Here we are at the beginning of spring training, when all teams are equal with zero wins and zero losses. We all know that all teams are not equal though, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are one season away from setting the mark with 17 straight losing seasons in a row. This team is a far cry from the glory days of Bonds, Bonilla and Drabek.
Pirates’ fans have become accustomed to the mediocrity that is this team year after year. Poor management decisions in personnel, coaching and free agency have ruled the headlines in Pittsburgh over the last decade and a half. It has been topped off with a 2008 season that saw the lone perennial all-star Jason Bay head off to Boston, proceeded by 41 losses in the last 60 games.
So what have the Pirates changed since the 2008 season that makes me cautiously optimistic about the upcoming campaign? Well, not much to be honest. The team has done little to nothing in the way of picking up free agents or signing new talent in the off-season. I actually don’t mind; there won’t be an over-the-hill Kenny Lofton-type guy for a one-year deal coming in and taking up roster space.
No, the Pirates are going in the opposite direction; building young talent. Most of the time, it takes three or four years to build a team from a farm system. However, I truly believe that the Pirates have what it takes to win this year with their current roster.
1. Freddy Sanchez is Healthy
The former National League Batting champ has been a steady performer for the Pirates over the last 3 years, but 2008 was his least productive after needing shoulder surgery before the season started. This is also a key year for Sanchez as he is in the last year of his contract, and needs to put up good number to trigger an option for 2010. He says that he is in “the best shape of his career.” Look for him to significantly improve on the .271 average from last year, and provide consistency for the middle infield.
2. Ryan Doumit is the real deal
If you want to talk about a guy who has statistically only gotten better year after year in his career, take a look at Doumit. Over the last 3 seasons, his average has risen over 110 points to a career high .318 last year. He also drove in 69 runs in just 116 games. With Doumit now the clear cut starter at Catcher, he can provide even more run support, and provide consistency behind the plate for a young, talented pitching staff. Which leads me to my next point ---
3. The pitching staff is young and talented
Now I know what you might say here; last years’ team had a 5.08 ERA, did not have a 10 game winner, and there have been no off-season changes. Valid point. However, many of the pitchers on this staff have seen success prior to last year, such as Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell.
Also, the average age of the pitchers on this staff is around 25 years old or younger, meaning that this could be the year for the young, experienced guys to step up. Gorzelanny is 15 pounds lighter than last year, and has been working hard in the off-season to stay in shape, and Paul Maholm will look to build on his 9-9 season last year. There is also a lot of upside to pitchers such as Jeff Karstens, Phil Dumatrait, John Grabow, and Jesse Chavez, just to name a few.
I for one think that the biggest issue last year was inexperienced pitching coach Jeff Andrews, who was subsequently fired after the season. New pitching coach Joe Kerrigan brings experience and knowledge, having worked with such franchises as the Red Sox and Yankees.
4. Andy LaRoche will live up to the hype
I fully expect that the LaRoche brothers will be manning the corners with abandon as well as tearing it up at the plate in 2009. After coming over highly-touted from the Dodgers organization, Andy did not perform very well last year, playing in only 49 games and hitting .152. However, he has been working hard in the off-season with the Pirates’ hitting coach, and will return to form in 2009. Adam has been a consistent performer for the team, which means he can be counted on for around 80 RBIs and a steady glove at first base.
5. The team has a different feel.
I just feel like this team is different than in years past. Manager John Russell has a quiet confidence about him, and the assistant coaches provide a good leadership base for this team. Also, in addition to the names mentioned above, there is a wealth of talented names such as Nyjer Morgan, Brandon Moss, Andrew McCutchen, Ramon Vazquez, and Eric Hinske, who are all looking for ways to make an impact.
No matter how these predictions pan out for the upcoming season, baseball is back, and the Pirates are going to be better.