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Pirates Lynchburg is last Class A stop for Pirates prospects

Several appear ready to take giant step to next level

Sunday, June 29, 2003

By Paul Meyer, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

The second of a four-part series on Pirates' minor-league teams and prospects in the system.

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. -- Dave Clark is in his first season as manager of the Pirates' minor-league team in Lynchburg, Va., the higher of the big club's two full-season Class A affiliates, so it's difficult for him to quantify the difference between the Carolina League and the South Atlantic League, which includes the Pirates' Hickory minor-league team.

Lynchburg Hillcats catcher Ryan Doumit has shown much promise at the plate this season. (Sandi Shelton, Special to the Post-Gazette)

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"From just talking to some of the coaches, hitters and pitchers, they thought [the South Atlantic League] was more like a real good college league," Clark said. "There are a lot of college players there and they played like college baseball.

"Here, in this league, it's probably one of the toughest high-A levels there is because there are eight ballclubs. Teams get the chance to see each other quite a few times. And you pick up tendencies, not only from the players but also from the managers.

"This level will prepare you for [Class AA]. And if you do well in [Class AA], of course, you can play in the big leagues. So I think this is just as vital as [Class AA]."

Thus it could be fortuitous for the Pirates that the Lynchburg Hillcats have more than a few legitimate prospects on their roster, a lot of whom are graduates from Hickory's South Atlantic League championship team of 2002.

Start with Ryan Doumit, 22, who could be the heir apparent to Jason Kendall as the Pirates' catcher. Doumit, a second-round pick in the 1999 draft, batted .322 for Hickory in an injury-shortened 2002 season. At the Carolina League All-Star break this year, he had a .291 batting average, 20 doubles (which ranked second in the league), six home runs and 44 RBIs.

"As a hitter, he hasn't been swinging the bat too well lately," Clark said several days ago. "But he was the league player of the month for April. Heck, everything he hit was hit hard and it fell in for a hit. It looked like he was swinging a magic wand. But as of late, it looks like he's got six holes in his bat.

"But he's going to be a good player. He's going to be a good hitter. He's a switch-hitting catcher. You don't see that very often. From what I've seen he's a better hitter from the left side. The right side is more of a 'feel.' You know, the ball has to hit his bat. I think he's going to get better as he matures.

"He's a ways off defensively. I don't know if a lot of it comes from the problems he's had with his back."

Doumit spent three months on the disabled list with back problems in 2001. Last season, his right index finger was broken June 27 and he missed the rest of the season.

"I think he's got to get some more seasoning," Clark said. "Now, granted, I think he's going to be a good catcher. I think he's going to be a good receiver. But a lot of times when you have an offensive-minded catcher, he pitches everyone as if he was the hitter. He's got to get away from that and to realize that everyone's different."

A big stick

When Doumit doesn't catch for the Hillcats, Chris Shelton does. Shelton, 23, was the Pirates' 33rd-round pick out of the University of Utah in 2001. He also plays first base.

At the All-Star break this year, Shelton's .330 batting average was third in the Carolina League. As were his 45 RBIs. He led the league in slugging percentage (.607) and home runs (14) and was second in on-base percentage (.448).

"Some kind of hitter," said Jeff Livesey, Lynchburg's hitting instructor. "He's definitely a bat guy, but he's a solid first baseman and getting better behind the plate. With the way he swings the bat, you try to find a place for him."

"If I had to compare him to anybody, I'd say he's like a Craig Wilson," said Clark, who worked as the Pirates' batting instructor in 2001 and 2002. "You know, he's not going to hurt you behind the plate. He's not going to hurt you at first base. He's going to do a good enough job to keep you in ballgames. And with his bat, he's going to win some ballgames for you.

"This kid was player of the month for May. He's one of those guys you want up there in big situations. He's going to hit. Right now, I think he could probably hit at [Class AA]. Selfishly, I'd love to have him here all year, but for his development purposes, if they decide to send him out of here, that's good for him. He could hit at that level. I really do believe that."

Doumit and Shelton are two reasons Clark's team led the Carolina League's Northern Division at the All-Star break, and why Clark managed the league's All-Star team in a game against the California League All-Stars June 17.

Hit little, hit big

Doumit and Shelton aren't the only prospects at Lynchburg.

Left fielder Nate McLouth led the Carolina League with a .344 batting average at the break. His on-base percentage of .429 ranked fourth. In 61 games, McLouth, the leadoff hitter, scored 54 runs and had 25 stolen bases in 28 attempts.

"I've never led off for an extended period before," McLouth said. "Usually, I hit second or seventh, so I'm still in a learning process, but I'm not afraid to hit with two strikes. I like getting on base, running the bases and manufacturing runs."

"He's just got a real good feel for hitting," Livesey said. "He's not afraid to get real deep in the count. He loves getting on base and making things happen. He gives us a chance to have some fun."

McLouth, a quarterback in high school in Michigan, might have to battle that "too small" label.

"You watch him work out, you might think that," Livesey said of this 5-11, 173-pound left-handed hitter. "But you watch him play for a series, I think you'd love to have him on your team."

"He's steady," Clark said. "He's a very inquisitive kid. He wants to get better. He does all the little things. He plays a great outfield in either left or center. He runs the bases well.

"He's a small kid with a lot of power and sometimes he tries to hit home runs. When he's staying short [with his stroke] and trying to stay in the middle of the field, this kid can be one of the better hitters in this league.

"Is he a prospect? Hell yeah. Will he play in the big leagues? He's got a real good chance."

First baseman Walter Young, who was the South Atlantic League Player of the Year in 2002, is intriguing -- and not just because he's 6-5 and 300 pounds.

He can hit, too. And hit with power.

"As far as power, whew, he's right up there with anybody I've ever seen," Livesey said. "When he's right, his bat flies through the zone."

"I saw the kid hit a line drive the other night that was probably one of the hardest line drives I've ever seen, including in the big leagues," Clark said. "And he's got power to all fields. With runners on, he's going to get them in."

Thing is, Young has to lose some weight. And he has to improve his defense in order to get to the big leagues and perhaps play against his idol, Philadelphia's Jim Thome.

"With the bat, he's a legitimate prospect," Clark said. "He's a little suspect with the glove. And Walter knows he has to get his weight down. Right now, I think he's around 300 pounds. If we can get Walter down to 290, his defense would be better. You still see baby fat on his body and he's only 23 years old. If he sheds that and gets the weight down, he'll be fine."

Striving for Altoona

Third baseman Yurendell DeCaster, 23, is in his second full season with Lynchburg. DeCaster was acquired as a minor-league Rule 5 player from Tampa Bay three years ago.

"Awesome pop," Clark said. "He's a guy who will tease the heck out of you. He's got good power. He plays a good third base. Has a good arm. Obviously a pretty good glove.

"But he's one of those streaky guys. He'll have three or four games where he's just tearing the ball up. And then he may go two weeks and he just doesn't touch the ball. He swings and misses a lot. There's just no consistency. He's got to show consistency to move up."

There doesn't seem to be much question that right-hander Ian Oquendo will move up, though. At the All-Star break, Oquendo was 6-2 with a 3.73 earned run average.

When the season began, Oquendo was a member of Lynchburg's "Big Three" in the rotation, along with John VanBenschoten (now with Altoona) and Bobby Bradley (out after shoulder surgery).

"Right now, he's probably the best pitcher we have on this staff," Clark said. "If you put him up there with VanBenschoten and Bradley, it would be tough to say who's No. 1. If I had to say, it probably was Oquendo and VanBenschoten."

"That's a compliment for me," said Oquendo, a 26th-round pick in 2000 from Dover, Del. "Those other two were No. 1 picks."

"He's got some of the best stuff in the system," said Scott Lovekamp, Lynchburg's pitching coach. "He throws 93-95 [miles per hour] with a hard breaking ball. He always struggles early in the season, but lately he's been dominating.

"He has an electric arm. Maybe you could compare him to [Houston's] Roy Oswalt. You know, 5-10, 170, very good athlete. And pure stuff-wise, he definitely has as good a stuff as anybody."

Oquendo soon may join VanBenschoten in Altoona.

Next Sunday: Altoona Curve

Paul Meyer can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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