Ross Ohlendorf will make his first start for the Pirates since April 8th tonight. The Pirates haven’t announced what they plan to do with their rotation now that Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia are on the disabled list, but it seems to be a safe bet that both Brad Lincoln and Ohlendorf will be getting their share of starts until one of those two return, if they return at all in 2011. That’s not an awful plan, but I think it’s time to move on from the “Ohlendorf as a starter” experiment, both to see what he’s capable of in the bullpen and to see what someone else can do in the rotation.
When the Pirates acquired Ohlendorf in 2008, he’d been bouncing back and forth between starting and relieving in the Yankees’ system ever since they acquired him as part of the second Randy Johnson deal after the 2006 season. The Pirates put him in the rotation in Triple-A, saw some good things, and let him make a few starts at the end of the 2008 season. He got a spot in the rotation in 2009 and for the first part of the season, he got roughed up quite a bit. His velocity was way down, Joe Kerrigan was trying to get him to use his sinker more but he wasn’t seeing a huge spike in ground balls as a result, and the results were pretty predictably unimpressive. As the season wore on, though, he found his fastball and his strikeouts crept up to an acceptable level and he finished 2009 on a pretty strong note.
Ohlendorf started 2010 with some struggles, went on the disabled list with a back problem, then pitched pretty well when he came back despite only registering one win. The problem was that his 4.07 ERA was every bit as misleading as his 1-11 record. His strikeouts increased and his homers decreased, but his walks increased, his groundball rate plummetted, and his fastball velocity barely ticked up at all. It was true that he didn’t deserve his 1-11 record, but his FanGraphs page from 2010 is like a giant red flag, especially given his injury.
This year, he made two starts before going on the DL with a shoulder injury. He’s made seven rehab/minor league starts in the last month or so. He’s thrown 37 innings in those starts and struck out just 21 hitters. I’m going to guess that his velocity isn’t going to be that great when he comes back. I don’t want to be negative, but my hopes aren’t up very high for his performance at the end of 2011.
We know that he’s capable of ramping his fastball up to 94-95 mph and we know that he’s had durability problems ever since spending a full season as a starter in 2009. So my question is this: why not just put him in the bullpen and tell him to cut loose with his fastball and see what happens? The Pirates can use someone like Jeff Locke for a couple of starts until Maholm’s ready again (which might be fairly soon).
The Pirates probably won’t do this, mostly to protect Locke (and to not put Brian Burres or Garrett Olson in the rotation, which are probably the other options), but it’s hard for me to see much upside for Ohlendorf in the rotation at this point. I am curious what he’s capable of as a reliever, though, and I think now is as good a time as any to start finding out. Most likely, though, we’re going to have to wait until next season for that.