The Pirates always have a surprise up their sleeve when they put together their off season 40-man roster. Last year, it was Kyle McPherson and Duke Welcher. This year's who-dat name is 24 year old RHP Hunter Strickland.
He entered pro ball in 2007 when the Red Sox drafted him in the18th round (564th pick overall) from Zebulon, Georgia's Pike County HS and signed him to a $123,250 bonus. Strickland was beat up in the GCL that season, but in 2008 did pretty well at Lowell in the NY-Pennsy League, averaging 7.5 K/nine with a slash of 5-3/3.18.
The righty was working for Greenville in the Sally League when Pittsburgh picked him and SS Argenis Diaz up from Boston in exchange for 1B Adam LaRoche in 2009. At the time, his heat was in the high 80s-low 90s range, and he wasn't listed as a prospect by Baseball America. The Beantown gang thought he had some upside despite BA's disdain, and so did Pittsburgh - heck, he was 6'5", how could they resist?
The Bucs kept him in the same Low A league, assigning him to West Virginia. He was pretty steady there, even combining with Diego Moreno on a no-no. Strickland finished the year with a combined 9-6/3.49 slash line, but with a red flag - his K rate had dropped to 5.3, though his WHIP was a solid 1.156. That was a head scratcher, as his velocity jumped into the 90-94 range, but he couldn't pump that heat past anyone.
He began 2010 back with the Power, but without the same success. Strickland was 0-4 with a 5.86 ERA, averaging just 3 K per nine and with a WHIP of 1.535. Surprisingly, when an opening popped up at High A Bradenton, he got the call to fill it. Not surprisingly, he was toasted there, too, going 2-1/4.50. Between the two levels, he gave up nearly a dozen hits per game. The he went on DL with an elbow strain and didn't return.
In 2011, the Pirates put him on a rehab regimen. It didn't work, and he had rotator cuff surgery in August. So apparently he tried to pitch through a bad wing in 2010 and paid the price in his stat line.
Strickland was healthy in time for spring camp in 2012, and was assigned to Bradenton. He started nine games, and went 2-2/2.98 ERA with a 1.213 WHIP, though his K rate was still below par at 5 K per nine. In June the Pirates moved him up to Altoona, where he worked from the pen. That probably isn't a permanent conversion, but just a way to keep his innings under control; we believe that they still see him as a starter at this point.
He really wasn't all that for the Curve, with a 2-2-2/4.46 line. His K rate returned to a more acceptable 7/nine innings, though his walks jumped up to three per game. Strickland surrendered 10.6 hits per match, especially having problems with lefty batters, and had a 1.535 WHIP.
To add him to the 40-man roster, the Pirates must see some upside that his performance hasn't shown yet. Strickland is young, tall, and as the scouts like to say, projectable with a clean and easy delivery. His fast ball sits in the 92-94 range, and he can spot it pretty well. His two-seamer has some movement, and he tosses an average slider and change with good control. And 2012 was his first full season back from surgery.
And that's all promising. But he's given up 10 hits per nine innings and his K rate is under six per game in his minor league career. The Pirates may be expecting a breakout year for him in 2013. But certainly an argument can be made that the Pirates put him on the 40-man at least a season early. It appears that the last spot came down to Strickland and Kyle Kaminska, and they went for projection over performance.
Hey, we know both are fringe guys, at least at this point in their careers, and it's probable that both would have been safe from the Rule 5 draft this year (we'll find out about KK on December 6th). But it does awaken that little voice that sometimes (OK, more than sometimes) questions the FO's evaluation protocol.