The Pittsburgh Pirates have invested heavily in pitching the past decade, including the use of their last six first round draft choices. Since 2000, they have used 14 of their top 20 selections on pitchers.

They haven’t selected a position player in the first two rounds since they used the 59th pick in the 1999 draft on Ryan Doumit, a catcher from the storied Moses Lake, Wa. team that also featured B.J. Garbe and Jason Cooper. The Pirates have twice had the number one choice in the draft in the past decade, and twice they have found a college pitcher to use it on. They haven’t discriminated either, drafting high school pitchers (Bobby Bradley and Sean Burnett) along with more polished college arms (Bryan Bullington and Paul Maholm). In their pursuit of pitching, they have even spent two first-round picks on college hitters (Clint Johnston and John Van BenSchoten) and immediately put them on the mound.

The Pirates’ emphasis on acquiring hurlers might pay off, in that they have a collection of almost-ready major league arms knocking on the door of PNC Park. Lost in the shuffle of the first-round bonus babies, however, is a little-regarded right-hander who was known as Ian Snell when the Pirates selected him in the 26th round of the 2000 draft. Now known as Ian Oquendo, since adopting his wife’s name, he has managed to find nothing but success as a professional. It isn’t often that a pitcher can go 35-9 while reaching Double-A in his first three professional seasons and still manage to stay off the radar screen, but Oquendo is not your typical prospect.

Unlike the majority of second-day high school draft picks who eventually make the show, Oquendo did not attend junior college and did not fall in the draft due to signability concerns. Oquendo was largely ignored because he is still able to ride the teacups at Disneyland without getting a second look. Generously listed at 5’11” (a more realistic figure would be 5’9″), Oquendo does not fit the traditional mold of a workhorse. He was simply considered too small for the major leagues, and the Pirates were the recipients of the oversight. His performance since signing is more along the lines of what Pittsburgh has expected from their blue-chip kids, rather than the undersized 26th-round courtesy draft.

Year    Age     Level         ERA     IP    H     HR    BB    K
2000    18      Rookie        2.35    8     5     1     1     8
2001    19      Rookie        0.47    19    12    0     5     13
2001    19      Short-Season  1.39    65    55    2     10    56
2002    20      Low-A         2.71    140   127   8     45    149
2003    21      High-A        3.33    116.1 105   3     33    122
2003    21      Double-A      2.89    18.2  18    1     3     15

There is no fault to be found in his performance to date. He has been young for each level and has consistently been among the league’s best pitchers. His success isn’t attributable to park effects, either, as both Hickory and Lynchburg lean slightly towards hitters. His ERA in the Carolina League was a full run lower on the road than it was at home. Oquendo has managed to be consistent and effective, regardless of the competition he has faced.

Unlike most pitchers who sneak under the radar, Oquendo does quite well on the stuff-o-meter. His fastball sits between 92-94 with ease, and he has been clocked as high as 96 earlier this year. His delivery does not allow the hitter to pick up the ball until it is out of his hand, making it even more effective. His curveball is one of the best in the system when it is on, giving him a strong breaking ball to keep hitters off balance. He sits between 78-82 with his typical curve, but also has a slow curve ball he can use occasionally. He’s reported to have a change-up, but I didn’t see one. His command is well above average for a player his age, and he is competent at setting up hitters.

The main concern surrounding Oquendo is his lack of size. He has shown the tendency to wear down after six innings, furthering the stereotype that he doesn’t have the body to hold up in the rotation. He should set a career high for innings in his next start, and a strong finish to the year would help alleviate some of the concern over his durability–though the Pirates will need to be careful not to shackle him with too many innings, Oquendo’s small stature notwithstanding. Either way, unless he finds some Miracle-Gro in his locker, Oquendo will always hear the whispers that his future is in the bullpen. The Pirates have done the wise thing, however, and allowed his performance to dictate his position in the organization. As long as he continues to retire batters with ease, he will stay in Pittsburgh’s plans. He may not come with the pedigree of several of his more famous teammates, but he has earned similar accolades from within the organization.

Interestingly enough, Oquendo’s part-time battery mate, Chris Shelton, has a similar story. He was selected in the 33rd round of the 2001 draft out of the University of Utah, not exactly known as a baseball hotbed. However, his monstrous .374/.453/.753 line in ’01 earned him second-team All-American honors, ahead of the now famous Jeremy Brown, who was a third team All-American that year. Like Brown, Shelton’s body had scouts running the other way, and his defensive skills were usually assessed with the words: “He can hit.” The Pirates took a flyer on his bat, however, and have not been disappointed since.

Year    Age   Level         BA    OBP   SLG   AB    2B   3B   HR   BB   K
2001    21    Short-Season  .305  .415  .402  174   11   0    2    33   31
2002    22    Low-A         .340  .425  .587  332   27   2    17   47   74
2003    23    High-A        .359  .478  .641  315   24   1    21   68   67
2003    23    Double-A      .256  .310  .333  78    4    1    0    5    17

Shelton was dominant for Lynchburg, posting a .384 EqA (.272 MjEqA) that is the best of any hitter in full-season ball this year. Jeremy Reed is the only player in Shelton’s stratosphere (.375 EqA), and he has had to hit .400 in order to stay close to him. Shelton’s numbers since the promotion to Double-A don’t look like much, but the sample size pales in comparison to his previous 800 at-bats that suggest he is a capable hitter. After an awful 1-for-26 beginning, Shelton has made adjustments and begun to show why the Pirates promoted him in the first place. Like everyone else, they are curious to know if the runaway Carolina League MVP can actually hit like he did in the first half of the season.

Shelton can certainly hit a fastball, regardless of its velocity or movement. If you plan on throwing him anything straight, you might as well have your outfielders line up on the warning track to save energy. While his swing mechanics are unorthodox, he ends with his bat in a great hitting position and has an even plane when he makes contact. His stance at the plate is unusual, but still effective. Similar to Dontrelle Willis, he has been downgraded for his uniqueness in style, rather than being graded on the pure mechanics of his swing.

Breaking balls are a different story. Shelton still struggles to adjust to above-average curve balls and doesn’t drive off-speed pitches well. He’s a disciplined hitter, however, and has learned to allow them to pass and wait for a pitch he can drive. While this is likely his best approach, it is also one that can be exploited by pitchers who can consistently throw their breaking balls for strikes. Shelton’s biggest obstacle in Double-A will be adjusting to a regular diet of pitches that move, something pitchers at that level typically do a lot better than their A-ball counterparts. That will likely determine his major league career.

Shelton has split most of his time between catcher, first base, and designated hitter, with the latter two being his likely major league positions. Regardless of whether it should matter or not, he is a “bad body” player who doesn’t move well behind the plate and doesn’t elicit joy from his pitcher when he’s wearing the tools of ignorance. His arm is below average, and stopping the running game is a concern for the Pirates. Like Craig Wilson and Matt LeCroy, Shelton’s lack of athleticism will dissuade most clubs from viewing him as a real option behind the plate. He’s also a question mark defensively at first base at this stage, but most clubs are willing to sacrifice defense at that position in order to get a bat in the lineup.

Shelton and Oquendo are two examples of players who were written off because of their appearance, but have put themselves on the map through outstanding performances that cannot be ignored. Both have their flaws and neither project as major league stars, but they bear watching for the things they do well. By focusing on the things that they do not do, their ability to simply perform was overlooked, and in the end, that is all that counts. Whether Shelton and Oquendo succeed at the major league level is still to be decided, but the Pirates deserve credit for giving them the opportunity to advance in the first place.

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