Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Pirates by Position: Rotation

OK, let's face it - the reason the suits blew up the team was because of the abysmal starting pitching in 2008. They kept Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, and turned the rest of the staff over.

Now the question is whether the arms they collected can keep the team in some games, as they did in spurts this season. Ross Ohlendorf, 27, rode a strong second half to the role of Bucco ace in 2009.

He went 11-10 with a 3.92 ERA, and worked 176-2/3 frames while collecting 109 Ks. His 2:1 strikeout to walk ratio was fine; Ollies' biggest problem was the long ball. He gave up 25 last year, and would like to cut down on that number.

But he and Duke (11-16, 4.06 ERA) proved to be a pretty consistent 1-2 punch for the otherwise punchless Pirates. Duke, 26, pretty much pitched to his potential; we don't see much more upside in his performance. Ohlendorf has a chance to became a pretty good MLB pitcher, though.

In his last two months of work, covering eight starts (they shut him down early), he compiled a 2.74 ERA, and improved his K/9 innings from around 5 to 8. His performance will be one of the major story lines of 2010.

Paul Maholm, 27, is the last of the three amigos that's set in stone to start next year. He cobbled together an 8-9 record with a 4.44 ERA. He pitched through an achy knee that he injured on opening day, and still pitched 194-2/3 innings through the pain. But like Duke, we don't think he has a lot of growth left, and he's settled into a dependable, though not top-of-the-line, pitcher.

The party line is that Charlie Morton, 26, Daniel McCutchen, 27, and Kevin Hart, 26, will stage a three-man cage match for the final two spots in the rotation. But unless something unexpected happens, we think Morton is a lock for the fourth spot.

He finished with a 4-6 slate and 5.42 ERA, certainly not numbers that guarantee anything. But except for a terrible August, fueled by that 10-run Cubby outburst, he threw fairly well, if not deep, in most of his games - his June ERA was 4.09, July's was 3.58, and September's was 3.71.

With just 33 MLB starts under his belt, there will be some mental and physical growing pains yet. But he showed better game management as the season went on, and could join Ohlie at the top of the rotation after the All-Star break.

That leaves McCutchen (1-2, 4.21 ERA) and Hart 4-9, 5.44 ERA). If it came down to pure stuff, Hart would win hands down. But performance is what counts, and McCutchen showed that he can eat some innings and keep the club in games. We think that will give him the edge for that fifth slot in 2010, with Hart hovering in the bullpen.

The two items they'll have to work on: McCutchen gives up way too many long balls, an occupational hazard of a control pitcher, while Hart has to find the command to harness his repertoire.

After that, it's pretty hazy. Remember the problems trying to go to a six-man rotation last year?

Jose Ascanio, 24, (0-2, 4.00) just had a scope for a torn labrum and will out until June at the earliest, Virgil Vasquez, 27, (2-5, 5.84) and Eric Hacker, 26, (0-0, 6.00) will work at Indy, and Jeff Karstens, 27, (4-6, 5.42) will be available if they need to plug the dike. Phil Dumatrait, 28, (0-2, 6.92) will have all he can handle to just make the team, much less start.

The higher-level arms are far and few between. Brad Lincoln, 24, (7-7, 3.37 at Altoona and Indy) may pop up at PNC Park in 2010, but will start out at Indy for some seasoning. Tim Alderson, 21, (10-3, 3.93 at AA/AAA) will join Lincoln with the Tribe. Donnie Veal, 25, (1-0, 7.16) will start earning a paycheck there in 2010, too, as he returns to a starting role.

Beats the old gang of John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, and Jimmy Barthmeier, we admit, but still a pretty thin group. The good news is that the Lynchburg and Altoona pipelines are filling up, thanks mainly to some wheelin' and dealin'.

Bryan Morris, 22, (4-9, 5.57) has to put together an injury free season to reestablish himself. Rudy Owens, 21, (11-2, 2.10, Lynchburg and West Virginia) the Pirates' Minor League Pitcher of the Year, has to prove 2009 wasn't a fluke. Jeff Locke, 21, (4-4, 4.08) had a strong second half for the Hillcats, as did 2008 draft pick Justin Wilson, 22, (4-8, 4.50) and Nathan Adcock, 21, (8-5, 5.29).

West Virginia's Aaron Pribanic, 23, (4-2, 2.15), Brett Lorin, 22, (8-5, 2.20), Hunter Strickland, 22, (4-2, 3.77), and Quinton Miller, 19 (2-4, 4.41) showed promise, too. State College's Nelson Pereira, 20, (4-5, 4.35) flashed a power arm.

Are any sure shots to make the show? Well, maybe not, although Miller, Wilson, Locke, and perhaps Morris are all fairly high end prospects. But compared to the pitching talent the Huntington era inherited, they have turned it around. The one thing all these guys have in common is that they are age-appropriate to their class, and they all improved as the season went on.

Beneath them, the future is pretty bright, if distant. The draft has brought in Zach Van Rosenburg, Colton Cain, Trent Stevenson, Brooks Pounder, and Victor Black, and those five may end up among the Pirates' top thirty prospects in 2010.

So the pitching is shallow at the top and at Indy; a couple of injuries could unravel the whole ball of wax. But young guys are bubbling up, and some should be in Altoona this season. It may be four years before the system is properly stocked in arms from top to bottom, but this is the one area that the suits have had an impact addressing.

CONTRACTUAL ISSUES: Maholm is in the middle of a three year contract. Duke is in his second arbitration year, and we expect the Pirates to sign him to a contract. Karstens may become a "Super Two" arbitration player; if not, he'll reach arbitration in 2011. Dumatrait is in his last arbitration year. None of the others become arbitration eligible until 2012-13.

Ascanio, Dumatrait, and Vasquez are out of minor league options, further muddied by the fact that neither Ascanio or Dumatrait will be physically able to pitch at the start of the season.

Lincoln and Morris have to added to the 40-man roster this year or become Rule 5 eligible.

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