Analysis: Creativity, confidence keys heading into 2007

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On the penultimate day of spring training, in the visitors' clubhouse at Fort Myers, Fla., shortstop Jack Wilson put forth the most accurate prediction of the year regarding the Pirates: "We are the last team that can afford to get off to a bad start."

How right he was. And for exactly the right reason.

Because, as the team would show by losing its first six games, the moment that happened, all the changes in the roster and staff, all the fuzzy feeling about the talented youngsters and everything else, disintegrated to a simple matter of the seven letters spread across the players' chests.

They were the Pirates again.

What can they do to avoid such a pitfall in 2007?

It starts with the organizational meetings later this month, continuing with key decisions to be made right through the day the team flies from Florida to Houston to open the season.

Offseason

There might be less debate than usual at those meetings, if only because, as the Pirates point out, there are fewer holes to fill at the major-league level. The breakout of Freddy Sanchez, the emergence of Ronny Paulino, the promise of Jose Bautista and the maturity of the pitching staff has seen to that.

That leaves two primary items on general manager Dave Littlefield's offseason shopping list: One is for a left-handed power bat to play first base or right field. The other is for a right-handed starter to complement Ian Snell and offset the three left-handers.

The first question, of course: How much is there to spend?

The Pirates finished 2006 with an active payroll -- the sum of full-year salaries on the 25-man roster -- of $33.2 million. (They actually paid out $45 million when counting prorated salaries for players who were traded.) Now, erase from that group Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Shawn Chacon, and another $13.6 million is subtracted.

With ownership keeping its payroll limit in the range of $45 million, and factoring in roughly $10 million in raises for existing players, there should be about $15 million in leftover cash.

That does not bring in two megastar free agents, especially not to Pittsburgh. And, in the cases of the top-shelf talent -- Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Lee, Jason Schmidt, Mike Mussina -- it probably does not bring one. Schmidt, for example, would be a wonderful fit if he returned, but he is coming off a season in which he made $10.5 million in San Francisco and could be the No. 1 target on the pitching market.

Moreover, some in upper management are wary of committing too many dollars to any one player because the Pirates were burned by paying Burnitz $6.7 million.

So who does that leave as a possibility?

The free-agent market for left-handed power bats at the Pirates' desired positions will be slim, perhaps limited to Houston's Aubrey Huff.

Huff, 29, made $7.5 million this past season while producing 21 home runs and 66 RBIs in 454 at-bats, the latter half spent with the Astros at hitter-friendly Minute Maid Park. But he also topped 20 home runs each of the previous four seasons with Tampa Bay.

The market for that right-handed starter is more expansive.

Among those fitting the stated criteria are Seattle's durable Gil Meche, 28. He had the best year of his career at 11-8 with a 4.48 ERA while making $3.7 million. Texas' Vicente Padilla, 29, is another. He went 15-10 with a 4.50 ERA and 156 strikeouts while making $4.4 million.

But the name that stands out is St. Louis' Jeff Suppan, 31. He pitched well in a half-season with the Pirates in 2003 and is cited frequently around the front office as the "type of guy" they would love to add. He went 12-7 with a 4.12 ERA while making $4 million.

If the Pirates choose the trade route, which they are likely to do for the bat, that raises another issue: What would they give up? The most obvious candidate to be on the block is enigmatic second baseman Jose Castillo, but he will not be a sufficient lure after a dismal second half.

The most attractive bait the Pirates can offer is pitching, but there will be strong resistance from some in the organization to part with starters. And there is logic to that: One starter gone means yet another must be replaced, and the team cannot yet count on Sean Burnett to take the spot of a left-hander who gets dealt.

That leaves the bullpen, the organization's deepest area. Relievers tend not to get dealt for power hitters, but some general managers value closers more than others, and the Pirates saw this past season that they have two potentially good ones in Mike Gonzalez and Salomon Torres. That is, perhaps, a luxury they will decide they cannot afford.

Then again, what if Littlefield stepped off the beaten path? What if he abandoned the worn concept of filling holes at the major-league level and used his bait to bolster his prospects, as more successful low-spending teams have done?

Take, for example, Joe Koshansky in the Colorado system.

His is a strange story, in that he converted two years ago from pitcher to power-hitting first baseman. Still, he is 24 years old, left-handed, a hulk of a man at 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, and he sends the ball out of the park. In 132 games for Class AA Tulsa this past season, he hit 31 home runs in 500 at-bats, along with a .284 average and 109 RBIs.

On top of that, because the Rockies have Todd Helton signed through 2011, they have no place to play any first baseman for the foreseeable future.

Colorado covets pitching. The Pirates have no prospect close to Koshansky's profile. Why not place a call?

Spring training

Regardless of who comes in from the outside, internal decisions will remain when the Pirates reach Bradenton.

Most pitching positions are set, with one rotation spot open and two, maybe three in the bullpen.

Paulino is behind the plate, Wilson at short, Jason Bay in left, indications were strong Chris Duffy will be in center, and Xavier Nady will play whichever of first base or right field Littlefield does not fill.

This might be the main issue of the spring: Sanchez is a virtual lock to move to second base. That could send Bautista back to his natural position at third, although it is unlikely he showed enough in 2006 to sew that up. Or, Castillo could go there. Management made clear late this past season its feeling that Castillo's growing frame was not suited to second.

Other elements of intrigue should be in play, too.

The Pirates are sure to retain outfielder Jody Gerut, even though he missed all the past season because of knee surgery. He is left-handed and hit 22 home runs as a rookie for Cleveland in 2003. He might push Nady for starting duty or, at the least, push Nate McLouth off the bench.

What will become of the nomadic Ryan Doumit? He is sure to get chances because of his switch-hitting power potential, but will they be as a catcher or first base, where he spent September? The early line is that he will back up Paulino.

The bullpen? It will be Josh Sharpless, Jonah Bayliss and Marty McLeary, among others, looking for work from the right side. And, if management does not pick up Damaso Marte's $3 million option, Shane Youman and Juan Perez will be among those trying out from the left side.

Opening day

By the time Roy Oswalt throws that first pitch to Duffy, one other piece will have to be in place: The players will have to, somehow, over the span of several months, carry over the confidence that was on display for much of the second half of 2006.

Perhaps that confidence -- and inspiration -- will come from management by finally setting for the players a firm goal beyond the vague concept of general improvement: Would there really be any shame associated with shooting for 82 victories? Not only would that end the string of losing seasons a year short of Major League Baseball's record, but it also would represent a 15-game improvement.

We will ... win?

Then again, a slogan like that might just recreate Wilson's worst fear from this season.

"We can't go into next year worried about breaking the streak," he said last week. "We can't worry about our record, either. We can't come in with this whole we're-going-to-change-this-thing-around attitude. That's just pressure. We just need to worry about going out and playing the game the right way. That's what we did here in the second half, and we need to keep that going."

  
Offseason Calendar:

Day following end of World Series: Beginning of 15-day period in which eligible players can declare free agency.

Dec. 4-7: Winter Meetings, Orlando, Fla.

Dec. 7: Rule 5 Draft.

Dec. 20: Deadline for teams to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players.

Jan. 9-13: Probable dates for Pirates' voluntary minicamp in Bradenton, Fla.

Jan. 16: Arbitration figures must be filed by team, players.

Jan. 26-28: Probable dates for 17th annual PirateFest, David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Feb. 1-20: Arbitration hearings held.

Feb. 15: Probable date for Pirates' pitchers, catchers and injured players to report to spring training in Bradenton, Fla.

Feb. 20: Probable date for position players to report.

Playoffs:

Gene Collier: Mets - Dodgers a tasty treat

Associated Press coverage

   

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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