Coming in to the 2011 season, pitching was seen as one of the biggest needs for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The farm system was expected to graduate a few starters and some relief pitching options from Indianapolis to the majors by the middle of the season. That didn’t happen on the starting pitching front, in part because the major league starters were performing so well, but also because the AAA starters were struggling early in the year.
The Pirates have seen help come from the AAA level this year, mostly from the bullpen, but also with a few starters such as Brad Lincoln and Aaron Thompson. A few guys look like they might be candidates to remain in the majors going forward, while there are other guys who haven’t made it yet this year, but are still options going forward. Below is a break down of every pitcher who played at the level this year.
This group represents one of the most disappointing stories from the farm system this year. The Altoona Four of Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, and Bryan Morris were expected to start pushing for a major league spot by mid-June. Instead, Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris stayed down in AA, while Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson struggled in AAA.
Owens was a completely different pitcher this year than he was in previous years. The jump from AA to AAA is the hardest for pitchers, and Owens started off slow. After facing his first struggles in the last two years, he started pressing, which only made things worse. He ended his season on a down note, finishing up on the disabled list with a shoulder injury.
Wilson wasn’t as bad as a starter, with a 4.24 ERA in 110.1 innings. However, he did struggle with his control, walking 57 batters while striking out 78. He moved to the bullpen where he posted a 3.21 ERA in 14 innings, along with a 16:10 K/BB ratio, not really solving his problem of control issues. He was hitting the upper 90s with his fastball, even touching 99 MPH, which is great from a left hander.
Jeff Locke and Aaron Thompson both received limited time in AAA. Thompson struggled in Altoona, was promoted to AAA, and has since made a start in the majors, before returning to Indianapolis for the rest of the season. Locke got the call in the final month of the season, and has made the most of it, with a 2.22 ERA and a 25:9 K/BB ratio in 28.1 innings. He is expected to be promoted to the majors today.
The two guys who stood out the most from this group were former first round picks Daniel Moskos and Brad Lincoln. Moskos made it to the majors this year for the first time, but hasn’t stuck, while Lincoln has made it at times throughout the year, and looks to finally be sticking in the rotation at the end of the season.
Tony Watson has also gotten a shot at the majors this year, and has done a good job out of the bullpen in his time at the level so far, after posting great numbers in AAA. Michael Crotta surprisingly started the year in the majors, but moved down to AAA full time after rehabbing an injury, and was later removed from the 40-man roster. Also removed from the 40-man roster was Jose Ascanio, who was coming back from missing almost two years with a shoulder injury. Ascanio started showing some encouraging signs at the end of the year, with a few starts, including four runs allowed in 15 innings over his final three starts, with a 14:5 K/BB ratio.
One of the guys who impressed the most during his time in AAA was Jared Hughes, who was called up mid-season from Altoona. Hughes put up some nice numbers, mostly thanks to a 96 MPH sinker. He is expected to get his first call to the majors later today.
As for the remaining pitchers, Michael Dubee spent most of the season in Altoona, Donald Veal was injured for most of the year, recovering from Tommy John surgery in the first half, Sean Gallagher was mostly there to anchor the rotation in the early part of the season, and Cesar Valdez was traded to the Florida Marlins for a player to be named later or cash considerations.
Typically this group makes up your depth players, and maybe some emergency options for the majors. The players who stand out from this group start with Ross Ohlendorf, who is on this list due to his injury, and due to the performance of the other starters in the major league rotation this year, forcing the right hander to AAA beyond his normal rehab time.
Chris Leroux has taken some big strides this year, going from a guy who threw in the mid-90s and looked like a candidate to be released, to actually getting demoted to Altoona, and finally returning to AAA and moving on to have success in the majors. A new arm slot has given Leroux much more movement on his fastball, and has made him much more effective out of the bullpen.
Tim Wood and Garrett Olson are the only players who have pitched in the major league bullpen this year from this group. Both players put up strong numbers in AAA this year, with Olson starting in the Indianapolis rotation, and Wood serving as the closer before being traded to the Texas Rangers. Neither player had much time in the majors, although they both struggled with control issues in their limited innings.