"A step short of desperation" was how Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington described the situation on Thursday that merited promoting pitcher Luis Munoz from Double-A Altoona on Thursday. Munoz replaced John Van Benschoten, who was sent down to Triple-A. With the All-Star Break beginning Monday, Van Benschoten would not have started a game until July 21 in Houston.
Munoz, who had no previous major league experience, began the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, where he went 3-3 with a 5.45 ERA in 13 games including 12 starts. He was 1-2 with a 5.09 ERA with Altoona.
When you are forced to call a pitcher up from Double-A who has an earned run average over 5.00, you have problems.
To Huntington and field manager John Russell's credit, they didn't duck away when asked the tough questions.
"It's no secret that we're a little bit short in the bullpen," said Russell. "We need some length. We needed some help. That's why he's here."
Munoz had been ticketed to start last Thursday for Altoona, which meant that he had some pitches left in his arm if he was needed.
"He can give us a number of pitches," Huntington said. "He was our best available option. Hopefully, he can give us 75, 80, 85 pitches if John needs him. This was a step short of desperation. He probably won't be here long."
"Not here long" was certainly an apt description as Munoz was sent back Saturday to pitch for Altoona that night. He had two more pregame meals (two) than pitches he threw in the bullpen (zero).
The only other options the Pirates really had were to promote were Jimmy Barthmaier or Yoslan Herrera. Barthmaier lasted two-and-two third innings in his lone major league start back on June 27. Tampa Bay treated him like he had won a free session at the neighborhood tattoo parlor, inking him for seven runs on seven hits, including two roundtrippers. Herrera, who defected from Cuba in 2005, was 5-8 with a 3.11 ERA in 17 starts for Altoona.
Eventually, Herrera was called up Saturday to replace Munoz, so that Herrera could start Saturday night. He got through the first two innings unscathed but then St. Louis got to him in the third inning for three runs and two in the fourth and one more in the fifth.
The fact that Munoz, Barthmaier and Herrera were the three top options speaks volumes about the state of the Pirates farm system at the upper levels.
"There weren't any other real options," said Huntington. "As we said when we came in here this past offseason, we need more options in-house. We need to develop more players that are ready to play at the major league level."
While not pleased with Van Benschoten's surrendering four first-inning runs Wednesday to Houston, Russell did see a few positives.
"We saw some small results," said the Pirates manager. "He still doesn't have command of his fastball. He hung in there after giving up those four runs in the first. To his credit, he continued to work on it. It would have been easy to have folded after the first inning."
Determining a fifth starter is a high priority with Russell as he looks ahead to the second half of the season.
"We still have to figure out the rotation to start the second half. Paul Maholm will start the first game in Colorado. Ian Snell will start the next game. We'll have to figure out who's starting the third game. We'll probably push Zach Duke back to the fourth game. Then, we'll have to see about a fifth starter."
For right now the third starter in the Colorado series is listed as TBA. Instead of To Be Announced, maybe that means To Be Acquired? Perhaps it should read TBCU...To Be Called Up.
Herrera will probably get the call for game three with Van Benschoten starting the fifth game after the break.
Former first-round pick Bryan Bullington was picked up by the Cleveland Indians after being designated for assignment by the Pirates two weeks ago. The Pirates number one pick in 2002, Bullington illustrates one of the problems Huntington inherited when he was named general manager on Sept. 25, 2007.
Signability was Bullington's main qualification to be the number one overall pick. A number of major league teams had him ticketed as a late first-round pick at best. Missing the entire 2006 season due to shoulder injury further stifled his development. Bullington was called up to replace Mark Salas on May 29. However, he was sent back down 14 days later after it became obvious that Russell was reluctant to even put him in a game.
It's going to take Huntington a while to clean up this mess that the previous regime made. At least Huntington realizes that there is a problem and is trying to correct it. That's more than his predecessor did.
Former Pittsburgh Pirate backup catcher Dave Ricketts (1970) passed away Saturday. He served as the team's bullpen coach from 1971-73. Ricketts died one day after his 73rd birthday.