a 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates: Opening Day Preview
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Bax’s Bucco Blog: Let the Games Begin!

 

Finally, the waiting is over. The Pirates officially set their roster for opening day in St. Louis with the demotion of flame throwing reliever Evan Meek in favor of Jesse Chavez on Friday. Meek had struggled with illness the past two weeks and the Pirates simply felt he wasn’t ready to pitch in game situations yet. However, I would be very surprised if he wasn’t the first relief call up this season.

Overall, this spring definitely exhibited the depth of the organization. The Pirates actually had to make some decisions to demote talented players who appeared ready to contribute in the major leagues for the first time since I can remember. Star prospects Neal Walker, Andrew McCutcheon and others will be given some more seasoning at AAA ball and the big bats of the future, Pedro Alavarez and Jose Tabata, will refine their strokes in the lower minors. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if all 4 were part of the team in a year.

Anyways, here are your 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates and the expected starting lineup on Monday in St. Louis:

Starting Pitchers: Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens

Bullpen: Matt Capps, Tyler Yates, Craig Hansen, John Grabow, Donnie Veal, Sean Burnett, Jesse Chavez

Outfield: Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Brandon Moss, Craig Monroe

Infield: Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Andy LaRoche, Ramon Vazquez, Eric Hinske

Catchers: Ryan Doumit, Jason Jarmillo

Starting Lineup

1) LF Nyjer Morgan

2) 2B Freddy Sanchez

3) CF Nate McLouth

4) C Ryan Doumit

5) 1B Adam LaRoche

6) 3B Andy LaRoche

7) RF Brandon Moss

8) SS Jack Wilson

9) SP Paul Maholm



Pittsburgh Pirates hats

After wrapping up Spring Training at a decent 17-14-3, we can officially throw any and all Spring Training stats and records out the window. After all, none of this really counts. However, there were a lot of good things that came out of Bradenton this spring and here is where I believe the Buccos stand going into the season.

THE POSTIVES

1) THE ATTITUDE: The Pirates truly believe that they can compete this year. Most of the team returns from last season that took some serious lumps down the stretch but optimism reigns supreme in Bucco land. While this optimism might not last the week, the Pirates believe they can win this year and that’s what really matters.

2) THE DEVELOPMENT: Hello, Andy LaRoche! Younger brother Andy beat the heck out of the baseball in spring training and surprised many observers who previously questioned his potential, myself included. LaRoche was the players’ choice to be the team breakout player and they’re closer to the situation than anyone. Last year, the players picked Nate McLouth to be the breakout guy and he went on to be an All-Star, so I’m bullish on Andy’s success this year. Speedster Nyjer Morgan also seems ready to become a disruptive leadoff hitter in left field and will allow the Buccos to drop McLouth into a run producing spot in the lineup at number 3. This is a young team and it appears that there has been improvement across the board.

3) THE HEALTH: Brandon Moss seems to have recovered nicely from an injury sustained earlier in Spring Training, Freddy Sanchez’s bum shoulder that affected him all season in 2008 has healed and Andy LaRoche will finally be able to take a healthy at bat in Pitsburgh. The Pirates are about as healthy as they could hope upon entering the season. Hopefully injuries won’t stand in the Pirates’ way this year.

THE NEGATIVES

1) THE YOUTH: This is still a really young team. In fact, only Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson and Adam LaRoche have more than 2 seasons of starting baseball under their belts among the position players. The rotation is equally young, with Ian Snell being the oldest at 28 and 3 full major league seasons. There will be times this year where the small amount of veteran leadership on the team will need to step up. Will it be enough?

2) THE BULLPEN: The Pirates have a fine closer in Matt Capps and an excellent set up man in John Grabow but after that there are questions. A few bad Spring ERAs: Jesse Chavez (11.45), Sean Burnett (7.05) and Donnie Veal (5.02). Youngster Craig Hanson’s 4.11 ERA was solid but he has yet to establish himself as a big leaguer. The Pirates have a lot of unknowns in relief.

3) THE STREAK: The last time the Pirates won more games in a season than they lost was 1992. Sixteen seasons! That’s tied for the worst streak in Major League Baseball history! If the Pirates get off to a slow start, the newspapers and fans will begin running articles in May mentioning that it is a foregone conclusion that the Pirates will officially set the all time record for futility. That has to wear on the team. They have to feel some pressure to win this year. While it might not be the most important to a group of players who certainly haven’t played a large part in the run of awfulness, Pirate fans are dying for a winning year and they’re getting frustrated. The Pirates NEED to get off to a good start.

 

Simply put, the Pirates have a young team. Their starting rotation has a lot of potential but only Maholm posted a sub 4.00 ERA last season. The Pirates management was very disappointed with former top prospect Tom Gorzelanny and demoted him early in Spring Training after he struggled again after posting a 6.66 ERA last year and his Pirate future is in doubt. However, expect improvement in the rotation this season. Ian Snell and Zach Duke should both improve upon their 2008 season and 4 th starter Ross Ohlendorf had an impressive 0.87 ERA in Spring Training. 5 th Starter Jeff Karstens struggled and won the position almost by default but has excellent potential; Most Pirate fans remember him taking a no-hitter into the 9 th inning in Arizona last season. The Starting Rotation should be better than last year, though almost any group could say that by default after nearly the entire group walked the plank in 2008. All joking aside, the Pirates’ rotation should hopefully keep the team in far more games this year.

The offensive production could surprise a lot of people as well. Andy LaRoche hopefully won’t exhibit the same tendencies as his older brother and bat .100 in April after such an excellent spring. Can he carry his excellent productivity over to the regular season? Centerfielder Nate McLouth has to prove himself all over again after his breakout season last year. Can he sustain his excellent play from 2008? Brandon Moss has been considered a big time prospect for a few years and was the centerpiece of the Jason Bay trade. Is this the year he breaks through?

There are some certainties, however. Expect the double play combination of Freddy Sanchez (who batted .346 after the All-Star break last year and should be far closer to the 2006 Batting Champ than the injured version of the past two seasons) and Jack Wilson to be steady in both the field and at the plate. Expect catcher Ryan Doumit to continue to hit for high average and power form both sides of the plate. Expect veterans Eric Hisnke and Craig Monroe to provide solid production off of the bench. And finally, expect Adam LaRoche to bat .100 in April but finish the season around .260 after going on a tear in the later months. The biggest question is whether the Pirates will still be in contention when he finally heats up.

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THE WEEK AHEAD

Now that the regular season is here, its time to scout the opposition. Here is the Pirates schedule the next seven days:

Monday , 4:15 PM EST@ St. Louis, Paul Maholm (0-0) vs. Adam Wainright (0-0)

Tuesday , 8:15 PM EST @ St. Louis, Ian Snell (0-0) vs. Kyle Lohse (0-0)

Wednesday : 8:15 PM EST @ St. Louis, Zach Duke (0-0) vs. Todd Wellemeyer (0-0)

Thursday : 1:40 PM EST @ St. Louis, Ross Ohlendorf (0-0) vs. Chris Carpenter (0-0)

Friday : 7:10 PM EST @ Cincinnati, Jeff Karstens (0-0) vs. Johnny Cueto (0-0)

Saturday : 1:10 PM EST @ Cincinnati, Maholm (0-0) vs. Micah Owings (0-0)

Sunday : 1:10 PM EST @ Cincinnati, Snell (0-0) vs. Aaron Harang (0-0)

The Pirates don’t have the season’s first off day until next Tuesday, so every starter should take their turn during the first week. The Cardinals look fairly strong this year while Cincinnati is in a similar position as the Pirates: Looking to establish themselves with a young team.

Opening the season on the road isn’t easy but if the Pirates can win 3 or 4 games it has to be considered a success. The Home Opener comes next Monday against the Houston Astros. Play Ball!

Expect Bax’s Bucco Blog to be a weekly feature every Sunday or Monday. If you have any comments, questions, grievances, Bucco sob stories or general insults, feel free to email me at matt.baxendell@gmail.com

 

By: Matt Baxendell
MLBcenter.com Pittsburgh Pirates Correspondent


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