Pirates See Future Stars in System
BRADENTON, Fla. (AP) _ Call them the 21st century Pirates.
They’re the Pittsburgh Pirates’ not ready for prime time players, the ones who may never play a home game in Three Rivers Stadium. Along with the proposed new stadium planned for 2001, they are expected to be the future of a franchise that has lived off its past too long.
The Pirates underwent a surprisingly successful youth movement last season that elevated players such as Tony Womack, Jose Guillen and Kevin Polcovich to the majors and was largely responsible for their unexpected run at the NL Central title.
But if the Pirates are to win their first World Series since 1979 in the foreseeable future, players such as Chad Hermansen, Aramis Ramirez, Ron Wright and Javier Martinez may lead the way.
Individually, they include the best prospects produced by the organization since Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla. Collectively, they are why Baseball Weekly ranks the Pirates’ farm system as the deepest in the majors.
``It’s the best our farm system’s been,″ general manager Cam Bonifay. ``It’s not just quantity, it’s quality. We have guys who could be future stars.″
The question is: How soon? For shortstop Abraham Nunez, it is conceivable a full-time job could come as early as this summer. For Hermansen, Ramirez and Kris Benson, their magic number might be 1999. But for Paul Ah Yat, Melvin Brazoban and Alex Hernandez, their turn might not come until the turn of the century.
An update on some of the Pirates’ top young players:
_Hermansen: Didn’t turn 20 until September, but has 53 homers in 2 1/2 minor league seasons. He also starred in the Arizona Fall League, batting .341 and driving in 45 runs. He needs only to find a position; he already has moved from shortstop to center field to second base. If he can develop there, the Pirates could have three power-hitting infielders; Kevin Young or Wright at first, Freddy Garcia or Ramirez at third and Hermansen at second.
_Ramirez: If Hermansen is the Pirates prospect No. 1, Ramirez is 1-A. If the Pirates wanted to rush him to the majors like they did with Guillen last season, he probably wouldn’t embarrass himself; he was the Carolina League’s MVP last season at age 19 after batting .278 with 29 homers and a league-high 114 RBIs in 482 at-bats.
``He’s one of the most gifted players we have,″ Lamont said.
_Benson: The No. 1 pick in the June 1996 draft, he has looked more comfortable facing major-league hitters than he did last spring, when he was overmatched. He has a 3.60 ERA in five innings and could be in the majors by next year.
_Wright: He had an outside chance to win the first baseman’s job this spring, but still has too many holes in his aggressive swing.
_Nunez: Polcovich or Lou Collier may start the season at shortstop, but the 22-year-old Nunez could finish it. A switch-hitter, he batted .328 at Double-A Carolina last year following a mid-season promotion, then hit .225 in 19 games with Pittsburgh.
_Bronson Arroyo: The 6-foot-5 right-hander went 12-4 with nine consecutive wins in pitching Lynchburg to the Carolina League title. To get to the majors, he needs only to add a few miles per hour to his high 80-mph pitches.
_Javier Martinez and Brazoban: These Rule 5 draft picks must stay with the Pirates all season or be offered back to their former clubs. Martinez, 21, was only 3-13 at Daytona Beach and Rockford in 1997, yet has so impressed Lamont and pitching coach Pete Vuckovich that he might have pitched his way onto the staff regardless. If Martinez can be effective in middle innings, pitching about twice a week, the Pirates probably can hide Brazoban all season.
_Elvin Hernandez: THe 20-year-old was 17-5 at Class A Augusta in 1996 before slumping to 2-7 at Carolina last season. But he won’t likely be overmatched this season, not after striking out 364 in 415 minor-league innings.
_Ah Yat and Alex Hernandez: Both had breakout seasons in 1997. Ah Yat, a 23-year-old former Hawaii pitcher, was 10-2 at Augusta and Lynchburg with 157 strikeouts in only 138 innings in 1997. Hernandez doesn’t have exceptional power or bat-handling skills, but has few negatives and plays every day.