September 15, 2010

Duke Should Be Non-Tendered

Most fans have realistically stopped paying attention to the 2011 Pirates, but the starting pitching for 2011 is one important issue that is working itself out right now.

Zach Duke is one of the team's elder statesmen, having been a Pirate since 2005, and was this year's Opening Day starter. Yet with 156 starts under his belt there's a real chance last night's eight earned run performance was Duke's last as a Pirate. Manager John Russell indicated that Duke's status in the rotation for the rest of 2010 would be re-evaluated. But what about 2011?

Duke was an All-Star last year after a first half that saw him post a 3.29 ERA and 1.21 WHIP while averaging a cool seven innings a start. Since then he has been rather terrible. In 2009's second half he went 3-8 with a 5.17 ERA as batters hit .318/.346/.499 against him. That was bad but Duke has been worse throughout this year: 7-14 with a 5.78 ERA as opposing batters hit .327/.378/.516.

For some perspective, Roberto Clemente hit .317/.359/.475 for his entire career. For a year and a half Zach Duke has made the set of all NL batters into a slightly better version of Clemente.

This year Duke is earning $4.2 million. He is entering his third year of arbitration meaning the club has two choices. They can either tender him a contract - retaining him next year for either an arbitrator's award or an agreed upon sum - or they can non-tender him, which would cut ties with Duke and make him a free agent.

Despite Duke's awful season, players rarely if ever get a pay cut in arbitration. I see no reason for the Pirates to tender Duke a contract. Why bring Duke back at say, $4.4 million? If Duke was a free agent from another team, in 2011 he's a guy who would likely be a non-roster invitee at this point with a split major league/minor league contract for something like $800,000/$200,000.

There's also the possibility of the team agreeing with Duke before the tender deadline on some amount between the minimum salary and the likely arbitration award. But I don't see anything in Duke's performance that should merit bending over backwards to bring him back. Never a stuff guy, he's lost velocity on all his pitches this year and now features an 87 mph fastball with an array of mediocre or worse offspeed stuff. That's not a formula for success in this league. His only positive aspect is his durability, and the ability to make 30+ starts and get pounded is an ability this team doesn't need.

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