Friday, December 31, 2010

Aaron Thompson

The Pirates claimed LHP Aaron Thompson, 23, off waivers from the Nationals last week. To claim him, they had to DFA Wil Ledezma. That shows either how much the FO thought of Thompson or how little they thought of Ledezma.

Thompson was born in Sante Fe, New Mexico, and raised mostly in Beaumont, Texas, graduating from Houston's Second Baptist High in 2005. At Second Baptist, he went 8-3 with two saves and 0.84 earned run average in 14 games as a senior, with 133 strikeouts and 35 walks in 66 innings.

The book on him was that he'd be a tough sign in the draft because of a commitment to Texas A&M, but the Aggies fired their coaching staff, and so Thompson willingly entered the player pool.

He was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the first round (22nd overall) of the 2005 draft, and got a $1.225M bonus. Lefties that strike out two batters per innings, even at the prep level, don't exactly grow on trees.

He jumped right into the Gulf Coast rookie league after signing. Thompson was 2-4 with a 4.50 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP in eight starts, but averaged 11-1/2 K's per game.

That got him promoted to Jamestown, the Fish short-season club, later in the season. Thompson went 1-2 in five starts and lowered his ERA to 3.10. His K rate dropped drastically, though, and would hover around seven per 9 innings from that time forward.

He moved up to Class A Greensboro in 2006, going 8-8 with a 3.63 ERA in 24 starts. Thompson was the Marlins' Minor League Pitcher of the Month for May, going 4-0 with 0.53 ERA in five starts (6 BB, 34 K in 33-2/3 IP). Thompson also was the Sally League's Player of the Week in mid-May, and was a member of the South Atlantic League All-Star Team.

At the end of 2006, Thompson was ranked as Florida's #6 prospect, according to Baseball Prospectus, which called him “a solid but unspectacular left-handed starter.”

In 2007, he took the next step and pitched for High Class A Jupiter, where Thompson logged a 4-6 record and 3.37 ERA. His walks, hits, and WHIP were all getting in line, too, and Thompson continued on his journey, going to Class AA Carolina.

But Thompson would struggle mightily there. He dealt with shoulder issues in 2008 that cost him two months of the season, and when he was healthy, opposing batters teed off on him. Thompson's record was 2-5 with a 5.26 ERA, and his peripherals were even worse - 12 hits, 4 walks and just 6 K's per nine, with a WHIP of 1.849.

In 2009, he regained his mojo. Thompson was 5-9 with a 4.11 ERA in A Jacksonville before being dealt to the Nats at the deadline for Nick Johnson. In the remaining month, he would go 0-3 with a 3.31 ERA in six starts for Washington's AA club, Harrisburg.

Thompson also had to get himself into a new pitching groove. While the Marlins stressed working the outside half of the plate, the Nationals wanted their guys to pitch inside.

He was assigned to Harrisburg again in 2010, where he went 4-13 with a 5.80 ERA. In 26 starts, he set several negative career marks: his BB/9 ratio of 5.40 walks/9 innings, HR's allowed (16), walks issued (53), runs allowed (88) and ERA (5.80). Not too surprisingly, the Nat's waived him, and the Bucs couldn't resist claiming him.

The million-dollar question is: has Thompson hit the wall at AA, as some evaluators believe, or was 2010 just a bad year as he tried to convert from the Marlin philosophy of working away to the Nat's system of pitching in?

There is some potential upside to Thompson. He's young with a four-pitch arsenal: a low-90s fastball that rises, a plus change-up, a good curve and a workable slider. He's unafraid to attack the strike zone.

Thompson also boasts a good pick-off move and is effective overall at holding runners. His home run rate is an excellent 1 every 14 innings of work. He's said to have the potential to become a #3 or 4 starter in the show as a finesse left-hander.

But he hasn't been able to pitch his way out of Class AA yet, showing no consistency at that level. His career strikeout rate of 6.9/nine innings is a marginal red flag. And he may be another case of a hot-shot high-school pitcher whose future projection was more optimistic than his talent.

Apparently the Pirates liked some of his peripheral numbers, at least enough to overcome the negatives, and plan to add him to Altoona's rotation. After all, a team never does have enough pitching, and being a lefty is an added bonus.

And hey, he'll fit right in, joining Joel Hanrahan and Scott Olsen. If you can't make it in DC, the Pirates are always ready to give you a another chance.

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