There is nothing sexy about the Pirates signing of free-agent pitcher Tony Armas Jr., but this smart little move could fill a big hole.
Armas, 29 this year, is the favorite to beat Shawn Chacon, also 29, for the fifth spot in the starting rotation. The loser likely goes to the bullpen for long relief.
The battle for that final starting spot has become a well-worn joke each spring, but not as big a joke as the performances turned in by "winners'' of the 2006 competition. Victor Santos started 19 games and turned in an ERA of 5.19 in that role. (He was even worse in relief.) Chacon started nine times; his ERA was 5.48.
Even that doesn't tell you how low the bar has been set for improving the Pirates' rotation. Oliver Perez started 15 games last year and was belted for an ERA of 6.63. Kip Wells matched that ineptitude with a 6.69 ERA in seven starts.
Collectively, this flailing foursome started 50 games, pitched 260 2/3 innings and went 17-33 with an ERA of 5.87.
So Armas' task is simplicity itself: Don't be awful.
If Armas does nothing more than repeat the 5.03 ERA in 30 starts and 154 innings for the Washington Nationals last year, the Pirates still would have a better rotation. If Armas' ERA is closer to his 4.45 career number, the improvement would be dramatic. That will be particularly so if Tom Gorzelanny, with a 3.79 ERA in 11 rookie starts last season, improves on the rest of the innings from the flailing foursome.
All that could seem damning with faint praise. But if Gorzelanny dodges the sophomore slump and Zach Duke, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm merely repeat their "Jeff Suppan-by-committee'' effort of a year ago, this could be an above-average staff.
You scoff. You chortle. You guffaw in my general direction, and injuries or youthful setbacks could prove you right. But after the All-Star break last season, the Pirates' team ERA was 4.01. That was third in the National League and second in the division to Houston's 3.56. Almost every Pirates pitcher who contributed positively is returning with the exception of Mike Gonzalez, and Gonzo pitched only 18 1/3 innings after the break.
(Meantime, the Astros have lost Andy Pettitte and probably Roger Clemens, now well into his annual Hamlet act.)
The other reason for signing Armas is that most teams don't last a season without losing a starter. In the past six seasons, only one NL team, the 2005 Cardinals, managed to have five pitchers start at least 30 games in the same season.
Even 20 starts from all five pitchers is unusual; less than a third of teams have gotten that. The average pitcher with the fifth-most starts on any given team checks in with 17 or 18, and you never know in February whose season might be cut short. The Pirates have not gotten more than 20 starts from all five starters in any of the past six seasons. (Thanks to Ron McClure of Murrysville for that research.)
OK, but is Armas worth $3 million for a season, with an option that could make this an $8 million two-year contract?
Armas' record is eerily similar to that of perennial, injury-plagued disappointment Wells at the same age. Identical .444 winning percentages through age 28, with Wells having a slight edge in ERA, 4.36 to 4.45. Both have similar (and falling) career strikeout rates, but Wells' falloff has been more severe.
Wells signed with the Cardinals for $4 million. Almost every team has at least one big question mark in the rotation this time of year. Jason Marquis, 28, another mediocrity with a lousy 2006, signed with the Cubs for $21 million over three years.
If Armas is decent, he could be a bargain. Making Chacon a $3.8 million long reliever, rather than cutting his salary this spring, also makes sense in this context. The team needs someone to soak up innings that workhorse Salomon Torres will no longer pitch once he becomes the closer. (The Pirates also have taken a flyer on right-handed reliever Dan Kolb, 32, for that reason, signing him to a one-year, $1.25 million minor-league deal that gives them an out if he doesn't make the team. )
History suggests Chacon will get some starts, too, and he won't be the lone fill-in. Shane Youman, 27, and Marty McLeary, 32, did some nice work in September, but nothing in their resumes suggests that will last. They can keep their arms warm in Class AAA with Sean Burnett, 24, whose post-injury 2006 season tells us he's not back yet -- 8-11 with 46 strikeouts and 46 walks in 120 1/3 innings for Indianapolis, with a 5.16 ERA.
A year ago, general manager David Littlefield's two biggest free-agent acquisitions were Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa, players predictably worse than the ones whose jobs they (briefly) took. This year, Littlefield's moves make sense. Armas heightens chances for a solid rotation.Morry Gash, Associated Press
If Tony Armas Jr. matches his numbers from last season it will be an improvement for the Pirates' rotation.
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Brian O'Neill can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1947.