Ron Cook: Playing Bautista over Castillo might not be solution
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OK, so maybe Jim Tracy's timing could have been better.
"We want these players with the Pittsburgh Pirates to realize that mediocrity is not what we're striving for here," the manager said Friday.
This after Tracy's team went 67-95 in his first season a year ago.
This on the day when he gave the third baseman's job to Jose Bautista, who hit .207 after the All-Star break last season.
This on the weekend when he sent pitcher Sean Burnett to the minors and kept starter Tom Gorzelanny, who has been lit up and wild all spring.
Tracy's timing stinks.
But give him the benefit of the doubt with the Gorzelanny decision. Yes, Burnett and even Shane Youman pitched much better than Gorzelanny this spring and each has a right to be upset about being sent down. But it's dangerous to put too much stock in spring training performances. Gorzelanny pitched pretty well for the Pirates in the second half of last season. Tracy saw that. He didn't see Burnett pitch well in '04 before his elbow surgery. Lloyd McClendon was the manager then. It's only natural that Tracy is going to go with the guy who has done it for him before.
There's also this:
"I should be back pretty soon," an angry Burnett said Saturday.
There's no doubt about that if Gorzelanny continues to struggle in his first couple of regular-season starts.
As for going with Bautista instead of Jose Castillo, Tracy absolutely made the right call there, although there's no guarantee Bautista will be successful.
That .207 post-break average leaves room for a lot of skepticism.
At least Bautista seems to care about his job, about working hard and trying to become the best player he can be. It's hard to say that about Castillo. Just as Tracy saw the good from Gorzelanny last season, he saw the bad from Castillo. Poor work habits. A weight gain. Mental breakdowns at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Showing up teammates and coaches. A significant drop in performance from '05. It's only natural that Tracy wants to go in another direction, especially after watching the free-swinging Castillo exhibit the same impatience at the plate this spring.
It's nice to think Bautista's hitting will improve now that he has settled at third base. Last season, he started 31 games at third base, 46 in center field, 16 in right field, 5 in left field and 2 at second base. It's tough for a player to concentrate on his offense when he's never sure where he's going to play and is always worried about his defense.
It's also nice to think Bautista's power numbers will improve as he matures. He showed considerable pop early last season, hitting 10 home runs in 145 at-bats through June before tailing off dramatically. You don't think that one homer per 14.5 at-bats is impressive? Alfonso Soriano -- the jewel of the free-agent market during the offseason and the Chicago Cubs' new $136 million man -- hit one every 14.1 at-bats last season. If Bautista could somehow maintain that kind of pace for a 600 at-bat season, he would hit 41 home runs.
You don't think Tracy would sign in blood right now for a number even approaching that, do you?
The most significant drawback to Bautista winning the starting job is it makes Castillo virtually useless to the Pirates. Castillo probably will open the season as the starting second baseman because of Freddy Sanchez's knee injury, but that's not a good thing and not just because Sanchez won the National League batting title last season. Castillo can't possibly be in a good spot mentally now. It's almost impossible to imagine him being productive.
Once Sanchez returns -- sooner rather than later, the Pirates can only hope -- Castillo will have to go to the minors. If he doesn't get his act together there, the team will have to release him. There's no way he can help the Pirates off the bench. Think about it for a second. Do you really want him to pinch-hit in the ninth inning with the Pirates down a run and a man on third base with one out? He'd swing at three pitches out of the strike zone and strike out.
Bautista could have helped the Pirates a lot more off the bench because of his versatility and because of his power threat. As it is, the Pirates' bench looks dreadful. It's one of the big reasons to believe the team is headed toward a mind-numbing 15th consecutive losing season. The bench is so bad that Tracy might be forced to keep Brad Eldred, who can't help him in the field, merely because Eldred has a chance to run into a pitch as a pinch-hitter and hit a three-run home run.
Bautista had better hit those 41 home runs.
Not to put pressure on him, of course.Gene J. Puskar, Associated Press
Pirates third baseman Jose Bautista will start the season ahead of Jose Castillo.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published March 27, 2007 12:00 am