2009 PITTSBURGH PIRATES PREVIEW
The Pirates began 2008 with a surprisingly strong offensive attack. Slugging outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady joined with breakout star Nate McLouth to form the National League’s best outfield. However, the Pirates were betrayed by their starting rotation and the best outfield in the NL walked the plank in July as Bay and Nady were dealt, a bitter blow for Pirate fans. By the end of the year, a once hopeful season had turned into a 67-95 finish and the only consolation for Pirate fans was McLouth’s Gold Glove and the onset of football season.
2009 doesn’t look any better for the Buccos. The Pirates are on the verge of breaking the Major League record for most consecutive losing seasons (they already share the record with Philadelphia at an unbelievable sixteen straight losing years) and even the most optimistic Pirate fans don’t see the Buccos somehow avoiding becoming a terrible piece of baseball trivia. 2009 should be yet another long summer at PNC Park.
The Pirates starting rotation absolutely betrayed the team last season. Ian Snell (7-12, 5.42 ERA, 31 starts, 164 IP) and Tom Gorzelanny (6-9, 6.66 ERA, 21 starts) were expected to provide a solid 1-2 punch atop the rotation after both finished 2007 with sub-4.00 ERAs and instead were absolutely terrible for most of the season, though Snell did redeem himself somewhat with a 4.17 ERA over his last 10 starts. The lone bright spot was Paul Maholm (9-9, 3.71 ERA, 31 starts, 206 IP), who had a very solid season. Despite the disappointment from Snell and Gorzelanny, both are expected to have a chance to rebound this season and join Maholm in the rotation. The final two spots will belong to either Zach Duke (5-14, 4.82 ERA, 31 starts, 185 IP), Ross Ohlendorf (1-4, 6.46 ERA, 30 Gm, 5 starts) or Jeff Karstens (2-6, 4.03 ERA, 9 starts). Karstens and Duke are favored to earn spots and Karstens is especially highly thought of by Pirate management. After such a miserable showing as a whole last year, the Pirates’ rotation can only get better this year. However, that doesn’t really say much considering how poor the starting pitching was for the Buccos in 2008.
The Pirates’ bullpen features one of the more underrated closers in all of baseball, Matt Capps (3.02 ERA, 21 SV in 26 SVO), mostly because the Pirates don’t really give him many chances to close games. The bullpen in front of Capps is also full of question marks and will feature a lot of youth. John Grabow (2.84 ERA) and Tyler Yates (4.66 ERA) are the only two proven arms. Expect the Pirates to have yet another uneven year from their bullpen.
The Pirates actually have a pretty solid infield. Switch hitting catcher Ryan Doumit (.318, 15 HR, 69 RBI, .357 OBP) is one of the National League’s best hitters at his position and should have another solid season. First baseman Adam LaRoche (.270, 25 HR, 85 RBI, .341 OBP) is a notorious slow starter but always ends up with very solid numbers. Expect LaRoche to bat .100 in April this season but finish at .280 with 25-30 HR and 80-90 RBI like usual. The Buccos’ double play combination of 2006 NL Batting Champ Freddy Sanchez (.271, 9 HR, 52 RBI, .298 OBP) and Jack Wilson (.272, 1 HR, 22 RBI, .312 OBP in 87 Gm) are both solid hitters and should see improvement this year, especially from Sanchez. Wilson is also one of the most spectacular defensive players in baseball. Third base is a big question mark for the Pirates. Andy LaRoche (.166, 5 HR, 18 RBI, .252 OBP in 76 Gm) struggled with injuries last season but is very highly thought of by Bucco management and will be given the chance to earn a spot on the same infield as his brother. Veteran Eric Hinske (.247, 20 HR, 60 RBI, .333 OBP) will also find playing time at third when he isn’t filling in somewhere in the outfield. Utilityman Ramon Vazquez (.290, 6 HR, 40 RBI, .365 OBP) should also be a solid contributor. The Pirates should have a fairly productive infield, especially in Sanchez can regain his form from 2006-2007.
The Pirates outfield was excellent last season before dealing Bay and Nady but the cupboard isn’t completely bare. Centerfielder Nate McLouth (.276, 26 HR, 94 RBI, .356 OBP, 23 SB) had a fantastic season, though his numbers faded down the stretch. He is an excellent player both offensively and defensively. In right field, Brandon Moss (.246, 8 HR, 34 RBI, .304 OBP in 79 Gm) was a major part of the Bay trade and will be given every opportunity to succeed this season. Left field will belong to Nyjer Morgan (.294, 0 HR, 7 RBI, .345 OBP in 58 Gm), who is a prototypical leadoff hitter. Expect him to score a lot of runs and steal a lot of bases. Former Tigers star Craig Monroe (.202, 8 HR, 29 RBI, .274 OBP in 59 Gm) will look to rebound after struggling the last two seasons. Remember, he had 92 RBI in 2006. Hinske will also play a prominent role in the corner outfield positions. Overall, the Buccos have a very young outfield that doesn’t have a ton of pop, though if McLouth continues to develop then the Pirates could be surprisingly solid.
When the Pirates acquire a new veteran player from a team which is traditionally a winner, they usually say something along the lines of ‘We don’t want to just go .500, we want to make the playoffs.’ Well, if the Pirates somehow go .500 this season, they might get a parade in Pittsburgh. That’s how desperate the city is for their historically good baseball team (5 time World Champions) to avoid becoming so historically bad. It is also a sign of how beaten down Pirate fans are after 16 consecutive losing seasons. As a matter of perspective, seniors graduating from high school this year were one year old when the Pirates last had a winning season, meaning that they’ve literally never seen a winning baseball team in Pittsburgh.
Unfortunately for Pirate fans, there is little hope for 81 wins this year. The Pirates’ young rotation will have to have a big rebound and their other young players will have develop quickly. While the Pirates definitely have more young talent than perhaps any other point during their epic losing run, they’re probably still a year or two away from legitimately challenging for a winning season. Expect the Pirates to claim sole possession of the longest stretch of futility in Major League Baseball history this year as they probably will win between 65-70 games and finish dead last in the National League Central Division.
By Matt Baxendell
> View all of the 2009 MLB team previews from Pro Baseball Fans