2008 Pittsburgh Pirates
Content in the Cellar

BaseballEvolution.com 2008 Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
February 19, 2008

This time last year, there really were reasons for optimism in Pittsburgh.  They were coming off a 37-35 run in 2006 that topped the NL Central after the All-Star break.  Jason Bay was coming off his second consecutive 30+ homer, 100+ run, 100+ RBI season.  The team added Adam LaRoche, who broke out with 32 dingers in 2006.  They returned four promising young starters in Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, and Tom Gorzelanny while skimming off the cancerous Oliver Perez and Victor Santos.  They returned the 2006 NL batting champ in Freddy Sanchez.

We all know how that season turned out. The biggest reasons for optimism this year are new ownership, a new manager, and a new general manager, because the Pirates have made virtually no changes to the on-field talent that accounted for the National League's worst record last year.

While 2008 appears to be another lost season, there are some bright signs for the future.  General manager Neal Huntington may not have traded for prospects as one might have expected, but that might have been for the best as tradable veterans like Bay and LaRoche are coming off down years; Huntington may receive more of a return on those players come July.

"To make trades, you have to have players that other clubs want," Huntington said bluntly.

He also didn't sign declining veterans to big contracts.  He's also adopting the rather obvious strategy of using his top pitching prospects as starters in the minors, regardless of what role he envisions for them in the majors.  So there is light at the end of the tunnel, even though the casual Pirates fan might have to squint really hard to see it.
Surprise Candidate
Ryan Doumit
Disappointment Candidate
Tom Gorzelanny

2007 Starter    Ronny Paulino
Projected 2008 Starter   Ronny Paulino

Paulino provides solid defense and acceptable offense from the backstop position. He turns 27 in April as a classic example of a Pirate player who is older than you think he should be given his level of experience and production. Expect more or less the same production from him in 2008. New manager John Russell may give more at bats here to lesser defender Ryan Doumit given a crowded outfield situation, especially if Doumit can stay healthy.

First Base
2007 Starter   Adam LaRoche
Projected 2008 Starter   Adam LaRoche

We thought there was a chance LaRoche's 2006 season was a breakout and not a fluke based on his superior road numbers. In 2007, he his substantially better at home despite playing in a park that few lefties can produce in. Go figure. He batted .133 in April and .312 in the second half; perhaps he just didn't respond well to the high expectations from Pirate fans. Well, expectations are considerably lower this year, so LaRoche should perform a little better. He's free agency eligible in 2010, which makes him a candidate to be traded in July.

Second Base
2007 Starter   Freddy Sanchez
Projected 2008 Starter   Freddy Sanchez

Freddy Sanchez

Freddy Sanchez actually regressed less than many anticipated after winning the batting title in 2006. The 30-year old is coming off right shoulder surgery and should be expected to continue his downward trend. The other second baseman options are Chris Gomez, Luis Rivas, and Ray Olmedo, so the main concern here is that Sanchez is healthy enough to play 155 games.

Third Base
2007 Starter   Jose Bautista
Projected 2008 Starter   Jose Bautista

Bill James must love Jose Bautista because of his a high secondary average. In reality, Bautista would be valuable on most teams' benches, but is sorely miscast as a starter. He was arguably the worst non-Ryan Braun third baseman in the majors defensively last season.

2007 Starter   Jack Wilson
Projected 2008 Starter   Jack Wilson

I had to do a triple-take after looking at Wilson's 2007 statistics. He hit .362 in August and .460 in September, putting his overall numbers on par with his improbable 2004 season. Even though I don't anticipate Wilson approaching that kind of output in 2008, his performance still benefited the organization greatly by staving off delusions of using Cesar Izturis regularly at shortstop. Jack Rabbit's still one of the premier defensive shortstops in baseball as well, making more plays out of the shortstop zone than any infield captain not named Troy Tulowitzki.

Comeback Candidate
Jason Bay
Kingman Candidate
Xavier Nady
2007 Starters   Jason Bay
  Xavier Nady
  Chris Duffy
  Nate McLouth
Projected 2008 Starters   Jason Bay
  Xavier Nady
  Nyjer Morgan
  Nate McLouth

Jason Bay has publicly criticized Pirates management for failing to improve the team in the offseason. Of course, if Bay repeats his 2007 performance, trading him would be one of the most advantageous moves the Bucs could make, as the former Rookie of the Year batted just .209 after May. He battled tendinitis in his knee after offseason surgery, and a return to health could mean a return to success, particularly if he's motivated to entice a contender to trade for him.

Chris Duffy has had injury troubles of his own, undergoing left shoulder surgery in August. He should be fully recovered, but both Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan have stronger claims on centerfield, with the speedy Morgan covering even more ground than Duffy and McLouth slugging .544 in the final two months of the season. The Pirates would do well to give the bulk of the playing time in right field to Doumit and McLouth, but Xavier Nady stands poised to waste a lot of time out there.
Pirates Fun Fact - The 2008 Pirates can tie the 1933-1948 Philadelphia Phillies for a record 16th straight losing season.

2007 Crew Ryan Doumit, Josh Phelps, Jose Castillo, Cesar Izturis
Projected 2008 Bench Ryan Doumit, Doug Mientkiewicz, Chris Gomez, Chris Duffy

The Pirates rarely needed to dip into their bench last year, which was a good thing. They will miss Josh Phelps' astounding bat off the pine, but a healthy Doumit should pick up some of the slack. The Buccos are particularly susceptible to an injury in the middle infield.

Starting Pitchers
2007 Starters Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Tony Armas Jr., Matt Morris, John Van Benschoten
Projected 2008 Starters Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Matt Morris, John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington

Tom Gorzelanny
Supposed ace Tom Gorzelanny surpassed his 2006 innings total by 40 last year.  Fittingly, he allowed 58 hits in those final 40 innings after allowing only 156 in his first 161.1 frames.  It's difficult to say whether he will suffer an injury or just prove ineffective this year, but it amounts to the same thing for the Pirates, seeing as how they have zero depth in the rotation behind their front five.  For example, the Pirates went 1-11 in games that former first-rounder John Van Benschoten appeared in last year, as he battled Chris Capuano for the Josh Towers Award.

Other than baffling mid-season acquisition Matt Morris, the Pirates rotation features four pitchers who are 26 or younger. Despite that, Zach Duke is the only candidate for significant improvement over last year. Snell should strike out more batters and win more games, but will be hard pressed to improve upon last year's 3.76 ERA. Maholm got hammered both on the road and in the second half last year; he simply doesn't have major league quality stuff.

Relief Pitchers
2007 Relievers Matt Capps, Salomon Torres, Damaso Marte, Shawn Chacon, John Grabow, Shane Youman, Jonah Bayliss
Projected 2008 Relievers Matt Capps, Damaso Marte, Shawn Chacon, John Grabow, Romulo Sanchez, Hector Carrasco, Mike Thompson

Capps and Marte combined to form an outstanding 1-2 punch in last year's pen, but there wasn't much firepower behind them. That won't change this year. The relatively successful Torres and Chacon are replaced by Rule 5 draftee Evan Meek and age 38 disaster Hector Carrasco. At least it will prove difficult for the rest of the pen to perform worse than Youman and Bayliss did last year.

Outlook for the Season

Huntington's failure to sell off his veterans this offseason should give top prospects Andrew McCutcheon and Steve Pearce more time to develop in the minors. Scout.com ranked McCutcheon as the 19th best prospect in baseball in their 2008 Prospects Guide, as he's actually a Pirates prospect with some mental acuity to go with his terrific athleticism. Pearce combined for 31 homers across three levels last year, but after seeing him take batting practice last September, I guarantee he is not ready to hit for power in the majors yet. These two could compete for the 2009 Rookie of the Year Award if the Pirates don't rush them this year.

On the pitching side, Bryan Bullington still has a chance to fulfill some of his potential, but there isn't much to get excited about on the whole. The Pirates are going to need to trade for some major league-ready prospects soon to accompany their current cast to make a serious run at the NL Central in the next few years.

As for 2008, the Pirates can forget about their yearly unattainable goal of reaching .500. They can instead focus on finishing as high as fourth place for the first time in five years, as the St. Louis Cardinals and Houston Astros can each potentially eclipse these Pirates in futility.

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