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Perrotto: Why Pirates Feel Paul Skenes Can Handle Great Expectations

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Paul Skenes, Pittsburgh Pirates

It would be easy to say that it will be just a normal game for Paul Skenes on Friday afternoon.

The Pittsburgh Pirates rookie right-hander will be making his second career start when he faces the Cubs at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Certainly, there won’t be nearly the hype matching Skenes’ debut last Saturday at PNC Park when he also faced the Cubs.

However, the Pirates understand there will be no normal for Skenes anytime soon. He is the most-hyped pitching prospect in over a decade. Skenes was selected first overall in last year’s draft after leading LSU to the College World Series championship then blowing through the minor leagues in just 34 innings.

The spotlight figures to continue to shine of Skenes for the foreseeable future. While that might be enough to overwhelm most 21-year-olds, the Pirates are confident that Skenes – with the experience of spending two years at the Air Force Academy before transferring to LSU – is built to handle the pressure.

So, while many organizations try to tamp great expectations surrounding top prospects, the Pirates know it’s a losing battle in Skenes’ case. General manager Ben Cherington is fine with that.

“I’ve thought about other really good players I’ve been around at the same age, including some who have gone on to have really, really good careers,” Cherington said. “I can’t remember any that have been surrounded by this much interest. It’s been really impressive to watch him handle that and walk every day through it, handle it with poise and respect and go out there and do what he’s doing on the field.

“Selfishly, if I had a wish, I kind of wish that he could get some time just to settle in as a player and be part of that clubhouse. I believe he will be able to do that, but he’s different than others. It’s just a fact of life right now.”

The attention can be difficult to handle for many top prospects.

The last pitching prospect to gain this much attention was Stephen Strasburg in 2010 with the Washington Nationals. The introverted Strasburg admitted to me a few years later that he hated the spotlight and preferred to concentrate on trying to help his team win games.

Skenes is not exactly an extrovert despite being in a high-profile relationship with national champion gymnast and social media sensation Livvy Dunne. However, Skenes has good people skills.

“He’s very humble. If you’re around him at all, he’s extremely respectful,” Pirates manager Derek Shelton said. “He attended a military academy for two years and you have to be very disciplined and extremely mature to do that, so I think that’s important.”

Skenes was OK in his debut, giving up three runs in four-plus innings on six hits. He struck out seven and walked two while needing 86 pitches to get 12 outs.

The Pirates believe he can do much better and will improve as he settles into the major leagues.

Friday will be an interesting test by facing the Cubs for the second time in less than a week. Skenes will have a chance to learn from his last start – but so will the Cubs hitters.

The Pirates are confident Skenes will continue to progress throughout the season yet their expectations for his rookie year are basic.

“Help us win games when he’s out there starting and become part of the culture of our team, become an influence in the (locker) room like he has everywhere else he’s been and help us take another step forward as a team,” Cherington said. “I think all of those things would make a successful year.”

Or at least a good first step.

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