Over the off-season, Tim Alderson went back to an old throwing program he used in high school, long tossing from distances of 300-350 feet in order to rediscover the arm strength he lost in 2009. The Pirates were able to get him from the San Francisco Giants in 2009 after his velocity dropped and his stock fell in the organization. However, Alderson’s prospect status hit bottom in 2010, as he was demoted from Double-A, and then later struggled in high-A.
In 2011, Alderson entered the season in the Altoona bullpen. He had success as a reliever in the first half, seeing a velocity increase to the upper 80s, and seeing his sharp curveball return. In the second half he struggled, with his velocity falling back to the mid-80s.
With the help of the new throwing program, Alderson was throwing in the 90-93 MPH range this Spring. He’s maintained the throwing program, and has maintained the velocity in the first two months of the 2012 season.
“Going well,” Alderson said of the throwing program. “I’ve been able to find some guys that want to do it also. Its kind of nice to have someone to do it with me and not have it be a big effort to try and find someone. I feel like it’s really helping my arm strength and now that I’m starting be able to go longer into games and not get tired.”
The right-hander started the season with seven shutout innings in Altoona’s bullpen, striking out eight and walking one. He was promoted to Indianapolis, although the promotion was made more from a need in the Triple-A bullpen. The Pirates had called up Brad Lincoln to replace Jeff Karstens in the majors. They also placed Shairon Martis on the Triple-A disabled list, forcing the need for two pitchers from Altoona. Alderson and Kris Johnson got the call. After giving up two runs on five hits in four innings, spread out over two appearances, Alderson was sent back to Altoona.
“It was huge,” Alderson said of his first Triple-A experience. “I got to face some guys that have been in the big leagues before. Everyone up there is really experienced, so they know what they were doing so if you make a mistake, they’re going to hit it. Just knowing that you’ve got to keep the ball down at all times. I’m trying to do that here. If I do get a chance to go back up, I’ll be ready and not make the same mistakes I did.”
Alderson returned to the bullpen, but this time the Pirates had a new plan: converting him to the rotation. In his first appearance back in Double-A, he threw three shutout innings. He threw two more extended outings, getting up around 50 pitches before being moved back in the rotation on May 15th.
“They left it open to me,” Alderson said on the decision to move back to the rotation. “I kind of wanted to get back into it because it’s been a while. That’s what I was before. If it doesn’t work out, I can always go back. I kind of just took the opportunity and I’m running with it.”
“Tim has thrown well over some extended outings down there so the thought process was, with a couple prospects being down in the rotation, to let Tim see if he can get stretched back out,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said of the move. “He’s been very open about his desire to start. If Tim is able to carry that same stuff that he’s shown out of the bullpen in extended outings over five or six innings, then we’ll continue to start him. If the stuff backs up, then we’ll go ahead and acknowledge that he’s probably better suited for the bullpen and move him back. This is Tim’s opportunity to go out and show that he can sustain that caliber of stuff over 85 to 100 pitches at some point down the road. But right now it would be 75-85 that he’ll get built up to. If he’s able to do it, he continues to start. If not, we’ll go back to having a guy that’s a solid multiple inning relief candidate.”
In his first start, Alderson gave up three runs on six hits in five innings. Wilbur Miller was at the start, and noted that Alderson was 90-91 in the first, touching 93. He dropped in to the upper 80s in the second and third innings, then rebounded to 90-91 in the fourth and fifth. His command struggled a bit in the final two innings.
“A little bit,” Alderson said of his command. “I think I was just trying to do too much. I was thinking out there a little bit instead of just throwing the ball. I’m just trying to transition back into the starting mentality and just get after hitters.”
Most of Alderson’s damage came in the fourth inning, when he gave up two of his three runs on the day. He made his second start on May 20th, and had a much easier time. Alderson cruised against Erie, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing two hits, no walks, and striking out three. He needed just 60 pitches to get through seven, throwing 44 strikes.
It seems like Alderson has been around forever, but he’s still young. He doesn’t turn 24 until November, and during his time in Indianapolis he was the youngest player on the roster, edging out Starling Marte by a month. Heading in to the season he didn’t look like he had a major league career ahead of him. He finished the 2011 season struggling in the Double-A bullpen and throwing in the mid-80s. But Alderson has made some major strides to revive his prospect status this year.
The added velocity doesn’t sound like much, but Alderson doesn’t need to throw in the mid-to-upper 90s to be effective with his fastball. His jerky delivery adds deception, and he has good movement and good location with his fastball. His curveball is a big breaking pitch that can be used for strikeouts or ground outs. Alderson has been getting both this year. He’s got 20 strikeouts in 28 innings in Altoona, and a 1.50 ground out to air out ratio.
A thing to watch will be the velocity later in the year. Alderson had a velocity increase last year, but regressed in the second half. It will also be important to keep track of his velocity as he gets in to the fourth, fifth, and sixth innings as a starter.
Alderson adds value if he can have success in the rotation. Heading in to the 2009 season he was considered one of the top 50 prospects in baseball by Baseball America. That was when he was a starter, when his fastball was in the low 90s, and when his curveball was considered a plus pitch. He now has all three things back, although it’s too soon to say that he’s a top prospect again.
One thing to watch going forward will be the development of a third pitch. Alderson has been working on a slider and a changeup lately, and he’s starting to incorporate the pitches in to his starts.
“I threw a couple last start, but they didn’t go so well,” Alderson said of his secondary pitches. “But in my bullpen a couple days ago went really well.”
Because he’s still age appropriate, the book hasn’t closed on Alderson. He’s made some big strides this year, and the move to the rotation, combined with success in the first two starts, is a great sign. He still has work to do, mostly proving that this isn’t an early season fluke, but also maintaining his velocity in starts and developing a third pitch. He ended the 2011 season with very little chance of ever seeing the majors. Now his chances look good of not only making it to the majors, but possibly making an impact.
Jordy Mercer on a Hot Streak in Triple-A
The Pittsburgh Pirates added Drew Sutton from the Atlanta Braves, sending the utility infielder to Indianapolis. The Indians already have a full roster, which combined with the offensive struggles in the majors leads to some speculation that help could be on the way.
One potential option could be Jordy Mercer. Mercer has been hot in May, hitting for a .338/.394/.400 line in 65 at-bats. He is primarily a shortstop, but can also play second base and third base. Indianapolis doesn’t have a lot of hitters hitting up to their potential right now, so if they call someone up, Mercer would make the most sense.
Last week Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington talked about Mercer’s recent hot streak in Triple-A:
“Part of the reason that we didn’t go out and get a “veteran” utility player was because we felt between Josh [Harrison] and the trade for [Yamaico] Navarro and Jordy that we had strong candidates internally to fill that utility middle infielder role at the Major League level,” Huntington said. “The other guys had better spring trainings. But Jordy has certainly done a nice job for us down there. Trying to get Chase [d’Arnaud] back on track, coming back from a concussion. He’s scuffling. But Jordy’s bounced all over. [He’s] played all three infield positions and has done some damage with the bat.”
Reyes Pitching Well, But No Spot For Him
Jo-Jo Reyes is having a great season in Indianapolis. The 27-year old left-hander has a 2.09 ERA in 43 innings, with a 33:8 K/BB ratio. He’s struggled against right handers, with a .312 BAA, although he has dominated left-handers with a .136 BAA.
The Pirates aren’t short on pitching depth and talent. They don’t have many glaring holes on the major league roster. The big weakness is Kevin Correia, although Brad Lincoln and Jeff Locke would be the first players in line to take that rotation spot. That doesn’t leave much of a chance for Reyes to crack the majors.
“We signed Jo-Jo and brought Daniel Cabrera back because we felt that if they were pitching the way that they are capable of, that they could help us at the Major League level — be it out of the rotation or the bullpen,” Huntington said. “Jo-Jo two starts ago [May 7th] was outstanding. He commanded all his pitches, used his pitches well. Last outing [May 12th] wasn’t the same command. Does his stuff play up a little bit out of the bullpen? But we also have a lot of guys at the Major League level that are pitching very well right now. There’s not a real open spot for anybody to come in and take. But if Reyes and Cabrera continue to do what they’re capable of and what they’re doing, they can help us at some point. And maybe allows us not have to bring one of our young pitchers up before they’re ready to go.”
If the Pirates can’t find a spot for Reyes, or Cabrera, and there is an opportunity elsewhere, they will allow them to pursue that opportunity.