By John Perrotto
The Pirates have brought four players to the major leagues in the last two years who have become integral parts of their lineup in second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata and center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
Now the Pirates believe a group of starting pitchers at the upper levels of their farm system will be the next wave of youngsters to become the next wave of prospects to reach Pittsburgh. The Pirates have high hopes for Class AAA Indianapolis left-handers Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson and right-hander Brad Lincoln, and Class AA Altoona left-hander Jeff Locke and right-hander Bryan Morris.
Owens, the Pirates’ minor-league pitcher of the year each of the last two seasons, has won his first two starts for Indianapolis with a fine 1.35 ERA. He has allowed 10 hits in 13 1/3 innings with two walks and eight strikeouts.
Owens, 23, can reach 93 mph with his fastball but usually sits in the 88-90 range and complements the heater with a curveball and changeup. While none of his pitches can be considered outstanding, he has well above -average command of all three and consistently throws strikes.
“What I really like about Owens is his mound presence,” said a scout, who regularly covers the Pirates’ organization. “Nothing ever rattles him and you’d think he was a 30-year-old instead of a kid making his Triple-A debut. He’ll never ‘outstuff’ anybody but he’s going to be a good big-league pitcher because he’s smart and puts his pitches exactly where he wants to.”
Wilson is 1-1 with a 3.00 ERA in three starts. He has struck out 14 in 18 innings while allowing 12 hits and seven walks.
Wilson, 23, is a rare power lefty who can run his fastball up to 95 mph and routinely throws it at 91-93. His curveball and slider also rate a tick above average but the key for Wilson is to begin throwing them for strikes more consistently.
“I like him but I’d like him a lot more if threw the ball over the plate,” the scout said. “He’s got the pitches to be a successful big-league pitcher and you can see he’s very confident after having pitched in big games in college (at Fresno State). If he can learn to hit his spots better, you’re looking at a No. 2-type starter in the big leagues.”
Lincoln has gone 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in three starts while recovering from a bruised forearm he suffered when struck by a batted ball during a spring training game last month. However, his peripheral statistics have been decent as he has allowed 16 hits in 9 2/3 innings with no walks and 14 strikeouts.
Lincoln struggled in his first taste of the major leagues last season, going 1-4 with a 6.66 ERA in 11 games, nine starts. With Lincoln turning 26 on May 25, the Pirates want to determine this season if he is in their long-range plans and the braintrust reportedly is thinking of bringing him to the major leagues in the next few weeks.
“I think he’s eventually going to wind in the bullpen,” the scout said. “He’s got a really aggressive mindset but it works against him. He’s always looking to go hard, hard, hard and you can’t pitch like that and be a successful starting pitcher unless you’re Nolan Ryan. I could see him being good if you put him at the back end of the bullpen, give him the ball for an inning or two and let him air it out.”
Despite being winless, Locke has pitched well at Altoona as he is 0-2 despite a 2.30 ERA in three starts. He has struck out 16 in 15 1/3 innings while walking only two and allowing 14 hits.
Locke, 23, has shown excellent command of all his pitches as evidenced by his low bases on balls total. He throws a sinker that reaches 94 mph and sits in the 90-92 range to go with a curveball and a changeup.
“He’s very much like Owens,” the scout said. “His stuff is decent but his pitchability is just off the charts. He never loses his cool and he throws strikes.”
Morris is 1-1 with a 3.14 ERA in three starts. In 14 1/3 innings, he has allowed 12 hits but has the same number of walks and strikeouts–nine of each.
Morris, 24, throws a sinker that can hit 96 mph but is usually at 91-93. His curveball, slider and changeup all look like plus pitches at times but are inconsistent.
“He has the best arm of any of these guys but he hasn’t made much progress in the three years he’s been with the Pirates,” the scout said of Morris, the last player left from the 2008 trade in which Jason Bay was shipped to the Boston Red Sox. “Sometimes, you look at him and think he’s a top-of-the-rotation guy. He’s got to throw more strikes. If his command is like it is now, he’ll get killed if they send him up to Triple-A.”