Pirates Notebook: Extending Zach Duke

Zach Duke has been outstanding this year. Coming in to the season I didn’t think too highly of Duke. Since putting up a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts at the end of the 2005 season, Duke combined for a 4.82 ERA in 507.2 innings between 2006 and 2008. He showed flashes of his 2005 form, but never in a consistent manner. That’s not the case this year.

Duke has now made 11 starts for the Pirates in 2009. Eight of those starts have been quality starts. I’m not talking about the cheap kind either, where a pitcher goes six innings and allows three runs. In all eight of those starts, Duke has gone six or more innings, with two or fewer runs. In fact, Duke has only two bad starts this season, and one start where he went seven innings and allowed four runs (not technically a quality start, but not bad, since it gave the Pirates a win).

People are starting to entertain the idea that Duke has finally reverted back to his 2005 form. It makes sense when you put things in perspective. Duke was only 22 years old at the time. While he struggled in the three following seasons, he was only at the ages of 23-25. Most pitchers are in the minors for those seasons. Now Duke is 26 years old, entering his prime, and this could be the real deal.

Before making that jump, let’s look at Duke’s history to make sure that his numbers are the real deal.

-In 2008 Duke posted back to back quality starts five times. He had a 4.85 ERA in the game following his back to back quality starts. He only put together three quality starts in a row twice, and never put together four quality starts in a row.

-In 2007 Duke only played in 20 games, and only put up back to back quality starts on two occasions. He didn’t string together more than two quality starts in a row that year. His ERA after the back to back quality starts was 10.29.

-In 2006 Duke had more success stringing quality starts together. He posted three quality starts in a row on two occasions, four quality starts in a row once, and five quality starts in a row once.

Tonight’s game marks the first time this season that Duke has put together more than two quality starts in a row. So he hasn’t exactly been stringing together quality starts one after the other. However, last year he had 14 quality starts over the whole season. This year he’s at eight, and on pace for 24 quality starts if he makes 33 starts. Now if that happens, we’ll be talking about Duke in the Cy Young race, so I wouldn’t guarantee those numbers. However, I would say that these numbers don’t appear to be a fluke, but look like a young pitcher coming in to his own.

So does that mean it’s time for the Pirates to extend Duke and add him to the long term mix? They did this during the off-season with Paul Maholm, Nate McLouth, and Ryan Doumit, buying out one free agent year in the process.

Duke is a bit of a different case. He’s in his first year of arbitration right now, making $2.2 M this season. There’s a little less incentive for Duke to accept a deal similar to Maholm’s deal, as he only has two years of arbitration left, and is already due for a big raise next year, thanks to his early success this year. That’s not saying it can’t be done.

The Pirates could give Duke a two year, $11 M deal with an option for the third year. This would be similar to the deal with Maholm. Give Duke $4.50 M in 2010, $5.75 M in 2011, and a $9.75 M option in 2012 with an $0.75 M buyout. They could even trade off Ian Snell to keep the future payroll level. Snell is set to make $4.25 M next year, with a $6.75 M option in 2011 and a $9.25 M option in 2012 (neither option has a buyout).

At this point I’d much rather give $20 M in payroll over the next three years to Zach Duke, rather than Ian Snell. I also think that Snell could still fetch a solid return, as he has that “phenom” factor working for him, kind of like Oliver Perez did when he still had trade value while in AAA. I’m sure there’s some team out there desperate enough for pitching that they’d be willing to take on Snell for a good return. That would free up money for an extension for Duke.

Even if they don’t trade Snell, the Pirates should be considering an extension for Duke. If he continues this success, he will be due for a raise next year anyways. He will also be under team control for 2011. The Pirates will probably end up paying around $11 M for those two seasons if they go year to year. I say they might as well try and get an extra year from Duke, retaining his rights through the age of 29.

No big offer for Sano?

According to an article yesterday by Dejan Kovacevic of the PPG, the Pirates are not going to “shatter Major League Baseball’s record bonus” to sign Miguel Angel Sano. Sano is the top prospect in the international signing period, and plenty of rumors and speculation have Sano winding up with a number similar to the $4.25 M that last year’s top prospect Michael Inoa received.

This brings up two issues. First, the Pirates may not be willing to “shatter” that $4.25 M record, but does this mean they won’t match the record or go slightly above that figure? The article suggests that the Pirates have placed a value on Sano, and that value, based on previous signings, is lower than Inoa. Previous signings of 16 year old outfield prospects have been between $2-3 M.

That doesn’t mean much though. I’m sure a signing over $4 M for a pitcher was rare before Inoa, and we saw how that turned out. Based on all of the hype for “Hanley Pujols”, there’s no way the Pirates get him for even $3 M.

So that brings up issue number two: can we believe this bit of information?

I’m not suggesting DK is a liar, or that his reportings are wrong. However, is it possible that the Pirates are just negotiating through the media? This is still a negotiation. It’s not like Sano has a price tag, and the Pirates can come in and take him off the shelf when the store opens on July 2nd. In fact, there are benefits to downplaying interest in Sano.

First, you avoid driving up the price. It would be wrong to assume that no other team is going to be in on the bidding for Sano. If the Pirates said they were willing to pay the same amount as Inoa, then suddenly you’ve got teams stepping up to outbid that $4.25 M figure. By throwing out the $2-3 M figure, that sets the bar for other teams to go over. Of course this is assuming that the Pirates are willing to spend more than $2-3 M on Sano.

Second, it doesn’t make sense to come across as too desperate in the Sano sweepstakes. Think about when you’re buying a car. Do you go in to the dealership and say “I’m fine paying the sticker price, because I have to have this car, but is there any way I could talk you down on the price before I buy it?” You could try, and the sales person would listen, but once you show your cards and let it be known that the high price is not an issue for you, you’re not going to pay a cent lower.

It doesn’t benefit the Pirates at all to come out and say something like “We are willing to give Sano the same amount that Inoa received last year, maybe more”. They’re driving the price up by sparking other bids, and they’re making it impossible to negotiate any amount lower, if that does happen to be a possibility. Overall I’m taking this talk with a grain of salt. We’ll see how it plays out on July 2nd.

The MVP Tracker

The MVP Tracker is updated through the victory yesterday. Here are the top performances from tonight’s game:

1. Zach Duke: .288 WPA
2. Nate McLouth: .141
3. John Grabow: .078
3. Matt Capps: .078
5. Freddy Sanchez: .077

Other Stuff

-The Draft Prospect Finalist feature on Dustin Ackley is up. Check it out and don’t forget to vote for your ideal pick at the top right of the page. Aaron Crow’s feature will be on Thursday.

Enjoy this story? Pirates Prospects will be switching to a subscription site on 4/13, so that we can continue bringing you the best Pirates coverage there is. For a very small monthly price, you can continue getting articles like this, along with coverage from every minor league city. Get more information here, and subscribe today!

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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.

2009 Draft Prospect Finalist: Dustin Ackley

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