Without winning team, Pirates sell hope, but is it false?

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The best promotion for any sports team in any market is not fireworks or bobbleheads or concerts, but winning. The second-best promotion is the hope of winning.

The Pirates cannot promise winning so they do the next best thing: They promise the hope of winning.

We saw that last year with the rush of enthusiasm generated by the trade for Adam LaRoche. His power bat would not necessarily help produce a winner, but it helped foster the hope of winning. It was the same the year before when massive expenditures brought Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa to the team. There were no guarantees with this influx of veteran talent, but they created hope.

This year, there are no new faces to excite fans. The only addition of even slight note is veteran utilityman Chris Gomez. But that doesn't mean the Pirates can't continue to try to sell hope. They have to. They have nothing else.

The hope the Pirates are selling this year is that the 2007 team underachieved. If you accept that fact, it logically follows that just the usual course of events will make the team better and -- hopefully -- a winner.

The underachievement theory is being widely accepted, even by usually skeptical journalists. But if the 2007 Pirates underachieved, explain the following:

• Why did their win total improve over their two previous years, going from 67 to 68?

• Why did they have more home runs, more doubles, more total bases and a higher team slugging percentage than at any time in the previous four seasons?

General manager Neal Huntington thinks the team underachieved in a big way. Earlier this month, he said this about the Pirates:

"I would say there is a pretty good nucleus in place with the major-league roster, particularly the rotation. I would argue, too, that if you go around the diamond with our everyday players, there are as many as five who underachieved last year. If just three of those five meet or exceed expectations, those 68 wins become greater."

If Huntington were correct, he might have a decent point. He is not correct. There were not "as many as five" position players that underachieved last year.

It is widely accepted that Jason Bay, Ronny Paulino and LaRoche underachieved. We won't quibble with Bay, who fell off in every area -- offense, defense, baserunning. The case that Paulino and LaRoche underachieved isn't quite so clear.

Paulino's defensive play and attitude were disgraceful. He was so lazy on the field, he should have been benched for a long period or returned to the minors. But, offensively, which is the area easiest to define and what Huntington seemed to be talking about, he did not necessarily underachieve. It's true his batting average fell from .310 to .263. But what is not clear is which of the two is his true number. In eight minor-league seasons, he never batted as high as .310, so there's reason to believe he overachieved in 2006 rather than underachieved in 2007. What's more, his home run total almost doubled in 2007, from six to 11, and his RBI total remained the same.

If Paulino underachieved offensively, it was not by much.

As for LaRoche, his home run total, which was expected to increase because of the dimensions of PNC Park, declined considerably from 32 to 21. But that 21 happens to be the second highest of his major-league career. His RBI total decreased by only two. LaRoche probably underachieved, but based on his career not by much.

Where Huntington came up with five position players who underachieved is difficult to figure.

Right fielder Xavier Nady didn't underachieve. He had the best season of his career, with highs in home runs, RBIs and doubles.

Shortstop Jack Wilson didn't underachieve. His batting average increased by 23 points and was the second highest of his career. His home run total and on-base percentage were the highest of his career.

Second baseman Freddy Sanchez didn't underachieve, unless he's expected to win a batting title every year. His .304 batting average and 81 RBIs were more than acceptable based on his history.

Third baseman Jose Bautista didn't underachieve. In his second full season, his batting average increased by 19 points and his RBI total by 12.

Center fielder Nate McLouth didn't underachieve. He had career highs in virtually every offensive category.

Nor did reserves Nyjer Morgan, Josh Phelps and Matt Kata underachieve.

The case could be made, particularly when the pitching staff is included, that the Pirates overachieved last season.

But the team should keep selling this brand of hope. After all, there's a sucker born every minute.

Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com .


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