Spring Training: Chacon, Armas try to take the fifth

Veterans vying for lone spot in Pirates' rotation

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BRADENTON, Fla. -- By the numbers, it should be easy to predict the Pirates' choice for a fifth starter: Management will make a priority -- a large priority -- of taking the ball every fifth day and, on that criteria alone, Tony Armas Jr. bested Shawn Chacon last season, 30 starts to 20.

And yet, there is the small matter of that Sept. 20 game at Los Angeles' Dodger Stadium.

Chacon pitched that night before a sellout crowd against a playoff-hungry opponent and coasted through 6 2/3 innings, allowing two earned runs and six hits. And he did so with velocity, averaging 94 mph -- once touching 97 mph -- and movement on his offspeed stuff that far exceeded anything he had shown since the Pirates acquired him in July from the New York Yankees.

Pitching coach Jim Colborn, not one given to hyperbole, recalled being floored.

"It was amazing," he said. "You expect and hope for improvement anytime a pitcher makes a change, as Shawn did. But it's not often you see velocity go up at all, much less like that."

Chacon's change was a significant one.

Earlier that month, Colborn revamped Chacon's delivery "more than any pitcher we had all season," as he put it. Colborn had determined Chacon was leading with his head rather than his hips and, as a result, getting less than the maximum whip action out of his arm.

Six days later, Chacon held the Milwaukee Brewers to two runs over seven innings. Next came the game in Los Angeles. Finally, to end his season, he gave up one run through five innings to the Houston Astros, then four runs in an unraveling sixth.

The impression was made.

"He had to completely retrain his body, and he did it willingly," Colborn said. "You could tell in practices that we were really onto something, but the next step was taking that into competition, which is very hard. Your mind can't be on what the body parts are doing. It has to be focused on achieving the outcome, and it was. I was very impressed."

And does that mean Chacon can keep it up?

"I don't know," Colborn replied. "It was only three games."

"I think I can," Chacon said. "Obviously, getting the velocity was the big thing. It had been a couple years, actually, since I threw as hard as I did that night in L.A. But that's why Colby's good. I can't attribute it to anything but the work he did with me on my mechanics. He maximized my power."

Inconsistency has been Chacon's hallmark in six years of Major League Baseball. He is good one year, bad the next.

It remains to be seen how much of a chance he is given this time. In addition to Armas' advantage in starts made last season while with the Washington Nationals, Armas had nine victories to Chacon's seven and a 5.03 ERA to Chacon's 5.82. Moreover, Armas has a clean bill of health while Chacon expects to pitch through pain in his arthritic right knee.

That raises the possibility that the Pirates could keep Armas, whom they signed as a free agent to a one-year contract worth a guaranteed $3.5 million, and cut Chacon. Chacon is signed to a one-year, $3.8 million contract but would be owed only one-sixth of that if cut by mid-March.

The scenario is seen as highly unlikely, though. The Pirates are planning to use the loser of the fifth-starter duel in a long relief role.

"I don't worry about these things," Chacon said. "I'm just worried about getting ready for the season, whether it's here or wherever."

The key to Armas' success, as he freely allows, is maintaining his health.

Although he is coming off his first year without a shoulder issue since 2002, he missed a month last season to a strained forearm that extended a five-year run of arm injuries. And it is that factor, without a doubt, that has played the dominant role in downgrading Armas from the premier prospect who had 176 strikeouts as a 23-year-old with the Montreal Expos to the wobbly pitcher who last season had 97 strikeouts.

"It seems like it's been years I've been battling injuries," Armas said. "But I've been making progress, and I'm looking forward to this year. I think it's going to be a good year for me and, hopefully, I can help the team."

It might not help, either, that Armas will be leaving one of the National League's most pitcher-friendly parks. PNC Park can be kind to right-handers, but Washington's RFK Stadium is downright benevolent.

"It's all about pitches and not making mistakes," Armas said. "If you keep the ball low ... I've had good games in Cincinnati and Philadelphia just by making good pitches."

Armas' main bugaboo last season -- one which drew frequent criticism from Washington manager Frank Robinson -- was a tendency to run up high pitch counts and, as a result, exit early.

He shrugged that off, too.

"I just want to pitch, man," Armas said. "Last year, it got to the point where, if you got to seven innings, you had to stop. Or you'd get shut down at 100 pitches. I just want to go out there and do my job, whether it's 110 pitches or 115. I just want to do my job."

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Right-hander Shawn Chacon had seven victories and a ERA of 5.82 last season.
Click photo for larger image.

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Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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