Pirates' Heredia poised to pitch as 16-year-old pro
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- As Luis Heredia, the Pirates' precocious 16-year-old pitching prospect, grew up on the mounds of Mazatlan, Mexico, he towered above the competition. He already stood 6 feet 6 in the summer, and his fiery fastball must have made him seem even bigger to the batters.
Here at Pirate City, Heredia is the one looking up.
And loving it.
"They're right here in front of my eyes," Heredia was saying Tuesday, motioning to the complex's many fields. "Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker ... all the players are here for me to see. It's so great, so much fun."
That enthusiasm was best evident earlier this spring with Heredia's daily routine: Wake up at 6:45 a.m., run 5 miles, then watch the Pirates go through their routines. He sat alone on a picnic table and looked for hours as the players stretched, ran and played catch. Or stood and gazed through a fence to focus on the pitchers' activities. Or hovered behind the team bench during batting practice, close enough to observe, distant enough to be respectful.
What did that say about a player the Pirates landed in August as an international free agent for a franchise-record $2.6 million bonus?
"Well, what it says first is that Luis had a lot of spare time on his hands," director of player development Kyle Stark said with a laugh. "That's to be expected since we had him here before most of the other prospects arrived."
Minor-league camp opened March 7.
"The other part is that this is a young man who's passionate about baseball. He enjoys people, enjoys learning, and wants so badly to succeed. That's a good person to bet on to get the most of their abilities."
That talent and maturity is why management's plan for 2011 -- though not yet formally announced -- is to assign Heredia to Bradenton of the rookie-level Gulf Coast League, an extraordinary step for a player his age. The Pirates are known to have had only one previous 16-year-old at that level in the past 40 years.
That player was Dominican infielder Andury Acevedo, who was assigned to Bradenton in 2007 -- under previous management -- but had major maturity issues. The Pirates sent him back to the Dominican two years later, and it was not until 2010, at age 20, that he finally reached short-season State College, the next step above the GCL.
Woody Huyke, Bradenton's manager from 1974-2004 and still an instructor, recalled Acevedo's struggle.
"He just couldn't handle it, the baseball, the language, anything," Huyke said. "He drove us nuts. We got him out of here."
That will not happen with Heredia, according to Huyke, a Puerto Rican native who has become something of a mentor.
"Not that one. He's the opposite. He's very mature for his age."
But ready for rookie ball?
"He'd better be."
There are two reasons 16-year-olds are rare in the GCL: Drafted players -- amateurs from the United States, Canada or Puerto Rico -- must complete high school. And international free agents -- players from other countries who are 16 or older -- almost always get initially assigned to Latin American academies.
The Pirates' thinking with Heredia was that, despite never having thrown a professional pitch to this point, he would find little competition at their Dominican academy, and that he would adjust easily to America. But Stark acknowledged such a decision never could be easy.
"We've had to evaluate if he can compete and if he can be mature enough," Stark said. "So far, he's doing some really good things on both sides of that."
Minor league games have only just begun, but Heredia already has impressed in side sessions and live batting practice.
"There's no reason he can't pitch here," Latin American field coordinator Luis Dorante said. "He throws really hard, he's got good mechanics, good control, and he's got a lot of pitches."
Heredia threw six different pitches in Mexico, but the Pirates have him focusing on the fastball, curveball and changeup. Fastball command, as with all young prospects in the system, is the top priority.
"I feel good about my pitching," he said. "I'll stay here. I believe I can pitch in the GCL. In Mexico, I went against players who were 20 years old and much stronger than me. I've been doing that since I was little."
Heredia's form has been impressive enough that even Jameson Taillon, the Pirates' flame-throwing No. 1 pitching prospect, is observing him closely.
"I'm three years older, but I've actually learned a lot from him," Taillon said. "I'm a power guy, but I kind of drop in my arm slot and drive with my legs, so the coaches are trying to get me to use my 6-6 height better. Luis does it better than anybody here."
Taillon motioned with his right arm straight up.
"This kid is coming from the clouds!"
Taillon and two other top pitching prospects, Stetson Allie and Nick Kingham, have befriended Heredia, and he has embraced that in part because of a wish to learn more about America.
"I don't want to just speak Spanish and know what I know," Heredia said.
Heredia's English has improved dramatically since the summer, when he needed an interpreter for interviews in Mexico.
"It's pretty good, right?" he asked, grinning.
Most of the language has come, as is the case for so many immigrants, from watching TV. But Heredia also is speaking English around his family. His aunt already lived near Tampa, Fla., an hour's drive north of Bradenton, and the rest of his family lives there, too.
Around Pirate City, Heredia can be seen bouncing about, teasing a teammate, seeking advice or turning serious to pat Huyke on the back when Huyke lets out a long string of coughs.
"He's just jumped right in," Taillon said. "He's doing great with the language, he's one of the guys and ... you'd never know he's 16 until you get to the locker room and see that he's got no armpit hair, that he's got a bit of a high voice, and he's doing the goofiest things."
"But on the field, he's been a total pro. And he's going to be special."
There is room to grow up, though.
Heredia recently used some of his bonus money to buy a house in Bradenton -- another extraordinary step for a 16-year-old, obviously -- but he was firmly rejected by the grown-ups when he asked to buy a Lexus.
First, he approached Huyke for advice.
"A Lexus? I don't think so," Huyke recalled answering. "First of all, you're 16. Second of all, you need to have somebody driving with you, and you don't have anybody. If I was your mother, you wouldn't buy a car."
Heredia's mother said no.
"Well, maybe still," Heredia said, anyway. "I'll talk to her again."
He can do that next week, when she moves into his house.
First Published March 16, 2011 12:00 am