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Pirate Scraps: Zach Duke

In an unsurprising move, the Pittsburgh Pirates designated pitcher Zach Duke (along with third baseman Andy LaRoche and infielder/outfielder Dewlyn Young) for assignment on Friday. Like most Pittsburgh hurlers, Duke 2010 numbers were dreadful, so the move made sense for the team. However, this does not mean that Duke shouldn’t be given a serious look by other teams assuming the likely scenario of him becoming a free agent. That’s right, teams should be looking over some of the Pirates’ table scraps.

Pittsburgh’s pitching was expected to be the weak spot on a 2010 poor team, and in fact they would not even manage seven wins above replacement as a group. Lefty Zach Duke was thought to be to be a potential source of stability, but despite the league-wide drop in scoring, Duke’s 5.72 ERA was the worst of his career. A 4.95 FIP wasn’t quite so bad, but was still pretty bad given the run environment, and over 159 innings Duke managed just under half a win above replacement. This was a serious disappointment after his 2.0 WAR in 2008 and 2.5 WAR in 2009.

As David Golebiewski pointed out back in September, however, Duke’s inflated 2010 ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. Duke’s high BABIP (.347) was likely influenced by the poor infield defense behind him. Although Duke did a better than average job of keeping the ball on the ground, his bad fortune on fly balls (nearly 14% in 2010, league average is around 10-11%) lead to more home runs. His xFIP, which normalizes not only batted ball issues but also home run rates, was more respectable 4.48 (although his tERA was a career-worst 5.19). While Duke did issue a few more free passes than in the past, his walk rate was still better than average. He isn’t a strikeout pitcher, but his strikeout rate was significantly higher than in the previous few seasons. In other words, he probably isn’t as bad as he looked in 2010. CHONE’s last update puts his true talent, context-neutral component ERA at 4.65; depending on the level of attrition how many innings he can be expected to pitch in 2011, his 2011 projection is probably between one and 1.5 Wins. That isn’t great, but it isn’t useless. That would make him a decent back -of-the-rotation starter for most of the league.

It made sense for the Pirates to let Duke go. Duke was paid about $4.3 million dollars in 2010, so his likely award for 2011 (his third season of arbitration) would be at least five million dollars, probably closer to six million. That isn’t far off from what his projection says he would be worth on the open market, but given the Pirates’ location on the win curve, spending that kind of money on a poor starter past the point of having significant “upside” doesn’t really make sense for the franchise.

However, assuming the Pirates don’t try to bring Duke back at a lesser salary (and/or that he isn’t interested in doingn so), other teams should take a look, and probably will. FIP and xFIP don’t tell the whole story, but in Duke’s case there isn’t a great discrepancy between his career ERA (4.54) and xFIP (4.40), so his xFIP for 2010 is probably a better representation of his true talent. His tendencies towards low walks, low strikeouts, and ground balls point to the possibility that Duke could be a left-handed, poor man’s Carl Pavano. That isn’t terribly exciting, but we aren’t talking about a premier free agent. We’re talking about a pitcher whose value might be down due to a poor ERA in 2010 and thus might come cheap relative to his expected value. He won’t anchor a rotation, but if you compare his combined peripherals and projections to other pitchers, he could be a good #5 or swing-man for a contender or a #4 for a team in transition. Even rebuilding teams need to put players on the field, but back-end starters are not unlike fourth outfielders — most teams shouldn’t give up significant money or talent to acquire them.

Duke is left-handed and will be only 28; so some teams might overvalue him and pay him his market value (which might make sense in a few cases) or more. If not, he could provide value and stability for a non-contender at two or three million dollars for 2011. That is not chump change, but it is a better use of that money than on the veteran utility players and mediocre relievers on whom teams so often blow payroll.