Bucs Still Believe In Bullington
By John Perrotto
BRADENTON, Fla.—Bryan Bullington might have been the first overall pick in the 2002 draft, but no one can say the Pirates placed great expectations on the righthander.
On the day the Ball State star agreed to terms on a contract that included a club-record signing bonus of $4 million, the Pirates downplayed his potential impact. General manager Dave Littlefield said Bullington projected to be a No. 3 starter in the big leagues.
So, while the majority of the baseball world might consider Bullington a disappointment because he has yet to reach the majors while nine other players taken in the first round of the ‘02 draft have, the Pirates bristle at such talk. Bullington, too, feels the criticism is unfair.
“I don’t understand that thinking at all,” farm director Brian Graham said. “This is a guy who doesn’t even have enough professional experience yet where he needs to be protected on the 40-man roster and he’s going to pitch at the Triple-A level this season. I think that’s really good progress.
“Bryan Bullington is doing just fine. We’re very happy with his career to this point.”
The Pirates decided to chose Bullington first instead of Chesapeake, Va., prep shortstop B.J. Upton, who went second to the Devil Rays.
Upton reached the major leagues last Aug. 2 at age 19 despite being nearly four full years younger than Bullington. To be sure, Bullington is aware of Upton’s rapid progress through the Tampa Bay system, though he will begin this season at Triple-A Durham.
“Upton is in an organization where they push players through the minors faster than we do,” Bullington said. “The Pirates take things slower and want their players to take it one level at a time. We also have a lot of good pitching prospects in our farm system and there is a lot of competition. It’s not like I have a clear shot to the major league rotation.”
The Pirates do indeed have a stable of good young pitchers in their farm system. Seven of their top 10 prospects are pitchers, with Bullington ranking No. 6.
It should also be noted that the Devil Rays’ aggressive approach in promoting prospects was also once practiced in Pittsburgh when current Rays scouting and player development director Cam Bonifay was the Pirates’ GM. Players such as outfielder Jose Guillen and third baseman Aramis Ramirez struggled mightily in Pittsburgh after arriving at a very young age—Guillen jumped from high Class A to Pittsburgh, while Ramirez spent just 168 at-bats in Triple-A before his first promotion. Neither blossomed as solid run producers until being traded.
“Obviously, everyone wants to get to the major leagues as quickly as they can,” Bullington said. “I wish I were there now, but it was never my timetable to be there this quickly.
“I felt when I signed that I’d spend one year at Class A, one year at Double-A and one year at Triple-A. That may not be the fast track but I think it has given me the opportunity to really learn how to pitch at the professional level.”
Making The Grade
Bullington has had two solid, if unspectacular seasons, in the minor leagues.
He went a combined 13-5, 2.52 in 25 starts with low Class A Hickory and high Class A Lynchburg in 2003 after he signed too late to play professionally in 2002. However, he struck out just 113 in 142 innings, and opponents hit .270 against him at Lynchburg. He then went 12-7, 4.10 in 26 starts with Double-A Altoona last year, tying for second in wins in the Eastern League, but gave up 160 hits in 145 innings with a modest 100-47 strikeout-walk ratio.
“I think he’s made great strides,” Graham said. “Considering he only had one pro season under his belt at the time, I feel he did really well at the Double-A level, where the prospects really begin to separate themselves.”
Bullington will get the chance to see how he stacks up at the highest level of the minor leagues this season. He will pitch for the Pirates’ new Triple-A Indianapolis affiliate in the International League in a rotation that will likely include prospects Bobby Bradley, Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Cory Stewart.
“I’m really looking forward to this season,” Bullington said. “It’s going to be a good test to face a lot of hitters who have already been in the major leagues or are going to be in the major leagues.”
Bullington will also be in familiar territory. Though he now resides in Bradenton, the Pirates’ spring training home, he is a native of Indianapolis, and his father is one of the top high school basketball coaches in Indiana.
“It’s pretty rare to play in your hometown when you are in the minor leagues and that’s going to be a lot of fun,” Bullington said. “It will make it much easier for my family, and it will be nice that a lot of my friends will have a chance to see me pitch.”
When they last saw him on a reglar basis, he was dominant. Bullington had a stellar three-year career for Ball State, winning 29 games in there seasons while setting a Mid-American Conference record with 357 strikeouts. He went 11-3, 2.84 in 2002, with an amazing 139-18 strikeout-walk ratio, and opponents batted just .222 against him.
“When you look at him, he’s really everything you want in a pitcher,” the Pirates area scout in Indiana, Duane Gustavson, said at the time. “You could tell when he was a freshman that he was a definite prospect, and he has continued to improve since then. He has all the makings of an outstanding major league pitcher.”
Three years later, however, the family and friends who come to Victory Field in Indianapolis will witnesses to a season that will show if Bullington is ready to eventually star in the major leagues, as the Pirates hoped when he signed in October 2002, or be another run-of-the-mill starter.
Many scouts from outside the Pirates organization believe Bullington is a No. 4 starter at best, and may be better suited to setup relief as his fastball now only tops out at 93 mph. The heater is 2-5 mph slower than his college days.
The Pirates, though, aren’t ready to give up on the idea that Bullington will regain the velocity on his fastball. He held out five months before signing and nearly nine months elapsed between his last collegiate game and first pro start.
“I just haven’t seen the same stuff and I think the long layoff hurt Bryan,” scouting director Ed Creech admitted. “He’s shown flashes of it, though, and I think he will eventually get back to the pitcher we saw in college. He’s been solid ever since he came into pro ball and I think he’s going to even better.”
Despite the drop in velocity, Bullington has a 25-12, 3.32 career record as a pro. He has improved the command of his fastball, tightened up his slider and improved his changeup.
“He knows how to pitch now,” Graham said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of that. He’s not just out there throwing. He knows what he is doing.”
Time Will Tell
The critics—and there are justifiably many after a club-record 12 straight losing seasons—insist the Pirates didn’t know what they were doing when they took Bullington ahead of Upton in the ‘02 draft.
Coming off a 100-loss season in their first year in PNC Park in 2001 that gave them the top pick in 2002, they wanted a quick return on their investment. Thus, they took a lower-risk gamble on the college pitcher in Bullington than the high school player in Upton.
The Pirates, though, aren’t so ready to concede they erred in selecting Bullington.
“At this point, I don’t think we’re ready to acknowledge who was the better pick,” Littlefield said. “Bullington has progressed well, done some good things. He certainly needs to improve on areas, like a lot of young players, but we like what we see.
“Upton, from what we’ve seen, is a fine-looking player. He’s done some real good things with the bat, and moved quickly to get to the big leagues. But you’ve got to look from a longer standpoint.”