Spring preview: Pirates' top 10 issues

Several roster spots to be claimed, but LaRoche looms largest

A new spring dawns today for the 123rd edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club, with pitchers and catchers required to report to Bradenton by midnight tonight. And with it will come a stated expectation -- too nebulous, too low or too optimistic, some might say -- that these Pirates will "improve" over their standard 67-win output of a year ago.

So spoke owner Bob Nutting last month, and so it was echoed down the corporate ladder.

The charge, then, for manager John Russell and his staff in the six-week camp that formally opens with a Pirate City workout tomorrow is this: Take essentially the same group that collapsed to a 17-37 finish last season -- meaning the group that was left in the aftermath of the Jason Bay/Xavier Nady trades -- and make them, somehow, better.

That, Russell is adamant, can come not only from instruction but also from natural improvement.

"We have young players, a lot of them, guys who haven't spent much time in the big leagues," Russell said. "And we have faith in them. It's a good group. And I'm excited about this season, to be honest with you."

Key dates

Today: Pitchers and catchers must report to Bradenton by midnight

Monday: Position players must report to Bradenton by midnight

Tuesday: First full-squad workout, noon, Pirate City

Feb. 25: Grapefruit League opener vs. Philadelphia Phillies, 1:05 p.m., McKechnie Field

March 1: Minor league conditioning camp begins

March 5-23: World Baseball Classic

March 6: First workout for minor league pitchers and catchers, Pirate City

March 10: First full-squad workout of minor league camp, Pirate City

April 6: Opening day, Busch Stadium, St. Louis

The top 10 issues this spring ...

10. Someone, speak up!

Leadership is low on the list of priorities for franchises such as the Pirates, desperate for talent at all levels, but it certainly could contribute toward improvement in 2009. And this trait is highlighted all the more, given the offseason loss of fiery, outspoken Doug Mientkiewicz.

Paul Maholm appears to have taken the pitching staff under his wing, with John Grabow doing likewise in the bullpen. Ryan Doumit, who sat in the stall next to Mientkiewicz and had a glowing respect for him, might be prepared to step up with the group as a whole. So, too, could newcomers Eric Hinske or Ramon Vazquez, each no stranger to a Mientkiewicz-style approach.

9. The top kids

The Pirates' top two prospects have different points to prove this spring, each participating in major league camp: Andrew McCutchen wants to make the roster against all odds, and Pedro Alvarez should want to, finally, make a good impression.

McCutchen, suddenly looking like a man at age 22 with 10 new pounds of muscle this offseason, is ticketed for Class AAA Indianapolis, but no one -- not in management, not McCutchen -- is conceding that he could not blow everyone away this spring.

"My only goal," he called it.

Alvarez needs to overcome a sluggish six months and show up in better shape if he wants to get on that predicted fast track to the majors. If he is in good shape, he will start his professional career at high Class A Lynchburg. If not, he will be at low Class A West Virginia.

8. Checking the temperature

Three players enter the spring with health issues: Outfielder Brandon Moss is recovering from knee surgery but optimistic he will be ready for opening day April 6. Still, he will be slowed early in camp. The same holds true for reliever Phil Dumatrait, still working back from shoulder surgery last summer, and starter Jeff Karstens, bugged this offseason by nagging elbow trouble.

Another to watch: Second baseman Freddy Sanchez, hampered by a wonky shoulder and subpar vision most of last year, remains uncertain about both, though guardedly optimistic.

7. Building a bench

The bench will look almost completely different than last year, but its exact makeup is not yet known.

The locks are Hinske as a reserve outfielder, Vazquez for the infield. One of Jason Jaramillo or Robinzon Diaz will be the backup catcher, with early odds on Jaramillo. That leaves two spots, one for another outfielder and an infielder capable at shortstop. The former could be veteran tryout types Craig Monroe or Jeff Salazar or, with a very good spring, Steve Pearce. Bet on versatile, experienced Andy Phillips for the latter, with a push from Luis Cruz.

6. Real battle at third?

The Pirates will insist that Andy LaRoche will have competition at third base from Neil Walker, but three large factors mitigate against that: Foremost is that LaRoche is out of options. Next, he was part of the Bay trade and, thus, surely will be given every chance to show his awful showing last season was an aberration. Finally, few see Walker as ready offensively.

Look at third base this spring more from the standpoint of how much LaRoche improves.

5. The Kerrigan factor

To hear management tell it, new pitching Joe Kerrigan could have a dramatic imprint on a staff that was the National League's worst in 2008, and there surely were encouraging signs in the January minicamp, from his vocal style to a plan that stresses first-pitch strikes to pitching inside.

Beyond a doubt, given what was seen last season, the challenge will be colossal.

4. Bullpen battles

Matt Capps will close, and John Grabow, Tyler Yates and Sean Burnett will take up three other spots ... or not. The Pirates are known to be discussing potential trades regarding Grabow and almost surely would need to replace him with a left-hander from the outside if he is dealt. One possibility is free agent Will Ohman.

Craig Hansen is another likely to make it, as he is out of options and was part of the Bay trade. A long man will be needed, and that will be Dumatrait if healthy.

That would leave one opening for Jesse Chavez, Romulo Sanchez, Evan Meek, Denny Bautista, Chris Bootcheck and the long-shot Rule 5 draft pick Donnie Veal.

3. Left field really set?

The Pirates sound prepared to enter the season with Nyjer Morgan in left field, but will they?

Hinske and Monroe could make more attractive options, given the team's need for power. And no one is ruling out, given all the free agents still unemployed, that general manager Neal Huntington could add another bat.

That makes this the most volatile of the everyday positions and assures that Morgan will need a good spring to keep his current status.

2. Rounding out rotation

The offseason began with management declaring that only Maholm would have a spot sewn up, but Ian Snell and Zach Duke quietly have been added to the virtual lock category.

That still makes for a legitimate competition, with three pitchers -- Tom Gorzelanny, Ross Ohlendorf and Karstens -- for two openings. Gorzelanny has drawn praise from management for a superb offseason conditioning program, and Ohlendorf has many backers, too.

1. Awakening the first baseman

Could anything mean more to these 2009 Pirates than for Adam LaRoche, their perpetually slow-starting slugger, to finally, finally have a good start?

Or even an ordinary start?

His numbers in the second halves of seasons usually are spectacular -- nearly 70 points higher than his first halves in terms of average -- and it is that level of performance that this mostly punchless lineup will need to bolster Nate McLouth and Doumit if the team is to be legitimately competitive.

"Adam LaRoche is the man," Doumit said. "And this is the year."

LaRoche has been working through the offseason with hitting coach Don Long, but the stroke never has been the issue.

"Our studies have shown that the swing path doesn't change much," Huntington said. "It's mostly, really, something Adam needs to work out mentally. We feel he will. Really, one of these years, you think it has to happen."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com. First Published February 13, 2009 1:00 AM


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