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Who will be the next Pirates ace?

It’s no secret that the biggest need for the Pirates is pitching. Specifically, the Pirates need a true ace, something they haven’t had since Doug Drabek left the team. Paul Maholm currently is slotted as the Pirates’ number one pitcher, but as we’ve seen with previous success from guys like Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Zach Duke, Oliver Perez, Kip Wells…well, you get the picture…we can’t call it a guarantee that Maholm will repeat his 2008 success.

In the farm system the pitching prospects are thin. The Pirates have a few guys at AAA, like Daniel McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmaier, and the recently demoted Tom Gorzelanny, but none of those guys are aces. They project to be 3-5 starters at their best. Further down we have Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris. Both pitchers rank as top five prospects in the Pirates Prospect Consensus. The problem is that both are at least a year or two away (Lincoln in AA, Morris in high A), and both have experienced Tommy John surgery, which could derail any chances of them being the ace we need (although I think they could each make a great #2 guy).

What the Pirates really need is a top pitcher, someone like Tim Lincecum who puts them in position to win almost every time on the mound. Unfortunately as we saw in the 2008 free agency period, any pitcher with those capabilities is going to command $15-20 M a year, which would be over a third of the Pirates’ payroll. That means the Pirates are most likely going to have to find their ace through the draft.

I’ve been following some draft prospects this season, trying to provide some background on guys who could be there when the Pirates make their first pick with the fourth selection. Up until recently, the only pitcher I was tracking was Alex White, who was the consensus number one behind star prospect Stephen Strasburg heading in to the season. I’ve added four more pitchers in the last week, including a guy who has caught up with White in my opinion: Missouri right hander Kyle Gibson.

Gibson leads a group of four pitching prospects that I’ve included, with the other three being Mike Leake from Arizona State, Kendal Volz from Baylor, and Andy Oliver from Oklahoma State. Gibson leads the pack, especially with his last two starts, both complete games, with two earned runs, 27 strikeouts, and five walks.

Back in November, Gibson was ranked as the number seven college prospect, and the number 11 prospect in the 2009 draft by Baseball America. He’s 6’6″ and 195 pounds. According to SaberScouting.com, Gibson’s fastball currently ranges in the low 90s, hitting 92, but could improve from there, while consistently hitting 92 MPH. They have him projected as a number two starter in the majors, but considering how thin the Pirates are at pitching, he could easily be their top pitcher.

As we know with our history of drafting pitchers in the first round, nothing is guaranteed. That is why I’m covering several other players. The next on the list is Mike Leake from Arizona State. Leake has similar numbers to Gibson, with a ridiculous 48:7 K/BB ratio in 40 innings at the time of this writing. His fastball is in the high 80s and low 90s, and he’s currently projected as a guy who will go in the late first, although hopefully he would be there when the Pirates pick with one of their two selections in the second round.

Kendal Volz hasn’t been as impressive as Gibson, with 28 strikeouts and 15 walks in 32 innings at the time of this writing. However, Volz’s fastball has been clocked as high as 97 in the past. Volz has been used in relief, such as his time with Team USA, and his future as a starter is in question, with that question hinging on his ability to be successful deep in to games.

Finally, Andy Oliver is one of the best left handed arms in the draft this year, but like Alex White, has struggled. At the time of this writing, Oliver has 36 strikeouts and 12 walks in 29.2 innings, which is good, but a 6.68 ERA and a 1.55 WHIP, thanks in large part to a .293 BAA. Oliver ran in to some legal trouble with the NCAA last year, having been suspended for using an agent. He sued the NCAA and Oklahoma State, won, and was reinstated. His fastball is consistently 92-93 MPH, touching 94-95 MPH.

One trend that seems to be apparent with everyone not named Stephen Strasburg is that the guys who throw harder seem to have the lower numbers. A theory behind this could relate to the metal bats. In the majors, if you throw 95-97 MPH and inside, you will probably break a few bats for some infield ground outs. In college, metal bats hardly break, which means that inside fastball turned in to a broken bat ground out will suddenly become a single up the middle, or a line drive in to left field. This could impact the harder throwers, like White, Volz, and Oliver, while helping guys like Leake and Gibson who are focused more on missing bats (which is harder in the majors). Of course this is just a theory.

The Pirates have the fourth pick in the 2009 draft, and pretty much no chance of taking Stephen Strasburg. This means they will either have a shot at top hitter Dustin Ackley, top shortstop prospect Grant Green, or their choice of one of these pitchers. I love the idea of a lineup that includes Ackley, Alvarez, Tabata, McCutchen, McLouth, and Doumit in 2011, but the biggest need for the Pirates is pitching, and it’s hard to pass up the talent that exists in this group, especially when one of them could turn in to the ace of the future.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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