Added SP Daniel Haigwood and Brian Slocum, RP Chris Bootcheck and Donnie Veal, IF Ramon Vazquez and Andy Phillips, 1B Garrett Jones, SS Anderson Machado and Pedro Lopez; C Jason Jamarillo, and OF Jeff Salazar. Lost SP John van Benschoten, RP Frankie Osoria, C Ronny Paulino and Raul Chavez, OF Jason Michaels and Chris Duffy, and IF Chris Gomez. Unsigned free agents are IF Doug Mientkiewicz and Luis Rivas, and RP Jason Davis.
This year's starting rotation is shaping up to become the baseball version of the TV hit, "Survivors." GW figures Paul Maholm and Ian Snell have nailed down their spots. The rest have a bare-knuckles battle to impress Joe Kerrigan, especially as Phil Dumatrait has taken himself out of the early rotation mix with lingering shoulder woes.
Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, and Ross Ohlendorf are looking at three open spots and maybe a long relief role. Dumatrait may end up with that slot if his arm allows, and Karstens has filled that bill in New York.
For what it's worth, the current Pirate depth chart lists the guys in this order: Maholm, Snell, Ohlendorf, Gorzo, Duke, Karstens and Dumatrait.
Our take? Well, there's a little more competition, though not enough for our taste, and the guys will be working with the knowledge that there will be alternatives chomping at the bit in Indy for once, with Jimmy Barthmaier and the losers of the battle royale eyeing starting spots in Pittsburgh.
The pitchers had a 5.08 ERA in 2008, and were in the bottom three in strikeouts and top two in walks. Joe Kerrigan probably can't do much mechanically with the gang, but his game prep should improve the mental approach that Pirate hurlers have been so sorely lacking. A little more thought and aggression could get the staff moving in the right direction, and a 4.50 ERA with an attendant rise in K's and drop in walks would be a good year.
The bullpen should be OK. It's always been the easiest component of a team to cobble together when the closer is in place, and Matt Capps should be motivated, coming off an injury and the last year of his contract (though he does have two seasons of arbitration remaining in 2010 and 2011).
John Grabow will be working on his last arbitration year, and Tyler Yates and Sean Burnett seem set, as does Donnie Veal if he can find the plate at all in the spring. Grabow is the guy they'll depend on for the 8th inning bridge to Capps. If he's dealt, Yates will probably step into the role.
That leaves two spots for a small army of bullpen candidates, and one should be taken by a sixth starter. TJ Beam and Chris Bootcheck probably have a head start on Evan Meek, Craig Hansen, Jesse Chavez, and Romulo Sanchez. Like the rotation, the pen has to zero in on the plate if they want to avoid throwing gas on a fire.
Their stat line will be linked to getting an extra inning or two out of the starters. There were a lot of cases of August burnout and a spate of minor injuries when the innings finally caught up to the bullpen.
One last thought on the pitching decisions, as brought up by Dejan Kovacevic in the Post Gazette today:
"Phil Dumatrait, Sean Burnett, Craig Hansen and (Tyler) Yates are the only pitchers on the 40-man roster who are out of options, meaning they must make the team -- the 25-man roster -- out of spring training or the Pirates risk losing them on waivers if they try to send them to the minors. In Burnett's case, if he does not make the team, he would become a free agent."
And to make it more interesting, bubble child and wild thing Craig Hansen is a Scott Boras client. The plot thickens.
The infield, at least, is set for now. Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and Andy LaRoche will cover the diamond with Ryan Doumit behind the dish - and we think his game will pick up with Kerrigan calling the pitches, something Russell rarely did.
There will be some battling for the bench spots. Vasquez is the only sure thing, and if the Bucs don't deal, Steve Pearce is probably in, too. The backup catcher's job will be decided between Jamarillo and Robinzon Diaz.
The last two slots on the pine will be contested by Luis Cruz, Brian Bixler, Salazar, Lopez, Phillips, and Jones. The Pirates could go a number of ways here, and still may land a bargain basement free agent, like Mientkiewicz, in the next few weeks to further muddy the situation.
And if young LaRoche continues to treat a baseball like a live hornet's nest, Neil Walker may even find a little love and eventually jump into the mix.
The shadow looming over the infield is that although it's set now, come trade deadline, Adam LaRoche, Wilson, and Sanchez will all be dangled. If they have fairly healthy and normal statistical seasons in 2008, they'll almost surely be gone. That will make life real interesting in Bucco country, as none of three have an obvious replacement in the organization.
The outfield is in complete flux for the 2009 squad. To us, Nate McLouth is the only deserving full time player in a Pirate uniform. Brandon Moss is still among the walking wounded, Nyjer Morgan can't throw a baseball across a little league infield, Steve Pearce is a project in the pasture...well, you get the picture.
Salazar has an OK stick and can actually play the field, but he's left handed, as is everyone but Pearce. The suits won't start Andrew McCutchen's clock quite yet, and Jose Tabata, even if he keeps on raking, is a couple of years away at best.
The outlook this year is glum. The pitching should improve - how could it get worse? - the infield and catching should be OK, if thin, and the outfield doesn't go get the ball very well or show much corner power. In fact, there's virtually no middle-of-the-order presence at all. And it could go downhill in July at the trade deadline.
Ya know what? It doesn't bother us. The suits took apart an organization that was dysfunctional, and it will take some time to see results. Pittsburgh has more talent in the system today than it's had at any time during this decade, and it's eventually going to percolate up the show. The team will be stripped down to rock bottom this year, and hopefully in 2010, the jigsaw will start to fit together.
The Bucs are moving in the right direction, but it's a journey, not a step. If they stay the course and catch a break or two, by 2010 the light should start to shine. But until then, there are gonna be some dark days at PNC.
(Tomorrow - from the Bucs of January to the August lineup.)