LHP Justin Wilson was a popular kid. Out of high school, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 37th round of the 2005 draft.
And no wonder. At Buchanan High, he was one of the most highly touted recruits in California's Orange County. Wilson was a pitcher and first baseman, and he hit .350 and tossed 131 strikeouts in his senior year. He was the 2005 Valley Player of the Year and named to the California All-Star team.
But he cast his lot with Fresno State instead of the local pros. Wilson, a junior, ended up carrying the Bulldogs' pitching burden after Tanner Scheppers, staff ace and the unsigned 2008 Pirate second rounder, went down in early May.
He led them to the College World Series, where he started and won the title game against Georgia, striking out nine batters and allowing one run on five hits in eight innings of work. Next stop, Pittsburgh.
The Pirates selected him in the 5th round of the 2008 draft, and it wasn't an easy signing. The Pirates thought he overpriced himself because of his CWS success. Baseball America didn't have Wilson among its top 200 draft prospects, and slotted him as a 6-10th round pick, so the suits had already reached a bit for his services.
But the club and Wilson worked out their differences, and Wilson signed late in the process for a $195K bonus. After all the debate, the bonus was right at slot value.
Wilson inked his deal too late to pitch in 2008 season, and opened in 2009 at High Class A Lynchburg, an aggressive posting by the Pirates and at least a level higher than expected.
Not surprisingly, the 22 year-old (his birthday is in August) got a rude welcome to the Carolina League. He had an ERA of 6.58 from April through June. Wilson couldn't find the dish, and the results were walks and gopher balls, never a good thing from a young pitcher.
But he reversed course in the last two months, cobbling together an ERA of 2.61 and doing a solid job in his two playoff starts, as the Hillcats won the league crown. Say this for Wilson; his teams win.
He changes speeds well, and all of his pitches have great movement. He has average velocity on a fastball that hits 92-93 MPH regularly, a big curveball that often misses the plate, and a sharp slider that he controls pretty well. As with all Bucco hurlers, he's adding a change to his checklist.
With Wilson, his future is going to be a matter of throwing strikes; his walks and high pitch counts are his biggest stumbling blocks. His pitches have so much movement that he sometimes struggles with their location.
As he moves up the ladder, the more experience hitters will just sit back and watch his stuff slide off the plate. Getting into pitchers' counts is key for Wilson, allowing that liveliness to work for him instead of against him.
The Pirates pushed him aggressively last year, and we assume it'll be more of the same this season. He should start 2010 in Altoona.
(Next - #20 Jordy Mercer)