Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Shelby Ford

Pittsburgh selected Oklahoma State second baseman Shelby Ford in the third-round of the 2006 draft, and he came to terms quickly, signing for $450K.

The kid from Fort Worth, a switchhitter, batted .319 for the Cowboys with 12 home runs and 60 RBI. The junior was a second-team All Big 12 Conference selection after spending his first two college tears at TCU. He had some pop, too, bashing 35 homers in his three years at school, not too bad for a second sacker.

After finishing his first pro season at low Class A Williamsport, he moved to Lynchburg in 2007, where he hit .281, and took the next step in 2008, going to Altoona and hitting .285.

Ford didn't exactly keep on mashing, but liners jumped off his bat, he ran OK (Ford has stolen 48 bases in 57 tries on the farm), and he collected enough extra-base knocks to finish in the mid-.400s slugging, even if he did hit more triples (17) than long balls (9) in 2007-08.

His fielding wasn't spectacular, but it was steady and improved from year-to-year. Ford's career was predicated on being dependable, not flashy, and he was all that on the farm.

Baseball America ranked Ford as the eighth-best prospect in the Pirates organization heading into the 2009 season. With the rumors swirling about Freddy Sanchez, he looked like a lock to be at second for the Bucs in late 2009 or by 2010, at worst.

Guess what? The worst indeed is what happened, and it wasn't Delwyn Young that shouldered him out of the picture.

The knock on him in the minors was his fragile health, which was odd, considering that he's a strapping 6-3, 190 pounder.

But he missed a couple of months in 2007 with back issues and a couple more in 2008 with a hip flexor, followed by a high ankle sprain. Ford's Arizona Fall League season ended early when he fractured the knuckle in his right index finger while trying to bunt.

Well, he jammed his wrist in Florida diving for a ball during camp in March, and after that, his season went downhill faster than a bungee jumper.

The Bucs kept him moving along the organizational assembly line, starting him off at Indy after spring break. Ford missed a few games until the inflammation in his wrist subsided, but it didn't make much difference. He hit a miserable .188 in 86 games before he was returned to the Curve. Ford picked it up a bit, but not much, batting .233 there.

Ford turns 25 in December, and that doesn't bode so well for a guy that's gone from being penciled in at second for the Buccos to a player baffled by AA pitching.

He has Young and maybe Andy LaRoche to vault. There are at least four middle infielders that have been drafted in the past two years now in A ball trying to chase him down, too, along with DY clone Jim Negrych. And to boot, he's Rule 5 eligible, and needs added to the 40-man roster this year.

We're not willing to write off Ford quite yet, though. When he was healthy in 2007-08, he stung the ball. And the old wives say that a bum wrist saps a player's strength for a full season, so his lost year may have more to do with an untimely injury than suddenly forgetting how to swing a bat.

He'll start the year at Indy again, so he'll have at least a couple of levels head start on most of the up-and-coming competition. But to pull a Lazarus and get back on the Pirate radar, Ford will need to do a couple of things.

First and foremost, he can't take anymore days off. The team put him on a routine to strengthen his core last season, and he needs to stick with the program this winter. Then if Ford can take the field every day, play with confidence and get his line back where it belongs - .285/.350/.450 - he may again become a fair-haired boy.

If not, well hey - Brian Bixler and Luis Cruz didn't exactly light it up ahead of Ford, and in the Darwinian world of MLB, it'll be time for guys like Negrych, Chase d'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Jarek Cunningham, and Brock Holt to fill the niche in the future.

(Next - #25 Jeff Sues)

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