Part 2 covers the pitchers whose prospect status has taken a step forward or backward in the first half of the season. Pitching was the area that held most of the farm system’s highest hopes, but the news so far hasn’t been especially good for quite a few of the top hopefuls, especially at the upper levels. Fortunately, some of the top pitchers in the system are just getting underway at State College and in the Gulf Coast League, while others have more or less performed as expected at West Virginia.
Tony Watson, LHP (MLB): Last year, Watson’s shift to the bullpen was a complete success, earning him a 40-man roster spot. He figured to spend most or all of this season in AAA, but injuries and strong pitching on his part (.179 opponents’ BA, 29:11 K:BB) got him a spot in the majors. So far, he’s allowed just three hits and four walks in seven innings, while fanning seven. He could become a fixture in the Bucs’ bullpen.
Brad Lincoln, RHP (AAA): Despite his once-exalted status in the system, Lincoln’s been almost a forgotten man since his aborted shot at the majors last year. He added to the doubts with a 7.17 ERA in April, but that dropped to 3.25 in May and 1.33 so far in June. He’s fanned 66 while walking only 14, and after allowing four gopher balls in four April starts, he’s allowed just one in nine starts since. He’s had trouble against left-handed batters in the past, but improvements in his changeup have resulted in lefties hitting only .203 with one HR against him this year. Lincoln has earned a shot at the next rotation opening, but unfortunately for him this is the first time in years that the Pirates’ rotation has nothing even resembling a hole.
Kyle McPherson, RHP (AA): McPherson was a surprise addition to the 40-man roster last fall, but the reasons are more apparent now. He rode a 10-1 strikeout to walk ratio and 2.89 ERA at Bradenton to a promotion to Altoona, where he’s pitched well (including eight strikeouts, just one walk, and 1.03 WHIP) in two starts. In the process he’s established himself as a real prospect who could see time in Pittsburgh as soon as next year, if he keeps producing.
Phil Irwin, RHP (AA): A Tommy John survivor, Irwin didn’t have nearly the success of teammate and fellow Pirate draftee Nate Baker. He had the look of a finesse guy who’d be an organizational pitcher, but his stuff improved last year, possibly because he had recovered more fully from the surgery. After missing the start of the season with a minor injury, he went 5-0, 2.03 in ten starts for Bradenton and followed McPherson to Altoona, where he threw six shutout innings in his first start. He no longer looks like an org. guy.
Mike Colla, RHP (AA): Going into this year, Colla looked like an organizational bullpen guy, but a switch to the rotation produced surprising results. He had a string of outstanding starts and now has a 3.46 ERA as a starter, with three times as many strikeouts as walks and a .233 opponents’ batting average. He’s hit a bump recently, mainly due to the longball, as he’s allowed seven in his last three starts. It’s too soon to be sure whether he has the potential to reach the majors, but he’s worth watching now.
Tim Alderson, RHP (AA): Just what to make of Alderson’s status change depends on your point of view. After looking like a basket case at the end of last year, he’s pitched well out of the bullpen. In fact, he was dominant until his last five outings, during which he’s struggled a bit. His stuff seems better as a reliever and his strikeout rate, while not great, is a passable 6.6 per nine.
Brett Lorin, RHP (A+): After struggling in 2010 following hip surgery, Lorin looked like he might stall out. This year he had to be shifted to the bullpen for a while, but posted a 1.02 ERA there and moved back to the rotation. Overall, he’s fanned a batter an inning while walking fewer than two per nine, and has a 2.82 ERA. He’s gotten himself back on track and could be in line for a promotion soon.
The Altoona Four—Rudy Owens, LHP (AAA); Justin Wilson, LHP (AAA), Jeff Locke, LHP (AA), and Bryan Morris, RHP (AA): The Pirates appeared to be loaded with near-major-league-ready pitching talent going into this season, but it’s going to be a longer wait. Of the four standouts from last year’s Altoona staff, only Wilson is pitching more or less in line with expectations. Even with Wilson the news isn’t very good, as he’s struggled increasingly, probably because International League hitters have figured out that he throws very few strikes. He’s walked 37 in 75 innings and is starting to get hit harder as well. His ERA in his last six starts is 6.91.
The news just gets worse from there. Owens hasn’t shown the stuff he did last year, with his fastball dropping from the low 90s to the upper 80s. Hitters are batting .281 against him and he’s fanning only 4.5 per nine. Locke also has seen his stuff decline and he’s had control problems as well. He’s striking out a batter an inning, but his WHIP is 1.48, leading to a 4.65 ERA. Morris struggled with an oblique early in the season and has a 6.04 ERA in his six starts. He’s fared much better out of the bullpen, with four excellent outings following a shaky first one. The Pirates have announced that he pitch in relief for now. That may work out well, but it’s far from the #2 starter the Pirates envisioned when they acquired him.
Diego Moreno, RHP (AA): With an upper 90s fastball, a good slider and very good control, Moreno looked like he could provide the Pirates as soon as this year. Instead, his velocity is down slightly and he has a 4.94 ERA divided between Bradenton and Altoona. He hasn’t gotten bombed; his opponents’ average is .240 and he’s fanning well over a batter an inning. But it’s not the kind of performance you’d want from a guy with his stuff.
Quinton Miller, RHP (A+): Miller signed for a well-above-slot bonus in 2008, but has been hampered since by shoulder issues. He’s finally stayed healthy this year, but the results have been a big disappointment. Opponents are hitting .333 against him and he’s striking out less than a batter every other inning, leading to a 7.04 ERA going into June 20. At 21, Miller is a good age for high A, so it’s far too soon to give up on him, but he has to start performing at some point.
Nate Baker, LHP (A+): As an accomplished college pitcher in his second full season as a pro, Baker should be dominating high A, but instead opponents are hitting .300 against him and his ERA is 4.31. He’s looking like a non-prospect at this stage.
Zack Von Rosenberg, RHP (A): Nearly all of the Pirates’ prep pitchers from the 2009 draft are performing in line with expectations, or even a little better, at West Virginia, but that doesn’t include the guy who was supposed to be the most promising of the bunch. Von Rosenberg’s strikeout and walk numbers are good, but he hasn’t shown the stuff the Pirates hoped to see and as a result is getting hit hard. Opponents are batting .292 against him and he’s allowing a HR every five innings, which is an extremely high rate for low A. He’s been an extreme flyball pitcher, which obviously isn’t helping. He’s pitched well in four of his last five starts, but despite being considered fairly advanced for a prep pitcher he appears to have a long ways to go.