Pirates Spring Preview 2008: Top Ten Issues

Much will be new, including half the bullpen

Come Thursday, when the Pirates' pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton, Fla., they will be welcomed by a new headquarters building towering above the Pirate City complex, an all-new management and a resultant new air of accountability.

For the most part, though, it will be the same players, which surely will raise one ominous question: Will they be the same old Pirates?

The top 10 issues, in descending order, of the spring training to come:

10. Renewing acquaintances

Although manager John Russell and his entire staff are new to their posts, there should be little adjustment. Russell was the Pirates' third base coach in 2003-05, and nearly half the roster did at least some spring work with him in the past.

The same is true, perhaps just as important given the nature of spring instruction, of pitching coach Jeff Andrews. He oversaw four-fifths of the current rotation -- Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and Zach Duke -- while they were rising through the minors, and their confidence in him has a genuinely strong feel to it.

"Andy's going to make a big difference," Duke said.

One area the staff already appears to have affected: Several players have followed the team's urgings to get into better shape this offseason, including a lighter and apparently motivated Ronny Paulino.

9. Knocking at the door

None of Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker or Steve Pearce sees himself as a minor-leaguer, and not without cause. The first two are the Pirates' top two prospects, and Pearce soared into that class with a Lynchburg-to-Pittsburgh 2007 that totaled 31 home runs and 113 RBIs.

For now, though, all are expected to start out at Class AAA Indianapolis.

"The important thing is to promote players when they are completely ready, not because they might be your best available," general manager Neal Huntington said.

Bet on the ultra-talented McCutchen to put on the best show in the spring. He batted .321 last March and was spectacular defensively before a down-then-up season in the minors.

"I feel like I've got a shot if I have another big spring," McCutchen said.

8. One more catcher

Although the Pirates will continue seeking a backup catcher who might push Paulino, the backup, as things stand now, will be one of journeymen Raul Chavez or Michel Hernandez. Give a slight edge to Chavez because of a strong arm that the teams' scouts love.

Ryan Doumit can catch, too, but the Pirates want Doumit's bat available for pinch-hitting, and they like what they saw of him in right field last year. Expect to see him wear a mask only in the earliest stages of camp.

7. X marks the goner?

The most likely player to be traded is outfielder Xavier Nady. Management is eager to add prospects, and its best chip -- with Jason Bay out of the equation until his value increases -- is to move one of its many outfielders.

San Diego still is seeking a corner outfielder and likes Nady, but the Padres and Pirates have found little common ground toward a trade so far.

Expect little on this front until late in the spring, or maybe closer to the July 31 trading deadline.

6. A lineup in indelible ink

The Pirates enter spring with a virtually set lineup, with the notable exception of the duel between Nate McLouth and Nyjer Morgan to play center field and bat leadoff.

That might lead one to suspect Russell already has a clear vision of his lineup.

"I've got ideas," Russell said. "But nothing's set."

His early leanings: Freddy Sanchez might bat second. Adam LaRoche might be at cleanup. And Jack Wilson, always a variable in these scenarios, might stay at No. 8, where he batted .400 in the final two months of last season.

5. Room in the rotation?

Although Huntington has designated his five starters as Gorzelanny, Snell, Maholm, Duke and Matt Morris, he never has ruled out that someone else could steal a spot.

But do not bet on it.

Everyone except Duke is a lock no matter their spring -- anyone remember Gorzelanny's 7.96 ERA last March? -- and, even there, management wants to give Duke every chance to become a solid, 200-inning performer.

On top of that, candidates to push Duke are slim: Best bets are one-time standout Jamey Wright, familiar faces Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten, and waiver-claim swingmen Phil Dumatrait and Ty Taubenheim.

4. Bop off the bench

The five-man bench will consist of utilityman Chris Gomez; Doumit as an outfielder, first baseman or third catcher; one of middle infielders Ray Olmedo or Josh Wilson; Chavez or Hernandez as the backup catcher; and McLouth if Morgan beats him out.

The catch: If Morgan loses, he likely would return to the minors to ensure consistent at-bats, and outfielder Kevin Thompson would enter the mix.

Any way that shakes out, it shows scant traces of offense, certainly nothing close to what the Pirates had from Josh Phelps, Cesar Izturis and Matt Kata in the second half of 2007. And that is particularly true with regard to power: Doumit and McLouth provide the only bop, but only from the left side.

3. Reviving the big bats

Perhaps nothing could be more encouraging for the Pirates this spring than to see Bay and LaRoche spraying balls through the palm trees beyond McKechnie Field's fence.

Bay is coming off a career-worst year -- .247 average, 21 home runs -- brought about in part by a wonky knee. The knee is fine, Bay insists. And, to ensure it stays that way, his offseason workouts have focused on strengthening his legs, something he says could help revive his power.

LaRoche is seeking to avoid the slow starts that have plagued him all through his career, even in the minors. He began taking batting practice as early as December in Kansas, and management has a spring plan to get him more at-bats than his 54 of a year ago.

"I'll be ready," LaRoche said.

2. Center of attention

McLouth and Morgan will bring many similar traits to their duel, but there are two critical differences: McLouth can infuse some needed left-handed power, and Morgan can provide game-changing defense.

Management was divided on the two, by all accounts, to the extent that Huntington tossed out a personal philosophy against basing too much on spring performance and decided to let the two duke it out in Bradenton.

"I'm looking forward to it," Morgan said. "Nate's a quality player and a friend, and we're each going to go out there and do our best."

One aspect to watch: The Pirates are placing a premium on reaching base out of the leadoff spot. Patience long has been a positive trait for McLouth in drawing walks, and Morgan must improve there.

1. Little relief in sight

The Pirates have a closer in Matt Capps and two proven left-handers to set him up in Damaso Marte and John Grabow.

From there ...

One can safely add Franquelis Osoria to the mix because of a dynamic sinker that gives Russell an easy call when needing a double play. But the field for the other three openings is vague to the point of not being able to rule out virtually any of 32 pitchers being invited.

As Huntington put it, "It could be anyone."

Still, look for veterans Hector Carraso, Casey Fossum and Elmer Dessens to get long looks, along with all of the pitchers mentioned above as starting possibilities, plus newcomers Marino Salas, T.J. Beam and Rule 5 pick Evan Meek.

To be sure, it will represent the greatest challenge for Andrews and all evaluators in camp.

"No question," Andrews said. "But we like the options we have, what some of these guys can bring, and we'll just have to see how it plays out."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . First Published February 10, 2008 5:00 AM


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