Sunday, March 20, 2005

Duke Vs. Williams

There's a lot of buzz about Pirate prospect Zach Duke right now. While I don't want to break up the party, I'd like to suggest that it wouldn't be wise for the Pirates to give Duke a rotation spot to start the year.

Four of the five members of the Pirates' rotation will be Oliver Perez, Kip Wells, Mark Redman and Josh Fogg. That is certain. There are four pitchers in camp competing for the last spot: Albie Lopez, Ryan Vogelsong, Zach Duke and Dave Williams.

Lopez is a worse option at this point than Rick Reed was last year, and that's saying a lot. He was a marginal pitcher when he was in his heyday, and he's been out of baseball for a year. As fifth starters go, he's a last resort. And, fortunately, the Pirates have no need for last resorts right now.

Vogelsong was one of the worst starters in the majors last year, both from a statistical perspective and an I'm-gonna-throw-my-cup-through-the-TV perspective. This spring he has walked nearly as many as he has struck out. While it is often foolish to worry much about spring performances, Vogelsong's hardly inspires confidence. He was a scrub as a starter last year, and he'll probably always be one if he continues to start, no matter how many 95 MPH fastballs he throws. It would not surprise me if he became an effective reliever, however.

That leaves Duke and Williams. Duke is entering his age-22 season, he was one of the best pitchers in the minors last year, and he has been excellent this spring. There are lots of good reasons to get excited about him. He has never pitched in AAA, however. Last year, Jose Castillo was impressive in spring training, so the Pirates promoted him to the majors even though he had never played at AAA. The Pirates' decision to do this was defensible - with Freddy Sanchez on the shelf, the Pirates' only other reasonable options at second were Abraham Nunez and Bobby Hill. If it were possible to create a second base platoon in which one player did all the fielding and another did all the hitting, Nunez and Hill would have been perfect. Unfortunately, Second Base DH is not a position, so neither player was an adequate solution. So the Pirates called up Castillo, who was, predictably, a mess with the bat. Castillo showed promise but little in the way of results, and now he'll go to arbitration one year earlier.

The Duke-Williams situation is different from the Castillo-Nunez situation, in that Williams is actually a fairly good player. He had a downright excellent year at Nashville in 2004 and was effective in limited time with the Pirates. He was also a productive member of the Pirates in 2001 before he went down with a torn labrum, and it's worth pointing out that Williams' strikeout and walk numbers suggest that he is a much better pitcher now than he was then. He's not having a spectacular spring, but his ERA isn't astronomical and his K:BB ratio is solid.

I'm as excited about Zach Duke as anyone - he's worthy of all the press he's getting. But the Pirates stand to lose a lot by calling him up now. He could pull a Castillo and be ineffective. And no matter what happens, he'll definitely chew up service time and become expensive more quickly.

Even Dave Littlefield admits the Pirates aren't likely to contend this year. While the chances that Duke will become some sort of phenomenon and shut down the league are greater than the chances that Williams will, the Pirates will experience no long-term baseball benefit if that happens. And, most importantly, Dave Williams is actually a very good option as a fifth starter. The Pirates should leave Duke at Indianapolis for now and call him up when someone gets injured, or in June or July, after the time spent in the minors causes his arbitration timetable to be pushed back a year. If the Pirates called Duke up right now, they'd be doing it to excite the fans. Not only could that plan backfire if Duke flopped, it would involve sacrficing a chunk of the future for the present, and the Pirates can't afford that strategy anymore.


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