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Sampson's toughness appeals to Pirates

Even after months of poring over the names available in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft, questions remain. This is a projections business and, while there are guidelines for setting physical expectations, club officials face a major stumper:

How will the player respond to adversity?

After all, if you're good enough to be a draftee, chances are excellent you haven't yet dealt with hardship.

When the Pirates on Tuesday called out the name of their fifth-round pick, they didn't have to wonder this about Adrian Sampson. Because the Washington right-hander has already fought back from just about the biggest setback any pitcher can face.

Imagine you are 17 and even before you begin your senior year of high school, elite college programs are panting for your signature.

But that summer, in an American Legion game, the throbbing pain in your elbow wouldn't abate. So you go to the doctor for an MRI and are doing stuff teenagers do on a summer day later when your dad calls.

"He told me the results," Sampson reflected a while ago in the Issaguah Press. "My ulnar ligament was torn."

Tommy John surgery, on July 29, 2009, took away the college scholarships and his senior high school season -- but couldn't take away the Major League dreams he had harbored since he was in preschool.

"I had no intentions of not coming back to play baseball. I am a baseball player," he told The Press. "I had just hit a little speed bump. I wanted to get through this. I wanted to still play baseball. That had been my goal the whole time."

Goal met. Even before the Pirates came calling. It didn't take that long; at Bellevue Community College, he went 6-2 with a 1.87 ERA in 2011, prompting the Marlins to pick him in the 16th round of last June's Draft. The Bucs just came calling earlier, making the 6-foot-2, 200-pound survivor a fifth-round pick after his 11-0 with a 1.36 ERA sophomore season.

MLB teams ordinarily are not in the habit of using high Draft picks on pitchers who had major arm surgery shorten their prep careers.

Nobody ever accused Sampson of being ordinary.

When asked whether Sampson's fight back to this level spoke for his desire and competitiveness, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington quickly replied, "Without question."

"We want our players to deal with and handle adversity before they get to the Major League level, because that's a pretty tough place to get the first dose of it," Huntington continued. "Adrian's had a pretty good bout with adversity already.

"Players who return from injury work harder and are hungrier, because they're aware that the game had been taken away from them. They are in better shape than ever before, because they work harder in rehab than they ever had in the past. They recognize that a second chance is a blessing.

"We were interested in [Sampson] even before [the injury], and we think he is ready to keep moving forward."

The stuff clearly is good. That can be read on the stat line: 107 strikeouts in 79 1/3 innings. Huntington and his advisors feel it will get better.

"We think he'll develop the fastball into above average to go with his above-average breaking ball. In our mind," Huntington added, "there is still risk. But the reward can be very high when you get a fifth-rounder with his stuff."

Presumably, the GM was referring to the stuff Sampson puts on the ball. But he might have meant the stuff he carries in his heart.

Pittsburgh Pirates