Smizik: Parallels to '87 team provide a reason for hope

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Twenty years ago next month, a Pirates team left spring training feeling good about itself and its chances in the upcoming season and headed to New York for a series against a division rival. That team had a cast of young players that would etch a place in team history. At the time, though, their resumes were scanty.

Barry Bonds had the look of a good player, but certainly not the legendary one he was to become.

Andy Van Slyke had floundered so badly in St. Louis that the Cardinals had tried this outfielder for the ages at third base and first base.

Bobby Bonilla had been so lightly regarded the Pirates allowed him to slip away in the Rule 5 draft a few years earlier.

Doug Drabek, Brian Fisher and Mike Dunne, the team's three top winners, had the look of the heart of a solid rotation, but who knows with young pitchers?

We know what happened to that team. Three years later, with some additions and subtractions, it began a run of three consecutive division championships. The 1992 club is the last Pirates team to have a winning record.

In a few days, another Pirates team will leave spring training feeling good about itself and its chances in the upcoming season and head for Houston and a series against a division rival.

Do the 2007 Pirates have the same kind of future as the 1987 team?

A comparison of the two teams indicates the talent levels are not dissimilar.

Of course, there is no Bonds on the current team. None of the 2007 Pirates has given a hint of a future that includes Cooperstown consideration. But take away Bonds -- no small thing -- and the teams, at this stage of their developments, are not that different.

Jason Bay has the look of a player who will have a long and highly productive major-league career. Although he'll never be Van Slyke's equal in the field, he'll be a better hitter and run producer for a longer period of time. There's also reason to believe that first baseman Adam LaRoche can be at least as successful a hitter as Bonilla.

Bonds, Bonilla and Van Slyke were the heart of the Pirates' batting order. Complementary players Rafael Belliard, Sid Bream, Johnny Ray, R.J. Reynolds and Mike LaValliere filled in around them. The current team has similar players in Jack Wilson, Xavier Nady and Ronny Paulino.

The 1987 team got better in the seasons ahead by adding Chico Lind, Jay Bell, Don Slaught, Jeff King and Gary Redus to its core while losing Bream, Ray and Reynolds. The defensive lift that Bell and Lind at shortstop and second base gave that team cannot be overstated.

Much of how the 2007 team progresses will be determined by the play of such comparatively untested players as Chris Duffy, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Bautista. If those players can give the Pirates the kind of lift Bell and Lind did, the 2007 club will be even more similar to the '87 team.

But pitching, as always, is the difference. If the Pirates of 1987 had relied on Drabek, Fisher and Dunne to get to championship level, they never would have made it. Drabek, of course, became an ace and a Cy Young Award winner. Fisher won a total of 17 games in '87 and '88 but none the rest of his career, which lasted two more seasons. Dunne won 13 games in '87 and The Sporting News named him rookie pitcher of the year. He won 12 games the rest of his career.

The Pirates have better young pitching talent in 2007 than they did in 1987. If that talent progresses as Drabek did, the Pirates could be on a championship path. If it progresses as Fisher and Dunne did, they're doomed to many more sub-.500 seasons.

The 1987 Pirates had more behind Drabek, Fisher and Dunne, all of whom were acquired in trades. John Smiley came out of the minor-league system as did Randy Tomlin in 1990. Zane Smith was acquired in a trade (for Moises Alou) in '90 and Bob Walk reestablished his career.

To the current Pirates benefit, they have some good depth in their young starting pitching. This year's rotation will include Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny. All are 25 and younger. Anyone who follows baseball or just the Pirates knows the high failure rate of young pitchers. The chances of all four of them becoming successful major-leaguers is almost out of the question. For three of them to be successful would be unlikely. The Pirates need to keep developing pitchers and possibly will have to trade for one or find one in the free-agent market.

The Pirates are moving in the right direction. If they continue to do so, there will be a window of opportunity. But competition is fierce in baseball and many teams can outspend them. They need to continue to make smart personnel decisions, such as the trade that brought LaRoche, and they need to be willing to spend money to keep their current players and add some. If they do all that, they have a chance.

Know this, though: As talented as the 1987 team was, it finished 80-82 and had another losing season in '89 (74-88) before those core players began their championship run the next season.

With that history in mind and with the youth of the 2007 staff, we see this team finishing short of .500 -- 79-83.

"... take away Bonds -- no small thing -- and the [1987 and 2007] teams, at this stage of their developments, are not that different."

Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
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View from the press box

How the Post-Gazette columnists see the 2007 season playing out for the Pirates this season.

Cook: Won't be fooled again; expect a 90-loss yearr

Collier: LaRoche's bat big enough to end losing

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Baseball 2007

The Post-Gazette's run-up to opening day:

THURSDAY: Why the Pirates could finally break through the .500 ceiling (or not).

FRIDAY: The PG's columnists Ron Cook, Bob Smizik and Gene Collier look into the crystal ball. Also, PG poll results.

SATURDAY: Paul Meyer takes his annual trip through the minor-league system.

SUNDAY: Dejan Kovacevic introduces you to Adam LaRoche.

MONDAY: Opening day. How the Pirates start could well determine how they finish.


Bob Smizik can be reached at .


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