Baseball 2009: Five reasons to believe in Pirates ... or not

Lineup has some upside, but pitching promises to stay a shortcoming

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- The expectations, it is safe to say, could not be much lower for these 2009 Pirates, with nearly every national publication predicting yet another last-place finish.

"What are they saying, that we'll lose 95 or 100?" general manager Neal Huntington asked the other day.

Or worse. And there is rich cause for such negativity, given that 17-37 free fall after the Jason Bay trade last summer, as well as management making exactly two additions -- bench pieces Eric Hinske and Ramon Vazquez out of free agency -- all offseason.

Still, there is some optimism, even if it is almost exclusively contained within the walls of those in the team's employed ...

"I believe in this group. I really do," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "It's kind of hard to explain, but there's just something here."

But enough somethings?

Baseball 2009
The Post-Gazette's four-day preview of the Pirates and Major League Baseball:
  • Today: Five reasons why the Pirates finally will be winners again ... or not
  • Tomorrow: Pedro Alvarez is the franchise's brightest light perhaps in years
  • Sunday: The Jason Bay trade, a watershed moment, was just part of "the process"
  • Monday: The march begins in St. Louis ... to a record 17th losing season?

Here are five reasons why the Pirates could -- that is could -- be winners for the first time since 1992:

5. That upbeat feel.

Doug Mientkiewicz is gone, but there has been no shortage of good vibes this spring, and that cannot hurt a team carrying this franchise's recent baggage. Get down too early in Pittsburgh, and the season can be declared over by, oh, mid-April.

"You need to have confidence, and I feel a lot of that in here," starter Zach Duke said. "I think it's a group that's going to do well, that's going to stick together."

Leadership can be expected of Hinske, Doumit, starter Paul Maholm, first baseman Adam LaRoche and others, and it has to come from within the clubhouse -- not manager John Russell's office -- to truly resonate.

Even so, several players this spring have credited the instruction -- and enthusiasm of new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and infield instructor Perry Hill -- for fostering the atmosphere.

4. This is not really a young team.

The rebuilding is underway at all levels of the system, but the roster in Pittsburgh will remain mostly average in age, with everyday players Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and LaRoche all 29 or older. Doumit and Nate McLouth are younger but have plenty of experience.

Moreover, all of the above plus a few others have had sustained spurts -- some more than others -- of performing at a top level in the majors, so individual confidence should not be an issue.

On top of that ...

"We all know each other," Maholm said, "so we all know what the other should be doing to make the team better. That helps."

3. Some offensive upside.

This lineup should be a downgrade from the Bay/Xavier Nady version that struck legitimate fear into opponents early last year, even if McLouth and Doumit replicate their performances, even if Sanchez regains top form, even if LaRoche finally hits before late May,

Unless, that is, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss were to break through.

LaRoche and Moss each is 25, and the Pirates -- as well as people around Major League Baseball -- are high on their potential to emerge as productive, powerful hitters. Certainly, LaRoche has done nothing to diminish that view with a .327 spring training.

"We've got some bats," Russell said. "We just need them to step up, the way McLouth and Doumit did last year."

2. Someone knocking at the door.

The system is hardly rich at the upper levels, but there are enough important prospects to make a potential difference, including outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata, third baseman Neil Walker and starter Daniel McCutchen. All except Tabata will be with Class AAA Indianapolis, and Tabata is expected to move quickly from Class AA Altoona.

"I'd still say you can find our greatest wave of talent at the lower levels," director of player development Kyle Stark said. "But we're definitely going to have more help in Indianapolis."

1. Paul Maholm.

This was reason No. 1 in this category a year ago, too, and it proved to be painfully accurate, for Maholm was the only starting pitcher who performed well all summer. Or even capably.

So, he is No. 1 again, but mostly in the sense that the rest of the staff can learn from his efficiency, control, game-planning and, yes, work ethic. If the Pirates had five Maholms, or even three, those forecasts would not be nearly as dire.

"We need a lot of guys to do better," Maholm said. "But I think you're going to see that. If you look at this staff, these are guys who have done the job in the past. Talented guys. Good pitchers. We just have to put it together."

Now, here are five reasons why the Pirates will wind up with a 17th consecutive losing season and break the professional sports record they currently share with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies:

5. They are not the Rays.

Though the comparisons to Tampa Bay have been raised often this offseason, including by Hinske, a member of that magical team, these Pirates have neither the existing talent, nor the upside in prospects, nor anything close on either front.

Thus, transforming a 67-win team into a contender, much less a champion, remains exactly what it was before the Rays pulled it off: Extraordinarily unlikely.

Save the comparisons for when that aforementioned crop of prospects arrives.

4. Some veterans might be gone by August.

Wilson, Sanchez, Adam LaRoche and reliever John Grabow can be free agents after the season, and precedent with new management shows that offers will be entertained for all four. If the Pirates bomb earlier than in the past, those offers might be entertained well before the July 31 deadline.

Once one or two or all of those players is elsewhere ... well, that scene did not play out so nicely last summer.

"Really we can't think about that now," Sanchez said. "We just need to do whatever it takes to succeed and try to stay right where we are."

3. Not enough thump.

Asking McLouth to rival his 26 home runs of last year might be a bit much. Asking Doumit or Adam LaRoche to upgrade on their totals -- 15 and 25, respectively -- probably is not.

But where else will the Pirates find their power?

Andy LaRoche and Moss have some inherently, but their combined home run total in the majors is 14, so they hardly represent a sure thing.

2. That seven-letter word stitched across the front of the jersey.

This usually tops this end of the list, for the intangible of simply being the Pirates seems to be enough to overwhelm any individual positives such as batting titles and the like.

Not this year.

Not when there is ...

1. The pitching.

It requires much more than Kerrigan's hiring to envision that a pitching staff that had a National League-worst 5.08 ERA, a rotation that failed to reach the sixth inning 74 times, the starters winning 33 games while the relievers won 34, and a current bullpen enormously reliant on three of seven men -- with a Rule 5 draft pick, Donnie Veal, there, too -- could improve enough to become a strength.

And, unlike with the position players, there is not help on the way anytime soon. The only intriguing pitching prospect with Indianapolis is Daniel McCutchen, and the only other representing depth is struggling Tom Gorzelanny. The top pitching prospects, Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris, remain years away.

Until that changes, or unless the current staff defies some rather frightening precedent, these Pirates will not win.

"That's the key to everything," Grabow said. "If we get the starting pitching, we're going to surprise people. We have the people. They just need to deliver."

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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