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Pirates pitching woes go back decades

The Pittsburgh Pirates have many areas to seek improvement, but there biggest need is starting pitching.

Will the Pirates get any return at all from the hoards of pitchers GM Neal Huntington has brought to the ‘Burgh over the last few seasons?   Will Rudy Owens or Jeff Locke be able to help next season, and how long will it take fire-balling 2010 draftees James Taillon and  Allie Stetson plus 16-year-old Mexican bonus baby Luis Heredia to arrive at PNC Park?

The answers to those questions likely will determine if the Pirates can get back to respectability in the next three or four years.

I know that the Pirates’ pitching has been bad over the years, but  I hadn’t realized how pathetic the situation had become until I did a little research.

John SmileyLet’s start with a quiz.   Who was the last Pirate to win 20 games?   If you guessed John Smiley in 1991 treat yourself to a box seat at PNC Park in 2011.   You’ll have plenty of arm and leg room and won’t have to fight for a vendor.

Since Smiley in ’91, 202 pitchers in the major leagues have won 20 games in a season.   And since Todd Ritchie, the last Pirate to win 15 games in 1999, there have been 1,076  pitchers who have won 15.   Even worse, Smiley in ’91 was the last pitcher drafted and developed by the Pirates to win 15 games for the Pirates.   That’s a span of almost 20 years.

Since then, the three most successful pitchers the Pirates have developed are Bronson Arroyo, Esteban Loaiza and Rick Reed. The trio combined to win 40 games for Pittsburgh with each pitching 3-4 years in the ‘Burgh.

Arroyo was waived by Pittsburgh and is 94-79 over eight seasons with Boston and Bet the Pirates would like to have Bronson Arroyo backCincinnati, posting between 14 and 17 wins five times.

Loaiza was traded to the Rangers in the Warren Morris deal, went 99-86 with seven different clubs over 11 seasons since leaving Pittsburgh.   As you may recall, Loaiza won 21 games and finished second in Cy Young voting in 2001.

Reed was released by Pittsburgh and went on to win double-digit games six consecutive seasons, including 15- and 16 games  for the Mets and making two All-Star teams.

Even the Royals have had two 15-game winners since Ritchie, including a home-grown Cy Young winner in Zack Greinke.   The Nats-Expos franchise has three hurlers, including home-grown Javier Vazquez.   Even the pitching-challenged Rangers have seven 15-game winners since 1999, including four from their own farm system.

All four expansion teams have easily outperformed the Pirates; the Rockies (9 15-game winners since 1999, four homegrown), Marlins (6,3) and Diamondbacks (12,1) have combined for 26 pitchers with 15 wins.   The Rays (2,1) had two 15-game winners this season in David Price and Matt Garza.

Only the Milwaukee Brewers (1, 1) can match the Pirates’ futility.

Neil Huntington hasn't done the job bringing in pitching as plannedHuntington has concentrated on acquiring pitchers in trades over the past few years but what has been the return on investment?

At the major league level, All-Star Evan Meek (Rule V Draft) and Joel Hanrahan (Burnett, Morgan deal) have displayed power arms and the ability to dominate the late innings.

But what about the rotation hopefuls acquired?  Charlie Morton (McLouth deal), Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen (all in the Nady/Marte deal) have been underwhelming.   The faulty foursome had a combined 8-38  record in 76 starts, although Ohlendorf has a chance to to last long term.  Top prospect Brad Lincoln won just once in nine starts.

James McDonald, acquired from the Dodgers in the Octavio Dotel deal, won four James McDonald won as many starts as Ohlendorf, Karstens, Morton, McCutchen and Lincoln combinedgames by himself in just 11 starts.   J-Mac pitched extremely well and will be in the rotation next season along with Paul Maholm and Ohlendorf.

Injuries have also hit the Bucs.   Power arm Craig Hanson (Bay deal) was supposed to be the closer, but he couldn’t hit the proverbial side of a barn door and pitched the last month of the season after being out since April, 2009 because of a nerve condition behind his right shoulder.   Kevin Hart and Jose Ascaino (both in the Gorzelanny/Grabow deal) were out all season with arm problems and are marginal at best prospects.
Huntington said that all of these pitchers were considered major league starters when acquired, but that was a stretch to believe back then and even more so now.

Well maybe the myriad of kids that Huntington acquired and are now toiling in the minor leagues will be the salvation?   Think again.

None are considered Grade-A prospects and only one, Locke (McLouth trade), has won 10 games – nine at Class A Bradenton.     Locke and Bryan Morris (Bay deal) seem to be the furthest along;  both dominated at Bradenton and started well at Class AA Altoona.

Pittsburgh does seem on the right path with Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, but developing pitchers has been a struggle for decades.

Pittsburgh gave up on Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, but Paul Maholm and Zach Duke just haven’t developed into anything other than bottom-of-the-rotation starters.   Brad Lincoln was rushed, the Karstens- Ohlendorf-Morton-McCutchen quartet has been a bust and they’re just isn’t any help on the horizon.

Maybe we can get Todd Ritchie or “Big Daddy” Rick Reuschel back?

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I'm a life-long, suffering Pirates fan who is old enough to remember the Lumber Company, the "We are Family" World Series winners and Roberto Clemente, Bob Prince and "Green Weenies." You can reach me at kenttekulve29@yahoo.com or on Twitter @PiratesProperty.

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In response to “Pirates pitching woes go back decades”

  1. Pat Leonard Oct 13 20106:39 pm


    Happy 50th Anniversary Bill Mazeroski.

  2. matt w Oct 14 20108:59 am


    I wish you wouldn’t use wins as the measure of pitcher quality. A pitcher can’t get a win if the team doesn’t score, so the club’s lack of 15-game winners can be an indication that they aren’t scoring runs as much as that their pitching is bad.

    Take Ohlendorf — he was 1-11 this year, so you might think he stank up the joint. But if you check his ERA+ (ERA adjusted for parks and compared to league average), it was 100 — exactly average. (Which is actually above average for a starter, because relievers have lower ERAs on the whole.) It looks like the Bucs just had an awful time scoring runs for him.

    [Now, his other statistics say he should actually have had a higher ERA than he did, but still not as bad as his W-L would indicate.]

    That said, you’re right to say that he’s showed potential and that the Morton/Karstens/D-Cutch haven’t been good (though the last two were basically throw-ins on that deal). But you have the same problem with the minor-league arms. It’s true that a prospect guru like John Sickels doesn’t give any of them an A grade, but you have to understand that Sickels doesn’t give out many A grades at all. He gave Bryan Morris a B- before his good season, and B- is a good grade coming from him.

    1. Jim Oct 14 20108:23 pm



      Thanks for reading. Good point on wins. It’s true that poor run support and defense can impact wins, however I believe the lack of wins still demonstrates the point of Pittsburgh not developing pitchers in regards to other teams.

      I ran an ERA+ sort on B-R.com from 1990-2010 and 121 pitchers finished higher than the top Pirate over that period, Oliver Perez at 145 in 2004. As for homegrown Pirates, Randy Tomlin in 1991 and Kris Benson in 2000 reached 121. There have been 468 pitchers with a higher ERA+, including four homegrown Marlins, four Brewers and three Tampa Rays.

      I think it says something when the best Pirates starter in my lifetime is John Candelaria – a good pitcher and a one-time 20-game winner – but not a stud.

      Another example of how bad Pittsburgh has been with pitchers is first-round picks. The Pirates selected nine first-rounders from 1990-2006. Seven reached the majors and have a combined 132-183 record with ERAs between 4.42 and 9.20. Benson and Paul Maholm have accounted for 117 of those wins.

      It also can be pointed out that Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Zach Duke and Maholm were all once considered top young pitching prospects in the major leagued 3-4 years ago. Each of them has regressed and Duke is likely to be third sent packing before 2011.

      I think Ohlendorf has a chance but prospects like Owens, Locke and Morris, who hit low 90s, are all suspects because of their velocity. I hope one or two of them make it because the Bucs have a huge hole in their rotation for several years to come.

      Thanks again.

      1. matt w Oct 15 20108:40 am


        Thanks for the reply! Absolutely no argument with the overview of the PIrates’ big league pitching since ’92 — it’s been awful, and the first-round pitchers have been particularly bad. (Thanks for Bryan Bullington, Dave Littlefield!)

        I’m a little more optimistic than you about the minor-leaguers. One point that Huntington seems to understand is that you can’t count on any individual pitching prospect, so you need to throw a bunch at the wall and see who sticks. So there are also folks like Justin Wilson and Nathan Adcock with a shot at making it — even if any individual prospect has a low chance of being a good MLB starter, when you put them all together we might get someone out of it. Through most of the Littlefield years we just didn’t have that kind of pitching depth in the low-middle minors.

        Thanks again.

  3. Jer Oct 14 20105:33 pm


    I don’t think that Lincoln was rushed. He was drafted out of the University of Houston in 2006. He missed 2007 because of Tommy John surgery. So he pretty much had two and a half seasons of being in the minor leagues before being called up to the majors. If he was a high school player, that would be rushing things a bit. But he was a college player and so the time table for him should be shorter than a high school player.

  4. Christopher Rowe Oct 14 201011:13 pm


    Agreed that is has been pretty grim for 20 years. Makes the We Are Fam-ilee years special as well as the fact that the Pirates played down to the wire against the Atlanta Braves at the beginning of their 14 year consecutive postseason run (with former Pirates Sid Bream and Zane Smith contributing).

    You pointed out “Even the Royals have had two 15-game winners including a home-grown Cy Young winner in Zack Greinke. The Nats-Expos franchise has three hurlers, including home-grown Javier Vazquez. Even the pitching-challenged Rangers have seven 15-game winners since 1999, including four from their own farm system. All four expansion teams have easily outperformed the Pirates; the Rockies (9 15-game winners since 1999, four homegrown), Marlins (6,3) and Diamondbacks (12,1) have combined for 26 pitchers with 15 wins. The Rays (2,1) had two 15-game winners this season in David Price and Matt Garza. Only the Milwaukee Brewers (1, 1) can match the Pirates’ futility.

    Well the expansioners had the expansion draft as an advantage. Also for Milwaukee, they rented CC Sabathia for the 2007 stretch run and made the playoffs. While Sabathia’s AL wins didn’t count in the National League he would have exceeded your win total. Ergo, Milwaukee has not been as futile as the Pirates. Not only did the Brew Crew make the playoffs as a wildcard, they’ve had many more winning seasons, winning pitchers and a more supportive fan base.

    FACE IT… Pittsburgh management has run a once proud franchise into the longest stretch of pronounced losing in the modern era. Rockies, Marlins, Diamondbacks and (Devil) Rays didn’t even exist last time Pittsburgh hit the postseason (1991) and all four have been in World Series play (Marlins won twice, Diamondbacks once, Tampa Bay lost in 2008, Colorado lost 2007). How can such a proud seminal baseball city allow its Pirates to suffer when they have a beautiful ballpark and fantastic support of the Steelers and Penguins?

  5. pharmacy technician Dec 19 20107:25 pm


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