With the full startup of the baseball season about a week away, spring training has reached the point where it's time for the fans and the media to ask this question about their favorite team:
How good are we going to be this season?
Or in the case of the fans and media who follow the Pirates:
How bad are we going to be this season?
The Pirates have barely altered what was a 94-loss team that earned them their 15th consecutive losing season. It was -- and is -- a team that is offensively deficient. Although they have three promising young starters, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and Paul Maholm, their other two, Zach Duke and Matt Morris, are highly questionable. Duke is coming off two consecutive seasons of having the worst batting-average against in the National League. He was little more than batting practice last year. Morris was awful in the second half and his spring training performance has not been encouraging. The left-handed end of their bullpen is solid, at least, but beyond closer Matt Capps there is not a right-hander with anything approaching a successful major-league resume. The bench again is below average.
So what's to predict? It looks like another losing season.
But the success of a team is based on more than just its own talent. A second important criteria is the talent level of the competition. In this era of the unbalanced schedule -- the Pirates play 81 of their games in the Central Division -- the quality of the divisional opposition is also vital.
For example, the Toronto Blue Jays might be the third best team in the American League and normally that should be good enough to make the four-team postseason. But the only way to make the postseason is to either win a division or be the team among non-winners that has the best record. The Red Sox and Yankees stand in the road of the Blue Jays achieving either of those goals.
A better example occurred last season. The Chicago Cubs had the sixth best record in the National League. But because the caliber of their main opposition -- the weak National League Central -- they won a division with 85 games, fewer victories than the Mets and Padres, who did not make the postseason.
To the Pirates' good fortune, the NL Central, other than the Cubs, looks to be even worse this year. The Cubs have considerably strengthened themselves and could be a powerhouse. They have four starters who won in double digits last year, Carlos Zambrano (18), Ted Lilly (15), Jason Marquis (12) and Rich Hill (11). All four threw more than 190 innings, and only Marquis had an earned run average over 4.00. To go along with a lineup that includes Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano, the Cubs signed Kosuke Fukudome, regarded as the best player in Japan and a middle-of-the lineup slugger.
The rest of the division doesn't measure up to the Cubs, although if closer Eric Gagne returns to form for the Milwaukee Brewers, they could be a challenger.
Just where the Pirates fall in that pack is hard to say. They're definitely behind the Cubs and Brewers. They also look to be behind the Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros, although both teams have definite weaknesses.
As always, hope emanates from Bradenton. The springtime belief is new pitching coach Jeff Andrews will fully tap the potential of Gorzelanny and Snell and straighten out Duke, and that manager John Russell will instill fundamentals and accountability in the team. Oh, that it were so easy.
It all comes down to talent, and the Pirates come up lacking in that area. For the Pirates to have any chance of doing anything, Jason Bay must return to the form that made him one of the best offensive outfielders in baseball in 2005 and 2006. His slugging percentage, which had never been below .500, fell to .418 last season, and he was nowhere near the dangerous hitter he once was. The fact his fielding declined similarly also was alarming.
But here's the downside of a Bay revival. It could get him traded. The same thing applies to Xavier Nady, if he's in the midst of a good season.
Such trades might be prudent if they can bring an abundance of quality young talent, but they'd also wreck the season. It would be a clear sign to the veterans who have struggled so long with this losing franchise that another rebuilding program is under way.
In fact, that's probably the best way to go.
Despite the fact that in a moment of total mindlessness this column months ago predicted a winning season in 2008, the facts state otherwise. Truth be known, a winning season is not likely for the Pirates this year or the next year or the next ...
Bob Smizik can be reached at email@example.com .