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Questions dog Bucs' Bullington, Van Benschoten

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007
 

BUFFALO, N.Y.

Typical Pirates?

That might be too harsh, but it's perfectly legitimate to question how this franchise handled the eighth pick of the 2001 draft and the top pick in 2002.

In 2001, the Pirates turned the country's leading college home run hitter into a full-time pitcher.

"I think it surprised a lot of people," says John Van Benschoten, who hit 31 home runs as a Kent State senior. "But I was like, 'If they want to pay me that much ($2.4 million signing bonus), I'll do anything.' "

In 2002, the Pirates chose a college pitcher without electrifying stuff --- Bryan Bullington -- over a gifted position player, then poured cold water over their fan base by projecting Bullington as a No. 3 starter.

Total signing-bonus investment in the two: $6.4 million.

Total shoulder surgeries: Four.

Total return: Nothing to speak of, so far. Both are attempting comebacks with Triple-A Indianapolis, which was in Buffalo on Tuesday night for a series finale.

Speaking to the affable Van Benschoten, one has to ask if he ever thinks about what he might have been as a hitter.

"Always," he says. "Everybody's looking for a power-hitting first baseman."

Then-Pirates scouting director Mickey White worried about Van Benschoten's long arms and looping swing. He wondered if the kid would struggle the way Michael Jordan did when he tried baseball.

White loved Van Benschoten's mound presence, though, and he looked like a genius when the 6-foot-4 right-hander tore through the low minors.

Thing is, it can be risky converting a guy without much arm mileage into a starter. Van Benschoten was a closer at Kent State. The Pirates pitched him 148 innings at Single-A in his first full professional season.

There is no proof that all the early work contributed to his injury problems.

It's just hard to believe it helped.

"You have to build those guys up very slowly over time," says Keith Law, director of scouting for ESPN's Scouts Inc. and formerly a special assistant to Toronto Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi. "You can't take a guy like that and immediately use him as a regular starter in the minors."

Van Benschoten made his big-league debut Aug. 18, 2004, and showed promise, even though he went 1-3 with a 6.91 ERA (he also hit a home run). Then came the shoulder trouble. Surgery on his right shoulder wiped out 2005 and part of 2006. Two procedures on his left shoulder probably ruined the idea of making him a hitter again.

At 27, Van Benschoten is showing signs of life, including a recent six-start stretch in which he allowed three earned runs. He mixes a low-90s fastball with an effective sinker.

His first taste of the majors was largely unsatisfying.

"It wasn't like I'd died and gone to heaven or anything," he says. "It's not just about getting there. You have to succeed. That's where the dream is."

As for Bullington, who could forget the words of GM Dave Littlefield, presiding over his first draft in 2002?

"We feel comfortable projecting him as a No. 3 starter."

The top overall pick!

"Bullington wasn't even the No. 2 guy in that draft," Law says. "You can't miss on that pick, particularly when you haven't had a winning season since before the birth of Christ."

The Pirates figured the right-handed Bullington would establish himself faster than high school superstar B.J. Upton, who went second to Tampa Bay. It might have happened, too, if Bullington hadn't missed last season because of shoulder surgery.

But nobody projected Bullington as the better player, which points the finger squarely at Littlefield and Kevin McClatchy, even if scouting director Ed Creech pushed for the pick.

So what if Upton needed five years to develop• It's not like this franchise was on the fast track to success.

Oh, by-the-way, Upton has more home runs and a higher batting average this season than any Pirates regular except Ryan Doumit.

Not only will Bullington, 26, have to hear about Upton for the rest of his career - and the fact Milwaukee took Prince Fielder five picks later - but he also must deal with the label of "top overall pick."

Does he ever wish he'd been taken No. 2?

"I sure don't think about it a whole lot," says Bullington, who is 6-2. "Everybody at Triple-A just wants to get to the big leagues and have some success."

It's getting late, but here's hoping Bullington and Van Benschoten enjoy long and productive major-league careers.

Of course, even if they do, the questions will linger.

 

 

 
 


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