Well, it was probably way overdue, but the 2009 list of Pirate prospects will have the fingerprints of the new suits all over it, as the Bonifay/Littlefield gang gets relentlessly elbowed out. The latest to hit the road was John Van Benschoten, cut from the 40-man roster last month and declaring for minor league free agency yesterday.
John Wesley Van Benschoten was born April 14, 1980 in San Diego, California. JVB grew up in Milford, Ohio, a suburb of Cincinnati, where he was a two-sport athlete at Milford HS.
Van Benschoten was a longball monster at Kent State University. He led Division I in home runs his junior year with 31, batted .440 and slugged .982. He was 7th in batting average, tied for 4th with 84 RBI, stole 23 bases, and was also the Golden Flash closer, going 2-2 with a 2.77 ERA and 63 K in 49 innings with 8 saves.
The Pirates thought that he had more potential as a pitcher than as a hitter, although the scouting consensus saw a 6'4", 230 pound long-armed hitter with plus power and an athletic frame. But Pittsburgh saw a powerful righthander with a chance to develop four above-average pitches. They made him the eighth overall selection of the 2001 Draft, and announced that he would be a pitcher.
He was picked when the Pirate front office was in turmoil. Cam Bonifay would be axed shortly after the draft, as would head scout Mickey White. But the new suits, Dave Littlefield and Ed Creech, signed off on the decision to keep JVB on the mound instead trying to bring him along him as a position player.
To this day, the Pirate nation wonders if that was the right decision. It's hard to tell, judging by his minor league pitching career, which was pretty stellar when his arm wasn't in a sling. But if you have to choose between developing an everyday, middle of the lineup player or a guy that you trot out every five days, which way would you go?
Make no mistake, Van Benschoten performed well as a pitching prospect. He threw in the 2003 All-Star Futures Game as a member of the Altoona Curve, and Baseball America named him the top prospect in the Pirates system in both 2003 and 2004. JVB was bringing the heat at 88-92 MPH, and even the scouts that liked him as a hitter out of college thought he looked good on the hill.
He made his MLB debut in 2004, taking the mound for five starts after an August 18th call-up from AAA Nashville, going 1-3 with a 6.91 earned run average. But he was shut down after a September 18th start with what the Pirates described as shoulder fatigue in his throwing arm.
He didn't pitch again that year, and in November, he had surgery to repair tears to the glenoid labrum and rotator cuff of his left arm, which was sorta a surprise since the reported problem was with his throwing arm.
Those injuries didn't affect his pitching, creating more problems as a batter, and Van Benschoten participated in the team's minicamp in January of 2005. There, he began experiencing more problems with his right arm. He ended up having surgery to repair a tear to the labrum and remove a cyst on his right shoulder, and missed the entire 2005 season.
Van Benschoten returned to play in August 2006 after nearly a two-year layoff, but made only 5 starts, split among the Bradenton Pirates, Altoona Curve, and Indianapolis Indians, before a tender shoulder ended his season.
He came back strong at Indy in 2007, where he was 10-7 with a 2.56 ERA in 19 starts. But in Pittsburgh, he was 0-7 with a 10.15 ERA with brutal mechanics. It was more of the same in 2008, with his Indy line being 7-4/3.92 ERA, while his Pirate stats were 1-3 with a 10.48 ERA.
Even with his nice minor league numbers, he struggled with command at Indy, and never came up with an offspeed pitch to compliment his fastball. You might get away with that at AAA, but it's a death sentence in the majors.
He was a beaten guy, even in body language, and the Bucs sent him back to Indy and the bullpen. In October, he was lopped of the 40-man roster. JVB went to pitch winter ball in Mexico, where he's 1-3 with a 5.16 ERA in six starts.
He holds the dubious record of having a MLB career ERA of 9.20, the highest in big league history by anyone with at least 75 innings pitched, and a 2-13 record. He gave up 92 earned runs in 90 innings of work. But while in the minors, he was 45-34 with a 3.46 ERA. JVB was the textbook example of a AAAA pitcher.
Should he have been a Pirate fixture at first base? Well, no one knows the answer to that question, and he'll be 29 in 2009, so it's not likely that he'll take the Ricky Ankiel route. Did they miss a diagnosis when they operated on both shoulders in 2005-06 and perhaps killed his pitching career? Again, no one will ever know.
This much is word - he's done with Pittsburgh. And we can only wish JVB luck. GW can't help but think the way the Pirates handled Van Benschoten had as much to do with his disappointing eight season run in the organization as he did.