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Pirates

Van Benschoten gets longer look

Joe Rutter
| Monday, March 15, 2004

BRADENTON, Fla. -- John Van Benschoten wasn't sure what to make of the first wave of roster cuts.

Two former eighth overall draft picks were dispatched to the minor leagues Friday when six players were pared from the Pirates' spring training roster. Van Benschoten, taken with the eighth pick of the 2001 draft, wasn't one of them.

Van Benschoten, competing in his first major-league camp, is pretty sure he'll get pulled into manager Lloyd McClendon's office one of these days. It could come as soon as today when another round of roster reductions is expected. Until that time, he'll keep a low profile and enjoy this taste of the big-league environment while it lasts.

"If you stay here longer, they obviously want to see more of you," the 23-year-old right-hander said. "I just don't know how it all goes. I don't think I'm going to make the team, so I'm just getting ready to go wherever they send me, whether it's Altoona or Nashville."

Van Benschoten is on the fast track to the majors, which could be the reason McClendon has decided to take a longer look at him. Because of an injury to Sean Burnett, Van Benschoten he will make his first start today when the Pirates play the Detroit Tigers.

Van Benschoten already has impressed the Pirates with his poise on the mound. He has given up no runs and just one hit in five innings this spring. A statement was made Thursday when he pitched three hitless innings against the Philadelphia Phillies, which might explain why he didn't join Bobby Bradley and Paul Maholm on the cut list the following day.

"You can see the improvement," Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield said. "That experience will really help him down the road. He's an impressive guy physically, and he's impressive with his stuff. But you do need experience. Time and time again, you need more than physical ability."

Van Benschoten will get that additional experience in the minors, but where he starts the season and how long he remains there are the intriguing questions.

He has pitched only 90 innings above the Class A level, which could suggest Van Benschoten would begin the season at Altoona, where he was 7-6 in 17 starts last year.

Or, the Pirates could decide Van Benschoten is ready for the test provided at Class AAA Nashville and put him there in April. Either way, Van Benschoten could be in line to make an appearance in Pittsburgh before the end of the season if he puts together another strong minor-league season.

"Nothing has been determined at this point," Littlefield said. "The better he does here, the more that helps his cause wherever he's going to go. There's a chance (he could pitch at Nashville). A lot depends on what we've seen in camp, how long he stays here and how he does in minor-league camp."

This is the second consecutive year Van Benschoten has been named the Pirates' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America. He was ranked second in 2002, the year after he made his professional debut.

The accolades appeared to be deserved. In three seasons, Van Benschoten has a 24-12 record and 3.02 ERA in 62 starts. He won his first 11 decisions last year and was 15-0 during a 27-start span from July 7, 2002 until July 24, 2003.

Despite that success, Van Benschoten didn't know what to expect from his first major-league camp as a member of the 40-man roster.

"It's not as easy as people say it is," he said. "You definitely get your work in and you do things harder and faster because everybody is so good at it. These guys have been doing this for a while, so you don't have to do things over and over. Everybody knows what they're doing, so it runs a lot smoother than minor-league camp."

Van Benschoten would like clean up certain aspects of his game this spring, such as speeding up his time to the plate when working from the stetch. But, overall, he has no problems with the way this spring has gone.

"This has been a good way for me to get my feet wet," he said. "I'm getting used to the major-league environment and that can only help me wherever I pitch."

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