By John Perrotto
Photo: David Hague – Inside Pittsburgh Sports.
Pitchers and catchers report to Pirate City in Bradenton today and thus begins another season for the Pirates.
Owner Bob Nutting says the Pirates will be better than last season but he isn’t exactly walking out on a shaky limb with that prediction. After finishing 62-99 last season and having a last-week rainout help them avoid 100 losses, the law of averages say the Pirates almost have to be better. It would be hard to be worse.
Regardless, the Pirates seem certain to suffer through their 18th consecutive losing season, which would extend their North American major professional sports record for ignominy that was set last year. The Pirates would need a 19-win improvement just to get to .500 and that seems highly unlikely.
Regardless, it’s time to take a closer look at the 2010 Pirates. Since it’s the day pitchers and catchers report, the starting rotation would be the logical place to start.
The Pirates will have surprisingly little competition for spots in the rotation despite finishing 13th in the 16-team National League in runs allowed last season with an average of 4.77 per game.
Left-handers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm and right-handers Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf are set as the front four with right-handers Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen set to battle for the last spot.
It has become clear that Duke is not headed for the stardom that was predicted when he burst onto the major-league scene in 2004. However, he has quietly reduced his ERA in each of the last two seasons from 5.53 to 4.82 to 4.06. Duke won 11 games last season, tying Ohlendorf for the team lead, and there is something to be said for being a double-digit winner on a team that was in the league in runs scored with an average of 3.96 a game.
Maholm had a lackluster 2009 season as he went 8-9 with a 4.44 ERA following an outstanding spring in which he dominated Grapefruit League hitters.
He did not reveal until the final days of the season that he had pitched through a knee injury he suffered late in the spring. Maholm should presumably be healthier this season , which should lead to better performance from a pitcher who maximizes his ability.
It will be interesting which Morton will show up this season. Will it be the Bad Charlie, who was tagged for 10 runs in one inning last season by the Cubs at Chicago in mid-August or the Good Charlie who returned to the Wrigley Field during the final weekend of the season and pitched a four-hit shutout. The talent is there but the jury is out on the confidence and competitiveness.
Ohlendorf was one of the few bright spots in the Pirates’ dismal 2009 as he won a spot in the starting rotation in spring training then ran with it under the tutelage of pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.
Ohlendorf was remarkably consistent for a pitcher who had made only five major-league starts prior to last season as he allowed three earned runs or less in 20 of his 29 outings. The Pirates did the smart thing by shutting Ohlendorf down early to keep his innings count down and should be rewarded with a pitcher who is strong and ready to build on last season’s success.
Hart was just awful last season after being acquired from the Cubs in a trade on July 30 as he went 1-8 with a 6.92 ERA in 10 starts. He throws hard but endlessly dawdles on the mound and runs up high pitch counts, leaving some to believe he would be better off being used in relief.
McCutchen is 27, which is kind of old to still be considered a prospect but he did not make his major-league debut until late last season, going 1-2 with a 4.21 ERA in six starts.
McCutchen doesn’t have great stuff but if he comes close to replicating his minor-league rate of 7.3 strikeouts and 1.9 walks per nine innings, he certainly would be a pretty good fifth starter.
Brad Lincoln, the Pirates’ top pitching prospect, will likely get a start or two in the early exhibition games so the major-league staff can evaluate his progress.
However, Lincoln is headed back to Class AAA Indianapolis until at least June as the Pirates don’t want to start his service-time and salary-arbitration clocks any sooner than need be. He could also use a little time more time in the minors after posting a 4.70 ERA and allowing 72 hits in 61 1/3 innings at Indianapolis last season following his promotion from Class AA Altoona.