The Bucs have been cranking out a steady line of guys with average stuff and great control from Indy, with pitchers like Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. Now you can add Phil Irwin to the list.
Irwin, who will turn 26 in February, attended Christian Brothers High School in Memphis, Tennessee (he still lives in Collierville, the Memphis suburb he was raised in, during the offseason). The Purple Lions claimed the State Championship in 2003-04 and were runner-ups in 2005.
At Christian Brothers, he posted a 21-4 record over three years, and won All-State, All-Region and All-Metro honors in both 2004 and 2005. Irwin was also named to the USA Classic All-Tournament team in 2004 and 2005 and the Toyo Tire Classic All-Tournament team in 2004. After graduation, he went off to toss for Ole Miss.
Irwin had TJ surgery in his freshman year of 2006, but by his senior campaign in 2009, he was part of a pretty good rotation at Oxford. Their staff took them to the co-championship of the SEC and to the CWS Super-Regionals before Virginia ended their run. Mississippi finished the season ranked 17th in the nation.
The Rebels were led by sophomore Drew Pomeranz (also from Collierville), who
would go on to be drafted by the Cleveland Indians in the first round of the 2010 draft, and is now pitching for the Rockies. Next was All-America pitcher Scott Bittle, who was drafted by the Cards in the fourth round of the 2009 draft, but has so far had more surgeries than starts in his career. The Ole Miss back end was apparently well-scouted by the Pirates.
They took Nathan Baker in the fifth round of the 2009 draft, and he has been a disappointment for the Bucs, pitching last year at Altoona and none too well (4-7, 4.94). But the same can't be said for the last guy standing, 21st-rounder Irwin, who was left waiting in the wings because of the lack of smoke and no really dominant secondary pitch (though he did show a promising curve), while putting up an 8-3/3.84 slash with 73 K in 87 IP for Ole Miss.
He signed in late June, and was sent to short-season State College, the usual launching pad for later-round college picks. In 10 appearances, he went 1-2/2.12 with 32 K in 29-1/3 IP, and was named to the New York-Penn Mid-Season All-Star team.
Irwin moved up a level in 2010 to Low Class A West Virginia Power. He spent the season there compiling a 6-3/3.35 slash with 111 whiffs in 113 innings, showing a bit more velocity with his four seamer, and a WHIP of 1.053. The righty also was recognized with a Sally League "Pitcher of the Week" award.
The Bucs continued their step-at-a-time approach with Irwin, and he began the 2011 season at High Class A Bradenton. In ten starts, he went 5-0/2.12. That was plenty good enough to get him promoted to a more age appropriate level at Class AA Altoona. There, even though his heater had picked up a couple ticks, the coaches worked on developing a sinking two-seamer.
His fastball returned to its more usual upper-80s to low-90s range, to go with his out pitch, the hook, and a show me change. Irwin's results were mixed during the transition with a line of 8-4/3.81, but his peripherals were still in line, with a WHIP of 1.156 and seven K with one walk per nine in 87-1/3 frames. And though he didn't win any league awards during the campaign, he did get to sing the National Anthem at Blair County Ballpark on August 18th.
The FO wanted him to work some more at Mesa in Arizona, but Irwin suffered a strained elbow during the Arizona Fall League. He aggravated again it in spring training, and missed the first month of the season. Then he got a warm-up start at Bradenton and was assigned to the Curve in early May.
He definitely showed some rust, but it didn't take too long for it to fall off. In his first nine outings, his ERA was 5.05; in the next nine, it was 1.24 with a "Pitcher of the Week" recognition by the Eastern League. Irwin had 18 appearances with 16 starts and a 4-7/2.93 slash line overall for the Curve. His peripherals were solid again, with a 1.093 WHIP, 7.2 K and 1.5 walks per nine, and he was selected as Altoona's Pitcher of the Year.
Irwin wasn't quite done; the FO promoted him to Indianapolis to replace the September call-ups. He threw four games, including a couple of big ones. In his second start, he surrendered one run on five hits and a walk while striking out nine over six innings against Louisville to clinch the International League West Division title by a 6-1 score. Once in the playoffs, Irwin put up a two hit, one walk goose egg against Charlotte with 11 punch outs in seven innings for the Indians' only post-season win over the Knights, an easy 8-0 victory.
After the year, the Bucs added him to the 40-man roster, and he should start the 2013 campaign with the Indy Indians with a good shot at seeing some time in Pittsburgh.
His heater sits at 90 MPH and touches 93. The slow curve is his out pitch, and his change is still a work in progress. The transition to the sinker has helped Irwin keep the ball down and increased his ground ball rate, he changes speeds and isn't afraid to work inside. Irwin has walked 46 batters in the past two seasons; he's hit 27. His peripherals are a testament to his pitch command. In his career, he has a WHIP of 1.100, a hit rate of 8.3, a K rate of 8 and a walk rate of 1.6 per game.
With all that, he will be in his 26 year old season, and his upper limit is probably as a 4-5 starter. But for a 21st round draft pick, that's a pretty nice ceiling. Of all the guys the Bucs have stockpiled or brought in this year, Irwin is the most similar to the departed Jeff Karstens, and that's a role the Pirates are hoping one of the pups step up to claim.