On the Pirates: Any aces in the deck?
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In having Stephen Strasburg make his highly anticipated professional debut a week ago in Altoona, it might have been easy to wonder: Where is the Pirates' Strasburg?
The simple, indisputable answer to that, of course, is that only the Washington Nationals have one of those. Scouts call Strasburg a once-in-a-generation talent.
So, maybe this is the better question: Where is the Pirates' ace?
Definitions vary greatly as to what constitutes an ace, but baseball people generally will provide a very narrow limit. That means CC Sabathia, Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay and no more than a dozen in total. These are the mark-it-down 20-game winners, those who end their teams' four-game losing streaks.
The Pirates, in what probably is no coincidence given the 17 years of losing, have not had someone with that status since Doug Drabek in the early 1990s. Some had spurts, such as Denny Neagle, Francisco Cordova, Todd Ritchie and that magnificent 239-strikeout season from Oliver Perez in 2004. But none was dominant or sustained enough to be an ace.
Charlie Morton is the only member of the current rotation with ace-type stuff, but he evidently has many miles to go to be considered a viable starter, much less an ace.
In the system, the Pirates are most optimistic about Brad Lincoln, the 2006 first-round draft pick at Class AAA Indianapolis, and Tim Alderson, the Class AA pitcher acquired in the Freddy Sanchez trade. There also are promising prospects at lower levels in Zach Von Rosenberg, Victor Black and Rudy Owens, and management is high on what it feels is dramatically upgraded pitching depth.
But not even people inside the system would suggest that they see -- right now -- an ace on the way.
There might have been one on the way, had the Pirates signed Tanner Scheppers, their second-round pick of two years ago.
Scheppers, a 6-foot-4 flame-throwing right-hander out of Fresno State University, had shoulder trouble, and there were strong concerns at the time -- not just from the Pirates -- that he was at risk for surgery. Still, the Pirates brought Scheppers to PNC Park for a workout watched by their entire brass and, although his velocity was well down from the standard high 90s, liked enough of what they saw to offer a signing bonus, believed to be slightly less than $1 million.
Scheppers, aware that health was the only reason he fell to the second round, sought to be paid like one of the top five players in the draft -- the No. 5 player that year, catcher Buster Posey taken by the San Francisco Giants, got a $6.2 million bonus, though others taken before him received less -- and the sides never came close. Scheppers went back into the pool, and Texas took him in the supplementary first round last July and signed him for $1.25 million, not much more than the Pirates' offer.
So far, that has worked out: Scheppers impressed the Rangers enough in spring training that the team at least entertained the idea of having him make the staff right away. Instead, he was assigned to Class AA and placed on a fast track to Dallas.
If he were in the Pirates' system, he would be, without a doubt, their No. 1 pitching prospect.
"We made every effort with Tanner, but he wasn't a healthy pitcher when was saw him and when he pitched for us," team president Frank Coonelly said. "We made an offer that we felt was very fair under those circumstances."
Coonelly also spoke effusively of the system's pitching depth.
"We have a lot of starting pitching prospects and, really, we have them at all levels," he said. "Scouts aren't going to talk about aces too often. Even if they really like someone, they're going to call them a No. 3 starter. But we like what we have, and we feel very strongly about that."
The Minnesota Twins came about their reputation for drafting and developing honestly.
When their fan base pressed for them to draft golden pitcher Mark Prior, they instead took Joe Mauer.
When the Pohlad family spent little on payroll while the team was based in the Metrodome, the system kept churning out prospect after prospect, and they arrived in Minneapolis ready to play, fundamentally and otherwise, thanks to the famous "Twins Way" of doing things.
So, what happened with Garrett Jones?
He was in the Twins' system for seven years and fared well for their Class AAA affiliate, but he was cut loose as a minor league free agent after the 2008 season, and it was the Pirates who signed him.
"The answer's simple: Justin Morneau and Michael Cuddyer," Jim Rantz, the Twins' venerable director of player development, said last month at the team's complex in Fort Myers, Fla. "We knew Garrett was a good player. With those guys at first base and in the outfield, there just wasn't anywhere to put him. But I wish the best for him, and I think we're all glad to see he's doing so well."
To back that, Rantz paid a visit to the Pirates' clubhouse in Fort Myers to shake Jones' hand.
Washington might be settling on adding another very high-profile player, Nevada catcher Bryce Harper, with the No. 1 overall pick in June. A TV report earlier this week suggested the Nationals already had made up their minds to do so, though the team's scouting director, Kris Kline, told the Washington Post, "I don't think that's etched in stone."
The Pirates, who have the No. 2 pick, have not been at all wild about Harper, certainly not to the degree that Sports Illustrated last summer dubbed him the "LeBron James of Baseball" as a cover story. And that stance holds true today.
Still, general manager Neal Huntington said that the Pirates' scouting director, Greg Smith, and other scouts continue to get "a lot of looks" at Harper and are "doing our due diligence."
Harper is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who often goes to great lengths to get every penny for his clients, and that can be a factor in teams' decisions regarding the draft. But the Pirates have been adamant that a decision on Harper would be no different than with Pedro Alvarez, another Boras client who got a franchise-record $6.355 million bonus.
Huntington did not elaborate on Harper, but he did make this point: "It's totally unfair to any player to be attached to an athlete like LeBron. You're talking about one of the great players in basketball history, and that's a lot of expectations to attach to anyone."
First Published April 18, 2010 12:00 am