The Pittsburgh Pirates organization is considering Ross Ohlendorf for one of the club’s vacant starting pitcher slots. The Pirates’ best starter in 2008 – Paul Maholm – managed just nine wins on the year but amassed a club-leading 206.1 innings with 201 hits allowed. The next closest innings total was 185, by Zach Duke (who also gave up 230 hits). Ian Snell also contributed a disappointing season, as did Tom Gorzelanny.
Ohlendorf spent the majority of the 2008 season at the Major League level in the bullpen with the New York Yankees. He was then inserted into the starting rotation for five starts with the Pirates after coming over in the Xavier Nady/Jose Tabata swap. The right-handed pitcher was originally selected out of Princeton University by the Arizona Diamondbacks in the fourth round of the 2004 amateur draft. He was sent to New York in a deal for Randy Johnson prior to the 2007 season.
In 2008, Ohlendorf made 12 minor league starts – five for the Yankees and seven for the Pirates. He also made 25 relief appearances in New York and allowed 50 hits in 40 innings (more than 11 hits per nine innings). His strikeout rate was good at 8.1 K/9 but he struggled with his control and posted a walk rate of 4.3 BB/9.
In five starts with Pittsburgh, Ohlendorf allowed 36 hits in 22.2 innings of work. His rates were even worse in the starting rotation, as his strikeout rate plummeted to 5.2 K/9 and his walk rate rose to 4.8 BB/9. Combined on the season, he allowed a BABIP of .373 and a line-drive rate of 23.5%.
Given that it was Ohlendorf’s first significant season in the Majors, he could be given a bit of a break. A lot of players struggle in their first MLB season and then go on to have great careers. But the truth of the matter is that Ohlendorf’s minor league numbers were never that great. He’s shown good control with a walk rate of 2.3 BB/9, but he’s allowed 562 hits in 520.2 minor league innings. The 6’4” hurler has not allowed fewer hits than innings pitched in a single season since his debut in short-season ball in 2004.
Ohlendorf has good stuff – his fastball averages out around 93.5 mph and he throws a good slider and an occasional change-up – but he is still learning how to pitch and he’ll turn 27 in 2009. Working in his favor for 2009 is that the Pirates don’t have any clear help in the upper minors, aside from Daniel McCutchen, who also came over from the Yankees in the Nady trade. The biggest threats to his starting aspirations, with MLB experience, are Phil Dumatrait and Jeff Karstens. Dumatrait, a southpaw, spent the 2008 season acting as a swingman for Pittsburgh and was not effective. He allowed 82 hits in 78.2 innings and posted rates of 4.81 BB/9 and 5.95 K/9. Karsten, another acquisition from the Yankees, pitched OK for the Pirates in nine starts but his success came from smoke and mirrors. He is also suffering from elbow soreness, which could delay his 2009 season.
Ohlendorf is as deserving of a shot at starting as any other pitcher in the Pirates system. But that speaks more to how poor the other options are, than it does about his chances of success.
Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.