March 18, 2007

2007 Pirates Season Preview

The Manager:
Jim Tracy enters his second season at the helm of the Pirates Ship. He has a career record of 494-478 after a 67-95 season with the Pirates in 2006.

Additions and Subtractions:
For most of the offseason, it looked as if the biggest addition to the Pirates was the subtraction of Burnitz, Santos and Randa. That all changed when Mike Gonzalez was traded to Atlanta for Adam "Lefty McThump" LaRoche. This one trade has done more for this team than anything this ownership group has done in the the last 14 years. Finally the Pirates have a lefthanded bat in the middle of the order to protect and offset Bay.

The signing of Tony Armas Jr. has the potential to make this rotation solid from top to bottom. For most of the Dave Littlefield years, he has picked the scrap heap for any retread with a hint of usefulness left. All too often this landed a Burnitz rather than actually improving the team for the future. Armas is young enough to fit in well with the team, but is also experienced enough to lend that "experienced veteran" factor to a very young rotation.

Pitching:
The rotation will be young and unproven, but it will have a wealth of potential and left handed arms all the way down to AA Altoona. The Pirates are just the opposite of nearly every MLB team, where most are looking for lefties, the Pirates need right handed pitchers. The rotation will likely look like this:

Duke (L)
Snell (R)
Maholm (L)
Armas (R)
Gorzelanny (L)

IN THE WINGS FOR THE ROTATION:
Chacon (R)
Burnett (L)
McLeary (R)
Youman (L)
Bullington (R)
Van Benschoten (R)
Kuwata (R)
Hererra (R)
Lincoln (R)

Lineup:
The Lineup should be fairly consistent this season. Bay and LaRoche may swap slots occasionally and the 3B situation is still up in the air.

Duffy CF
Wilson SS
Sanchez 2B
LaRoche 1B
Bay LF
Nady RF
Paulino C
Bautista/Castillo 3B

Bullpen:
The Pirates will take 12 pitchers north, there is plenty of bullpen help throughout the minors thanks to Littlefields addiction to middle relievers.

Torres CL
Capps RSU
Grabow LSU
Kolb (R)
Marte (L)
Chacon (R)
Pick one:Sharpless/Youman/McLeary/Rogers/Bayliss

Bench:
The way Eldred has played this spring, he may see some time at 1B and RF, if he heads north.

Doumit C
Eldred 1B/RF
Jose ? (Castillo or Bautista) IF/OF
Matos OF
Ryan OF

Other possibilities:
McLouth OF, Cota C, Diaz C, Kelly IF

Prospects to Watch:
Andrew McCutchen CF - You will see him in CF by the end of the year. He will start the year at AA. He could make the jump right now, based on his spring performance. more time in the minors will serve him well.

Neil Walker 3B - Will get a late season call up, but will spend the year in AA/AAA learning 3B after the switch from C. He might be in Pittsburgh permanently in 2008 at the earliest.

Brad Lincoln P - He will spend the year in the Minors, look for him to spend a majority of the year in AA.

Brian Bixler SS - He will spend some time at AA but I look for him to be in AAA most of the year. He is not as flashy as Jack Wilson, but is a solid SS who will be Jacks replacement in the next couple years. I actually rate him on the same level, if not higher, than Lillibridge who was traded to Atlanta in the LaRoche deal.

Altoona may have a better team than their MLB affiliate in Pittsburgh. I would love to see a Altoona vs Pittsburgh series to see who would win.

Five Wild Cards:
  1. Chris Duffy - The offense starts and stops with his ability to get on base in the lead off spot.
  2. Jose ? - Which Jose is the wild card? The one that does not start of course. That Jose will be the one filling in playing super sub throughout the season. He must be sound defensively an be able to handle the unpredictability of the role.
  3. Brad Eldred - He is the biggest wild card in terms of possible changes to the team. IF he makes the team, there is a ton of power on the bench. IF he makes the trip north, Doumit will be the backup catcher. With Doumit primarily being the backup catcher, neither Cota nor Diaz has a spot on the team if Eldred makes the team. Doumit is relegated to third string 1B and RF in addition to backup backstop.
  4. Adam LaRoche - LaRoche must be able to handle the cleanup spot and play 1B daily. If he struggles, the team struggles and Littlefield will be history.
  5. Tony Armas Jr. - If he regains his form of 2001-2002, the Pirates have the steal of the 2006-2007 offseason.

Five Keys To The Season:
  1. The rotation must improve across the board from last seasons performance. This team is built around a concept of a solid rotation. The starters have to find a way to go six inning every outing. In 2006 the Pirates were 46-44 when the starters went at least 6 innings.
  2. Chris Duffy must prove himself capable of handling the rigors of a complete MLB season. He must grow into a solid MLB leadoff hitter while maintaining his defensive prowess. If he fails, someone must fill the role more than adequately, look to Matos/McLouth/McCutchen.
  3. Jack "Flab" must get back to "Flash". The defense up the middle needs to be strong. The rotation is not a strikeout group, they need a strong defense behind them.
  4. Right field needs to become a strong point, whether through a platoon or Nady just owning the position. The position must be defensively stable and a offensive force. Nady must also be healthy. Eldred, Doumit and Ryan could be part of this mix as well. Castillo? Regardless it must work out.
  5. Paulino, Doumit, Eldred, Duffy, Bautista or Castillo. Two of the mentioned must have breakout years. Paulino needs to show some offensive power while maintaining his approach with the pitching staff. The rest must establish themselves as major leaguers.
Fantasy Watch:
Unlike previous seasons, there are a few Pirates worth considering in most any league.

Jason Bay, OF:
The obvious first choice is Jason Bay. Look for another 30 HR 100 RBI season from him. His average will be in the .280-.300 zone.

Adam LaRoche, 1B:
For 81 games, he will have a short porch in right to look at. He should be able to post 35+ HR's and drive in 100.

Freddy Sanchez, 2B/3B:
Freddy will give another .300 performance. He will score runs ahead of Bay and LaRoche and have an opportunity to drive in some runs batting in the 3 spot. The fear here is health, but I don't feel it should be a major concern.

Salomon Torres, CL:
Torres will get better as the season progresses. If you can pick him up cheap early in the season, it will pay off later in the year.

Zach Duke:
He will be consistent, a good overall pitcher to round out your starting rotation.

Ian Snell:
He will give you some strikeouts and wins, his ERA may leave a bit to be desired. When he is on, he is lights out.

Prediction:

This team has 75-78 wins written all over it. The rotation is still young enough there will be bumps in the road. The offense is greatly improved over the team that went north in 2006.

With the strength of the NL Central, any team in the division could win as many as 90. But every team in the division could easily lose 90 too. Who stays healthy and makes the right moves at the deadline will win the division. With Littlefields history, I would have to bet on another sub .500 season.
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