Zach Duke and the 2011 Rotation

Duke could be non-tendered after the season.

Going in to the 2009 season, the pitcher I least trusted in the rotation was Zach Duke.  Duke ended up surprising a lot of people with his 2009 performance, putting up a 4.06 ERA in 213 innings.  Heading in to 2010, that performance was enough to have Duke mentioned as one of the top pitchers in the Pirates’ rotation, which led to a lot of disappointment from his struggles this year.

So far this season Duke has a 5.47 ERA in 138.1 innings of work, which is just under his career worst of a 5.53 ERA in 2007.  Due to the poor performance, including the bad outing last night, Duke is in danger of being non-tendered this off-season.  Dejan Kovacevic talked about this in his game story from last night:

Duke, now 7-13 with a 5.47 ERA, is beginning to make a case that he is the worst regular-turn starting pitcher in Major League Baseball: His losses are tied for fifth most among all pitchers with 120 or more innings, his ERA is the second highest, and his .320 opponents’ batting average is the highest.

All of which might be pointing to Duke’s offseason exit after five-plus years in the rotation.

Duke will be eligible for salary arbitration a third and final time this winter, and indications are powerful that management will not tender such an offer, thus casting him into free agency. He currently is making $4.3 million and, because arbitration awards raises based largely on innings, he surely would make more through that process. Another possibility: Management could approach Duke about staying at a lower guaranteed figure.

Duke’s salary has always been close to what Paul Maholm has made.  Last year he received $2.2 M in his first year of arbitration.  Maholm received $2 M in the first year of his three year contract.  Duke received $4.3 M this year through arbitration, while Maholm received $4.5 M as part of his contract.  Maholm is set to receive $5.75 M next year.  It’s safe to assume that Duke could make something similar, especially since arbitration factors in the career body of work, rather than just the recent season.

Duke has been a bit unlucky this year, so he hasn’t exactly been as bad as his 5.47 ERA indicates.  Duke’s BABIP has traditionally been high, with a career .324 average (the norm for starters is around .300), although this year his ratio is even higher, with a .345 BABIP.  He’s also been a bit unlucky with the homers, with a 13.7% home run to fly ball ratio.  The average for starters is around 10%, and Duke’s career average is 9.9%.

Despite the poor luck, Duke’s xFIP, which adjusts a pitcher’s stats by removing the impact of his fielder’s and normalizing the home run ratio, is 4.45 this year.  Overall, that means that Duke should be expected to put up a 4.45 ERA going forward, assuming his luck is normalized.  Duke’s career xFIP is 4.39, and even his best year last year produced a 4.31.  So it’s safe to assume that Duke is around a 4.39 ERA pitcher, unless he plays over his head, like he did in 2009.  That raises the question as to whether you would want to pay Duke close to $6 M for that outcome, knowing that if he doesn’t reach that potential, we could be seeing another season with an ERA close to 5.00?

The rotation has been horrible this year, so at first thought, the idea that Duke wouldn’t be good enough to fit in next season kind of seems absurd.  However, a closer look shows that Duke’s potential salary could be put to better use elsewhere.

The 2010 rotation is guaranteed to have Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf returning.  Maholm is also having a down year, but is under contract for $5.75 M, a figure which is guaranteed.  Ohlendorf will be Super Two eligible, making him arbitration eligible for the first time.  He’s also arguably been the best pitcher on the staff over the last two seasons.

James McDonald has been impressive in the short amount of time he’s been with the Pirates.  Through seven starts he has a 4.17 ERA, which is actually a bit unlucky looking at his 3.92 xFIP.  The former top pitching prospect might be realizing his potential, and should definitely be included in the 2011 rotation.

From that point, you’ve got two rotation spots open.  Jeff Karstens has been a surprise this year, although I think that speaks more towards how bad the rotation has been.  Karstens has a 4.88 ERA in 121.2 innings of work, although his xFIP is 4.49.  Karstens will be arbitration eligible after the season, which kind of hurts the chances of Duke sticking around.  Karstens is putting up better numbers than Duke, and their expected numbers are about the same.  Duke gets glorified as a better pitcher because he’s been in the rotation for so long, and because of his success in 2005 when he first arrived, which he hasn’t come close to since.  The truth is that Duke and Karstens are the same pitcher, only Duke is left handed, and will cost $4-5 M more in 2011.

Even if you keep Karstens in the rotation, you have one more spot.  However, there are a few contenders for that spot, specifically Brad Lincoln.  Lincoln didn’t have the best debut in the majors this season, and the Pirates cited changes in his mechanics which led to a set back.  Lincoln has also dealt with some injury issues later in the season, but will spend the month of September pitching out of the bullpen.  We already know what Duke can do.  Lincoln has a chance to be better than Duke, which is why the playing time should be given to him.

Adding to the situation, the Pirates have a few guys at the AA level this year who could contend for a rotation spot as soon as June 2011.  Those players are Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson.  One or two of those guys could easily step in to the major league rotation if someone like Lincoln or Karstens struggled.  The Pirates also have some starting depth in Charlie Morton, Michael Crotta, and Daniel McCutchen.  Expectations aren’t high for those three, but any one of those guys would be an added bonus if they finally realized their potential.

What if you don’t want Karstens in the rotation though?  I’m not really a fan of Karstens being in the rotation.  I think he’s great for pitching depth, but he’s not a guy you should rely on as one of your top five starters on Opening Day.  Arguing for Duke over Karstens doesn’t make sense, as both players are putting up similar numbers, and Duke will potentially cost three times as much as Karstens.

Here is an alternative: non-tender Duke and use that money to sign a free agent.  It shouldn’t sound like a foreign concept.  The Pirates did it this past season with Matt Capps.  The Pirates non-tendered Capps, and used that money to sign Octavio Dotel.  The end result?  Dotel was traded for James McDonald and Andrew Lambo, which looks to be a huge return based on the early results.

Duke could make close to $6 M through arbitration.  What could the Pirates use that $6 M towards on the free agent market?  Looking at last off-season, Brad Penny and Rich Harden each signed for $7.5 M, Carl Pavano signed for $7 M, and Brett Myers signed for $5.1 M.  All three of those guys were injury risks, with either a history of injury issues, or existing injuries.  The results in these cases are mixed.  Harden has only pitched 87 innings, and has performed poorly most of the season.  Penny pitched well to start the season, but has been out since late-May with an injury.  However, Pavano and Myers are both doing great, and both are currently just under 200 innings this season.

Looking at the expected 2011 free agents (via MLBTR), the same players could be available heading in to the 2011 season, along with a few other options like Jake Westbrook, Chris Young, and Kevin Millwood.  Of course free agency isn’t the only option.  Pirates Prospects contributor Kevin Creagh has been speculating that the Pirates could trade some of their prospects from the current AA level in a deal to get help at the major league level.  The Pirates would be dealing prospects along with spending money, but in return they can get a guy who has a better chance of improving the team, all while possibly being under contract for more than one season.

A lot of teams are looking to shed salary this off-season.  Kevin mentions James Shields and Scott Baker as two possible starters who could be had in a trade, mentioning Rudy Owens as a possible trade chip.  I don’t like the idea of trading Owens, but Shields and Baker are two pitchers I like a lot, and both are under control for a few years, with Baker under control through the 2013 season, while Shields is under control through the 2014 season.  I’d deal the potential of six years of production from Owens for four guaranteed years from a guy like Shields.  Worst case, you eventually flip Shields for some prospects similar to the package you traded away to get Shields.

I can definitely see Shields being traded, with more of a chance than Baker.  The Rays have a crowded rotation, to the point where they don’t have space for Jeremy Hellickson, a guy who would be a lock for the Pirates’ rotation, and almost every other team in the majors.  The Rays are also looking to shed payroll after the season, and trading Shields would help that goal, plus they wouldn’t lose much production with Hellickson taking over a rotation spot.

Regardless of whether the Pirates pursue a free agent, make a trade, or just go with an internal option, one thing is certain: they don’t need to be spending money on Zach Duke.  Duke’s production, or lack of production, definitely isn’t worth close to $6 M.  The Pirates don’t have much to spend to begin with, which means they definitely don’t need to be wasting money on the performance Duke brings to the table.

Tim Williams

Author: 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.

Share This Post On
  • Anonymous

    I like the article, but please oh please, don’t let the Pirates fill Duke’s spot internally. It hasn’t worked out the last few years, so please go outside the organization and find someone that isn’t a fringe pitcher.

    I like the guys you listed, since they are proven to be better than our current internal options. Picking up a free agent pitcher to flip at the deadline would work pretty well for me.