Pitching stock loaded at all levels
Strength lies in lower affiliates, and some aren't far away
LOS ANGELES -- One of baseball's most tossed-around adages remains as true as ever: You can never have enough starting pitching.
The month of April only reiterated that further for the Pirates, who saw injury and ineffectiveness test the club's Major League-ready depth almost immediately. While the Bucs know what options they have to get through 2010, how does the depth look for '11 and beyond?
One month of Minor League results isn't the best of sample sizes. And, of course, numbers are hardly the only benchmark for projections. There's upside, mental makeup, age and mechanics, among other things.
Yet, up to this point, the pitching results largely mirror what the organization already knew, which is that the Pirates' pitching strength lays in the lower Minor League levels.
The early-season success of the organization's high Class A and Double-A clubs can be attributed largely to the pitching side of things. Bradenton's 3.38 team ERA ranked fifth in the 12-team Florida State League as of Monday. Altoona was third among 12 teams in the Eastern League with a 3.16 ERA.
That may not mean a lot to the fans in Pittsburgh, given the immediate need for upgraded big league pitching. What it could signify, though, is that the organization will be better prepared to deal with similar adversity in the future, as more of these intriguing arms ascend through the system. Of the best 25 pitching prospect in the system, 18 sit in high Class A or below.
"I think it's appropriate to say that our strongest depth is at our lower levels," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We like the Double-A rotation. As far as guys who have a chance to be Major League starters, the two [Class] A clubs have some guys who we like a lot. And that doesn't include Zack Von Rosenberg and Colton Cain and Zack Dodson and some other guys who are still in extended Spring Training."
It's no secret that the Pirates love a bunch of the arms accumulated through the past two Drafts, particularly the recent one. There are others, too, in the higher rungs of the system -- some selected by the previous regime and others acquired through trades -- that pique some interest.
No one knows if a future big league ace will emerge from this bunch or even how many quality Major League starters could be budding. But with their current pool of options, the Pirates believe their pitching depth could soon improve.
"Ace pitchers don't grow on trees," said director of player development Kyle Stark. "I think it's the combination of getting the right player, but also the development of them. We feel like there are guys we have that have some legitimate power weapons that strike guys out and log a lot of innings and could ultimately pitch their way into being an ace someday."
Who could fall into that category? What names are worth keeping an eye on? Here is a look at the most notable starters from Triple-A on down:
Key starters: Brad Lincoln, Donnie Veal, Daniel McCutchen, Michael Crotta and Kevin Hart.
The Pirates' Major League-ready depth hasn't exactly shined this season, though that doesn't mean the organization doesn't see long-term potential still in Triple-A.
Lincoln is obviously the most notable name in the group. The 2006 first-round Draft pick is expected to be in Pittsburgh before season's end and remains at the top of the organization's pitching-prospect list. Better execution of his offspeed pitches, more use of his changeup and consistent fastball command are the only things keeping him from making the leap.
Veal, a power left-hander, has gotten off to a solid start as he transitions back into a starting role. McCutchen is still seen as a command pitcher with a big league future. And Crotta netted his first Triple-A win on Sunday after earning a promotion last week.
Hart is expected to be lost for the season with a labrum tear in his right shoulder. Regardless, the Pirates continue to believe that he might turn out to be a serviceable pitcher on the big league roster at some point down the road.
"We feel good about our Triple-A depth," Huntington said. "We're just not seeing it perform the way we need to at Triple-A and, in turn, at the big league level."
Key starters: Tim Alderson, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson and Jared Hughes.
The Curve's 16-6 start is largely a product of its pitching, both from the team's starters and relievers. Alderson and Owens are the two most recognizable names, though for different reasons.
Alderson, who was acquired for All-Star second baseman Freddy Sanchez last season, has yet to show the dominance he did in the Giants' system, though the Bucs remain high on his potential. The right-hander is working through some delivery adjustments that all involved hope will result in better velocity.
After unexpectedly emerging as the Pirates' best Minor League pitcher in 2009, Owens continues to be a consistent presence in the rotation and remains on the organization's radar. So, too, does Wilson -- the only pitcher in the Pittsburgh's '08 Draft class to work his way up to Double-A so far.
Hughes may be the least hyped of the four, but he has started the season with four wins in his first five outings.
High Class A Bradenton:
Key starters: Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Aaron Pribanic, Brian Leach and Nathan Adcock.
The organization loves the potential here, and Morris' start to the season has put the right-hander high on the radar again. Seen as the cornerstone in the deal that sent Jason Bay to Boston, Morris has gotten off to a terrific start after a terrible 2009 campaign. In 27 2/3 innings this year, the right-hander has allowed just three earned runs and three walks. He's struck out 26.
"After the delivery adjustments that Bryan has made, I think his upside is even higher than it was when we made the trade," Stark said. "We love what he's done to date. We still have some work to do, but he's made good strides."
While the Pirates see a high ceiling with the 23-year-old, he's not the only intriguing arm that has helped the Marauders jump out to a 14-9 start. Locke, Pribanic and Adcock -- all trade acquisitions last summer -- are names to also watch. And they might not be in Double-A for much longer.
"You've got some arms at high [Class] A that have gotten off to some good starts, and in the perfect world, we are moving these guys up a month from now," Stark said. "But if they show that they're ready, maybe it will be earlier."
Among the five, Morris is most likely to earn the first promotion.
Low Class A West Virginia:
Key starters: Hunter Strickland, Kyle McPherson, Quinton Miller, Phillip Irwin and Nathan Baker.
This staff hasn't been as dominant as some of the other affiliates' rotations, but that's not to say the long-term potential isn't there.
Stark and Huntington have shown they will take a conservative approach with pitchers in the lower levels of the system, which explains why the first three names on this list returned to West Virginia after pitching there last season.
"Our view is that the foundation should be solidified before they go to Double-A," Stark said. "So we may be a little more conservative before Double-A, but once they're there, we feel like the foundation is there and they are ready for the challenge of getting ready for the big leagues. Different guys may take to that quicker than others."
Others: Dodson, Brooks Pounders, Trent Stevenson, Von Rosenberg, Victor Black and Cain.
The cream of the crop of the pitchers acquired in the 2009 Draft are represented in this group. All are expected to play in the Gulf Coast League or with short-season State College (Pa.) this summer. Neither of those seasons begins until June.
The Pirates paid well over recommended slot to lure Dodson, Cain and Von Rosenberg out of college commitments. And while these young arms appear to be years away from the Majors, the Bucs are thrilled about the potential.
"There's a reason why we've talked about trying to get as many different quality arms as possible because a lot of crazy stuff can happen to a guy's life between the ages of 18 and 24," Stark said. "So we're trying to increase our odds."
Black and Cain are recovering from injuries, but all are expected to pitch sometime this season. Black, a first-round compensation Draft pick last year, should return within the next two weeks. Cain, who had back surgery this offseason, will likely begin his season with State College in June.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.