Pittsburgh: land of exiled prospects

When asked how he passed the time during the offseason, Rogers Hornsby once replied, “I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

Those with hardball on the brain can sympathize. Sure, the hot stove provides some solace, but it’s not the same as kicking back and taking in a ball game or culling those box scores. Hard-core fans find strange ways to satiate their baseball appetites when the days are short and the snow is falling.

The other day, I stumbled across a stack of old Baseball America Prospect Handbooks. After regarding the players adorning the covers (Joe Mauer in 2004, Delmon Young in 2005, Jeremy Hermida in 2006, Phil Hughes in 2007), I got to thinking about the unpredictable nature of prospect evaluation. As I thumbed through the pages, the following players stood out:

Ronny Cedeno
Jeff Clement
Andy LaRoche
Lastings Milledge
Donnie Veal

What do these fellows have in common? All once ranked among the top three prospects in their respective organizations, all disappointed their first team and all now have a shot at redemption in Pittsburgh. Here’s a quick rundown of what went wrong and what they future may hold for this quintet of erstwhile prospects.

Ronny Cedeno
Age: 27
Bats/Throws: R/R
BA Prospect Ranking (Cubs): #3 in 2006

Cedeno’s bat didn’t show much life in the low minors, but he spanked Triple-A pitching for a .357/.413/.528 line in 600+ plate appearances. A massive .393 BABIP boosted that triple-slash, but Cedeno still climbed prospect lists. Baseball America praised his smooth actions at shortstop, projecting that he had enough pop to hit 15 homers per season as well.

Suffice it to say, Cedeno hasn’t reached those offensive expectations. Out of options, he was shipped to Seattle last January. The Bucs acquired him in July as part of a seven-player swap that netted the Mariners Jack Wilson and Ian Snell. In 1300+ plate appearances between the Cubs, Mariners and Pirates, the Venezuelan native holds a .240/.280/.346 line and a depressing 59 wRC+.

Pirates Cedeno Scores Against Rockies Torrealba in Denver

Cedeno hasn’t controlled the zone, walking in just 4.7 percent of his plate appearances. According to Fan Graphs, he has hacked at 35.5 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone (25 percent major league average). For a guy with little power (.106 ISO), he doesn’t make a whole lot of contact, either. Cedeno has struck out 20.7 percent of the time, with an 81.8 percent contact rate that’s right around the big league average.

He has negative run values against all pitches except curveballs. Few hitters flail against fastballs like Cedeno:

Cedeno’s career run value per 100 pitches, by pitch type
Fastballs: -2.00
Sliders: -0.84
Cutters: -1.21
Curveballs: +0.02
Change-ups: -0.14

Among batters with 400 or more plate appearances from 2007-2009, Cedeno ranks as the fourth-worst fastball hitter in the majors. The guy right ahead of him? Tony Pena Jr. And he’s now a pitcher with the Giants.

What about his glove? Well, Cedeno has a career -5.6 UZR/150 in over 2,200 innings at shortstop.

In the spring, Cedeno will compete with Bobby Crosby for Pittsburgh’s starting shortstop job. That battle would have been much more interesting half a decade ago.

Jeff Clement
Age: 26
Bats/Throws: L/R
BA Prospect Rankings (Mariners): #1 in 2006, #2 in 2007, #1 in 2008

The third overall pick in the 2005 amateur draft, Clement was supposed to be a franchise pillar as a catcher with immense power from the left side of the dish. Clement’s bat has been fairly potent in the pros: he holds a career .282/.370/.495 minor league line, walking in 10.6 percent of his trips to the plate and striking out 17.8 percent.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

The former University of Southern California star was never considered a great defender, however, and lingering knee injuries have likely put an end to his chances of being an everyday backstop at the major league level. According to Baseball America, Clement had surgery in May of 2006 to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee (he had a bone chip removed from his left elbow, too).

He fell out of favor with the Mariners, batting .237/.309/.393 in 243 big league plate appearances in 2007 and 2008. In 2009, he was passed over when an injury to Kenji Johjima Johjima opened up a roster spot. Clement appeared at catcher in just 16 games for the Tacoma Rainers this past year, spending most of his time at DH and first base.

Seattle Mariners Photo Day

Traded to the Bucs in the aforementioned Wilson/Snell deal, Clement didn’t earn a September call-up because of an oblique injury, and didn’t make an appearance at catcher with his new organization.

Clement has a shot to open the season as Pittsburgh’s starting first baseman, depending upon whether the Pirates are comfortable with Garrett Jones in right field. CHONE projects Clement to hit .264/.342/.460 in 2010. For reference, the cumulative line at first base in 2009 was .277/.362/.483.

As a catcher, Clement projected to be a well above-average hitter for the position. As a first baseman, he’s just another face in the crowd.

Andy LaRoche
Age: 26
Bats/Throws: R/R
BA Prospect Rankings (Dodgers): #2 in 2006, #1 in 2007, #2 in 2008

A walks and doubles machine in the Los Angeles farm system, LaRoche pieced together a career .295/.382/.517 triple-slash in the minors. While his power was considered good instead of great, Adam’s little brother owned the zone with an 11.6 percent walk rate and a 14 percent punch out rate.

After a sluggish trials with the Dodgers in 2007 and 2008, LaRoche was included in the three-way Manny Ramirez/ Jason Bay blockbuster in July of ’08.

Pittsburgh Pirate Andy LaRoche hits a home run against the L. A. Dodgers in Pittsburgh

As Pittsburgh’s starting third baseman in 2009, LaRoche hit .258/.330/.401, with a 97 wRC+. His bat heated up late in the season, but there seems to be some sense of disappointment among Pirate fans regarding LaRoche.

However, I would argue that he’s actually a pretty nice piece to have. Andy combined average offense with quality leather at the hot corner, posting a +5.1 UZR/150 this past season. John Dewan’s Plus/Minus system shows LaRoche saving seven runs more than an average third baseman in 2009. According to Fan Graphs, LaRoche was a 2.5 WAR player.

There’s little star potential here, but a pre-arbitration third baseman capable of two to three WAR production has a good deal of value. And who knows, maybe there’s a little more offense to come.

How LaRoche fits into the team’s long-term plans remains to be seen, as Pedro Alvarez is nearly ready for prime time. If Alvarez can cut it at third and Akinori Iwamura isn’t retained, LaRoche could take over second base in 2011. Alvarez could also slide over to first base, clouding Clement’s future.

Lastings Milledge
Age: 25 in April
Bats/ Throws: R/R
BA Prospect Rankings (Mets): #1 in 2005, #1 in 2006

Now patrolling an outfield corner in Pittsburgh, Milledge must look to his left and glare enviously. He was, after all, supposed to be what Andrew McCutchen has become.

The 12th overall pick in the 2003 amateur draft, Milledge reached the majors by the age of 21. He understandably scuffled in limited playing time with the Mets in 2006 (75 wRC+), but he hit an exciting .277/.388/.440 at Triple-A Norfolk that year. Unlike previous seasons, Milledge worked the count well with Norfolk. Milledge’s walk rate was just 5.8 percent in Low-A, 7.9 percent in High-A and 5.9 percent in Double-A. But in 2006, he drew a free pass a 11.7 percent.

It’s been all downhill from there, however. The Mets traded him to the Nationals following the 2007 season, and the Nats included him in last June’s Nyjer Morgan deal. His career big league line is a tepid .267/.327/.399, with a 93 wRC+. His ISO is .132. The biggest problem has been a reversion to those hacking ways. Millege’s career major league walk rate is just 6.4 percent, and he has chased 31 percent of pitches thrown outside of the strike zone.

Washington Nationals Spring Training

Milledge played his way out of center field as well. His career UZR/150 in the middle garden is a grisly -16.3. It’s highly unlikely that he’s that bad- we are talking about a sample of 1,300-some innings. But in Pittsburgh, he is viewed strictly as a left fielder. Milledge’s career UZR/150 between the outfield corners is -2.7 in about 1,200 innings. That’s not much to go on, so we’ll have to see how Lastings’ defense rates going forward. But the early returns aren’t that promising.

The former pride of the Mets farm system did require surgery to repair a fracture to the ring finger on his right hand in 2009. Perhaps a lack of bat control helps explain part of his paltry numbers (87 wRC+, .094 ISO). But Milledge’s time for excuses is over. He has compiled all of 0.7 WAR in the majors- he needs to produce in 2010.

Donnie Veal
Age: 25
Throws: L
BA Prospect Rankings (Cubs): #2 in 2007

A 6-4, 230 pound southpaw with a plus fastball, Veal once projected as a top-of-the-rotation starter in the Chicago Cubs system. He punched out 10.1 batters per nine innings between two A-Ball stops in 2006. Veal’s control lagged behind (4.8 BB/9), but Baseball America noted a low-90’s fastball touching the mid-90’s, as well as a slow curveball with plenty of breaking action.

The wheels fell off from there. Veal’s control showed no progression, as he issued five walks per nine innings in Double-A in both 2007 and 2008. Exasperated by the big lefty’s lack of development, the Cubs left Veal off the 40-man roster last winter. The Pirates snatched him up in the Rule V Draft, knowing that Veal was a broken prospect. Baseball America‘s 2009 scouting report lamented that Veal looked “like an entirely different pitcher.” That hopping fastball failed to crack 90 MPH at times, and his curveball devolved into “a sweepy pitch with little power and only occasional spin.”

It’s worth noting that Veal has endured more than any young man should have to. His mother passed away from cancer in 2004, and his father died in a scuba diving accident in 2007. Veal had to help raise his younger brother. Sometimes, baseball doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

In 2009, Veal remained with the Pirates for the duration of the season. He spent plenty of time on the DL with groin and finger injuries, giving him lengthy minor league rehab stints. Still green as grass, Veal posted a 31/26 K/BB ratio in 27.1 innings pitched between Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis.

It was more of the same in his rare major league appearances. Veal compiled an ugly 16/20 K/BB ratio in 16.1 innings, with a 7.16 ERA. How bad was Veal’s control? He placed just 40.7 percent of his pitches within the strike zone (49 percent major league average), with a 34.5 first-pitch strike percentage (58 percent average). Veal wildly chucked 91-92 MPH fastballs, mixing in some mid-70’s curveballs as well. Hitters understandably glued their bats to their shoulders, swinging just 33.3 percent of the time (45 percent average).

Happily, Veal did at least enjoy a nice Arizona Fall League season as a starter. In 21 innings, he whiffed 22 batters and walked seven, surrendering 6 runs in the process.

Now that his Rule V year has passed, Veal may well head back to Double-A or Triple-A to make up for lost development time. The Pirates could keep him in the rotation, though he has miles to go before he would be a viable major league option in that role.

LaRoche has quitely turned into a productive, cheap everyday player. Clement has a shot at being a league-average first baseman. However, Cedeno, Milledge and Veal have a long way to go if they hope to shake that failed prospect label.

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Dan Novick
Dan Novick

Nice article, David.


Huh.  I would have thought you could include Craig Hanson on this list, but he topped out at #4.  That was because the 2006 list was compiled while Andy Marte was Red Sox property, and he claimed the #1 spot.

David Golebiewski
David Golebiewski

That’s true, Hansen is yet another former prospect trying to rehab his status in the game. He’s even further behind, having missed almost all of 2009 with a nerve problem in his neck.