OK, it's simple enough this year. The pitching rotation is not set in stone like it was last year, nor will there be a cast of hundreds trying to win a spot. There are 10 guys gunning for five spots, so there should be plenty of innings to go around this spring for everyone to get a fair look. The competition:
Paul Maholm is da man. 2008 was his breakout season with a 9-9/3.71 line. Maholm parlayed that into a nice contract, and is ready to take a leadership role on the staff. Maholm is also a workhorse; he's thrown 560 innings and picked up 27 wins in his three MLB seasons.
He throws four pitches - a 90 MPH fastball, curve, slider and change. His control is good, if not exceptional, and his strikeout rate is about 6 batters per nine innings. Maholm is a ground ball pitcher, so infield defense is a key to his game.
The 26-year old LHP is the epitome of a guy that does a lot of little things right. Maholm doesn't fold under pressure, holds runners, doesn't usually walk himself into trouble, and is in professional shape. Having said that, he doesn't have top-of-the order stuff. But Maholm is a solid MLB pitcher, and should be a steady middle of the rotation guy for the foreseeable future, maybe growing into a #2 pitcher.
Ian Snell has the best stuff on the team, with a mid 90s heater and a sharp slider. So what's the problem? Well, he certainly threw too many pitches in too few innings, spent some time on the DL, and his control was the worst it had ever been, although he still could punch out a batter when he had to.
Some say that he has to mature some; he has too many games that he's cruising when the least bit of adversity completely derails him. There were whispers that his conditioning wasn't up to snuff last season, either, although he has a reputation as being a guy that prides himself on his shape. Whatever the problem, a 7-12/5.42 line was the result.
One thing is certain - Snell is the closest to having a top-of-the-order arm on the staff, and getting him back in operating order is job #1 for Joe Kerrigan. He's carrying around a pretty pricey long term deal, and it's hoped that Kerrigan's detailed game plans will help focus the 28-year old RHP. And while he's at it, we hope he teaches him to throw an off-speed pitch to keep the lefty hitters honest - they hit .314 off Snell last year, with a .914 OPS.
The suits say that Maholm is the only lock for the rotation; they're blowing smoke. There's no way Snell doesn't break camp with the team short of injury.
Tom Gorzelanny was the suits' favorite whipping boy last year. He was out of shape, his work habits were questioned, and he suffered the ignominy of being sent back to the bushes, topped off by a stint on the DL when he was finally recalled. To boot, he walked 70 batters and only K'ed 67. Ouch!
But possible redemption is around the corner. They worked on the 26-year old LHP's mechanics - and head - at Indy, and he came into mini-camp in better shape. He has a decent low 90s heater, but his bread-and-butter pitch is the changeup.
The question is whether Jim Tracy's blatant overuse of Gorzo in 2007, when he was 14-10/3.88, was the root of his pitching problems in 2008, when he was 6-9/5.72. For the Pirates sake, let's hope so.
Zach Duke is the textbook example of a back end rotation guy, and that's not said as an insult. He's a pitcher with an upper 80s fastball that lives off his curve, strikes out only about four batters per nine innings, and gets opponents to hit the ball on the ground. Like Maholm, Duke depends on his infield to have success.
Duke was 5-14/4.82 last year, but didn't pitch as badly as the stat line. The 25-year old LHP (he'll be 26 in April) had a terrible July, but otherwise just ran into some hard luck. He looked a lot more like the 2006 version (no, we don't ever expect to see the 2005 Duke again, when as a rookie he was 8-2/1.81).
He does the professional things well - he only gives up a couple of walks per nine innings, holds runners, and gets ground balls - but his inability to strike out hitters and dependence on his fielders will keep him at the 4-5 spot on the staff.
Jeff Karstens, a late addition to the Nady/Marte deal with the Yankees, was immediately plugged into the rotation when he joined the Bucs. The 26-year old RHP flirted with a no-no against the Cubs, but settled in to finish with a 2-6/4.03 line for the Pirates.
He's a soft thrower with an upper 80s fastball, curve, slider, and changeup. Karstens can't get the bat to miss many balls (his control is excellent, but he only struck out 23 batters in 51-1/3 innings), and depends on command and location to get by. He also has an elbow problem that popped up in mini-camp that's supposed to set him back a week or two in Bradenton; we'll find out how severe it is soon enough.
Karstens looks like a back of the rotation/long relief pitcher for the Pirates.
Ross Ohlendorf was a guy the Bucs were after, and they finally pried him loose from the Yankees. The 26-year old RHP, touted to be a flamethrower, threw just in the low 90s with a 0-3/6.35 line for the Pirates, and had 13 K's and 12 BBs in 22-2/3 innings, hardly dominating stuff.
He admitted to being worn down at the end of the season, and that's the nub of the problem. The Big O threw 131-2/3 innings in 42 outings, 25 from the pen and 17 as a starter, not a particularly overwhelming workload. The Pirates have to decide if his future is as a starter and stretch him out, or, as the Yankees thought before dealing him, in the bullpen. Either way, he's likely to end up in Indy, though he does have a shot at being the long man out of the pen.
Phil Dumatrait is this year's mystery man. Is he the dude that lit the league up in April and May replacing the infamous Matty Mo, or the bum that got hammered in his last three outings? We may not find the answer this year.
The 27-year old has a couple of questions hanging over him. First, how badly was his performance affected by a bum wing, which landed him on the DL and eventually led to surgery? Second, can they stretch him out as a starter? He only has 17 MLB starts, and he wore down as the game went on.
If he was healthy - which he isn't - he'd probably be a lock to make the rotation with his low 90s heater setting up his offspeed stuff, although the LHP had some control issues, walking nearly five batters per nine innings. Dumatrait is out of options and hasn't been throwing, so he'll most likely start the year on the DL and pop back onto the 25-man when he's recovered.
Still, we can't help but feel 2008 and possibly 2009 will be wasted years for Dumatrait, and he needs to get healthy and notch some innings on his belt.
Daniel McCutchen throws a two and four seam heater, both in the low 90s, with an excellent curve and a changeup. He's still waiting to get a call to the show, and will probably have to wait a little longer, although he does have an outside shot at making the club.
McCutchen goes after batters, and has pretty good control. As with most guys that are around the plate, he's susceptible to the long ball, giving up 26 in 171-1/3 combined innings last year. The 26-year old RHP had a combined 7-9/4.01 ERA in AAA last year, and unless someone falls flat on their face, is likely to end up at Indy.
Jimmy Barthmaier, 25-year old RHP, was a top five prospect for the Astros in 2005-06, but when he was promoted to AA in 2007, he got bombed. The Pirates claimed him after the season, and thought enough of him to keep him on the 40-man after a combined 5-5/3.85 line at Altoona and Indy last year.
Barthmaier throws in the low 90s, and has a decent curve and changeup. He struck out eight and walked three per nine innings. Barthmaier needs to get stronger, though - he averaged just under 5 innings pitched per start, and he'll be ticketed for Indy to begin the season. But his career is back on track.
Virgil Vasquez, a 26-year old RHP, is here just to provide some depth at Indy. He's never pitched in the majors, and is a control artist with a subpar upper 80s heater and the usual array of curve-slider-changeup. He was waived by three teams during the 2008-09 off season, with Pittsburgh being the only club that had room on its 40-man for him.
So how does the rotation set up? It looks to GW like Maholm-Snell-Gorzo-Karstens-Duke will be the starting five. Dumatrait will be on the DL, Vasquez and Barthmaier are heading to Indy, with Ohlendorf and McCutchen joining them, unless Karstens' elbow becomes an issue; then those two will be fighting for the fifth spot.
Of course, there will be a lot of twists and turns in the Pirate pitching soap opera, so stay tuned. There's still not enough competition, depth, or quality, and that will make for some interesting coaching - and management - decisions.
And remember that it's not a staff that can get by on pure stuff and power; it'll depend mightily on team defense; as they say in the lingo, it's a group that pitches to contact. For the rotation to improve, the glovework has to hold up its end of the bargain in 2009, no matter what miracles Kerrigan and maturity perform.
Perry Hill may just end up being the key coach for the pitching staff this season.