Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Where Are The Arms?

Hey, there's no question the Pirate offense reeks now. But it should be going no where but up, with the infusion of Pedro, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata to go with McCutch, Garrett Jones, and Lastings Milledge.

The pitching? Well, that's another question. The starting rotation has been an equal to the attack in non-productivity. But it's actually in better shape, long term, than the hitting. All the big sticks are in Pittsburgh, and next year, the arms should be honing their craft at Indy.

Right now at Indy, the only starter with any upside is Charlie Morton, and he's quickly losing his luster. The suits will have to hope he rallies in the second half; he's out of options and has to be in Pittsburgh next year, or he'll almost surely be wearing a different jersey in 2011.

But for the first time in years, Indy's staff will be populated with prospects instead of waiver wire flotsam. Sometime during the next season, Donnie Veal and Kevin Hart will back and throwing after year-ending surgeries. Jose Ascanio should join their ranks. He may end up on the big team, too - like Morton, he's out of options.

But the reason for a little optimism, a rare commodity among Pirate fans, is that the heart of Altoona's rotation - Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, and Rudy Owens - should form the nucleus of the 2011 Tribe staff.

Morris, after suffering the year from hell in 2009, has rebounded into the prospect that the Bucs hoped he'd become. He was lights out in Bradenton, and is holding his own in Altoona. He's 4-4 with a 4.19 ERA, .259 OBA, and 1.34 WHIP, hardly stunning but OK numbers. But his K rate is strong (52 K in 53 IP), and his control has been OK (19 BB), good harbingers for future success.

However, we don't think he'll make Indy this season. In four minor league years, he's never crossed the 100 inning threshold. Between his two teams, Morris has already put together a career high 98 frames, so our guess is that his arm will be babied down the road.

Justin Wilson has come on like gangbusters. The lefty is 7-4 with a 2.85 ERA and an OBA of just .212. The 2008 fifth round pick has worked 92 innings, striking out 85 and walking 37, with control being his most obvious battle.

Rudy Owens was the Pirate system pitcher of the year in 2009, and his work at Altoona has solidified his status. He's 8-3 with a 3.00 ERA and an excellent 1.05 WHIP. In 99 innings, he's struck out 81 and walked 19. His only red flag is his K rate; we'll see how that holds up at the next level.

And when that trio gets the call to AAA, there are arms waiting to fill their spots. Jeff Locke already has gotten a promotion to the Curve, and Nathan Adcock and Quinton Miller may both join him there, at least by 2011.

The 2009 class of high-school arms are now learning their craft at State College, and it's too soon to tell where they'll fit in the overall scheme at this point of their careers, although they are a highly touted bunch. Their stats are pretty meaningless; they're teens going against college kids right now.

And the Pirates have Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie within their grasp as the 1-2 draft picks, and are in the hunt for Mexican teen Luis Heredia. If they get two out of three from that group, they'll be well stocked; three would be an embarrassment of riches.

The problem, of course, is that none of the above have a realistic shot at helping the team next season. Don't look for free agent help; the elite won't come here, and overpaying for another middling pitcher, of which the Pirates have an abundance, will probably be just a waste of cash unless there's a serious meltdown next year.

So it looks like 2011 will be another long year with just moderate improvement. Ross Ohlendorf and Brad Lincoln should top the rotation, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm will be proven commodities, and Jeff Karstens will battle Daniel McCutchen and Charlie Morton for the last spot.

We don't foresee any meaningful help arriving next season. But in 2012, it should get interesting.

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