The roster's set, the butterflies are fluttering, and it's just about showtime. So what's up with our 2008 Bucs?
The starting lineup and rotation are unchanged. The good news is that the spots are settled; the bad news is it's the same cast of characters that won only 68 games in 2007. The new regime has shook up the bench and bullpen, and are crossing their fingers for some improvement from within. The lineup:
1 - Nate McLouth (CF) Will we get the McLouth of September, when he hit .315 with an OBP of .415 or the guy that hit .264 with a .360 OBP from the leadoff spot in 2007? Both the top of the order and center field have been long time Pirate weaknesses, and how he handles them will go a long way towards determining how the team competes this year. Remember, he was considered a better prospect than Chris Duffy just a couple of years ago, so he may have some upside left in him.
2 - Freddie Sanchez (2B) Sanchez batted .290 in the two hole last year and .309 as the three hitter. Will he return to his prototype two man game, taking balls the opposite way, or continue to pull balls and try to generate a little more power? For the second straight spring, he's coming out of camp nicked up and with no field time. It took him awhile to get the feel for second last year, and if the Bucs are to get off to a good start, he'll have to get his feet wet in a hurry.
3 - Jason Bay (LF) Bay had a terrible 2007, playing with a gimpy knee that affected his hitting and fielding. If he can adequately cover PNC's spacious corner as he did in past years and get the ball in with some authority, the pitching staff is improved without lifting a finger. He's a wildcard in the three spot, hitting only .226 from there last year. He's done his best work from the five hole. We'll see how he reacts to the conundrum of the better he plays, the more likely he is to go.
4 - Adam LaRoche (1B) LaRoche has given no signs in camp of starting 2008 in the same deep funk as he did 2007, and that's a good thing. He's the logical cleanup guy for the club, having hit .291 with an .815 slugging average from the four spot last year. LaRoche should do better without the crushing weight of Piratedom's Superman expectations on his shoulders. Batting .290 with 100 RBIs and 30 HRs doesn't seem out of reach for him this season.
5 - Xavier Nady (RF) The X Man is OK batting fifth (.283), though probably better suited to the six spot, and OK in right field. The Pirates love taking good firstbasemen and turning them into average outfielders. Steve Pearce is the latest on the list, and he'll be breathing down Nady's neck. Nady has the same problem that Bay does - a strong start and he's outta town. Only a glutted OF buyer's market has kept that duo in a Pirate uniform through the off season.
6 - Ronny Paulino/Ryan Doumit (C) Paulino thrived in this spot, hitting .297, while Doumit struggled, batting .248. But this is one platoon scenario that makes great sense statistically. Paulino hit .407 against lefties in 50 games and Doumit .282 against righties. It's a good move roster-wise, too. The Pirates have no organizational depth at catcher, and already have Nady blocking Pearce. They don't need Doumit fighting for OF at-bats, too. And maybe it'll light a fire under Paulino.
7 - Jose Bautista (3B) Bautista is a natural fit here, having hit .324 out of the seven hole last year. But another so-so year at the plate will raise the clamor for Neil Walker, and many, including us, think Bautista would be a valuable guy to have available on the bench because of his versatility and occasional pop with the bat.
8 - Jack Wilson (SS) We thought Wilson would bat behind McClouth, but a look at last year's stats disabused us of that notion. He hit .306 ahead of the pitcher and .269 batting second. That gives us a nice bat for the backside of the order. And while his name was mentioned as trade bait for awhile, the Pirates haven't pulled the trigger because there's really no one to take his spot at short in the system. So unless Brian Bixler has a break out year or Pittsburgh deals for a shortstop, the name Pirate fans have a love/hate relationship will be etched in stone in the everyday lineup.
The Bench - This has been totally revamped from last year. Jose Castillo (the Giants just got him off waivers from the Marlins), Josh Phelps (waived and picked up by the Cards after hitting .351 last year), and Matt Kata (now at Indy) are gone. Phelp's bat will be missed off the bench, but he's another 1B/OF and really just a fifth wheel to the Pirates, especially when his catching tryout fizzled.
Besides Nyjer Morgan (.302 in September) and whichever catcher is sitting, the Pirates added some sorely needed veteran presence to its' bench. Chris Gomez was one of the first pick ups. He's been around 15 seasons, and last year played all four infield spots while hitting .297. Gomez also has 6 post season series under his belt, including a World Series.
Doug Mientkiewicz, a ten year guy and late signing, hit .277 with 5 HR's for the Yankees last year. He's only played at first for the past three seasons, but the Bucs have been moving him around the infield in the spring. Mientkiewicz is another playoff warrior, having been in seven post season series with a World Series trophy thanks to the 2004 Bosox.
Luis Rivas has seven years in the show. 2004 was his last year as a regular player, and he has a lifetime batting average of .262 (.273 last year, but only 11 at-bats.) He gives Pittsburgh insurance up the middle and gives the team a jolt of speed, with 78 career stolen bases. Rivas has been in four post season series, though he's never played in a World Series.
The bench was put together pretty well this year, with a back up available at every position for a change. The biggest question is whether any of them can thrive as a pinch hitter. None of the five have amassed very many at-bats in that role, with most of their work coming as spot starters.
But while many see this as a potential weak spot, we think it's constructed fairly well and with a purpose. Not only can you rest every day players without crippling the lineup, but a big dose of experience and leadership has been added to the Pirates by this group.
The Outlook - Offensively, not a ton of home run power, but a lot of gap hitters. Pittsburgh will live and die by small ball, and without a lot of speed. One key will be patience at the plate. The Pirates can't afford to throw away so many at-bats via strikeouts. Working on deeper counts, getting the ball in play, and running the bases hard and smart will be John Russell's mantra this year.
There is some room for improvement, particularly among McLouth, Bay and possibly the catchers. But to expect much more than Pittsburgh got from the other starters is a stretch.
Defensively, the middle infield will be a notch above average once Sanchez gets back in the groove. He doesn't have great coverage, but eats up what he gets to. Wilson still has good range and will frustrate fans by making the great play and then booting a can of corn with an uncalled for slide or backhand stab. He does have a talent for turning the DP, and Pittsburgh should be solid up the middle. On the corners, LaRoche is in the Sanchez mold. Bautista took fairly well to 3B, and if he can zero in first base with his throws, he'll be OK there with the glove.
Catching - It can only be described as a work in progress.
Outfield - Not a great deal of speed, and no riflemen. Average at best right now; stronger when McClouth plays a corner and Morgan's in center, although he's still learning the trade.
(Next post - the pitching. And thanks to Yahoo Sports for providing the situation stats.)