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Good pitchers hard to come by with Pirates

| Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Pirates' pitching appears to have taken a significant turn for the better, if not undergone a complete reversal of fortune. It only took about 20 years.

During a span even longer than their infamous streak of 18 losing seasons, a time in which the organization failed to develop or acquire a top-quality, consistent starter or reliever, the Pirates have been saddled with arguably the worst pitching in Major League Baseball.

But this year's stunning improvement, plus a gathering platoon of young arms, finally indicates a course correction.

"We have focused on bringing in and stockpiling (pitchers) from every possible channel we could," Pirates owner Bob Nutting said. "We've said it now for three years, whether it's a clear focus on the draft, which is proving to be an effective tool for us; a clear focus on international (signings); or some of the trades that (general manager Neal Huntington) has made. ... We're moving in the right direction."

Pirates starter Paul Maholm recently was asked which pitcher has won the most games for the club in the past two decades. He had no idea. Second baseman and lifelong fan Neil Walker guessed Denny Neagle, a good try but wrong.

The answer is Paul Maholm. His 166 starts since 2006 are more than any other National League left-hander, but he has just 49 wins, the lowest total by far for any franchise's top winner since 1991.

In fact, every other team has at least two pitchers with more wins than Maholm since then. That includes Arizona and Tampa Bay, which played their first games in 1998.

Such neglect has left a lot of damage to repair.

"The problems have been a combination of things," said Bob Walk, a Pirates broadcaster and former pitcher. "There have been some bad decisions by different management teams over the years, and there's been some bad luck involved."

Cam Bonifay, the general manager from 1993 to 2001, said money was a major obstacle. As he diplomatically put it, "We were under certain criteria and restrictions. We tried to make sure we stayed inside certain parameters."

Bonifay also cited injuries to several first-round picks and the instability of having three ownership groups and five general managers in the past 20 years. "The evolution kept starting all over again," he said.

Also, he acknowledged, "We made some bad decisions, too."

Although offensive and defensive shortcomings should not be overlooked, pitching has been the main culprit in the team's losing ways. The Pirates ranked no better than 10th (of 16 NL teams) in team ERA in the past 11 years and no higher than 14th in the past four. Their 5.00 ERA in 2010 was last among MLB's 30 teams.

Through Friday, their 3.54 team ERA was eighth in the majors.

"This is the best the staff has pitched to this point in the season in quite a while," said Steve Blass, another ex-Pirates pitcher turned broadcaster.

Starters Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton and reliever Joel Hanrahan are flashing All-Star credentials. Since 1993, the first of the 18 straight losing seasons, just four pitchers -- Evan Meek, Zach Duke, Mike Williams twice and Neagle -- have represented the Pirates on All-Star teams, the fewest in baseball by far. The other teams have averaged 14 All-Star pitchers during that time.

Meek, Neagle and Williams were the Pirates' lone selections in their years, meaning somebody had to represent the club. Williams made the 2003 team with a 6.44 ERA. He was soon traded to Philadelphia and disappeared from baseball after the season.

Trying to fix it

Although the Pirates and other so-called small-market clubs exercise fiscal restraint, the current regime is investing heavily to fill a hole a generation in the making. The Pirates have spent more than $30 million on draft picks in the past three years, the most in MLB and much of it on pitching. The $2.6 million paid to 16-year-old Luis Heredia last year was a club record for an international signing. The spending will continue on the current draft crop.

"We have been and will continue to be aggressive with our investments in the draft and, when the situation allows, we will continue to be willing to pay higher than (MLB-recommended) bonuses for players we feel warrant such consideration, with the goal of adding talent to our system," Huntington wrote in an email.

The Pirates now emphasize signing big, hard-throwing pitchers. Heredia; Jameson Taillon, the No. 2 pick in 2010; Stetson Allie, last year's second-round pick; and Gerrit Cole, the No. 1 pick Monday, all fit the mold.

"Power pitchers, which we haven't had much of with our (earlier) high choices, can get away with their mistakes," said Blass, who averaged 16 wins for the club from 1968-72. "The Paul Maholms and Zach Dukes can't get away with their mistakes because they're not hard throwers."

Before Cole, the Pirates took pitchers Kris Benson (1996) and Bryan Bullington (2002) with No. 1 picks. Benson never won more than 11 games with the team, enduring Tommy John surgery and a publicly dysfunctional marriage. Touted by then-GM Dave Littlefield on draft day as a "No. 3 starter," Bullington never was that good. He won his first big league game in 2010 with Kansas City and now is pitching in Japan.

The Pirates drafted pitchers in the first round for six straight years from 1998 to 2003. The five draftees not named Paul Maholm won a total of nine big league games for the Pirates — seven by 2000 draftee Sean Burnett. John Van Benschoten (2001) was 2-13, and his 9.30 ERA is the highest in big league history with a minimum of 75 innings. Clint Johnston (1998) and Bobby Bradley (1999) never set foot in the majors.

Not all were considered the best talent available. They were, however, affordable. So was first-rounder Daniel Moskos in 2007, after which the Pirates changed their philosophy.

"There have been a lot of drafting mistakes," Walk said. "The last couple of years, we have drafted the absolute best guys we could. In other years, that wasn't always the case."

Benson, Bradley, Van Benschoten, Bullington and Burnett — the Killer B's — had significant arm problems at some point. So did Brad Lincoln, the first-round pick in 2006.

"Everyone has injuries," said Spin Williams, the Pirates' pitching coach from 2001-05. "Unfortunately, we had a high percentage of them, especially early in their careers. ... In today's market, you have to develop starting pitching, but it's very difficult. There are so many variables: being able to draft those impact guys, keeping them healthy. And once they get to the big leagues, they've got to figure out they belong there."

But it wasn't injuries alone. Nothing seemed to work, not even unleashing the checkbook. In July 2007, the Pirates traded for Matt Morris, whose best days were long past. The club paid about $14 million to Morris, who was cut in April 2008 and promptly retired. For that they got 16 starts, three wins, a 7.04 ERA and endless ridicule. Littlefield got fired.

'And we end up trading him'

The Pirates' last high-quality pitcher for at least a five-year period was Doug Drabek, who played so long ago that his son, Kyle, now pitches for the Toronto Blue Jays. The elder Drabek won the Cy Young Award in 1990 and had 92 wins with a 3.02 ERA from 1987-92. Then, he signed a free-agent deal with Houston seven months after the Pirates traded 20-game winner John Smiley.

Sustained pitching greatness simply is not in the Pirates' DNA. Probably only the most die-hard fan can name the career franchise wins leader, Wilbur Cooper, who won 202 games for the Bucs and last pitched in 1926. Several excellent pitchers have worn the Pittsburgh cap during the franchise's 125 years, but not one wears it on a Hall of Fame plaque in Cooperstown.

The Pirates have had just one 15-game winner since Drabek. It was Todd Ritchie (1999), a one-year wonder like Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Oliver Perez and Duke. All flashed briefly before fizzling.

Others left too soon. Jason Schmidt won 44 games with the Pirates and, after he was traded, 78 with San Francisco in roughly the same amount of time. Bronson Arroyo won nine games in three years with the Pirates and averaged 14 wins with Boston and Cincinnati in the past six seasons.

Tim Wakefield won 14 games in two seasons before his release in April 1995. Grabbed by Boston, Wakefield trails only Roger Clemens and Cy Young in wins in Red Sox history.

"He lost his knuckleball and couldn't get it back," Bonifay said of Wakefield. "And then he found the knuckleball."

"It takes guys three to five years to go through the growing pains ... to really find themselves at the major league level," Williams said. "Jason Schmidt is one of those guys who it took four or five years of going through some nagging stuff and then figuring things out, and we end up trading him."

The 1997 "Freak Show" Pirates that stayed in contention until the final week of the season had a rotation with three pitchers who became All-Stars -- after they left the Pirates: Schmidt, Jon Lieber and Esteban Loiza.

"You can't continually lose and trade away top-flight pitchers," Bonifay said. "That was the economics of the Pirates at the time. I didn't complain, and I still don't. That's just the reality of where we were."

The news is better these days.

"I'm excited about the ballclub overall," Blass said, "and the pitching in particular."

Arms race

Pitcher (active years with Pirates) Record, ERA

Paul Maholm (2005-) 49-66, 4.39

Zach Duke (2005-10) 45-70, 4.54

Jason Schmidt (1996-2001) 44-47, 4.39

Denny Neagle (1992-96) 43-35, 4.02

Kris Benson (1999-2004) 43-49, 4.26

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