Hot Stove: How much can key hitters really improve?

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There emanates, all through the Pirates' organization, a belief that the young core of the team is bound to improve in 2007.

"We're going to get better," general manager Dave Littlefield said.

"We'll be better," manager Jim Tracy said.

That might well be true, especially in the area of starting pitching, where it appears the ceiling remains much higher than what has been touched so far.

But the core of the lineup? That is harder to envision. Consider that, for the moment, the middle of the lineup probably consists -- in no particular order -- of Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay and Ronny Paulino. Then, ask how much better each of these players can be than he was last season.

Sanchez, of course, was the National League batting champion with a .344 average. Is he expected to hit .350? Or head up to Wade Boggs/Rod Carew/Ted Williams territory?

Bay continued his impressive ascent last season, increasing his home runs from 32 to 35 and his RBIs from 101 to 109. But does anyone expect his power numbers to keep rising, given that his power alley is to left-center, where PNC Park is least kind?

Paulino batted .310, becoming the second rookie catcher since 1969 -- Mike Piazza was the other -- to have such a high average. How will he improve? By chasing Sanchez for the batting title?

As could be expected, the infinite optimist Tracy has an answer for all of the above ...

For Sanchez, he pointed to extended excellence: "He doesn't have to be a batting champ again to be better. If Freddy hit .315 or even .295, would you take that? If he kept finding ways to put the ball in play, kept people moving on the bases and kept playing great defense? I know I would. Being consistent over a long period is part of improving, too."

For Bay, he pointed to that .242 average with runners in scoring position, a massive drop from .346 the previous year: "Jason's going to grow in that area. He's going to get better. For anybody to think that this player is a finished product ... that's just not the case."

For Paulino, he pointed to better power -- he hit only six home runs -- and plenty of room to improve his receiving behind the plate: "Is he capable of more power? Yes. Do I want to see him change his approach and become a dead-pull hitter? No. I just want him to continue to develop, and the power always is the last thing to show up. Defensively ... he's a big man, and he has to improve his footwork. But we'll work hard on that in the spring."

Buried treasure

Expect a decision soon from free-agent starter Brian Lawrence. The Pirates made him a second offer Thursday, believed to be for a major-league contract, and Littlefield had a follow-up conversation with Lawrence's representatives Friday. Still, it appears that Colorado is the favorite. The Rockies, Lawrence's preference, finally made a formal offer late in the week. It, too, was on major-league terms.

Another free-agent starter, Tomo Ohka, spent the week in face-to-face negotiations with two teams. The Pirates were not one of them, a representative from Ohka's agency said, but the Pirates are being "kept informed" of his status.

What if that fifth starter were to be Sean Burnett? Would the Pirates go with four left-handers? "Absolutely," Littlefield said. "We're not worried about that at all. We want the best pitchers."

Reliever Brian Rogers gave partial credit for his success in the Arizona Fall League -- 7 2/3 scoreless innings -- to the return of his split-fingered fastball. The Pirates had urged him to find a pitch that would tail away from left-handed hitters, and he de-mothballed a splitter he had not thrown since high school. "It's still just a setup pitch, but it worked great," Rogers said.

"Have you seen Josh Sharpless?" Tracy asked earlier in the week. "He's a man!" Sharpless said a workout regimen has increased his weight by 10 pounds to 246 while lowering his body fat. His motivation? A history of ankle trouble, including a sprain that shelved him for a month last season. "I need to get stronger all over, especially down low," he said.

Early in the offseason, Littlefield identified two openings for right-handed relief. But he is clear now that those are likely to be filled in-house: "I don't know, with the money and trade talks we have going, if we want to put too much into there. We certainly have some talent here." He cited Rogers, Sharpless, Jonah Bayliss, Jesse Chavez and Franquelis Osoria as candidates.

The Pirates' Winter Caravan begins today with Bill Mazeroski signing at Seven Springs and continues tomorrow in Johnstown and Cumberland, Md.; Tuesday in Latrobe and Altoona; Wednesday in State College and Du Bois; and Thursday in Punxsutawney and Indiana. Current players on the caravan will be starters Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, and reliever Matt Capps.

Thirty-three days until pitchers and catchers report.

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


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