Positional Breakdowns: Starting Pitcher

Going in to the 2008 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were relying on Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny to carry their pitching staff, while hoping that Paul Maholm and Zach Duke matured, and Matt Morris at least provided some production for his well over-priced salary. Snell and Gorzelanny not only failed, they failed in an epic manner. Duke was good at times, but too inconsistent. Morris did nothing and was released early in the season. The only player to perform well was Maholm.
That led to the quest to add pitching to the organization. The Pirates added three starting pitching prospects, all close to being major league ready, in the Xavier Nady trade, which I wrote about earlier today. Then they added a former first round draft pick in Bryan Morris, a move which essentially doubled the amount of young pitching prospects in the system.
Coming in to the 2009 season the Pirates added Joe Kerrigan and Perry Hill to the coaching staff, but didn’t do much to add to the pitching staff, with the only addition being depth guys like Virgil Vasquez and Chris Bootcheck. Kerrigan had a huge impact on the pitching staff, taking them from one of the worst in the league in 2008, to respectable in 2009. Hill played a role here, thanks to his work with the infield defense.
The Pirates made several moves during the season, continuing to bring a wave of pitching prospects in to the organization in the process, while watching a few of their own guys break out.
The 2009 Season
Paul Maholm struggled on the road this year, but put up good numbers at home, so it’s not like he was a repeat of Snell and Gorzelanny. Zach Duke and Ross Ohlendorf both had breakout seasons. The Pirates traded Nate McLouth mid-season and received Charlie Morton as part of the deal.
Morton’s worst outing was his one inning, ten run performance against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley. Take that out, and he had a 3.66 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 5.72 K/9, 3.47 BB/9, and a 0.56 HR/9 ratio. I don’t weigh that start heavily, because it seems like an aberration. To be fair, if you also take out his complete game shutout (also at Wrigley), you get a 4.03 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 5.48 K/9, 3.52 BB/9, and a 0.62 HR/9 ratio.
Several players had their shot at the number five spot, with Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen getting the most time in the rotation at the end of the season. Hart had success with the Cubs, but struggled right when he got to Pittsburgh after arriving in the John Grabow/Tom Gorzelanny trade. McCutchen had six starts, and looked to be everything you’d want from a fifth starter, although six starts doesn’t make a career.
The Prospects
The Pirates came in to the season with three pitching prospects. There was Daniel McCutchen at AAA, with a ceiling of a number 3-5 starter. Then there was Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris, both question marks. Lincoln was coming off of Tommy John surgery, only pitching 103.2 innings between Hickory and Lynchburg the season before, with poor results. Morris had been plagued by injuries his whole career, something that continued once he joined the Pirates.
Lincoln broke out in AA, with a 2.28 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, and solid ratios all around, thus regaining his top prospect status. Morris struggled, thanks to injuries and a focus on improving his mechanics. The Pirates added several pitching prospects, both in trades, and in the draft in order to bolster the depth charts.
Jeff Locke was the first prospect brought in, another piece to the Nate McLouth trade. Locke looked promising at times in Lynchburg, showing why he was a top prospect in Atlanta’s system. Casey Erickson and Hunter Strickland were brought in on smaller deals, with both A-ball pitchers being long shots for the majors at this stage in their careers.
The trades of Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez brought the most talent. Sanchez was swapped straight up for Tim Alderson, the number two pitching prospect in the San Francisco Giants’ system. Scouts are mixed on Alderson, with some projecting him to the top of major league rotations, while others have him closer to the bottom. Jack Wilson brought back Seattle Mariners’ prospects Brett Lorin, Aaron Pribanic, and Nathan Adcock. Lorin looks to be the most promising of that bunch, with Pribanic and Adcock projected as back of the rotation starters or late inning relievers.
The draft was the second part of the wave of pitching talent. The Pirates went with signability early, taking Victor Black and Brooks Pounders with their second and third picks. With picks in the fourth, sixth, seventh, and eighth rounds, the Pirates went with high school talent that fell to them due to signability concerns. Zack Dodson, Zach Von Rosenberg, Trent Stevenson, and Colton Cain all eventually signed, deeming the draft a success. The Pirates also added college pitchers Nathan Baker, Jeff Inman, and Philli Irwin, all of which had early success in the pros.
The biggest surprise was the emergence of Rudy Owens, who went from being off the radar at the start of the season to being one of the Pirates’ top pitching prospects, thanks to performances in West Virginia and Lynchburg that earned him the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award.
The Future
The future is really broken up in to two parts right now. In the immediate future the Pirates have their 2009 rotation of Maholm, Duke, and Ohlendorf, with Morton, McCutchen, and Hart as options to round out the rotation. I can see Brad Lincoln getting the call by mid-season 2010, further crowding the scene (unless of course someone creates an opening with poor performances).
Other prospects like Tim Alderson, Jeff Locke, and Rudy Owens could be ready as early as the start of the 2011 season, and maybe sooner for Alderson. That should cover the Pirates not only for when Duke becomes a free agent, but until the wave of high school talent arrives from the 2009 draft.
The long term future points to guys from the recent draft, as well as some of the guys in A-ball. I always think of these guys as silver dollars, ready to be played in a slot machine. At this point we don’t know what will happen with any of them. Maybe ZVR is a future ace like Tim Lincecum, or even close to that level. You play the coins, some win, some lose, and maybe one time we will hit the jackpot. Of course I’m a roulette man myself, but the metaphor doesn’t work that way.
I don’t want to say the Pirates are done building up their pitching depth, because it takes more than one draft and a few trades to not only stock a minor league system, but to acquire enough talent to provide plenty of options for the majors in the future. That said, the difference between the 2008 Pirates and the 2009 Pirates is night and day when it comes to pitching. One thing is certain in the coming years: the Pirates will have plenty of options to choose from, which means we probably won’t see them back at the bottom of the pitching rankings like we did in 2008.
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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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