Pittsburgh Pirates Baseball: Five Reasons for Optimism Heading Into the Season
As we approach Opening Day 2009 can Pittsburgh Pirate fans really be optimistic about this years team?
The team is having a fantastic spring and with the talents like Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Bryan Morris, Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata, and Shelby Ford waiting in the wings the fans of this once-proud organization have plenty of reasons to remain optimistic.
These slides are in no specific order, just my top five reasons.
Spring Training Success
The first reason for optimism in Pittsburgh, for Pirates fans, is the success they are experiencing this spring. They currently sit third place among Grapefruit League teams as well as National League teams.
While the spring training records are wiped clean come opening day, the confidence from a great spring cannot be taken away.
Look what it did to Tampa Bay last year. I'm not saying the Pirates will replicate what Tampa Bay did, but that was a huge confidence booster for Tampa Bay.
John Russell & Neal Huntington
The second year for Huntington and Russell is underway and the organization as a whole is leaps and bounds better than they were two years ago.
Russell is showing that he is a very competent Major League skipper while Huntington has made the right trades and signings to make this team a winner.
Neal Huntington in his first year as Pirates GM turned the Pirates farm system from University of Buffalo football BEFORE Turner Gill into what their team looks like right now.
This team isn't your older brothers Pirates anymore. This team is here to do business.
Competition for Outfield Playing Time
Last year after the Pirates traded both Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, the Pirates' offense suffered. Many wondered if it was the right move to trade two of the offenses spark plugs.
If this spring is any indication the Pirates seemingly almost have TOO many outfielders.
With Craig Monroe tied with Mike Jacobs and Ryan Howard at the top of the home-run chart this spring he has seemingly gained an edge on Brandon Moss, Nyjer Morgan, Eric Hinske, Steven Pearce, among others for a starting outfield spot.
You know you are in good shape when you can have the option of putting a Major League ready 22-year old Andrew McCutchen back in AAA to start the season to get extra seasoning, even though he is having a very productive spring.
Not only is Craig Monroe having a great spring but Garrett Jones and Jeff Salazar have also been incredible spring. However projected starting outfielder Nyjer Morgan is having a terrible spring hitting under the Mendoza Line.
He could easily be on his way out for some bullpen help, perhaps to the Braves.
Either way you look at it there is competition in the outfield for playing time, and that can only be a good thing.
The Projected Rotation
The projected starting rotation this year has players who have either been fantastic at some point over the past few years or are finally getting their fair chance in the majors.
The staff ace is Paul Maholm (0.46 ERA this spring in a little over 19 innings pitched) who had a fantastic year last year as the Pirates ace, excluding the record, which is very misleading.
Ian Snell was the staff ace two years ago and looks to rebound from a subpar 2008 season.
The next two guys are having fantastic springs and if they can even come close to producing these numbers, or even HALF these numbers this year the Pirates rotation will be lethal.
Zach Duke this spring is 1-0 with a 1.83 ERA in 6 games, giving up less than 1 WHIP, and has 13 K's to four walks. Only alarming number is that he's given up three homers, but still only four earned runs.
Ross Ohlendorf this spring is 1-0 with a 0.59 ERA in 4 games. He has 10 K's to zero walks, has only given up 11 hits and only one earned run in 15.1 innings.
If either Duke or Ohlendorf can do half of what they are doing this spring the rotation has a chance to keep this team in games.
The No. 5 spot is still up in competition, mainly between Jeff Karstens and Romulo Sanchez, but Huntington isn't done looking for a veteran, perhaps Pedro ends up in Pittsburgh.
Pressure? What Pressure?
The Pirates going into spring training had absolutely no expectations. What comes with no expectations?
Going into camp this year Huntington and Russell made it known that very few spots were locks. Competition brings out the best in players.
The best was brought out of Duke, Ohlendorf, Monroe, Salazar, Jones, Jason Davis, Tyler Yates, Donnie Veal, Andy LaRoche among others.
The worst was brought out of Nyjer Morgan, Brandon Moss, Steven Pearce, Jimmy Barthmaier, Daniel McCutchen, Sean Burnett, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Karstens among others.
Overall this spring has been a major success mainly due to the fact that there was serious competition for a handful of starting jobs, as well as bench spots.
Players like Andy LaRoche, and Jason Davis have helped to solidify their future in Pittsburgh, while Nyjer Morgan and Tom Gorzelanny become more expendable.
On Apr. 13 when the Pirates open PNC park at 1:35 against the Houston Astros, what will fans expect after seven games? Regardless of the start they have against St. Louis and Cincinnati, most Pirates fans will remain pessimistic.
Tampa Bay last year had a lot of the same qualities this years Pirates team has, a mix of veteran role players and youth.
The Rays also had no pressure going into the season and had an excellent spring.
Am I saying the Pirates will make the World Series? That's a long shot for sure, but to say they will be futile like in years past is ridiculous. This Pirate team is here to challenger for a Wild Card spot in the National League.
Time to Raise the Jolly Roger.