Cook: Won't be fooled again; expect a 90-loss year
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I'll give you that the Pirates should be improved. How can they be worse after losing 95 games last season? If you heard it once from manager Jim Tracy this spring, you heard it a million times: The real Pirates team is the one that went 37-35 after the All-Star break in 2006, not the one that was 30-60 before the break. That's his story and he's sticking to it. You also heard this question from Tracy time and again: How many of the team's 31 one-run losses a year ago would have been wins if Adam LaRoche had been in the lineup?
I'll also give you that the National League Central Division is a joke. The St. Louis Cardinals took the title with 83 victories last season and clearly are worse this season. The Houston Astros lost Andy Pettitte and, at least for now, Roger Clemens. The Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds had better win a lot of 11-10 games, their pitching is so weak. And, though the Milwaukee Brewers seem to be the chic pick in '07, they have had exactly one fewer non-losing season -- 81-81 in '05 -- than your Pirates since '92. That's really something to be proud of, isn't it?
I'll even give you that the Pirates can finish, at long last, with a winning record if everything goes right.
The problem is that ain't going to happen.
Already, there have been problems.
I'm not talking so much about LaRoche's relative lack of power production in the Grapefruit League and Freddy Sanchez's knee injury. That isn't to say it's not a bit troubling that two of the three players the Pirates are counting on most for offense -- Jason Bay is the other -- have had quiet springs and, in Sanchez's case, could be slowed by a bad wheel for a week or two. It's that they have track records. They will hit when it counts.
I'm more concerned about Chris Duffy's lousy spring. It seems as he goes, the Pirates go. Last season, he got off to a miserable start, so bad that he felt sorry for himself and went AWOL after being sent to the minors in mid-May. It's hard to believe you can count on a guy who bails out on you in tough times such as that, but the Pirates are counting on Duffy, in large part, because he plays a mean center field and because he hit .282 after rejoining them Aug. 1. Their second-half mini-surge was no coincidence. You might be rooting for Duffy to fail -- better to get phenom Andrew McCutchen to Pittsburgh quicker -- but that's not going to help the Pirates win this season. They need to win now to end that pitiful 14-year losing streak.
I'm also concerned about John Grabow's elbow injury. The Pirates need to keep everyone healthy, especially their pitchers. Grabow is being counted on to be their top left-hander in the bullpen, a big factor in the offseason trade that sent Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta for LaRoche. You have every right to worry about how Salomon Torres will do as the Pirates' new closer. But you should be more worried about who's going to replace Torres' 80 or so appearances as a set-up man. Grabow needs to take a lot of those. You also should be worried about who's going to get out the tough left-handed hitter in the eighth inning with the bases loaded. Do you really want to count on Damaso Marte? Grabow had better get healthy soon.
If only Duffy and Grabow were the big concerns ...
At the moment, Tom Gorzelanny is the biggest worry.
The Pirates are betting everything on their four young starting pitchers -- Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Gorzelanny. None is the staff ace that the Cardinals' Chris Carpenter, the Astros' Roy Oswalt, the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano, the Reds' Bronson Arroyo and the Brewers' Ben Sheets are. But, collectively, they have a chance -- that's a chance, now -- to give the Pirates the deepest rotation in the division.
Snell, in particular, as well as Duke and Maholm, have shown this spring they might be up to the challenge. Gorzelanny has not. Sure, it's dangerous to put too much stock in spring-training performances. Maybe Gorzelanny will get his game together and pitch lights out when the games start to count.
Or maybe Sean Burnett will replace Gorzelanny in the rotation early in the season and pitch lights out.
If one of those two things doesn't happen, the Pirates are going to be in big trouble. It's bad enough that Tony Armas is in their rotation. The last thing the team wants is Shawn Chacon also pitching every fifth day. That would be really bad.
A year ago, I predicted a 73-89 record. That turned out to be wildly optimistic, not to mention silly. I'm not going to be so foolish again. Yes, the Pirates will be better with LaRoche and because of the sorry division. But they won't be good enough to get to .500 and end the longest current streak of losing seasons in the four major professional sports.
72-90.Stacy Innerst, Post-Gazette
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How the Post-Gazette columnists see the 2007 season playing out for the Pirates this season.
First Published March 30, 2007 12:00 am