Baseball 2007: Five reasons to believe ... or not

LaRoche, starters promising, but Pirates' pool still shallow

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SARASOTA, Fla. -- They own the longest current losing streak in professional sports, have posted back-to-back 67-95 records and made exactly one significant personnel move this offseason.

Hope for the Pirates?

Sure, there is plenty to be found among those in spring training.

But it remains to be seen how much is grounded in reality or wishful thinking.

To start, here are five reasons why the Pirates could -- that is could -- be winners for the first time since 1992:

5. The division will be tight.

Look at it this way: More than one national expert is picking Milwaukee -- not a typo -- to finish first.

No matter how it is broken down, aside from the Chicago Cubs spending a quarter billion dollars to upgrade their lineup, and aside from the Brewers having a promising young group poised to make a move, the rest of the Central went backward.

St. Louis, which won the division with just 83 victories last season, saw its rotation decimated in the offseason and now has Kip Wells at No. 2 on the depth chart. Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte are gone in Houston, and Carlos Lee's big bat will not replace that. And Cincinnati did little to improve a roster that probably was lucky to linger in the hunt last season.

Pirates manager Jim Tracy prefers to focus on his team, but he did say this with a confident tone: "It's a very competitive division, and we'll be competitive, too."

4. That winning second half.

One needs to spend no more than 30 seconds around Tracy to hear the figure: 37-35.

He repeatedly and passionately cites the Pirates' record after the All-Star break -- their first winning mark in the second half since, yes, 1992 -- as evidence that the players not only improved individually but also came together to create what he calls "a great clubhouse."

Although the offense actually was worse in the second half -- fewest runs in Major League Baseball -- Tracy's point has merit mostly on the pitching staff lowering its ERA from 4.93 to 4.01, third lowest in the National League, and the team's record in one-run games swinging violently from 9-27 to 15-4.

And that is why he constantly pushes for a carryover effect.

"That didn't happen by accident, what you saw in the second half," Tracy said. "That happened because these players grew up."

3. The defense will be better.

If only because it could not be much worse.

The Pirates' defensive efficiency ratio -- balls put in play that resulted in outs -- was one percentage point away from being the worst in the majors since 1960. No matter how many were bloops or blasts, that clearly points to not nearly enough gloves getting wrapped around balls.

But there is cause to believe that will change.

Ronny Paulino might have gotten his rookie miscues out of the way. Adam LaRoche is a large upgrade at first. Freddy Sanchez should be more reliable at second than Jose Castillo. Jack Wilson is highly unlikely to make 18 errors again. And having full seasons from Chris Duffy and Xavier Nady in the outfield will bring upgrades, too.

"There's no question in my mind we have people to catch the ball," LaRoche said.

2. The attack will be more balanced.

What makes LaRoche's addition so important is not just the 30-plus home runs and 90-plus RBIs he could bring. It is the effect on the lineup as a whole.

For one, he creates a true heart of the order, along with Sanchez and Jason Bay.

For another, he gives what had been the league's most right-handed outfit some needed diversity.

Consider the Pirates' Aug. 21 game in Atlanta last season, when John Smoltz -- as he acknowledged afterward -- needed only a limited repertoire of pitches to produce a one-hit shutout. The lone hit came off the left-handed bat of Duffy.

Smoltz's view of the Pirates now?

"You've got to have some balance in your lineup and, with Adam in there, they now have some," he said. "That makes you think differently as a pitcher. For me, last year, a fastball and slider was all I needed to get them out."

1. The young rotation will improve.

If the Pirates are to succeed, this truly must be No. 1.

Zach Duke and Paul Maholm had poor starts to 2006. Even Snell, who wound up winning 14 games, struggled early and almost was sent to the minors. But all three did fine down the stretch, Duke and Maholm each reclaiming peak form.

If those three perform to their potential -- still a large if, but hardly unthinkable -- and the Pirates can get just passable work from Tom Gorzelanny and Tony Armas, the pitching could provide the anchor for 2007.

Average age of the rotation: 24.8.

"As long as we pitch well and do our thing, I think we'll have one of the better staffs in the league," Maholm said. "But we can talk about it all we want. We have to go out there and actually do it."

Now, here are five reasons why the Pirates will wind up with a 15th consecutive losing season, one shy of the major-league record set by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1933-48:

5. The ceiling is too low.

Although the Pirates will remain among the majors' youngest teams, it would be inaccurate to portray the roster as one with potential appreciably greater than what it already has achieved.

Really, how much higher can Sanchez's batting average go than .344?

Or Paulino's rookie .310?

Even Bay, so consistently terrific these past three years, cannot improve much on his standard 30-plus home runs, 100-plus RBIs.

So, where will it come from? Many believe LaRoche remains on the ascent, that Duffy could become a good leadoff hitter for longer than two-month stretches, and that the rotation could mature.

But do not confuse this group's ceiling with that of, say, the Florida Marlins.

4. Which Chris Duffy?

The Pirates' center fielder and leadoff man is, without a doubt, their most unpredictable factor, if only because his brief time in the majors has known the most dramatic fluctuation.

He could, on the upside, be a premier glove man at his position, as well as a dynamic catalyst offensively, as he was in the second half of 2006 in batting .282 and stealing almost at will.

But he also could be the unhappy, unproductive player whose season-opening .194 slump resulted in his walking away from baseball for a month.

Having that large a variable batting first is ominous.

3. Will any lead be safe?

Giddy as the fans' reaction was to the LaRoche trade, out the door was 24-for-24 closer Mike Gonzalez. And his departure created not one but two potential holes:

On one hand, it remains to be seen if Salomon Torres can close. He was spectacular in that role in September but is a notoriously slow starter. The Pirates can ill afford a handful of blown saves in April.

On the other, no one can make up for Torres' 94 appearances as setup man. Not when Matt Capps (85 appearances), Damaso Marte (75) and John Grabow (72) already were taxed so heavily in 2006.

"I think we're up for the challenge," Capps said. "Gonzo is irreplaceable no matter how you look at it, but I don't think we're going to try to replace him. We're going to try to go about things as best we can. We're going to have a little more depth and the younger guys, like myself, have a little more experience."

2. Precious little depth.

The Pirates have some pitching to spare, but there are few answers if a key position player is injured.

Just picture someone like Bay going down for an extended stretch. Who would take his place?

What if LaRoche were hurt?

Or Sanchez?

Or Paulino?

It is possible, of course, that the Pirates could spend the $8 million or so remaining under their self-imposed limit to shore up deficiencies. But the previous time the team made an in-season move like that was 1997, when Shawon Dunston was brought in as a late-season reinforcement, so precedent is exceedingly rare.

1. That seven-letter word stitched across the front of their jerseys.

It might seem silly to place an intangible atop the list, given the Pirates' other shortcomings. But their recent history should not be understated.

If they get off to another lousy start how will the fans at PNC Park react for the home opener April 9? And the newspapers, talk shows and Web boards?

It will get nasty, and it surely will weigh on the players.

Or maybe not.

If one listens to Wilson, it will simply spur them on to succeed.

"This is what I think," he said. "The best thing we can do is to be the Pirates."

Say what? "It will be good to have that chip on our shoulder, to have everybody in here to wanting to prove everyone else wrong. Right now, the best thing this team has going for it is that it has lost 14 seasons in a row. I mean that. Let's get ticked off about it. Let's get excited about what it would be like if we won."

He paused.

"Seriously, how awesome would that be?"

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Click photo for larger image.

Related coverage

Pirates Notebook: Sanchez progresses at plate, in field

Advertising campaign shines spotlight on fans

Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

Baseball 2007

The Post-Gazette's run-up to opening day:

THURSDAY: Why the Pirates could finally break through the .500 ceiling (or not).

FRIDAY: The PG's columnists Ron Cook, Bob Smizik and Gene Collier look into the crystal ball. Also, PG poll results.

SATURDAY: Paul Meyer takes his annual trip through the minor-league system.

SUNDAY: Dejan Kovacevic introduces you to Adam LaRoche.

MONDAY: Opening day. How the Pirates start could well determine how they finish.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Can't wait till next year.
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Gloves have to be better, right?
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Adam LaRoche's impact will be felt.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
The maturation process accelerates.
Click photo for larger image.Associated Press
Looking up in Florida, but here?
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Will the real Chris Duffy step up?
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Salomon Torres: Ready for more?
Click photo for larger image.Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Some injuries hurt more than others.
Click photo for larger image.John Heller, Post-Gazette
That's P-I-R-A-T-E-S.
Click photo for larger image.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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