Eleven of outfielder Nate McLouth's teammates voted him most likely to have a breakout season.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
ATLANTA -- The first pitch of the Pirates' season will come tonight at Turner Field, from Tom Glavine's hand to Nate McLouth's bat.
And, to hear McLouth's teammates tell it, that could bring the beginning of something special.
"He's the man," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "Nate McLouth. Write it down."
That view was a popular one in the Post-Gazette's preseason survey of the Pirates' players. In the past week, 20 players were asked to make eight predictions for 2008 and, as per the guidelines, could choose their own team or themselves in the responses.
Which player will have a breakout season?
McLouth: 11 votes
Paul Maholm: 3
Ryan Doumit: 2
Jose Bautista, Xavier Nady, Zach Duke, Ronny Paulino: 1 each
No topic stirred more passion than this one, and those who chose McLouth, in particular, did so without hesitation.
"He's the one who's going to make us go," starter Ian Snell said. "You'll see. Everyone will see."
McLouth blossomed last season when given a chance at everyday duty in August, batting .270 with seven home runs, 17 RBIs and exemplary baserunning that month. That might have continued into September, too, except that previous management decided to look at Nyjer Morgan.
This spring, he convincingly won his duel with Morgan, batting .288 with two home runs.
McLouth, not exactly the boasting type, looked red-faced when told of his teammates' support.
"Oh, that's nice," he said.
His choice was Bautista.
Who will be the team's MVP?
Adam LaRoche: 6
Jason Bay: 3
Freddy Sanchez: 2
Matt Capps, Maholm, McLouth, Duke, Paulino: 1 each
It could say plenty about the Pirates' level of uncertainty heading into 2008 that this voting was so spread out.
It also could say plenty about how much they need the top two vote-getters to be their best players: LaRoche, coming off a strong second half and a solid spring, will bat cleanup. Snell, coming off a fine overall season and equally encouraging spring, will make his first opening-day start tonight.
LaRoche, traditionally a slow starter, will need to overcome that to fulfill these expectations.
"I'll be ready," he said. "I'm feeling good. I really am."
LaRoche's choice was Bay, Snell's choice Sanchez.
Which player will make the best comeback from a down year?
Matt Morris, Paulino: 1 each
It surely helped Bay's tally that he looked confident and comfortable at the plate all spring. He even showed, for the first time since 2005, that his long-nagging knees might be no hindrance in the field or on the bases.
"It just feels so good to be healthy in spring for the first time since ... I don't know, maybe ever," Bay said.
Duke looked dominant at times, including his five strikeouts in as many innings last week against the Detroit Tigers that had many of his teammates buzzing.
"I had a great view from the field, and I'm telling you: His stuff was just unhittable," McLouth said.
Bay and Duke each chose the other in this category.
By the way, for anyone wondering how Paulino got all these prominent votes to this point after a dismal 2007, wonder no more: He picked himself for MVP, breakout and comeback player.
"I have to believe in myself, right?" he said, smiling. "It's going to be me."
Who will be the team's top rookie?
Steve Pearce: 4
Phil Dumatrait: 4
Evan Meek: 1
Morgan, Dumatrait and Meek are the only qualified rookies on the roster, but Pearce, who led the team with four home runs this spring, received votes because several players expressed a belief that management will not be able to keep him in the minors long.
As for Morgan, most seemed to have an easy time choosing him in large part because they know so little about the two relievers.
Morgan playfully hesitated when informed he could vote for himself, then chose his friend, Dumatrait.
"But I'll be there, you know?" Morgan said. "I have the chance of a lifetime being in the majors, and I'm just getting started."
Which team will win the Central Division?
No question caused greater hesitation, as some players clearly were loath to choose another team because of how it might look, so they simply selected their own.
Others did not hesitate.
"Pittsburgh Pirates!" reliever Damaso Marte fairly shouted when asked.
Bay, the only one to choose the Brewers, found some diplomatic middle ground: "We'll be the wild-card team. How's that?"
Who will be the National League's MVP?
Matt Holliday, Colorado: 7
Chase Utley, Philadelphia: 4
David Wright: New York: 3
Mark Teixeira, Atlanta: 2
Jimmy Rollins, Philadelphia; Miguel Tejada, Houston; Albert Pujols, St. Louis; Sanchez: 1 each
Holliday, the Rockies' superlative outfielder, was the quick choice of a few. But, for the most part, this question brought long pauses. That was mostly because of Pujols' uncertain status with an elbow injury he has decided to play through for as long as he can.
Rollins narrowly beat out Holliday for MVP last season, but his teammate Utley was a more popular choice.
Who picked Sanchez?
It was Marte, whose confidence in the current roster might be unmatched in the clubhouse ... or anywhere.
Who will win the Cy Young?
Jake Peavy, San Diego: 9
Johan Santana, New York: 6
Aaron Harang, Cincinnati: 2
Dan Haren, Arizona; John Smoltz, Atlanta; Pedro Martinez, New York: 1 each
The choice of Peavy was as popular as it was unpopular, in a sense. Several of the Pirates spoke his name as if recalling a schoolyard bully, no doubt recalling many failed attempts to hit his electric stuff.
Santana and Haren might have gotten more support if they were not fresh arrivals to the league. Santana, for example, was the choice of utilityman Doug Mientkiewicz, a lifelong American Leaguer before this season.
"Johan's special," Mientkiewicz said.
What single factor will be most dominant in how the team performs?
Starting pitching: 7
Play to its ability: 5
Better attitude: 3
Staying together: 2
New manager, bullpen, McLouth: 1 each
This was the only question of the survey in which players were given no choices, which might make it somewhat striking that so many of them struck similar chords.
"How can it be anything other than the pitching?" reliever John Grabow asked. "That's going to be what carries this team."
"It's our starters," McLouth said. "That's easy."
The play-to-its-ability choice probably was popular because of management's many declarations this offseason that this group underachieved last season.
"We just need to have everybody doing what they're capable of," Nady said. "And that means everybody."
Mientkiewicz and Sanchez were the two who stressed staying together.
"What we have to do is believe," Mientkiewicz said. "Forget all the negativity. Forget all that stuff from the past that can drag you down. There are times when things will get tough. We know that. But we have to weather it."
"When people think of camaraderie, they think of the clubhouse," Sanchez said. "But, to me, it's on the field and in the dugout where it's most important. We all have to have each other's backs, have to talk to each other, have to support each other. If we do that, I think, it's going to make a huge difference."
It was Wilson, incidentally, who voted for McLouth in every available category.