Zach Duke’s Future

Pirates lefty Zach Duke debuted with a splash in 2005, posting a 1.81 ERA over 14 starts and finishing fifth in the Rookie of the Year voting.  Since then Duke has posted more pedestrian numbers, strong enough to garner decent salaries in arbitration but not a multiyear deal.  Duke is arbitration-eligible one last time after the season.  Let's take a closer look at the Pirates' situation.

This year, the 27-year-old Duke has a 5.20 ERA, 5.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, and 1.4 HR/9 in 114.3 innings.  Stats like SIERA and xFIP suggest he's been better, deserving of an ERA more in the 4.30 range.  I'd call Duke a back-rotation innings-eater, but he missed significant time this year and in 2007 with elbow injuries.

Duke earns $4.3MM in 2010, and will be due some kind of raise if tendered a contract for 2010.  Given the Matt Capps situation last year, we can't rule out a non-tender for Dukes if the Pirates don't like his salary demands.  Still, a trade seems more likely.  Here's what GM Neal Huntington said to Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on July 30th:

"If the package is appropriate for one of our starting pitchers, we are willing to consider a move.  If the interest is in one of our starting pitchers who is one year away from free agency, that shifts the tolerance accordingly, as we would be able to reinvest their potential dollars into a major-league starting pitcher — via trade or free agency — and add valuable multiyear pieces to our major-league club and/or system. Again, we will need to feel good about the return to make a move."

Huntington was clearly referring to Paul Maholm and Duke.  I'm guessing he'd prefer to trade only one of the lefties.  They're similar pitchers in terms of performance.  Their contract situations and injury histories are the difference.  Maholm is signed for 2011 at $5.75MM and has a $750K buyout for '12 for a total commitment of $6.5MM.  A team tendering Duke a contract might save a million or more in comparison, but they won't have the '12 option and they will have to worry about his health.  As a result, it should take less to acquire Duke from the Pirates this winter.

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