Pearce's patience pays off

Player of the Year Award caps climb through four levels

(Lynchburg Hillcats)

By Lisa Winston / MLB.com | October 12, 2007 6:00 AM

It was just a four-game series in late June in a season that spanned 157 games over four levels. But for Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Steven Pearce, it was an eye-opener in the best possible sense.

Pearce, an eighth-round pick out of South Carolina in 2005, had begun the season at Class A Advanced Lynchburg before being promoted to Double-A Altoona on May 1.

On June 26, he was hitting a more-than-respectable .306 with nine home runs and 41 RBIs in 52 Eastern League games after batting .347 with 11 homers and 24 RBIs in 19 games at Lynchburg.

Heading into the Curve's series against Trenton, Pearce was well aware of the Thunder's formidable rotation. The New York Yankees farm team boasted what was arguably the best rotation in the Minors, including Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Brett Smith and Jeff Marquez.

But when the 24-year-old Pearce came to the plate against Trenton during those four games, the mighty Thunder pitchers might as well have been the Bad News Bears. He went 7-for-12 with two homers and seven RBIs against the aforementioned quartet of starters, going deep off Smith and Marquez.

That was when he realized that his goal of possibly making it to Triple-A Indianapolis by the end of the 2007 season was not only attainable but possibly too modest.

"We had team meetings every day [about] their very good pitching staff, and that series I played so well that I shocked myself," said Pearce. "That's when I realized something special was going on there."

How special?

Between Lynchburg, Altoona and Indianapolis, where he spent the final month of the regular season, Pearce combined to hit .333 with 31 homers, 40 doubles, 113 RBIs and a .622 slugging percentage that ranked second in the Minors.

He ranked in the top five in the Minors in RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases, appeared in both the All-Star Futures Game and the Eastern League All-Star Game and did all that offensive damage in a trio of circuits generally known as "pitchers' leagues."

Pearce's season earned him the MiLB.com Offensive Player of the Year award.

And it also may have earned him a farewell to the Minors.

On Sept. 1, his contract was purchased by the Pirates and he made his Major League debut that night, starting in right field and going 2-for-4 at Milwaukee. He hit safely in 14 of his 18 starts in September, batting .294 with six RBIs.

With a club that went an NL-worst 68-94, finished 17 games out of first place and just underwent a housecleaning that included the manager, farm director and scouting director, Pirates fans need the promise of the club's best prospects to give them hope for 2008.

And Pearce is one of the primary faces factoring into that future. He could project down the line as one-third of a starting outfield that includes Nyjer Morgan, who made his Major League debut with Pearce in September, and megaprospect Andrew McCutchen, who is about a year away.

"It was nice going to the field and have people in the outfield yelling to me by name," said Pearce, who is not taking anything for granted when it comes to where he'll be starting 2008. "It makes me feel good, but as far as the '08 season goes, that's not up to me. I just go back and get that shot to be there."

Though he was primarily a first baseman for his collegiate and professional careers -- playing part of one season in the outfield in junior college -- Pearce has been getting a crash course in outfield, thanks to the presence in Pittsburgh of a pretty good first baseman named Adam LaRoche.

"LaRoche is a great player and I'm a younger guy, so I told them straight out I'll play anywhere that will help me to get to the big leagues faster," said Pearce, who has been working primarily with Pirates outfield coordinator Rusty Kuntz to accelerate his development.

Initially assigned to play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, where he would have been focusing on further refining that outfield play, he instead was selected to play first base on the Team USA squad that will head to Taiwan on Nov. 6 to compete in the IBAF World Cup. "This is my Team USA debut, I've never played on any of those teams," Pearce said. "I am so pumped, so excited about my great teammates and great coaches, and I am so ready to go out there and represent my country."

Pearce was not considered a "can't-miss" prospect when he signed with the Pirates in 2005. It marked the third year in a row he'd been taken in the draft -- the Twins called his name in the 45th round in 2003 after his second season at Indian River Community College in Florida and the Red Sox drafted him in the 10th round in 2004 following his junior year at South Carolina.

But Pearce knew himself well and felt he still needed another year with legendary Gamecocks coach Ray Tanner.

After his second year at South Carolina, where he became the first player in school history to top 40 homers in only two seasons, hitting .358 with 21 home runs and 63 RBIs as a senior, he signed with the Pirates and began his pro career at Class A Short-Season Williamsport in 2005. He batted .301 with seven homers and 52 RBIs in 72 games.

In 2006, he flashed his powerful bat and hit 26 homers and drove in 98 runs between Class A Hickory and Lynchburg. He slugged 14 homers and added 60 RBIs in 90 games for the Hillcats, so it was not surprising that he was disappointed when he was sent back to Lynchburg to start the 2007 season.

"I thought going into Spring Training that it was my Double-A job to lose and I had a really good spring, but at the end they told me I was going back down to Lynchburg," he recalled. "I was disappointed, but at the same time I wanted to show people what I could do, and I held that as motivation."

After hitting .200 in his first eight games, he went 20-for-45 in his next 11 (including homers in seven of his last eight contests) for a total of nine home runs and 20 RBIs before his promotion to Altoona.

"I struggled at first and then I just went nuts," he said. "I think I opened some eyes."

To say the least.

At Altoona, he batted .334 with 14 homers, 27 doubles and 72 RBIs in only 81 games, shooting down the theory that the jump from Class A to Double-A is the hardest one for a hitter.

"The offseason after my first year was such a learning process that this past offseason I took it more seriously, preparing myself for what was going to come," he explained. "I knew what I could do and so at every level I didn't try to do too much but rather tried to adapt quickly."

In fact, if you look at his Eastern League statistics and ignore the column for games played, his numbers even projected over the course of a full season would appear worthy of MVP consideration.

Instead, he was not even named to the postseason All-Star team. Part of the reason may be that the voters did not feel he'd been there long enough. Another factor might be that the league's MVP also was a first baseman -- Jordan Brown of the Akron Aeros, who won the batting title at .333 with 11 homers and 76 RBIs in 127 games.

Normally, there might be a little bitterness on the part of the guy left out in the cold. Not in this case. In fact, Pearce and Brown are the best of friends who make something of a comedy routine out of their jousting with each other over their impressive accomplishments.

"We were talking on the phone and (Brown) said, 'By the way, dude, I'm Eastern League MVP,'" Pearce recalled. "I answered, 'Good for you, bud. I'm in the Majors.'"

Moved up to Triple-A Indianapolis to finish the season, Pearce was named that club's Player of the Month for August, thanks to a .314 average, .559 slugging percentage, six homers and 17 RBIs.

Now Pearce is getting a chance to catch his breath a little as he prepares to join his Team USA teammates in Arizona later this month. He's also using the time to reflect on what he learned in 2007 that can help him make the big leagues for good in 2008. And that learning experience came both on and off the field.

"As you move up and start to play with older guys, you realize that the happy-go-lucky stuff that me and Jordan do wouldn't fly in some places," he noted. "There's a more mature atmosphere as you move up, players reading newspapers on the bus instead of playing cards. And that prepared me for the big leagues, where it's magnified by, like, 10,000."

Lisa Winston is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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