Pirates early season preview part 9: Starting Pitching

 I apologize for not being able to post this entry last night, however I was feeling very sick. I am better now and this will be my only post today as it is New Year’s. Just as a reminder, I thank each and every one of you for reading my blog. Whether you are a brand new reader or a loyal tried and true reader, I appreciate your support, and ask for you to continue your support for years to come. I also wish each and every one of you a happy and healthy New Year.

 Here is the projected Pirates rotation as it stands today:

 1. James McDonald

 2. Paul Maholm

 3. Kevin Correia

 4. Ross Ohlendorf

 5. Charlie Morton

 6. Scott Olsen

 Meanwhile MLB Network projects this as the rotation:

 1. James McDonald

 2. Paul Maholm

 3. Kevin Correia

 4. Scott Olsen

 5. Ross Ohlendorf

 James McDonald came along with Andrew Lambo in the trade that sent Octavio Dotel to the Los Angeles Dodgers. I was at McDonald’s Pirates debut, and he looked dominant against the Colorado Rockies striking out a career high eight hitters. For me he compares to Ian Snell minus the attitude. He also is a lot more consistent. “I was just real excited today and ready to be on the mound and to get a chance to start every five days,” said McDonald on the start. “I was having fun today. When you get ahead, pitching can be fun.”

 McDonald showed throughout his tenure that he is closest to ace material for the Pirates. That does not say much, but once he became a Pirates, he got down to business and he has the fastest and most devastating pitches of the starters.

 McDonald also had a 20 inning scoreless streak as he shut out the Atlanta Braves on September 7 and the New York Mets on September 13. The streak ended September 18 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, but he bounced back and still won the game 4-1. That start perhaps impressed me the most, as many pitchers would have had the scoreless streaks in their head and then imploded once a run was allowed. Allowing the run early in the game helped McDonald settle down and concentrate and even give his team the win.

 Perhaps the biggest support McDonald received was from Jack Moore of Fangraphs who called McDonald an “ace” and even called him the biggest steal of the 2010 MLB Trade Deadline.

McDonald finished with an overall record of 4-6 with a 4.02 ERA, however one of those losses occurred when he was with the Dodgers.

 Paul Maholm has perhaps pitched like our ace in recent years, however he has been perhaps the most inconsistent of all of the Pirates starters in recent years. I broke down his stats in a previous post, but last year he gave up 225 hits in 185.1 innings and that is not that great.

 He did start 32 games which shows that he is healthy and not injury prone, and that is reassuring. Still Maholm was right up there for most losses in the Majors and finished with a 9-15 record, sometimes a victim of poor run support. Maholm also had a fielding percentage of .938.

 It is worth noting that Maholm seemed to pitch a bit better with Ray Searage as his pitching coach, and it is important to the Pirates that Maholm succeeds because as the pirates.com projects, he would be the only lefty in the rotation. Maholm, like almost all of the Pirates starters does not have the speed on his fastball, and thus location will be very important to Paul.

 Kevin Correia came to us as a free agent and a pitcher last season for the San Diego Padres for 2 years and $8 million. Correia was not a part of the Padres rotation come season’s end, and that could be a concern, however, you have to remember that the Padres were on the cusp of being a playoff team last season and the Pirates were not even close.

 Correia finished 10-10 last season with a 5.40 ERA. He appeared in 28 games, starting in 26 of them. My concern is his 145 innings pitched, because if you remember a couple of seasons ago, Ross Ohlendorf was having a great season, but because of his low innings count the season before, the Pirates limited and eventually shut down Ohlendorf. I think that Correia will have a nice season, but I worry that come September, Correia will be out of the mix because his innings count will be too high.

 Ross Ohlendorf was a deceptive pitcher as he consistently lost but was the victim of poor run support. His 1-11 season was clearly a fluke. Ohlendorf was consistenly injured throughout the season and a few of the losses were his fault, but often times the team would either score zero or one run in his start putting added pressure against Ohlendorf. Perhaps putting him in the fourth spot will be manageble for Ohlendorf who can put the injuries aside and get some support with a new look line up.

 Charlie Morton had a great 2009 and the team had high hopes for him to be a breakout star for the team. It is easy now to say that they should have known better. His first start was on April 8 against the Arizona Diamondbacks and he started out great striking out his first five batters. But in his 3.1 innings pitched, he allowed 8 runs. Morton lost all five starts in April posting a 12.57 ERA. Morton earned his first win on May 5 against the Chicago Cubs by a 4-2 decision. He couldn’t put anything together losing his next four games and then was placed on the disabled list with shoulder fatigue and a 1-9 record.

 After rehab and a meeting with a sports psychologist, he was sent to AAA Indianapolis.

 Speaking before his first start with the Indians, Morton said “I was pressing. I wasn’t being myself on the mound those last couple times I went out there in Pittsburgh. There was so much going on in my mind. At the end of last year, I finished strong, I got a glimpse of what I could do, truly, in the big leagues, going out there and going deep into games, being competitive, being someone who was pretty good. I wanted to be out there for myself and because I care about this team and organization. At the same time, though, after that last one, that last start, because I care about these guys is why, exactly, I knew I couldn’t go back out there again.”

 He earned his first win in AAA when the team defeated the Durham Bulls on June 24.

 He was re-called by the Pirates when Ohlendorf was injured, and in his first start against the Milwaukee Brewers, he gave up 8 runs in 3 innings.

 Things got more encouraging with Morton as the season drew closer to an end. When Searage took the pitching coach job, Morton seemed more in his element. In a game I attending in mid-September, Morton was the scheduled pitcher and I happened to be close to where he entered and he seemed in control even saying “hi, how are you” to me. He got the win that day and looked like a changed pitcher. His final start was October 2 against the Florida Marlins, and although the team lost 2-0, things were encouraging as Morton struck out a career high 9 strikeouts. Morton finished with a 2-12 record with a 7.57 ERA but after that August call-up he had a 4.26 ERA.

 Morton is the clear wild card, so it will be interesting to see what he has to offer. Will we see the April 2010 version of Charlie Morton where he could not get a break, or will we see the September/October 2010 Charlie Morton where he was the aggressor attacking the strike zone and getting much more positive results? Spring Training will tell the tale, but Morton is a clear front runner for the fifth spot.

 While Morton was projected a starter on the Pirates website, Olsen took his place on the MLB Network projections. He signed for cheap with the Pirates this offseason, but he could get a lot more because of all of the performance bonuses he could earn. Hopefully Clint Hurdle can rid Olsen of his attitude problem, and if he does, I like Olsen in the rotation. My concern with Olsen is that he is essentially, a poor man’s Zach Duke. He can give up a ton of hits (he gave up 226 hits in 176.2 innings for the Marlins in 2007) and really bring up that pitch count. In Colorado pitchers pitched an average of 93 pitches per game under Hurdle, and if Olsen is giving up a ton of hits, then he will not last that long.

 Olsen finished with a 4-8 record and an ERA of 5.56 for the Washington Nationals last season. He appeared in 17 games starting in 15 of them. Despite a small portion size, he had a perfect fielding percentage as well, which could help an infield which constantly made errors. Olsen also has another thing going for him as he is left-handed. Currently Maholm is the only lefty in the rotation and Olsen could perhaps balance out the rotation a little bit more. It looks to be a battle between Olsen and Morton for that fifth spot. Whoever loses will leave an interesting decision for Hurdle and management as they could prove to be valuable as long relievers but perhaps there time could be better utilized as starters in AAA. Still that would be a huge blow to Morton’s new found confidence and Olsen could blow another gasket and get into more confrontations.

 A long shot for the role of fifth starter is Brad Lincoln. Lincoln was selected by the Pirates with the fourth overall pick in the 2006 MLB Draft. By drafting Lincoln, the team passed on other current proven talent in Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer and Tim Lincecum. It is easy to say that now, as who knows what would have happened if one of these three were in our rotation.

 On Wednesday June 9, Lincoln made his MLB debut against the Nationals after a 6-2 record in AAA before the call-up. In his six innings, and gave up five earned runs and walked two and struck out three.

 He earned his first Major League victory on June 30 against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Pitching seven innings while striking out six and walking one in the Pirates 2-0 win. “I felt like it was going to be my day. With the wind blowing in, I used it to my advantage,” said Lincoln.

 Lincoln was demoted to AAA Indy after his first loss of the season July 25 against the Padres. Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington cited a drop in Lincoln’s velocity since he was promoted and that he had strayed from the mechanics that made him a prolific starter with Indianapolis. “For me, it’s probably the best move,” said Lincoln. 

 Lincoln was a September call-up but was essentially useless as the Pirates did not use him in any critical moments.

 Lincoln finished the season 1-4 with a 6.66 ERA. He appeared in 11 games and started in 9 of them. In his 52.2 innings, he gave up 66 hits, 42 runs (39 of them earned) and 9 homers. He also walked 15 and struck out 25.

 While Lincoln’s pitching may not have been great, he did have a .400 average, making him a good hitting pitcher. He went 6 for 15 at the plate and drove in 3 runs.

 Lincoln may be a long shot because of his pitching, but perhaps his bat will give him some consideration as the season wears on.

 There are other names on the rise as well, and one of them is Rudy Owens. Rudy Owens was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 28th round of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft. It is not exactly the place where a name is made, but thus far Owns has made a pretty big impression on the Pirates.

 He is left-handed and with the rotation surprisingly loaded on righties Owens will definitely have the Pirates attention. Things started slowly for Owens in 2007 and 2008, but in 2009, things improved for Owens as he went 10-1 for the West Virginia Power with a 1.70 ERA. He then went 1-1 with a 3.86 ERA for Lynchburg.

 Owens spent all of the 2010 season in Altoona. He appeared and started in 26 games and finished with a record of 12-6 with an ERA of 2.46. He pitched 150 innings allowing only 124 hits and allowed 46 runs (41 earned). He only walked 23 hitters while striking out 132 hitters.

 Lastly, before I make my projections, I will say another farewell to Zach Duke. Duke was a great person, but I believe that Joe Kerrigan screwed up his delivery. In 29 starts, Duke finished 8-15 with an ERA of 5.72. His 15 losses are tied for the second most losses in a season in his career (he had 16 losses in 2009).  In his 159 innings, Duke gave up 212 hits, 115 runs (101 earned). He also allowed 25 home runs and walked 51 while striking out only 96 people. Duke did seem to bring it together with Searage at the helm, but his option was way too much money.

 Finally, here is my projections for the rotation come April 1 as well as the rotation that would make sense:

Projected:

 1. James McDonald

 2. Paul Maholm

 3. Kevin Correia

 4. Ross Ohlendorf

 5. Charlie Morton

 Makes sense rotation:

 1. James McDonald

 2. Paul Maholm

 3. Kevin Correia

 4. Scott Olsen

 5. Ross Ohlendorf 

 The reason why I project that is that the Pirates have a lot of options. Morton had a lot going for him in September. Perhaps that is reason to get rid of him because in 2009 he had things going for him once he got his chance but couldn’t put it together in 2010 until the very end. Olsen is left-handed as said before and that helps his case. If he has a good spring, I think that management gives him the nod. I put the makes sense rotation the way I did because it mixes the righties and lefties and at least gives opposing teams something to prepare for on a more regular basis. I am not suggesting that this has to be the rotation, I mean if Morton has a better Spring, then by all means give him the job, but if they have an even Spring Training or Olsen has a better Spring Training, then give Olsen the nod and put Ohlendorf in the fifth spot.

 Wow, that was a long post! I hope to my next post on the Pirates relievers up very soon. The only apparent locks in that department right now are Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek. I will talk about them and others, as well as my pick for the Pirates closer job.

2 Comments

nice job, i enjoyed reading about what we have going for next year, really hope morton is not a starter, i go with this, tabata LF, cutch CF, Garrett RF, Overbay/Doumit 1B, Walker 2B, Cedeno SS, Pedro/Atkins 3B, Snyder C

Garrett will platoon but he will see most of the time since there are more righties out there. Doumit has no chance of starting at first since his defense is atrocious especially there. Atkins I expect will make the roster as he goes back to Hurdle’s Rockies days. Keep reading Nick, I have part of my Zack Hample interview coming out tomorrow.

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