgeries.
• Rangers righthander John Bannister struck out a career-high 12 batters over eight innings, allowing one run on five hits as low Class A Clinton topped Cedar Rapids 2-1 on Monday. Bannister, 21, wasn’t drafted out of high school after his senior year of high school in 2002, but caught the eye of scout Dave Birecki (now with the Mets) who signed him for $17,500. In 27 starts for the Lumber Kings, Bannister is 8-9, 4.49 in 144 innings, allowing 157 hits, walking 56 and striking out 117.
• The New England Small College Athletic Conference does not produce too many (or really any) prospects, but the Red Sox may have found a diamond in the rough in the 32nd round in Jeff Natale out of Division III Trinity (Conn.) College. After hitting .488 in 41 at-bats for Lowell of the short-season New York-Penn League, Natale was promoted to low Class A Greenville. The second baseman has had little trouble there either. On Monday, the 22-year-old went 3-for-4 with a triple and two RBIs and is now hitting .348/.480/.548 with 22 walks and just eight strikeouts in 115 South Atlantic League at-bats.
• While he has been erratic all season, Jonathan Sanchez has excellent stuff. A 27th-round pick of the Giants in 2004 out of Ohio Dominican College, Sanchez fanned 12 over five innings on Monday for low Class A Augusta. It was the second straight start in which the 6-foot-2 lefthander has had a double-digit strikeout total. On the season, the 22-year-old is 5-6, 3.99 with 154 strikeouts and 37 walks in 115 innings.
• Cleveland sent three of their top picks John Drennen (supplemental first round), Nick Weglarz (third) and Nicholas Petrucci (11th) to Burlington of the Rookie-level Appalachian League. While they have shown flashes of their potential, their first foray into pro ball has been difficult. Drennen and Petrucci are hitting .231/.321/.441 and .253/.319/.435 respectively, so both are hitting for some power. At .236/.315/.354, Weglarz has been slower to show that. Drafted out of Lakeshore Catholic High in Stevensville, Ontario, Weglarz has never experienced competition like this and should certainly be given the benefit of the doubt and some time to adjust before being told to try out hockey. "He hasn't seen this kind of velocity on a consistent basis," a scout with a National League club said. "So he's struggling to get around on fastballs. He makes good contact with breaking balls, but hasn't shown the ability to turn on good fastballs . . . and at this level, that's pretty much all you see."
• Mets righthander Robert Manuel became the league’s first eight-game winner with six innings of work in Monday’s 5-4 win over the Marlins in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. Manuel was 8-1, 2.06 following yesterday’s outing of six innings, an unearned run off four hits with six strikeouts. Manuel, 22, owns a 49-4 strikeout-walk ratio.
• GCL Yankees lefty Edgar Soto turned in his best performance of the summer Monday with four scoreless innings featuring seven strikeouts against the Phillies. Soto, a 20-year-old Venezuelan, has 26 strikeouts in 23 innings on the year.
• Low-scoring affairs have been the exception in the Rookie-level Pioneer League this summer, though Great Falls and Ogden hooked up in a well-pitched game Monday with the White Sox edging the Raptors 2-1. Great Falls lefthander Carlos Perez tossed a season-high six innings and did not allow a run in winning his second straight decision. Righthander Mario Alvarez was the hard-luck loser for Ogden, allowing a run off six hits with seven strikeouts and two walks.
• Idaho Falls shortstop Chris McConnell continued his otherworldly August, going 3-for-4 with a double, walk and RBI Monday. The 19-year-old from Delsea High in Franklinville, N.J., was batting .377 in August and .347 overall. A ninth-round pick in 2004 by the Royals, McConnell was tied for the Pioneer League lead in hits (77) and triples (6).
• Keep an eye on Cubs righthander Billy Paganetti in the Rookie-level Arizona League. Longtime BA subscribers will remember Paganetti as a high school star and Stanford recruit who had injury issues that derailed his Cardinal career. Paganetti ended up at Nevada to finish his college career and signed with the Cubs, ostensibly as a third baseman, but he’s been used exclusively as a pitcher and reportedly has hit 95 mph. He got a win with two scoreless innings Monday and has yet to give up a run in five scoreless frames, striking out six.
Contributing: John Manuel.
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