Cook: Pirates' clipboard may read 73 wins

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There might be hope for the Pirates after all.

It's right there in this morning's NBA standings.

Have you been paying attention to the Los Angeles Clippers?

If the worst franchise in sports can have a winning season, why can't the worst franchise in baseball?

Go ahead, give me one good reason why it can't happen.

What?

You say you have plenty of reasons?

OK, so Elton Brand won't be the Pirates' opening-day starter Monday in Milwaukee. I'll give you that. And Cuttino Mobley won't be in the lineup to go yard. That's true. And Sam Cassell won't be there to take the ball in the ninth inning. And Corey Maggette ...

Enough already.

It's really almost impossible to predict a winning season for the Pirates. It just wouldn't feel right, not after 13 consecutive losing seasons, the longest streak of its kind going in sports. Even Clippers fans must think that's a big joke.

Ouch.

And here's the worst part:

Can you say 14 in a row?

How about a 77-85 record?

Sorry, a 10-game improvement from last season is the absolute best I can do.

Call me cynical -- or worse, if you'd like -- but I just can't swallow the annual hype and false promises, which, this spring, have centered around the new manager, an improved lineup, a deeper bullpen and starting pitching the organization has been building for years to take the team to the Promised Land of 81-81.

Actually, I am buying into the new manager a bit even if it's still hard to believe Jim Tracy took the job. You would think a man who had the success he did with the Los Angeles Dodgers could have done better than the Pirates. Tracy's team will be ready to play. Still, I'd feel better about the 81-81 thing if he had brought along a few of the fellows from Los Angeles.

No, not Brand, Mobley and Cassell.

They'd never leave a good thing to come to the Pirates.

Jeff Kent, Eric Gagne and Derek Lowe.

It's fair to wonder how much better the Pirates' offense will be from a year ago when, Jason Bay aside, it was, ah, offensive. Jeromy Burnitz had better hit a lot of balls into the Allegheny River. Sean Casey and Joe Randa are terrific people, but they play power positions and combined to hit just 26 home runs last season. The St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen could get that many against the Pirates this season.

The bullpen might be deeper, but it remains to be seen if there's a real closer in the bunch. The Pirates tell us Mike Gonzalez has filthy stuff. Apparently, he has grown on them. In 2003, they tried to trade him to Boston for sore-armed Brandon Lyon. Gonzalez's next save will be his fifth. Of his career. Just say he still must prove he can get the toughest outs -- the 25th, 26th and 27th.

But the questions about power in the lineup and pop at the back end of the bullpen are minor compared to the young, inexperienced starting pitching. It's pretty unsettling when Oliver Perez is the wise, old head of the rotation. It was just last season he was so immature that he came to spring training out of pitching shape and then busted a toe kicking a laundry cart in late June.

Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and even Ian Snell, thanks to a magical September night when he outpitched Roger Clemens at PNC Park, showed enough last season to make you think they could be stars. Of course, at this early, unpredictable stage of their careers, they also have the potential to regress the way Perez did last season even if they go out of their way to avoid all laundry carts. And don't even get me started about the other starter. Who could have ever guessed we'd be fretting about missing Kip Wells?

It's enough to make me change my prediction.

Everything has to be perfect for the Pirates to finish 77-85 let alone 81-81. You know the truth as well as I do. There's never a season when everything goes perfect.

In Hollywood maybe, but not in Pittsburgh.

73-89.

Now that feels about right.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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