Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pellas On The Pirates: Daniel McCutchen At A Crossroad

It's no secret that I have been a fan of Daniel McCutchen ever since he arrived in the Pirates' system last year as part of the Xavier Nady - Damaso Marte trade with the Yankees. After taking a closer look at what sabermetric wonks call his "peripherals", I concluded that he was an even better prospect than he first appeared to be, which is saying something.

"The Other McCutchen" has been a premiere control pitcher throughout his minor league career, with very strong BB/9 and WHIP figures; he even posted fairly good strikeout numbers, at least when compared with most "hit your spots" pitchers. Even a so-so year at triple-A in 2008 didn't cause any alarm. McCutchen's ERA of just over 4 was probably the result of giving up a few too many long balls, but that can be attributed to his exceptional control---he's always throwing strikes---and he still logged nearly 200 innings, which is a respectable milestone for any big league pitcher, let alone a guy in triple-A.

So, everything was in place for McCutchen to seize the day and grab a spot in the Pirates' retooled starting rotation in 2009.

Only now I can't figure him out. The guy has been an absolute terminator througout his minor league career, with a fearless, old school style. Granted, he's been a control pitcher terminator rather than the power pitcher version, but he's been extremely effective nonetheless. Unfortunately he's been getting his head handed to him pretty regularly during spring training. That spells "triple A" for him, but the thing is, there doesn't seem to be much more he can---or should---prove in the minors. What gives?

Two suspicions come to mind: one, that he is a control guy and that many pitchers of his type take longer to get their stuff together every year, since their margin for error is small and they have to hit their spots and it takes them time to hone their game.

The other thought is that maybe McCutchen is one of those guys who has really good breaking stuff compared with most young pitchers and so looks dominant in the lower minors, but because he doesn't throw hard enough, starts getting hit at the triple-A level and then gets killed at the big league level. In other words, the classic "four A" pitcher.

I am really disappointed in McCutchen's performance this spring, the more so when a spot in Pittsburgh's starting rotation was clearly his for the taking and he failed to take it. While it's not over for him yet by any means, his star has definitely dimmed, at least until we see what he does at triple-A Indianapolis.

If he hits the ground running at Indy and turns in a dominant half season---which is still well within his capabilities---we'll no doubt see him in Pittsburgh sometime in the second half of 2009. If he falls back from here, though, it could be his Waterloo as a pro baseball player, as he is in his mid-20s now and it's time for him to make it if indeed he can make it.

Four A, or future cornerstone? We'll find out this season.

(Will Pellas is a regular contributor of the GW, and we're glad that he's back in the saddle after taking an off-season hiatus)


Ron Ieraci said...

Yah Will, his K's and BB's - 4 and 1 - have held up OK, but a dozen hits, including 2 longballs, in 6-1/3 innings, don't auger well.

It's not much of a sample, but you're right that he had an opportunity that he let slip by. I hope that it's just command of the strike zone early on rather than too much average stuff with no real out pitch.

We just housecleaned some AAAA guys; the Bucs don't really need to be replacing them with more. Jimmy Barthmaier is enough!

WilliamJPellas said...

Well, I don't think it hurts you to have, say, 2 of those "four-A" guys stashed at triple-A in the event of a rash of injuries to your big league staff. Against weaker teams and / or in the dog days of August, believe it or not you can sometimes get some useful innings out of 30-somethings who hang on at triple-A rather than go and get a "real job". Marty McLeary was a great example of this sort of pitcher for us a couple of years ago. While he eventually came back to earth, he gave us a handful of very effective starts when we were really hurting for anything resembling a serviceable arm.

So, while you don't want to go to war with the McLearys of the world on an everyday basis, you're wise to have a couple of guys like him---as well as a couple of position players of similar stature---stashed at triple-A. They are, in effect, your 26th and 27th men on the roster, they just happen to be in reserve at Indianapolis.

Again, you're in trouble if you're counting on them every day in the majors, no argument there. But as quasi-big leaguers who aren't afraid of anyone, and who can beat weaker and younger teams with veteran smarts, they can be quite usefulif you pick your spots with them.

Ron Ieraci said...

Like JVB, Bryan Bullington and Marino Salas, hehe? But I would agree with the position players, Will.

WilliamJPellas said...

Nope, not like JVB, Bullington, et al. Like Jason Davis, Marty McLeary, guys like that. JVB and Bullington don't belong on a triple-A roster, let alone a big league team. Van Benschoten, in particular, was probably a good major leaguer had he not been hurt, while Bullington in my view was one of the great over-drafted players in recent baseball history. Regardless, they're both gone now, and rightly so.

Ron Ieraci said...

Will, I consider guys like that to be MLB depth. A Quad-A guy to me is someone who's lights out in AAA and lost in the majors. Just semantics, I guess.

I absolutely agree that you need a handful of guys in the minors that are pros and can fill in on the big team as needed, to mix in with the prospects learning their craft.