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December 19, 2006

Future Shock

Pittsburgh Pirates Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Excellent Prospects
1. Andrew McCutchen, cf
Very Good Prospects
2. Brad Lincoln, rhp
3. Brent Lillibridge, ss
Good Prospects
4. Neil Walker, c
Average Prospects
5. Todd Redmond, rhp
6. Brian Bixler, ss
7. Josh Sharpless, rhp
8. Mike Felix, lhp
9. John Van Benschoten, rhp
10. Justin Vaclavik, rhp

1. Andrew McCutchen, cf
DOB: 10/10/86
Height/Weight: 5-11/170
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2005, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .291/.356/.446 at Low A (503 PA); .308/.379/.474 at AA (87 PA)
The Good: Dynamic power/speed combination with one of the quickest bats in the minor leagues and strength in wrists to hit 20-30 home runs annually in the big leagues. Has ability to take a walk, and plus-plus speed makes him dangerous on the basepaths as well. Outstanding defender in center field with a far-reaching range from gap to gap.
The Bad: Pitchers have found some success in getting McCutchen to chase outside breaking balls. His arm is not a strength. Can try too hard to hit for power, leading to over swings and strikeouts. Far more power against lefthanders.
The Irrelevant: At tiny Fort Meade High School in central Florida, McCutchen hit .709 as a senior with 16 home runs in 22 games.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: An All-Star center fielder.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average - The Pirates loved McCutchen's ceiling when they drafted him, but at the same time, they thought he would be a one-step-at-a-time prospect who would require patience. Not even the Pirates expected him to reach Double-A before his 20th birthday, and he'll return there in 2007.

2. Brad Lincoln, rhp
DOB: 5/25/85
Height/Weight: 5-11/180
Bats/Throws: L/R
Draft: 1st round, 2006, University of Houston
What he did in 2006: 0.00 ERA at Rookie Level (7.2-6-1-9); 6.75 ERA at Low A (16-25-6-10)
The Good: Advanced pitched prospect pounds the strike zone with 91-95 mph fastball that features hard sinking action. Curveball gives him second plus pitch and changeup features good deception and fade. Excellent athlete who maintains his stuff deep into games and fields his position well.
The Bad: Size turned off many scouts, as the list of sub-six-foot righties taken near the top of the draft is a short one, and the list of successful ones is exponentially shorter than that. Pro debut was hampered by strained oblique muscle.
The Irrelevant: A two-way star at Houston, Lincoln finished among the Conference USA leaders in five of six Triple Crown categories, including all three pitching categories as well as home runs and RBIs.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A good No. 3, and possibly even No. 2 starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average - The Pirates feel Lincoln can move quickly through the system, likely starting the year in the High-A Carolina League, but seeing some time at Double-A before the year is up.

3. Brent Lillibridge, ss
DOB: 9/18/83
Height/Weight: 5-11/180
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 4th round, 2005, University of Washington
What he did in 2006: .299/.414/.522 at Low A (333 PA); .313/.426/.423 at High A (252 PA)
The Good: Underrated prospect has no real weaknesses in his game. Very good defensive shortstop with above-average range, hands and arm. Solid hitting skills augmented by very high walk rate, surprising pop and excellent base-stealing abilities.
The Bad: Power he showed at High-A (two HRs in 201 ABs) is closer to reality than Low-A line (11 HRs in 274 ABs), though he projects to hit 10-12 annually in the big leagues. Can get out of control defensively at times, leading to stupid errors.
The Irrelevant: Lillibridge ended the year with an 11-game hitting streak in which he went 18-for-41 (.439) with eight walks and 12 runs scored.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average starting shortstop.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average - One of the minor leagues' hidden gems, Lillibridge might be ready for Double-A. His biggest obstacle to the big leagues isn't Jack Wilson, it's Jack Wilson's contract.

4. Neil Walker, c
DOB: 9/10/85
Height/Weight: 6-2/2
15 Bats/Throws: S/R
Draft: 1st round, 2004, Pennsylvania HS
What he did in 2006: .284/.345/.409 at High A (294 PA); .161/.188/.355 at AA (32 PA)
The Good: Big, physical switch-hitting catcher has excellent contact skills and the ability to smack line drives to all fields from both sides of the plate. Plus arm strength. Highly praised for makeup and work ethic.
The Bad: Wrist surgery and a viral infection cost Walker playing time in 2006, and severely hindered his performance when he was in the lineup. Even when healthy, has not shown the power that was initially projected for him. Below average receiver who has problems controlling the running game because of slow release.
The Irrelevant: Walker hit .295 in 2006 with the bases empty, but just .248 with runners on base.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A good hitter who gets good enough behind the plate to at least stay there.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Higher than one would like - Walker's development in 2006 was slowed by injuries, and the defensive concerns have a move to third base, a la Todd Zeile, under consideration. If that takes place, the bat needs to pick up the pace quickly.

5. Todd Redmond, rhp
DOB: 5/17/85
Height/Weight: 6-3/185
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 39th round, 2004, Florida JUCO (DNF)
What he did in 2006: 2.75 ERA at Low A (160.1-137-33-148)
The Good: Outstanding command and control of average stuff. Low-90s fastball, curveball and straight change are all average pitches with scores brought up for his ability to locate them at will and use them at any point in the count.
The Bad: Question remains as the how well this style will work at the upper levels. Tendency to work up in the strike zone, which he'll pay for more down the line.
The Irrelevant: Redmond struck out six of the 10 batters he faced in 2006 with the bases loaded.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid-but-unspectacular innings eater.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average - Like Lillibridge, Redmond deserves more notice than he's received so far, despite a limited ceiling. He'll begin 2007 in the Carolina League.

6. Brian Bixler, ss
DOB: 10/22/82
Height/Weight: 6-1/190
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 2nd round, 2004, Eastern Michigan
What he did in 2006: .303/.402/.434 at High A (317 PA); .301/.363/.407 at AA (253 PA)
The Good: Line-drive stroke generated much improved results thanks to a far more relaxed approach. Waits for his pitch and is equally adept at turning an inside pitch down the line for a double or slicing outside fastballs the other way. Plus runner with sound defensive fundamentals.
The Bad: Arm is a tick below average and instincts at shortstop limit range, leaving most to project him as a second baseman or super-utility player.
The Irrelevant: When High Class A Lynchburg tried batting Bixler third instead of his usual spot as the No. 2 batter, he hit just .190 but had three home runs in 42 at-bats.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: An average starting middle infielder.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average - Both Bixler and Lillibridge have reached the same point on the development curve, leaving the Pirates to wonder about starting them both at Double-A Altoona and sliding Bixler over.

7. Josh Sharpless, rhp
DOB: 1/26/81
Height/Weight: 6-5/235
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 24th round, 2003, Allegheny College
What he did in 2006: 0.86 ERA at AA (21-8-9-30); 2.45 ERA at AAA (33-32-15-30); 1.50 ERA at MLB (12-7-11-7)
The Good: Drafted as an organizational arm, local kid made big leagues by striking out 273 in 196 minor-league innings. 88-92 mph fastball doesn't seem like much, but deceptive delivery helps it enough to allow Sharpless to set up his slider, a true two-plane breaker which is arguably the best in the system.
The Bad: Probably lacks the stuff to close. Needs to learn how to throw the slider for more strikes as big league hitters were able to force him to throw the fastball or end up nibbling. The Irrelevant: Sharpless is the first player from Beaver County to play for the Pirates since Doc Medich in the mid-1970s.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A highly-valued setup man.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low - While Sharpless still has some work to do, he also enters spring training as an overwhelming favorite to win a bullpen job.

8. Mike Felix, lhp DOB: 8/13/85
Height/Weight: 5-11/190
Bats/Throws: L/L
Draft: 2nd round, 2006, Troy University
What he did in 2006: 3.56 ERA at Short Season (48-41-33-49)
The Good: It's hard to find lefthanders who can enter your system with two plus pitches, but Felix is just that. 88-91 mph fastball touches 93-94 and has that cliché-ridden "natural lefty movement" while curveball is a hard-downer that breaks late and powerfully.
The Bad: Felix has troubles throwing strikes, in particular with his breaking ball. He's a short-lefty, and his lack of size (or a changeup) limit him to a relief role.
The Irrelevant: Despite starting just eight contests, Felix led Troy with 101 2/3 innings pitched and authored the team's only complete game.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A set-up man in the mold of Mike Stanton.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High - Felix is a good arm with little polish, so he may take longer than your average college pitcher. He'll begin the year in Low A, likely starting for now in order to get innings.

9. John Van Benschoten, rhp
DOB: 4/14/80
Height/Weight: 6-4/215
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 1st round, 2001, Kent State
What he did in 2006: 4.50 ERA at Rookie Level (6-1-2-4); 3.60 ERA at AA (5-3-3-3); 5.40 ERA at AAA (11.2-10-7-13)
The Good: First-round pick from five years ago returned to the game with almost bionic shoulders after missing nearly two years and looked surprisingly sharp. Good control of low-90s fastball along with hard-spinning curve and good feel for a change-up.
The Bad: The guy has had multiple shoulder surgeries and turns 27 in April, so there's no projection here. Return was cut short by (what else?) shoulder soreness, though organization insists it was just a precaution and he's perfectly healthy, or at least will be for spring training.
The Irrelevant: A two-way star in college who led the NCAA in home runs in 2001, Van Benschoten is a career .236/.313/.342 hitter in the minor leagues and his only major league hit is a home run.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A pitcher of some value in the big leagues; that in itself would be almost a miracle at this point.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low - The Pirates hope Van Benschoten's size and athleticism will allow him to stay healthy after nearly two years off. He'll start the year at Triple-A but could be on the short list for a look if he can simply keep taking the bump every five days.

10. Justin Vaclavik, rhp
DOB: 5/27/84
Height/Weight: 6-1/185
Bats/Throws: R/R
Draft: 7th round, 2005, University of Houston
What he did in 2006: 3.16 ERA at Low A (51.1-44-21-59)
The Good: Aggressive reliever goes right after hitters with low-90s fastball and effective slider. Deceptive delivery makes balls difficult to pick up and both pitches have strong downward break, so when he's not striking batters out, he's keeping the ball in the infield.
The Bad: Slider has a tendency to flatten out what he gets around it, leaving him susceptible to left-handed batters. Body doesn't offer enough projection to forecast him as a closer.
The Irrelevant: In his last nine appearances of the season, Vaclavik netted eight saves and a win.
In a Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid righty set-up man.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average - Vaclavik has the stuff to reach Double-A this season, but will likely begin the year in the High-A Carolina League.

The Sleeper

Third-round pick Shelby Ford is a switch-hitting second baseman with good hitting skills and at least average power who should move through the system quickly despite lacking an especially high ceiling.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger (As Of Opening Day 2007)

Excellent Prospects
1. Andrew McCutchen, cf
2. Tom Gorzelanny, rhp
3. Ian Snell, rhp
4. Brad Lincoln, rhp
5. Zack Duke, lhp
6. Brent Lillibridge, ss
7. Neil Walker, c
8. Paul Maholm, lhp
9. Ronny Paulino, c
10. Todd Redmond, rhp

Despite numerous injury problems, the Pirates have developed a young, cheap pitching staff that gives them a nucleus to build on. The only issue with the arms is the lack of projection. Only Gorzelanny has star potential, the others project as no more than number threes or fours. Worse, Pittsburgh's inability to produce players capable of producing runs leaves the offense impotent, and the young pitchers frustrated. McCutchen gives them the possibility of a marquee talent, but the team needs more bats in the system to provide any hope of turning around their embarrassing streak of losing seasons.

Next: St. Louis Cardinals

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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