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2007 Pittsburgh Pirates Team Preview

by Keith Glab,
March 24, 2007

2006 Record: 67-95 (5th Place NL Central Division)
2006 Runs Scored: 691
2006 Runs Allowed: 794
Pythagorean 2006 Record: 71-91

I've predicted the Pittsburgh Pirates to win 239 games over the past three seasons.  In reality, they've only managed 206.  That means I miss by an average of eleven wins per season.  Not good.

So is this the year I finally take a sip of realigh tea and admit that the Pirates will never significantly eclipse 70 wins in a season?  Sorry, I can't do that.  Not now that the Pirates have finally committed to young players rather than rifling through other team's trash bins and signing any bum they find to an eight-figure contract.    

2006 Starter -
Ronny Paulino
Projected 2007 Starter -

Although Ronny Paulino is the most promising Pirate catcher since Jason Kendall, he hasn't had much competition in that regard.  He is absolutely not the .310 hitter he claimed to be last season, and his throwing arm is just average.   More than anything, the Pirates appreciate how well Paulino worked with a very young pitching staff last year.  If he really does benefit the staff in that regard, then Paulino is a useful player.  

First Base
2006 Starters -
Sean Casey, Craig Wilson
Projected 2007 Starter -
Adam LaRoche, Brad Eldred

PNC Park is one of the most difficult venues to hit home runs as a left-handed batter.  LaRoche should nevertheless approach last year's breakout power numbers, because he wasn't hitting many cheapies.  Only 16 players had a longer average distance for their home runs than LaRoche did last season.

Brad Eldred has played himself into a roster spot with a monster spring.  Listed at 275 pounds, he would become the heaviest outfielder in major league history should he find playing time out there.  His greatest use to the Pirates will be in spelling LaRoche against southpaws, however, as the ex-Brave has struggled to a .228 career average against lefties.

Second Base
2006 Starter -
Jose Castillo
Projected 2007 Starter
- Freddy Sanchez

His first two years in the league, Jose Castillo was the absolute best in baseball at turning the double play.  He appeared to be the second coming of Bill Mazeroski.  Last season, no second baseman threw away more balls on potential twin-killings than did Castillo.  Jack Wilson called him out for poor conditioning and lackadaisical play, prompting the installation of batting champion Freddy Sanchez at second base and the relegation of Castillo to the super-sub role.  Sanchez might not hit over .300 again this season, but he should provide steady up-the-middle defense for a pitching staff that's going to allow a lot of balls into play.

Third Base
2006 Starters -
Joe Randa, Freddy Sanchez
Projected 2007 Starter
- Jose Bautista

The evolution of Joe Randa to Jose Bautista at third base might be the most encouraging event for the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise in the past 15 seasons.  It signifies an understanding that young, low-average hitters with secondary abilities are more valuable than old, washed up, empty-average hitters.  This may seem like an obvious adage, but after years of overpaying the likes of Ed Sprague, Pat Mears, Mike Benjamin, Derek Bell, Jose Hernandez, Jeromy Burnitz, Sean Casey, and Randa, this is a hallmark moment for the Pirates.  Instead of signing veteran placeholders to multi-million dollar deals, the organization is finally trusting in its young talent.

2006 Starter -
Jack Wilson
Projected 2007 Starter -

Speaking of idiotic contracts, how about the 3-year $20 million deal the Pirates gave Jack Rabbit after he failed to reach base 30% of the time in 2005?  This had the trickle-down effect of making the Pirates trade away shortstop Brent Lillibridge, one of the most promising young shortstops in the game.  Low-ceiling Brian Bixler is now heir apparent to Wilson, whose defense is predictably declining due to age.

It is some consolation that Wilson remains an above average defender because he was just that good in the 2004-2005 seasons, and that the Lillibridge deal brought LaRoche into the fold.

2006 Starters -
Sanchez, Jose Bautista
Projected 2007 Starter -

Castillo is a better player than what he showed last season, but he also won't anchor the team the way he was somehow supposed to after his decent 2005 season.  The Pirates do need him, though, since they don't appear to have any other backup skill infielders on their 40-man roster.

2006 Starters -
Jason Bay, Chris Duffy, Jeromy Burnitz, Nate McLouth
Projected 2007 Starters -
Bay, Duffy, McLouth, Xavier Nady

If Chris Duffy can strike a midpoint between his .341 average in '05 and his .255 average in '06, he will prove quite a useful player.  He stole 26 bags in 27 attempts last year, and plays exemplary defense.  The acquisition of Nady from the Mets recalls memories of the Ty Wigginton trade, and leads me to believe that he won't develop into a star.  Yet between Nady, the ready-to-finally-exhibit-his-promise McLouth, and possibly some of Bautista when Castillo plays, the Pirates should get moderate production out of right field.  Jason Bay is a rock of consistency, and since he's only 28 years old, you know exactly what to expect out of him.

Top of the Rotation
2006 Starters -
Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm
Projected 2007 Starters
- Duke, Snell, Maholm

No Pirate pitcher was more adversely affected by Castillo's lackluster defensive effort than Duke, an extreme groundball pitcher.  The young innings-eater isn't everything you could hope for in a staff ace, but you can pencil him in for 200 innings and an ERA around 4.00 after his strong finish to the 2006 season.  Snell, on the other hand, has the potential to be that dominant ace.  He had the third fastest starter's average fastball speed in the National League last year, eclipsing such flamethrowers as Roy Oswalt, Jason Schmidt, John Smoltz, Carlos Zambrano, and Jake Peavy.  He compliments this fastball with a tight slider.  Injuries could be an issue for the slightly-built Snell, but a healthy season will certainly translate into over 200 strikeouts for him.

Bottom of the Rotation
2006 Options -
Oliver Perez, Victor Santos, Tom Gorzelanny, Shawn Chacon
Possible 2007 Options -
Tony Armas Jr., Gorzelanny, Chacon, Sean Burnett

Behind Duke and Snell, the Pirates will use a squadron of hittable pitchers ranging from solid (Maholm) to terrible (Chacon).  The only one with significant upside is Gorzelanny, and he's had an abhorrent spring.  Since none of these pitchers will strike out many batters, team defense will prove key for the back end of this rotation.  If the Bucs can flash some leather, this uninspiring mess could be good enough to keep the Pirates in ballgames.

2006 Options -
Mike Gonzalez, Solomon Torres, Matt Capps, John Grabow, Damaso Marte
Possible 2007 Options -
Torres, Capps, Grabow, Marte, Josh Sharpless 

Keeping games close should be all that's needed from those starters, because the Pirates again boast a top-notch bullpen.  Solomon Torres will get the first shot at the shutdown role, but the Bucs possess no less than five relievers that could prove capable as closers.  Throughout the entire pitching staff, the Pirates have perhaps the best righty/lefty balance of any major league team.   

Final Word

Only Jason Bay managed more than 16 homers for the Bucs last year, so the addition of Adam LaRoche is no small thing for this Pittsburgh offense.  By no means do they have a murderer's row, but they won't finish last in the league in scoring this season, and not just because the Nationals won't score at all.  They need Ian Snell to pitch healthy all season and their defense to once again play to it's ability.  Otherwise, they won't prevent enough runs for the improved offense to matter much.

Make no mistake, this Pirates team is better now than it was a year ago, and stands pointed in the right direction.  They should finish in the mid-to-high 70's in wins, which could put them anywhere between fifth and third place in a muddled NL Central division. 

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