On the Pirates: Microscope on the minors

Mixed results for prospects acquired in Nady, Bay, McLouth trades

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Part of what makes the Pirates' many trades the past two years so maddening to a good chunk of the fan base is that any potential prize seems so far off: Each of the trades involving Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth and now Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez has brought at least one player at or below the Class AA level.

Out of sight, out of mind.

And they mostly stay that way for quite a while, even as the team in Pittsburgh might have to suffer with stopgaps.

As general manager Neal Huntington acknowledged this week, "We recognize that it takes patience and that we're asking a lot of the public."

Isolating just on the 11 players who came back in the Bay, Nady and McLouth trades, then, since there has been some time to digest those, the initial return is that five -- Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton -- already are in Pittsburgh, as was Craig Hansen before his back injury.

That leaves five still in the minors. And those have provided no better than mixed results to date. ...

Daniel McCutchen, 26, right-handed pitcher, Class AAA Indianapolis: 10-6 record, 3.78 ERA, 80 strikeouts, 25 walks in 109 2/3 innings.

The positive is that McCutchen, who has unremarkable stuff but good control, has made nine consecutive starts with three or fewer runs. The negatives are that he will turn a plenty-old-for-prospect-status 27 in two months, that he gives up more than one hit per inning and that he seldom goes deep into games.

Director of player development Kyle Stark's take: "Daniel is competitive, physical, has good with arm strength and a solid changeup and developing breaking stuff. He's learning how to pitch rather than just throw."

McCutchen is a strong candidate for a September promotion.

Jose Tabata, 20, outfielder, was just promoted to Indianapolis from Class AA Altoona: With the Curve, he had a .303 average, two home runs, 15 doubles, 25 RBIs, seven steals.

Tabata finally took off in July, batting .354 and doubling his RBI total. He bats 80 points higher with men on base, another encouraging sign for his middle-of-the-order future. Management also has been impressed with how he handled that mess in which his wife was charged with kidnapping an infant during spring training.

"Jose's obviously overcome some adversity, and it seems remarkable how he's competed this year after this spring," Stark said. "He has solid physical tools with an advanced approach to hitting. He's a mature young man on the baseball field."

Gorkys Hernandez, 21, outfielder, Altoona: .281 average, two home runs, 19 doubles, 35 RBIs, 15 steals.

He has yet to find full traction since joining the Curve in late May, batting .244 with precious little power or patience and .212 against left-handers. But the Pirates love his potential, to the point of comparing him to Cameron Maybin, a top young player with Florida seen as being on par with Andrew McCutchen.

"He's a young, physically gifted player developing baseball skills," Stark said. "He can run, he's a legitimate center fielder, and he and he shows the ingredients to hit. He's also passionate, driven."

The next two have been, by far, the biggest disappointments. ...

Bryan Morris, 22, right-handed pitcher, Class A Lynchburg: 2-6 record, 5.91 ERA, 21 strikeouts, 19 walks in 45 2/3 innings.

A year after being pegged as the main acquisition in the Bay trade, Morris has done next to nothing to substantiate it: Three varied injuries have cost him time in and out of season, his promising stuff has not translated into swings and misses, and opponents are batting .285.

And now, yesterday, he was suspended indefinitely by the Pirates for his behavior toward the umpires in his most recent start Thursday.

Of Morris' potential, Stark said, "He has arm strength, touching the mid-90s, and solid breaking pitches, but he's still refining his changeup and his delivery to aid fastball command and promote his long-term health."

Jeff Locke, 21, left-handed pitcher, Lynchburg: 2-8 record, 5.42 ERA, 71 strikeouts, 38 walks in 88 innings.

Here, too, few hitters are getting fooled: Opponents are batting .294 with five home runs, and Locke has been chased in four or fewer innings in six of his past 10 starts.

"Jeff has three solid pitches and is learning the balance of command and stuff," Stark said. "He's an intelligent young man maturing as a person and pitcher."

Wilson: Best defensive shortstop?

If Jack Wilson has a claim to fame in his nine-year tenure in Pittsburgh, it might be that he was the franchise's best defensive shortstop.

No, he never won a Gold Glove, though he is known to have finished as runner-up three times and his work this season probably was the best of his career. And yes, Gene Alley won two Gold Gloves at the position in 1966-67, and Jay Bell won one in 1993. And never mind that there were no Gold Gloves back when Honus Wagner and his oversized hands were dominating the position a century ago.

But, if one operates first on the idea that defense has improved throughout baseball over time -- better equipment, smoother fields, bigger players -- Wilson probably should get recognition.

The numbers will back him, too: His .978 fielding percentage is the best in the Pirates' history at shortstop. Rafael Belliard's .977 is next, followed by Tim Foli's .972 and Alley's .971. That fielding percentage also ranks fourth among all active players in Major League Baseball.

One of those ahead of him, the Texas Rangers' brilliant Omar Vizquel, said this week of Wilson: "I think he's one of the best shortstops in the game right now. I love the way he plays. For an American guy, he's really flashy."

Worth of a double play

The average number of double plays a team turns is less than one per game. On an odd night, a team will turn as many as three. The major league record is seven.

Even the Pirates, who with Wilson and Sanchez led the majors with 111, barely averaged more than one per game.

So, are they really that big a deal?

This was asked of Huntington, who gets regular input from his statistical researchers on such matters.

"I'd say it depends," he replied. "Last year, we were No. 1 in the majors in double plays but we also had pitching problems and a lot of baserunners. This year, our baserunners are way down, but we still were No. 1. To me, that's when it matters. And that's a credit to not only Jack and Freddy but also Andy LaRoche and Perry Hill, who's done a great job of teaching them."

Staying with a loser

The greatest knock on Wilson and Sanchez for their tenures in Pittsburgh is that they played for nothing but losing teams, and it is one that neither could dispute.

But the knock that they wanted to stay in Pittsburgh because they were comfortable playing for a loser belies what both players clearly laid out in spring training as their vision for staying with the Pirates. ...

One morning in Bradenton, Wilson and Sanchez spoke at their stalls about the rest of the team's everyday players, about the outfield depth, about McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez coming along, about Ryan Doumit behind the plate and about the starting pitching. And, when they did so, they envisioned not only a team that they felt could be highly competitive in the near future but also one that needed a shortstop and second baseman, with no one else on the horizon.

As Sanchez put it that day, "We see the talent that's coming, and we want to be part of it. There's nothing we'd love more, after all this losing, than to be part of when it turns around."


Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Catch more on the Pirates and join the discussion at the PBC Blog .


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