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Pirates Pick Olsen Off the Scrap Heap

While his moves didn’t exactly make Ken Rosenthal and Jon Heyman all hot under the collar, Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington was busy at the Winter Meetings. Huntington and company selected infielder Josh Rodriguez with the first pick in the Rule V draft, acquired RHP Cesar Valdez to complete the Zach Duke deal, and signed outfielder Matt Diaz and RHP Kevin Correia to two-year free agent contracts. While the deal isn’t yet official, the Pirates have also reportedly come to terms with free agent lefty Scott Olsen on a one-year, $500,000 deal with a $4 million club option for the 2012 season. Olsen’s pact allows him to earn an additional $3 million in incentives based on starts made in ’11, according to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick.

Olsen won’t turn 27 until January. But the pitcher dubbed the 36th best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2006 is now a journeyman due to injuries and a fastball that gets hit so hard and so far that NASA’s considering hiring him to launch things into orbit once its Space Shuttle program ends next year.

As a 22-year-old rookie with the Florida Marlins, Olsen punched out well over eight batters per nine innings pitched and posted a 4.04 expected fielding independent ERA (xFIP) in 180.2 innings. However, instead of building upon his 2.3 win season, Olsen imploded, with his strikeout rate and fastball velocity dipping. In 378.1 combined innings over the 2007 and 2008 seasons, Olsen K’d just 5.85 hitters per nine. His heat dropped from an average of 90.9 MPH in 2006 to 90.1 MPH in ’07 and a startling 87.8 MPH in ’08. Olsen’s xFIP was 4.95 both years, and he racked up just 1.5 combined WAR over those two seasons.

Florida traded Olsen and Josh Willingham to the Washington Nationals in November of ’08 for a package including Emilio Bonifacio, Jake Smolinski and P.J. Dean. Olsen got throttled early on, hit the DL with shoulder tendinitis in mid-May and threw his last pitch of the year in July. Olsen’s line in 62.2 IP: 6.03 K/9, 3.59 BB/9 and a 4.91 xFIP that suggested he was at least mediocre rather than Ponson-esque, as his 6.03 ERA indicated (the culprit was a near-.350 BABIP). Unfortunately, Olsen’s fastball velocity didn’t return (he sat at 88 MPH) and he underwent labrum surgery in late July.

This past year was more of the same for Olsen: ample DL time and mound drubbings. He missed over two months with shoulder inflammation from late May to late July, and then was shut down with shoulder soreness in mid-September. Tossing 81 innings, Olsen had a 5.56 ERA.

His peripherals were more promising, though. He had 5.89 K/9 and 3 BB/9, while posting the first above-average ground ball rate (46.5%) of his career. That could be significant, as changes in ground ball rate stabilize rather quickly (after about 150 batters faced; Olsen faced 357 batters in 2010). Olsen’s xFIP (4.39) was his best mark since his rookie year, and his ERA wouldn’t have looked so ugly if his BABIP (.321) and rate of stranding runners (63%) were closer to his career marks (.307 and 68.3%, respectively).

Seemingly realizing that Mr. Magoo could square up his fastball (his heat has a career -1.23 run value per 100 pitches thrown), Olsen shifted his pitching approach. He threw his 89-90 MPH fastball just 50.2% of the time, relying more upon a low-80s slider and changeup. For comparison, Olsen threw his fastball about 62% in 2006, 70% in 2007, 63% in 2008 and 56% in 2009.

Olsen signed with Pittsburgh for scraps because he’s possibly damaged goods, he has to pitch backwards and, even if you view his recent work through an optimistic lens, he’s still a below-average starter who neither piles up strikeouts nor displays plus control. That said, there’s nothing for Huntington and the Pirates to lose here. If Olsen’s shoulder acts up again, the team can painlessly cut its losses. But if Olsen stays reasonably healthy and retains his ground ball gains, he could be worth more than his salary even with incentives as a 1-2 WAR pitcher.

It’s a low-risk, medium-to-low-reward sign. But it’s not bad as far as dumpster diving goes.