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Wednesday July 30 2014
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Breaking Your Heart

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Despite the acquisition of A.J. Burnett, the Pirates again open the season without a clear top-of-the-rotation starting pitcher.

Short of Burnett’s return to his 2009 form, free agent signee Erik Bedard making a full year's worth of starts for the first time since 2007 or Charlie Morton returning from hip surgery and solving lefty hitters, the Bucs will be at a major disadvantage on days when the Roy Halladays, Chris Carpenters and Clayton Kershaws of the world are on the mound. 

Attention naturally turns, then, toward the club's pair of mega-pitching prospects: Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. It's easy to picture a day when Taillon, a Texas high schooler taken second overall in the 2010 draft, punishes hitters a la Josh Beckett with his power fastball and killer curveball; or Cole, the first selection out of UCLA in 2011, channels Justin Verlander with his upper-90s gas and wipeout slider. Imagine those two vanquishing the longest consecutive losing season streak in North American history and pushing the Pirates deep into October for the first time since both pitchers were babies.

Glorious, isn't it? But reality might wreak havoc with that perfect plot. Pirates fans can hope Taillon becomes Beckett and Cole copies Verlander, but the history of top-tier pitching prospects suggests a more reasonable career path might be one like... Kris Benson's.

Taillon and Cole both rank in the top 20 of Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects List for the 2012 season. To get an idea of how such top-rated pitching prospects fare during their pro careers, here’s a breakdown of all pitchers who appeared in Baseball America's top 20 from 1990 to 2002 (using '02 as the cutoff so there's time to see how their careers have largely played out).

Of the 69 pitchers on the list, eight of them never pitched a single inning in the major leagues. That includes Bobby Bradley, whom the Bucs took eighth overall in 1999. Another eight tossed fewer than 100 frames in the show. Whether due to freak injuries (Yankees lefty Brien Taylor blew out his shoulder in a bar fight) or aching arms that couldn't hold up under a pro workload (Bradley lost his hammer curveball after multiple elbow surgeries), nearly a quarter of top-20 pitchers had no impact for the teams who hoped they'd front their rotations.

"That just goes to the nature of pitching," says Baseball America Executive Editor Jim Callis. "Paul Snyder [a long-time Atlanta Braves executive] once said that you needed 10 pitching prospects to get two good ones. Maybe it's not a .200 batting average anymore, but I think you have to accept that attrition is going to strike pitchers more than the position players."

To be sure, there are some big success stories among top-20 arms. Pedro Martinez, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, CC Sabathia and Mike Mussina all pitched more than 1,500 innings with an ERA at least 20 percent better than the league average. Others, like Beckett, Ben Sheets and Jason Schmidt, threw at least 1,000 innings with an ERA 10-15 percent better than average. Billy Wagner became one of the game's great closers.

photo by Keith AllisonBut the typical career path for a top-20 pitcher looks something like Benson's, only much shorter. The median innings pitched total for a top pitching prospect is about 660, with an ERA that is exactly league average. Benson, taken first overall out of Clemson in 1996, had a league-average ERA during his nine seasons in the majors, though he pitched over 1,200 innings.

While Benson is better known in some circles as "Anna Benson's husband," Callis points out that he was starting to show his potential before Tommy John surgery and shoulder woes waylaid him.

"He was supposed to be the best college pitcher of all-time," Callis says. "He was having a pretty good career in the majors before he got hurt – he struck out almost 200 guys in his second season [184 during the 2000 campaign]. He was on his way to becoming what people thought he would be. Once he got hurt, he pitched for a long time but he was never the same guy."

Despite the risk of bonus baby pitchers ending up with more surgical scars than wins, teams like the Pirates must spend on young arms with ace potential, Callis says. There's no room in the budget for a Sabathia. And, as the Reds (Mat Latos) and Nationals (Gio Gonzalez) can attest, trading for a stud young pitcher empties the farm system quickly.

“You have to go after pitching because you're never going to acquire enough in free agency, and acquiring a young starter in a trade means giving up a bunch of top prospects,” Callis says. “If Taillon and Cole end up being as good as they're supposed to be, there's no way [Pittsburgh] would be able to get them as free agents."

Feel free to dream of a day when Taillon and Cole retire Sid Bream's piano-on-his-back rampage around the bases to history's dustbin. There's a reason they're compared to established major league stars. If history is any indication, however, both coming up aces is a long shot.

"I don't think there's a red flag with those guys," Callis says. "They both have nasty, nasty stuff and would be on the short list for the best stuff in baseball. If there's something that brings them down, it's probably injuries.

"Are some of those guys going to break your heart? Yeah. That's just the nature of pitching."

I was in a minor league press box in Charlotte, NC, last month, taking in one of Gregory Polanco’s final triple-A games. A colleague, upon learning I was from Pittsburgh, approached me with a question.
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