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Pirates 2009: What to Watch For

April 5, 2009
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20070825ap_pirates1_500What to Watch for Pirates 2009

Well, since its almost a forgone conclusion that the Pirates will set the Major League record for most consecutive seasons without a winning record this year, I decided to write a preview which focuses on what needs to happen for this year to be a success in the rebuilding process.

The Neil Huntington era as the Pirates General Manager has brought renewed hope that the Pirates are finally moving in the right direction. The very fact that the Pirates went through the year without signing an aging has-been free agent should be celebrated. In the past signings like Derek Bell, Joe Randa and Matt Stairs were meant to put fans in the seats because they were big name players. Unfortunately this didn’t translate to wins and cost the Pirates millions of precious dollars that could have been spent on drafting top prospects. The Pirates also had a history of dumping talented players for salary reasons (like the Aramis Ramirez trade) resulting in cheap, talentless teams. This practice hit a zenith when the Pirates passed up drafting Matt Wieters in the 2007 amateur draft. Considered the best prospect available, the Pirates passed on Wieters because Scott Boras was his agent and that meant the Pirates would be forced to ink him to an expensive contract.

Thankfully, Bob Nutting has taken primary ownership of the Pirates and hired Neil Huntington as GM. So far its been a drastic change. In 2008 the Pirates drafted Pedro Alvarez, a top prospect represented by Scott Boras, and went through a complicated negotiation process resulting in the Pirates inking Alvarez to an expensive contract. The Pirates also executed two trades at the trade deadline that weren’t simply to cut costs. Instead, by trading Jason Bay and Xavier Nady the Pirates accumulated a wealth of legitimate prospects highlighted by Jose Tabata, Brandon Moss, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens.

So, what are the fans to watch for in the 2009 season? Wins and losses won’t reflect the success of this season. Instead, fans will have to look at the development of key players.

I’m going to break down the Pirates position by position and let you know who fits within the eventual competing team and how they need to perform.

Catcher:

Ryan Doumit is the catcher of the future for the Pirates, at least in the short-term. His biggest question mark is his ability to stay healthy. Last year Doumit emerged as one of the best, if not the best, hitting catcher in the National League. However, defensively he’s at best an average catcher. The performances I was able to see of him in spring behind the plate could only be described as lazy as he was reaching/picking at balls instead of moving to block pitches in the dirt. Health is his biggest problem. He was only able to play 116 games last season and with no viable prospects in the minor leagues, his role both this season and the next few will be crucial. Fans should watch for Doumit to stay healthy, progress defensively and maintain his good approach at the plate.

First base:

Adam LaRoche is the starter, although look for him to be traded by season end. His contract is up at the end of the season and there are always teams looking for a left-handed power bat. LaRoche is a good defensive first basemen and has an above average bat (except for April through May) so he’ll more than likely attract some interest. As far as LaRoche goes, hope for a hot start and look for the Pirates to get a couple of high upside prospects in a trade. Steve Pearce will more than likely finish the season if/when LaRoche is traded assuming Pearce plays well. Secretly, I think the Pirates would love to move Pedro Alvarez to first because Andy LaRoche or Neil Walker provide decent depth at third.

Second base:

Freddy Sanchez is the second basemen this year but, like Adam LaRoche, he might turn out to be trade bait. Sanchez batted .270 last year and had he not had an incredible second half last year his average would have been much lower. The important thing to watch in Sanchez is his health and his average. He’ll draw a better deal if he’s able to hit around .300 at the All-Star break and to do that he’ll have to stay healthy. Brian Bixler and Shelby Ford will be the guys expected to replace Sanchez. Their call-ups will be dependent on how they play in AAA and other injuries/positional needs. The front office has implied that Ford is the long-term answer at second base but his health is a question. His past is riddled with injuries but he’s been able to hit fairly well at every level. Look for Ford to play well in AAA and pray that Sanchez hits well and stays healthy.

Third base:

This is Andy LaRoche’s territory. Too bad he had an abysmal 2008 season and its entirely possible that by season end he’s in AAA. The thing about Andy, is that he tore up the minor leagues but he’s struggled hitting in the majors. If he isn’t able to find consistency this year than his future is in limbo since he’s 25. At 25 a baseball player needs to be playing serviceable baseball in the majors or he’s going to be a career minor leaguer. Thankfully, he’s had a good spring which might make his thumb excuse for last year’s poor performance legitimate. The Pirates really would like Andy to have a break out year so they can move Alvarez to first and solidify the corner infield. There is always Neil Walker but he has yet to show that he can hit at the AAA level let alone the majors. So, look for Andy to have a decent year. He doesn’t need to hit .320 but he has to show that he’s able to hit major league pitchers. If he can’t then Alvarez will stay at third, the Pirates hope that Walker will break out and they’ll have to find a first basemen.

Shortstop:

Everyone knows this story. Jack Wilson, despite all of the trade rumors last season and this winter, will be the starter. I’m sure trade rumors will flitter about all season but Wilson is an above average fielder with a below average bat. Brian Bixler is Wilson’s successor and his impressive spring provides some hope that a team some where will take interest in Wilson. However, if Bixler doesn’t pan out there is almost no answer in the Pirates system. This season, look for Wilson to get traded and hope that Bixler plays well in AAA and can hit major league pitching.

Outfield:

In center there is Nate McLouth who is at the center of the new Pirate core. He has a decent bat, capable of hitting for power, but his defense (despite his Gold Glove) his serviceable in center field. In left field there is Nyjer Morgan who has no future with the Pirates. Andrew McCutchen will absolutely replace Morgan by seasons end unless Morgan gains twice the talent he has. Brandon Moss will start the season in right field and has more time than Morgan to prove that he fits within the Pirates long-term plans. Jose Tabata had a terrific spring and will start putting pressure on Moss by mid-season unless Moss has a solid year. Expect Tabata to be the Pirates starting right fielder in 2010. Look for McLouth to continue to hit and hope that his defense improves. With Morgan look for him to be replaced by McCutchen and when that happens watch to make sure McCutchen is able to hit major league pitching. In right, look to see if Moss can perform in the majors; otherwise watch Tabata’s numbers in AAA to make sure he’s on track.

Pitching:

The starters will be 1. Paul Maholm 2. Ian Snell 3. Zack Duke 4. Ross Ohlendorf and 5. Jeff Karstens. This rotation will be better than last years, not by a lot but they’ll be better. The biggest improvement from last season to this year is the back end of the rotation. Last season the Pirates didn’t have one viable fifth starter and accordingly got pounded every fifth day. This season at least the Buc’s have options in Jason Davis, Dan McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmair and maybe Virgil Vasquez. None of these guys are going anywhere so this season the fans should look to see if any of these guys can emerge as productive Major League pitchers. The only ace the Bucco’s have is Maholm and he isn’t an ace in the true sense of the word (he’d be a third or fourth starter on another team).

Fans also need to keep track of the top two pitching prospects Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris. Both are entering their second season after Tommy John surgery which means that they should be fully recovered. They both have more potential than anyone in our current staff and their development in the minors is extremely important.

Bullpen:

Simply put this bullpen is terrible. Jesse Chavez, Craig Hansen, Tyler Yates, and Donnie Veal all have control problems and Sean Burnett is useless against righties. The only serviceable pitchers are John Grabow and Matt Capps. What fans should watch for is to see how Evan Meeks pitches in AAA and see if Hansen and Chavez, Craig Hansen, Tyler Yates, and Donnie Veal can continue their late season improvements last year. Fans should also follow Danny Moscos in the minors as he’s the third best pitching prospect in the Pirates organization.

It’s going to be a pretty bleak season in terms of wins and losses but there are reasons to watch, you just have to make sure you’re looking for the right things.

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