Spring Training: Prospects trying to make name for themselves

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- There was a break in the action for the Pirates in major-league camp yesterday, but no rest for the weary for those in the minor-league camp.

About 150 players -- none with a name on the back of his uniform -- went through another day of drills and throwing and batting practice and running, hoping someday to make a name for himself in the Pirates' organization.

They are not Andrew McCutchen or Neil Walker or Steve Pearce or Brian Bixler -- young prospects whose names should be familiar to even the casual Pirates fan.

They are James Boone and Brad Corley and Shelby Ford and Brian Friday and Andrew Walker and Quincy Latimore -- much younger prospects whose names will be familiar to even the casual Pirates fan in a year or two.

  • Game: After yesterday's off day, the Pirates return to spring training action with a game vs. Toronto in Dunedin, Fla.
  • When: 1:05 p.m.
  • The skinny: Zach Duke is scheduled to make his third start of the spring.

And they're names that could find their way into Pirates box scores this spring when the major-league team summons minor-leaguers to fill out the travel party as the major-league camp winds down.

In fact, Boone already has played in two Pirates spring games, going 3 for 3.

"He's the second-best 1.000 hitter in the big leagues," joked Jeff Banister, the organization's minor-league field coordinator who singled for the Pirates July 23, 1991, in his only major-league at-bat.

Boone, who turns 25 Sunday, was the Pirates' third-round pick in the 2005 draft out of the University of Missouri. Various injuries have limited the Oklahoman to just 173 professional games, but he remains solidly on the radar and should begin this season at Class AA Altoona.

"When I first saw him, he was 'Roy Hobbs' to me," Banister said. "He's kind of an enigma right now because we have not seen a whole lot of him, but he can play center field and run the ball down. He has all the tools you look for in a center fielder -- that graceful running style, good throwing arm and a switch-hitter.

"I told him he's the second-best switch-hitter to come out of Oklahoma."

Whether Boone becomes as well known as Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle is another matter.

"The challenge for him is to play a whole season healthy," said Kyle Stark, the Pirates' new minor-league director. "If he's able to do that, I think he immediately is in the mix."

Friday was the Pirates' third-round pick out of Rice University last year. A shortstop, he batted .295 in 40 games for State College last summer.

"A very athletic shortstop," Banister said. "He's a 'workman' shortstop -- a guy who doesn't have the Omar Vizquel range. But he has quality hands, can turn the double play. He's a smart enough kid who will learn the hitters and learn how to position himself. He reads the ball off the bat very well.

"Offensively, he has a little bit of a ways to go because, coming from college and the aluminum bat, he thinks he has a little more power than he does. We have to transition him into the National League shortstop style of baseball where he hits in either the two-hole or the seven- or eight-hole. He has to be able to be more of a bat-control guy."

Stark said the Pirates will be "fairly aggressive" with Friday to move him along in the organization.

"He's a college guy who played at a high level," Stark said. "Mentally, he's advanced both in his approach on the field and also how he carries himself off the field. We feel he's a guy who can hold his own probably at [high Class A] Lynchburg this year."

Ford, the Pirates' third-round pick in 2006 out of Oklahoma State University, also has been slowed by injuries. Last season at Lynchburg, the switch-hitting second baseman batted .281 with 26 doubles, 5 home runs and 55 RBIs in 360 at-bats.

"He has an opportunity to be an offensive second baseman," Banister said. "As he matures and gets stronger, he's going to be able to drive the ball and put up some respectable power numbers for a second baseman."

Latimore, 19, was the Pirates' fourth-round draft pick in June out of Middle Creek High School in North Carolina. The 5-foot-11, 188-pounder batted .257 in 45 games for Bradenton in the Gulf Coast League last summer.

"Tremendous bat speed," Banister said. "He runs probably a tick above average. He looks more like a running back than he does a baseball player right now. I think he's going to have a chance to hit and hit for some power and probably play one of the corner outfield positions eventually."

Walker was the fifth-round draft pick last year out of Texas Christian University. He's a catcher -- just as Neil Walker was when he was drafted out of Pine-Richland High School in the first round of 2004 before being officially moved to third base last spring.

Andrew Walker, who probably will remain a catcher, hit .317 with 2 home runs and 24 RBIs in 46 games for State College last summer.

"He has a really loud bat," Banister said. "He has a little bit of a ways to go defensively, but, in the end, he has a chance to be an everyday catcher."

Corley, 24, might be a bit more familiar to Pirates fans. A second-round pick in 2005 out of Mississippi State, Corley attracted attention in 2006 by driving in 100 runs for low Class A Hickory. Last year, he drove in 93 in a season split between Lynchburg and Altoona.

"An RBI machine," Banister said. "One knock on Brad is that he strikes out too much."

Last year, Corley had 105 strikeouts and drew only 14 walks while batting .283.

"His strikeout-to-walk ratio is really poor at this point," Banister said. "He's got to gain some better bat control and better command of the strike zone.

"But, on the flip side of that, his average is still at a respectable number, and he's been right at that 100-RBI number every year. He has that ability in key situations to put the bat on the ball and drive the ball to the outfield."

Paul Meyer can be reached at pmeyer@post-gazette.com .


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