The Pirates enter the 2008 season the same as they have the previous 15 years: with the taste of a losing record from the previous year. While there is reason to believe this year's team will improve upon its record, it is still not ready to be considered a serious contender. Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, and the prospect of their first winning season since the first Bush administration is within reach.
Coach: New manager John Russell has preached discipline and fundamentals throughout Spring Training. While the results of this remain to be seen, there is little reason to think this will make much of a difference. Remember, the same was said about Legendary Lloyd McClendon and Jim Tracy—both were touted as "fundamentals" coaches who could work well with young players—and we all know how that turned out.
The fact remains that until the Pirates have a team with the talent to compete, the coaching regime at the major league level will not make a world of difference. Still, judgment on Russell should be reserved until we see if his "fundamentals" coaching pays off and until we see how he handles in-game situations throughout the course of a 162-game season.
Catcher: Ronny Paulino reported to camp in better shape than last year, but his performance thus far looks to be just as lazy as 2007. While spring training statistics typically do not mean much, Paulino has just five hits in 33 spring ABs, with only one XBH.
Sources from the Pirate organization report that the front office is secretly hoping Ryan Doumit stays healthy enough to wrestle the starting job from Paulino, as well they should be. Doumit, when healthy, has proven to be a much better offensive player than Paulino. He hits for power and strikes out much less than Paulino.
Both leave much to be desired defensively, and there is no one pushing them in the minor-league system. If Doumit remains healthy, fans should beg to see Doumit behind the dish in at least 120 games this year. His bat is sorely needed in an anemic lineup.
First Base: Adam LaRoche figures to test everyone's patience again with yet another slow start to the season. But once the weather warms up, so will LaRoche's bat. He has great ability to drive in runs, and is not praised enough for his ability to get on base by any means possible. His defense is also above average, which is a plus.
While he is not a good option at first compared to the rest of the league, he is still the best option the Bucs have had there since, well, Sid "Benedict Arnold" Bream. Ugh.
Second Base: Steady Freddy Sanchez has finally returned from his injury, and should be ready for opening day. As a position player, it shouldn't take him much time to get into the groove. His defense will be solid as always, and his bat should be good for another above-.300 season.
If he hits second or third behind Morgan and/or McLouth, his situational hitting will be a factor in generating runs, and he should get enough opportunities for 85 RBI. This is one position the Bucs shouldn't have to worry about.
Shortstop: Jack Wilson will bring his flashy D and his slap-hitting back to the Pirates for yet another season. He's also very consistent, but for a fan favorite, you would expect more production.
There is also talk of hitting him second in the lineup, which is a bad idea. Jumpin' Jack Flash hits much better in the eight spot, where there isn't much pressure and he can simply worry about turning the lineup over with his scrappiness.
He plays hard and scrappy, and is a great clubhouse leader, but his lack of real, actual talent always seems to be overlooked by management.
Third Base: Jose Bautista will break camp as possibly the worst starting third basemen in the NL. His strikeouts and lack of anything resembling production at the plate complement his sub-par defense very well.
But the Pirates should not hand over the reins to hometown prospect Neil Walker just yet. This position is likely the Pirates' top priority right now, as there is really little hope of getting big league production at the hot corner from anyone in the organization, not even golden boy Walker. The outfield glut should pave the way to trade an OF for a 3B prospect who is major-league ready.
Outfield: There is no way Jason Bay will have as bad of a season as he did last year. If he gives the Pirates .290-35-110, that should be enough to restore the fear he used to put into opposing pitchers. He is a quiet leader who does his job the right way, and things should even out for him. His defense is above average, which helps in the expansive left field of PNC Park.
Xavier Nady will start the season in RF, and barring injury will be a valuable player to have—at the trading deadline. As the team's best barganing chip, hopefully he will shake his awful spring and have a good first half so the Bucs can get something in return.
In center, McLouth and Morgan continue to battle it out. Although Morgan is speedier and more electrifying on defense, McLouth is the better hitter. With McLouth in center, not much is sacrificed on D, and there is more pop in his bat.
There have been rumors that Nady may sit as both play in the OF and hit first or second in the lineup, but keeping Nady out of the lineup so Morgan can play would be a bad idea.
Rotation: This is clearly the strength of the team. Ian Snell just signed a very reasonable contract, and the Pirates should be glad to have him at a bargain. He is the pitcher with the most talent on this staff. Tom Gorzelanny should have another solid season, and is a guy most teams would love to have in the middle of the rotation.
Paul Maholm should eat up innings and keep the Bucs in the game when he starts. Zach Duke has looked good this spring, and hopefully he will remember how well he has pitched in the past while forgetting his awful 2007. His success will go a long way towards determining the Pirates fate this year.
Morris is dead weight in the rotation and on the payroll, and the entire baseball universe continues to question why the Bucs even traded for him in the first place last July. The new front office is surely not happy with having him on the payroll, and would love to get rid of him. However, there is no hope of moving him unless former GM Dave Littlefield gets a job with another team.
Overall, the rotation is good, but not great. There is still no shutdown pitcher on this team, and a veteran ace is sorely needed if the Pirates are to contend in future years.
Bullpen: Since no one has claimed a spot out of the 47,000 arms invited to camp, the bullpen will be entirely unpredictable. Only time will tell who will be there, how they will be used, and how successful they will be.
One thing is certain—it will be a healthy mix of young prospects and old retreads. Capps does provide stability at the closer position, which will help on a team that figures to be locked into many close games.
Bench: Journeyman Doug Mientkiewicz will be a solid defensive replacement at several positions. It sounds like the loser of the center field spot will snag a backup role, which many believe should have gone to Steve Pearce. Although the Bucs want him to get more ABs every day, Pearce's hitting this spring proved he is ready to play in the show, and he should be the first call-up should any outfielders(starter or reserve) get injured.
Kevin Thompson is pushing for a spot on the big club, but that spot rightfully belongs to Pearce. Chris Gomez and Josh Wilson should be backup middle infielders. Gomez is a retread who doesn't have much place on this young squad, and Wilson is a marginal prospect.
This team's complete lack of depth is testament to the lack of talent in the organization as a whole, and is a primary reason why the Pirates are likely headed toward a record-tying 16th consecutive losing season.
However, this team is better than recent years, and some players will be instrumental in turning them into a contender—Snell, Gorzelanny, Sanchez, LaRoche, and Bay.
Best-case scenario for this team is 84 wins. Worst-case is a repeat of last year's 68-94 record.
Some glimmers of competence in the front office is giving hope that the team will finally turn itself around, but this year will not be the Pirates' year. GM Neal Huntington is working slowly but surely to make this team a contender again.
But before contention comes respectability, and it will still be a long road to respectability.
Prediction: The Bucs lose a multitude of close games due to lack of situational and clutch hitting by a weak offense. The starting rotation saves them from another 100-loss season, and the Pirates manage to finish 76-86, due to playing in the terribly weak NL Central.