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Back-End Bucco Starter: Ross Ohlendorf

For an organization that has made a concerted effort to develop young pitching talent, the Pittsburgh Pirates have little to show for it. Barring a miracle rivaling the whole…turning water into wine deal, the Bucs will break the most ignoble record in baseball this year, passing the 1933-1948 Phillies for the most consecutive losing seasons in history.

The path to 17 years of futility necessarily entails a confluence of poor decisions, but an alarming number of high-round pitching prospects have flamed out spectacularly. We know that pitchers are in general a more volatile lot than hitters, but this list is very telling.

Paul Maholm stands happily as an exception to the rule, but Kris Benson, Bobby Bradley, Sean Burnett, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington have more scars than major league victories.

The major league staff offers little comfort either. Maholm is a solid mid-rotation starter, but Ian Snell and especially Tom Gorzelanny regressed in 2008. Zach Duke is a pitch-to-contact lefty on a team with serious issues converting balls put in play into outs.

Noting a severe lack of depth, GM Neal Huntington acquired three-fifths of the New York Yankees’ AAA rotation last July in the Nady/Marte swap: Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen. Let’s meet the trio, starting with Ohlendorf.

For a 2004 fourth-round pick with 69 big league frames to his name, Ohlendorf has certainly had an eventful career. Originally popped out of Princeton by the Diamondbacks, the big right-hander was shipped to the Yankees as part of the Randy Johnson barter in January of 2007 and was again on the move at least year’s trade dealine.

The strapping 6-4, 235 pounder looks like a power pitcher, and he can indeed dial up his fastball to the 93-94 MPH range when needed, while supplementing the gas with a low-80’s slider. While the stuff suggests potential dominance, Ohlendorf’s K rate in the minors (7.4 per nine innings) is more sturdy than flashy. Combine that with above-average control (2.3 BB/9), however, and Ohlendorf starts to look pretty interesting.

While fairing quite well at the upper levels of the minors (including a 117/37 K/BB in 140.1 IP at AAA), Ohlendorf has posted a 5.01 FIP in the big leagues. He has missed some bats (7.57 K/9), but has also been a bit too liberal with the base on balls (4.3 BB/9) and homers (1.43 per nine).

The 26 year-old is currently locked in to the fourth slot in an adrift Pittsburgh rotation, but it remains to be seen whether or not Ohlendorf might project better as a two-pitch hurler out of the ‘pen (a role he experimented with at AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in ’07 and with the Bombers last season). He rarely utilizes his low-80’s changeup (thrown 6.5% in the majors), which might explain why southpaw hitters have gone all Chipper Jones against him in an admittedly small sample: .359/.428/.608 in 173 PA.

Of course, having two offerings of note gives the Ivy Leaguer two more weapons than some among a collection of C/C+ prospects and waiver-wire flotsam tossing their respective hats into the starting picture.

In terms of 2009 projections, PECOTA is none too impressed (5.01 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 3.0 BB/9 in 110 IP, with the majority of those innings coming in relief). CHONE is bullish on Ohlendorf the reliever, with a 3.65 FIP, 8.02 K/9 and 2.95 BB/9 in 64 innings out of the ‘pen. Bill James has Ohlendorf making 13 starts while doing his best Yoslan Herrera (who?) impersonation (5.66 ERA), though his FIP is a less-grisly 4.47. Zips also has Ross with an ERA (5.60) far surpassing his FIP (4.42) while splitting his time between the rotation and relief work.

The reason? Pittsburgh again projects to be among the worst defensive squads in the majors. Pirate leather took on plenty of water in ’08, ranking 28th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, and nearly the same cast of statuesque characters returns this spring. A guy with ordinary whiff rates like Ohlendorf is going to be subject to the quality of his fielders, an unpleasant thought given the personnel on hand. James projects a .355 BABIP for Ohlendorf, while Zips comes in at .344.

The Pirates will understandably give Ohlendorf the opportunity to prove one way or another which role he should fill at the major league level. This is, after all, a club that gave 5 starts in 2008 to the guy with the highest ERA in major league history.

Until the Rinku and Dinesh era commences, the Bucs will try to find some useful low-cost arms at the back of the rotation and hope that a likely reliever like Ohlendorf can find something that dips or fades against southpaws. In this organization, Million Dollar Arms are in short supply.