Well, the house cleaning is almost complete. With Zach Duke DFA'ed, there are only two pre-Coonnely Buccos left, Ryan Doumit and Paul Maholm. The Littlefield era is approaching its end, and the Zachster was one of its linchpins not so long ago.
Zach Duke was drafted as an 18 year old senior from Midway High School in Waco, Texas, in the 20th round of the 2001 draft. After singing late and missing 2001, he started his pro career in 2002 pitching in the GCL. He was 8-1 with a 1.95 ERA.
Skipping short season ball, Duke spent 2003 with the low-A Hickory Crawdads. He was 8-7 with a 3.11 ERA, and for the second year had a K/9 average of 7.2; all his peripheral stuff was well in line.
In 2004, the lefty broke out. Duke led all minor league pitchers with a combined 1.46 earned run average and was third in overall wins with 15. The Texan struck out 142 hitters and walked just 30 in 148+ innings of work that season.
He went 10-5 with a 1.39 ERA and was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year at Lynchburg. Duke continued his brilliance by putting together a 5-1 mark with a 1.58 ERA in nine starts with Altoona.
Duke was named Pittsburgh's Minor League Pitcher-of-the-Year and Baseball America called him the sixth-best prospect in the Eastern League and the top pitching prospect in the Carolina League. He was also recognized by BA as having the best breaking pitch in the league.
Going into 2005, Duke was BA's #34 ranked prospect in all of baseball. The Zachster kept on keeping on at Indy, going 12-3 with a 2.92 ERA, and got his call to the show.
Duke made his debut on July 2nd against the Milwaukee Brewers, striking out nine in a Pirates 5-3 loss. His nine strikeouts were the most by a Pirate making their MLB debut since Tim Wakefield did it on July 31st, 1992.
He threw twenty-two consecutive scoreless innings from July 2nd to July 21st, and was named the NL Rookie of the Month for July while compiling a 0.87 ERA, the best among all starting pitchers in the MLB during that span. The southpaw ended his first trip around the block with an 8-2 record and 1.82 ERA.
Duke became only the second Pittsburgh rookie to win his first five decisions, the other being Whitey Glazner in 1921. He also became one of only four pitchers during the live-ball era to record an ERA below 1.00 in their first six starts, joining Fernando Valenzuela, Boo Ferriss and Steve Rogers. Duke ended up fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting.
Pirate fans were bubbling with anticipation in 2006 for the young and promising rotation of Duke, Ian Snell, Ollie Perez and Paul Maholm. The feeling dissipated quickly.
Duke was so-so in the first half of the season, but rallied during the dog days and was easily the team ace. His final line for the 2006 season was 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA and 117 strikeouts against 68 walks. Duke also became the first Pirate starter since Kris Benson in 2000 to throw more than 200 innings, with 215-1/3 innings worked.
2007 was a disaster as Duke went 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA in 107 innings, missing 66 games to elbow tendinitis. 2008 wasn't much of an improvement. He gave up more doubles than any other pitcher in the majors with 58, and finished 5-14 with a 4.82 ERA.
The Zachster looked like he had turned the corner in 2009. He had an 11-16 record, 4.06 ERA, 3 complete games, a shutout and .285 OBA in 213 frames, and was named to the All-Star Game, replacing the injured Matt Cain. He faded down the stretch, but the entire team did after the Jack Wilson/Freddy Sanchez deals, which were especially brutal defensively for an extreme ground ball pitcher like Duke.
Strong middle defense or not, Duke was a BP pitcher in 2010. He went 8-15 with a 5.72 ERA and opponents carved him up to a .321 tune. Defense did hurt him; his ball in play percentage was .347, and his FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching, which adjusts ERA to league average fielding) was 4.95, which is still bad but .77 runs better than his normal ERA.
But he also had his highest career walk and homer ratios, and his velocity, never much to start with, was at an all-time low. He had another bout of elbow woes, too. Duke was also in his final arbitration year; he made $2.2M in 2009, $4.3M in 2010, and stood to make somewhere between $5-6M in the coming season.
According to reports, the Pirates tried to reach a deal with Duke for 2011 and before that had offered him around the league ever since the 2009 trade deadline, with minimal interest. Duke can now test his value on the free agent market.
Hey, the guy's young enough (27), left handed, and eats enough innings to earn a few shekels. His career stat line over a full season would be 10-15 with a 4.54 ERA (4.33 FIP) and 206 innings, certainly strong numbers for a back-end rotation guy. And he and his wife Kristin have proven that they are able and willing to contribute to a community.
We think that he has a come-back year or three left in him if he hooks up with the right squad, a good glove team that looks at Duke as 4-5 pitcher and not a top of the rotation arm; he doesn't have the stuff to lead a staff. It'll be interesting to see how he fares down the road and find out if he is an underachiever or a fair pitcher who was just a poor fit for Pittsburgh.
For Pittsburgh, it frees up some cash to drop on a free agent, and the media buzz is that they are at least playing the game hard this year, although the results are yet to be seen. It also makes Charlie Morton's spot look a little more secure for 2011 if he continues the baby steps he took in September.
And it does start the process of reshaping the staff; it seems just like yesterday that the Zachster, Snell, Gorzo and Maholm were going to pitch into the foreseeable future. Now J-Mac, Ohlie and company are waiting on the arrival of the next wave of arms, due in 2012-13. With this FO, the only constant is change.