As the Bucs prepare to pack up the bats and balls and head to Bradenton for spring training, there are are couple of position battles to be waged in the Florida sunshine. The final spot of the rotation is one such match-up.
It's almost a given that Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton will take the first four spots in the 2010 rotation. That leaves Dan McCutchen and Kevin Hart as the mano-a-mano gunslingers for the final position.
McCutchen, 27, brings steady performance; Hart, also 27, features tantalizing stuff.
In a brief audition last season, McCutchen went 1-2 with a 4.21 ERA in six starts. He lasted 36-1/3 innings, and gave up 11 walks and had 19 K's to go with a WHIP of 1.349. His biggest bugaboo was yielding six long balls, or 1.5 per nine innings.
McCutchen also throws a few too many pitches. He only lasted seven innings once (and less than six only once; he notched four quality starts and is consistent if nothing else), but still averaged 94 pitches per outing.
He did put it together during his last three starts. His ERA was just a hair under three, and he earned his first win even though the Bucs hit the ball behind him like what they were - the worst offense in the league. The secret was he began to quit nibbling and throwing first-pitch strikes.
McCutchen depends on his fastball, which averaged a tad over 90 last season, and a split-fingered heater with nasty sink that comes in at 81 and serves as his off-speed ball; those two pitches account for about 88% of his offerings, according to Fan Graphs. He also throws a slider, and very rarely shows a change-up.
As a result, he has good control, but doesn't have the velocity to get away with a mistake. The good news is he makes very few of them.
Kevin Hart was transitioned from a spot starter/reliever with the Cubs, where he was 4-3 with a 2.60 ERA, to an everyday starter with Pittsburgh. In ten trips to the hill, he was smacked around quite a bit.
He finished up 1-8 with a 6.92 ERA. Hart whiffed 39 batters and walked 26 in 53-1/3 innings, with a WHIP of 1.875. The righty never went past six innings, and tossed 102 pitches per outing that lasted 5-1/3 innings on average.
Hart showed a more extensive repertoire, tossing a mix of 59% fastballs, 23% hooks, 14% cutters, and 4% change-ups. His trouble was getting the ball over the plate; he regularly fell behind in the count and had to come in with a meatball; that's how you give up 74 hits in 53 frames.
For once, the outcome won't be determined by team control. McCutchen has all his options still in play, and Hart has one remaining. The Pirates see both pitchers right now as starters (although both have been mentioned as possible closer material down the road), so the loser will in all likelihood take a trip to Indy to work on getting that first pitch over the plate and learning to pitch more effectively to get deeper into contests.
Our take is that McCutchen is more MLB ready at this point and has the upper hand in this battle; he's shown the consistency that you look for in a back-ender.
But the battle will continue; Brad Lincoln will be breathing down someone's back, possibly as soon as this coming season.