Pirates' 2002 draft starting to bear fruit
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B.J. or Bryan?
Upton or Bullington?
The standout high school shortstop with a projected high ceiling or the effective college pitcher who might get to the major leagues quicker?
Those were the issues confronting general manager Dave Littlefield and scouting director Ed Creech, working their first Pirates amateur draft together, in the final few days before the 2002 draft -- in which, as Creech put, they were "the lead dog."
It turned out the Pirates, owners of the first overall pick for the first time since 1996 when they selected Kris Benson, opted for Bullington, a right-hander from Ball State University, which wasn't a big surprise.
The Pirates entered that draft determined to bolster their pitching depth -- and never mind they had taken pitchers with their first pick in the previous four drafts.
What was a bit of a shock was that the Pirates immediately projected Bullington as a third starter in the major leagues. The No. 1 pick overall -- "1-1" in draftspeak -- just a third starter?
"Basically calling a spade a spade," Creech said. "We didn't want to send out false hopes, false innuendos. We thought he was the best available out there. We didn't want anybody thinking there was a [Mark] Prior out there."
Prior was the second player chosen in the draft the year before, and he zipped to the major leagues with the Chicago Cubs. A product of the University of Southern California, Prior made his big-league debut May 22, 2002 at Wrigley Field against the Pirates.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Pirates GM Dave Littlefield, right, stands with Ed Creech in the "War Room" preparing for the upcoming draft.
Click photo for larger image.
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If you subscribe to the theory that it takes at least three years to value a draft, then final exam time has arrived for GM Dave Littlefield and scouting director Ed Creech. As they prepare for their fourth draft Tuesday as Pirates brain trust, we look back at their first with gold stars and red pen in hand.
1. Bryan Bullington Age: 24 Pos: Pitcher School: Ball State Where is he now? 2-2, 6.66 ERA at AAA Indianapolis.
2. Blair Johnson Age: 21 Pos: Pitcher School: Washburn Rural (Kan.) H.S. Where is he now? Out (surgery).
3. Taber Lee Age: 24 Pos: Shortstop School: San Diego State Where is he now? Class A Lynchburg.
4. Wardell Starling Age: 22 Pos: Pitcher School:Elkins (Texas) H.S. Where is he now? Class A Lynchburg.
5. Alex Hart Age: 25 Pos: Pitcher School: University of Florida Where is he now? Out (arm surgery).
Nobody with any big-league team thought there was a college pitcher like Prior in the 2002 draft. And the Pirates weren't the only team projecting Bullington as a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
"A third or fourth starter if he stayed healthy," one scouting director said. "He was a solid pick."
"Best scenario? A third starter," said a scout, who at the time was a cross-checker. "Maybe more of a 4-5 guy. Maybe a reliever. His stuff wasn't impact, but they wanted a college pitcher who could move quickly. It hasn't happened."
"He absolutely will pitch in the big leagues," Pirates minor-league director Brian Graham said.
Bullington, 24, won't beat Upton to the big leagues, though.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays took Upton with the second overall pick in 2002 and promoted him to the major leagues from Class AAA Durham last summer.
However, Upton, 20, showed many defensive shortcomings at shortstop -- among other positions -- and began this season back with Durham.
So the question about which of the two will become established in the big leagues sooner remains unanswered.
Bullington is on track to arrive in the big leagues by sometime next season at the latest. He signed late in 2002 and didn't begin his professional career until 2003, but he's pitching for Class AAA Indianapolis now, with mixed results, after being slowed by shoulder discomfort in spring training.
That Bullington has reached Class AAA before he has to be protected on the 40-man roster is a nice achievement, according to Creech.
"If you'd told me [the day of the 2002 draft] that he was going to be in Triple-A this year without being on the 40-man roster, I'd have been very happy with that scenario," Creech said. "He's going to be a good major-league pitcher."
One troublesome thing about Bullington is that he hasn't displayed the same velocity on his fastball as a pro that he did at Ball State. In college, Bullington threw his fastball 94-95 mph. It's down 2-4 mph since then.
"His arm strength is not back," Creech said. "Maybe [because of] the layoff when he didn't sign [until late 2002]."
Bullington seems to have learned to pitch with less velocity, though.
"He's going to have to rely on his stuff and location," Indianapolis manager Trent Jewett said. "He's not a power guy. He's not a finesse guy. He sinks the ball well. He gives you a lot of different looks. It looks like he has a versatile arm. He could do a lot of things."
Bullington was 25-12 with a 3.32 earned run average in his first two pro seasons. That includes a 12-7 mark and a 4.10 ERA with Class AA Altoona last season. The won-loss record was fine, but the ERA and the fact he allowed 160 hits in 145 innings indicate he didn't dominate.
As people might have expected a "1-1" pick to do.
"Everybody believes a guy picked No. 1 overall should be a star in the big leagues by now," Graham said. "But I'm definitely satisfied with his progress. We think he has a bright future."
"He had his periods where he really had a tough time out there and struggled," Altoona manager Tony Beasley said. "I think he has a lot more on his plate than we know about.
"I don't know what he goes through being a No. 1 guy overall. He's calm and cool and everything looks good on the outside, but I'm sure he reads. He's intelligent. He knows what people are saying. I'm sure it gets to him and bothers him and I'm sure he goes out there sometimes and tries to overdo it and go beyond what he's capable of doing.
"But I applaud him because he works his butt off and he competes when he's out there. He has four pitches he can use and work with, and when he uses his whole arsenal he's pretty good with it.
"I think he's figured out what he has to do to compete. He knows he has to change speeds and get hitters off balance. That's what's going to work for him."
While Bullington has commanded attention because he was the No. 1 pick overall in the 2002 draft, the player in that draft who appears to have the most people genuinely excited is first baseman Brad Eldred, the Pirates' sixth selection that year.
Eldred, 6 feet 5 and 268 pounds, is a product of Miami's Florida International University, where he led the NCAA with 29 home runs in 2002.
The power-challenged Pirates can only hope Eldred sometime leads the National League in home runs. And he showed in an awesome August with Altoona last year that he might. In 27 games, he batted .340 with 14 home runs and a staggering 50 RBIs.
"It was probably the most impressive month I've seen from any guy I've played with," said center fielder Chris Duffy, now Eldred's teammate at Indianapolis. "It seemed every time he got up he hit a home run or got a double or got a big hit. It seemed like everybody expected him to do it and he kept doing it."
"I've never in my life seen anything like it," Beasley said. "It was ridiculous. The numbers he put up? Good night."
"His raw power is off the charts," Graham said.
"When he takes batting practice, it's [Mark] McGwire-like," said Creech, the St. Louis Cardinals' scouting director in 1998. "It was awesome to watch -- and awesome to hear."
Eldred, who turns 25 in July, began this season with Altoona in similar fashion. In 21 games, he batted .333 with 13 home runs and 27 RBIs. That earned him a promotion to Indianapolis May 3.
Eldred hasn't hit home runs at the same rate for Indianapolis -- three in his first 82 at-bats -- that he did for Altoona, but that's to be expected at this point.
"If he's having good at-bats and making the proper adjustments, the home runs will happen because of his strength," Jewett said. "His strength is unquestionable. He's gone through the normal adjustment period, and he's close to being comfortable at this level."
"Eldred has exceeded our expectations," Creech said. "We're very pleased with what he's doing."
That might not be the case with most of the other players signed out of that draft, which Littlefield called "a mixed bag." Bullington, one of eight pitchers the Pirates took with their first 12 picks, and Eldred are the only two players who have reached Class AAA.
"Eldred looks like he could have an impact," Littlefield said. "Bullington is in Triple-A and not on the 40-man roster. There are other guys where the jury's still out."
The jury could be out quite a while.
Nobody in that draft currently is with Altoona. Shortstop Taber Lee, the third pick that year, was with the Curve in April, but he's since been returned to Class A Lynchburg to get more at-bats and learn to be more productive.
Right-hander Blair Johnson, the second pick, is out for a time with Hickory because of a shoulder injury.
"He had people buzzing," Creech said. "He has electric stuff."
Right-hander Wardell Starling, the fourth pick, is with Lynchburg.
"One game he'll throw 94-95 [mph] and is unhittable," Creech said. "The next game, he's mediocre. But he's on the verge of breaking out."
Right-hander Alex Hart, the fifth pick from the University of Florida, has been plagued by arm surgeries and could be a nonfactor.
Matt Capps, another right-hander who was the seventh pick, was a bust as a starter but is throwing harder (94 mph) now that he's a reliever and doing well with Hickory.
Outfielder Bobby Kingsbury, the eighth selection, is showing signs of becoming a decent prospect in his first season with Lynchburg.
"He's played a lot better," Graham said. "He has to decide if he's going to be a gap hitter or a power hitter."
"An intriguing guy," Creech said. "We have something there if he can hit for average."
The only other notable prospects in that draft are left-hander Brian Holliday, a 12th-round pick from Moon, and Nyjer Morgan, a hockey player turned center fielder who was taken in the 33rd round.
Holliday, who missed time this season after being hit by a line drive, is with Lynchburg, throwing 92 mph and effectively using his "yellow hammer," as Creech calls his curveball.
"He's in the Carolina League at a young age," Graham said of Holliday, who turned 21 last Wednesday. "He definitely has a chance."
Morgan hurt his arm in the Extended Spring program this year but could play for Lynchburg in a bit.
"We love this guy," Creech said.
"He has a chance to be a real good player," Graham said. "He has impact speed."
Out of that 2002 draft, then, the Pirates could wind up with at least four or five major-league players, led by Bullington and Eldred.
Those two and however many others of their draft classmates could form what Taber Lee called "the majority of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the next two or three years."
Lee, whose brother, Travis, plays for Tampa Bay, includes players from the 2000 and 2001 draft in that group.
"[The Pirates] have some solid talent in there," Lee said.
The 2000 draft included left-hander Sean Burnett, the No. 1 pick, third baseman Jose Bautista, left fielder Nate McLouth and right-hander Ian Snell. Notables from the 2001 draft include top pick John Van Benschoten, a right-hander, center fielder Chris Duffy, left-hander Zach Duke and center fielder Rajai Davis.
"I definitely feel that could be true if they can keep coming up and get more experienced," Burnett said of Lee's "majority" statement. "We got a lot of young prospects from those drafts, a lot of talented players."
First Published June 5, 2005 12:00 am