2010 Pirates Preview: Pitching and defense

Who’s here for now? Zach Duke and Paul Maholm have seemingly been Pirates forever and that’s not something likely to change in 2010. That doesn’t mean they’re long-term building blocks in the rotation though, because they’re probably not going to be Pirates for the proverbial long haul. They’re both getting in to their arbitration years now, and as middle-to-back-end left-handed starters, that means they’re heading into the point of their career where they’re going to be worth more to someone else than they are to the Pirates. Neither one is the sort of pitcher that the Pirates are going to build a staff around, and so they may not be traded this year, but they probably will in the next two or three years.

In terms of 2010, the duo may be in line for a bit of a performance reversal. Maholm followed his strong 2008 season up with what most viewed as a disappointing 2009 because of an ERA jump from 3.71 to 4.44. His BABIP took a jump to .325, though, and his raising ERA was a bit surprising because his home run rate took a big dip. Even if his homer rate jumps back up in 2010, his performance could move back towards 2008 levels a bit. Duke, meanwhile, saw his ERA dip below his FIP for the first time in his career and with the loss of several key defensive players from last season (which, to be fair, will affect Maholm as well), Duke could be in line for a bit of regression.

Who might be around for a while? Charlie Morton certainly falls firmly into this category. He finally started to bring his Major League walk rate in line with his career minor league line (he walked 3.7/9 with the Pirates last year compared to 4.3/9 in his minor league career, though he was at 3.1/9 in Triple-A in 2008) and as a result he pitched pretty well for the Pirates save his nightmare start at Wrigley Field. If he can start to move his strikeout rate (just 5.8/9 with the Pirates last year compared to 7.3/9 in the minors) northward a bit and keep his control and his strong groundball rate (49.0%), then this could be a breakout season for him.

I like Ross Ohlendorf and I’ve written about him a lot, but I think that he’s ultimately one of those guys that only Pirate fans get excited about. He’s interesting to me because of the work he’s done with Joe Kerrigan to be much better than I anticipated and his quest to rediscover his fastball was informative, but unless he starts throwing gas and moving his strikeouts towards eight per nine innings, he’s going to be a mid-rotation guy. In reality, he’ll likely disappoint some fans no matter what he does this year because, as has been noted here and many other places, his peripherals weren’t as good as his performance last year and he’d probably have to improve significantly on the mound to ensure a second season like that.

Kevin Hart throws hard and the team likes him, but he needs to throw strikes regularly. Nothing much else to say.

He’s just ziss guy, you know? Dan McCutchen throws strikes and has decent stuff, but that’s about it. He’s a Josh Fogg-type guy who will fill in ably while someone like Hart is straightening himself out, but it’s usually not a great sign for a team if someone like him makes a significant amount of starts.

Neal’s bullpen: Assuming that Jack Taschner and Hayden Penn both make the opening day roster, the Pirates will field seven bullpen pitchers who weren’t with the club when Neal Huntington took over in 2007. In fact, six of those seven guys weren’t with the Pirates last season. With Joel Hanrahan (acquired way back in June of 2009) on the DL, Taschner, Penn, Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, Javier Lopez, and DJ Carrasco will join Evan Meek in Huntington’s Great Experiment. Since none of these guys are young except for Meek and Hanrahan (who were great pickups by Huntington as hard throwers who’ve corralled their control trouble to some extent in Pittsburgh, though Hanrahan will allow a homer sooner or later with the Pirates and he won’t keep his sub-2.00 ERA going this year) how the bullpen performs this year is more a reflection on Huntington’s ability to put a bullpen together from table scraps. To be honest, I like the way things are shaking up; Dotel, Donnelly, and Carrasco are solid relievers if healthy and Lopez and Taschner have been impressive this spring. Health and age are an obvious questions with Dotel (36), Donnelly (38), and Lopez (36), but this is at least an interesting experiment.

Finally, the defense: Subject of much discussion this off-season is the Pirates’ defense and how losing Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, and Nyjer Morgan for the entire season will affect the pitching staff. Ronny Cedeno isn’t a great replacement for Wilson; his career UZR/150 at short is -5.6 and at this point in his career it’s possible that his defense just isn’t that good. Clement will obviously have his share of struggles at first base as well, since he’s still going to be learning on the job. Beyond that, though, it’s possible that the team defense is going to be better than we expect. People rave about Andy LaRoche and Andrew McCutchen, but their UZRs weren’t great last year (McCutchen was -0.7 and LaRoche was +5.3). There’s a lot of variability in UZR, though, and since both are young players I think they could make big strides this year. At second base, I don’t think Akinori Iwamura is a huge downgrade over Freddy Sanchez, and in left field it’s true that Lastings Milledge’s defense probably won’t be as good as it graded out last year, but Milledge looked, to my eyes at least, much better than the nightmare stories that we’d all heard when he was traded to the Pirates.

That’s not to say I don’t think the D will take a hit, because it will. The groundball pitchers, specifically Duke and Morton, will probably suffer a bit for the loss of Wilson at short, especially if Cedeno can’t improve over past performances. I’m not sold that they’ll be completely terrible, though. This is something that’s important to watch this year, especially in Milledge and LaRoche. Both of these guys have bats that might not ever be above average in the positions they’re currently in, but if we learned anything from Nyjer Morgan last year it’s that good defensive performance is worth something and both players can sell their cases for long-term starting roles with good defensive performances.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.