Pittsburgh Pirates Spring Training Update
When was the last time that Pirate players were quoted about having a ‘buzz’ at camp? While every year there is the usual optimism that accompanies spring training, something is different this year. Not since former owner Kevin McClatchy’s ill-fated “we should win 90 games this season” disaster all the way back in the Kevin Young days a decade ago has there been this much excitement among the players.
Why is this? The pitching staff has taken to new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and there appears to be noticeable improvement in more than a few young hurlers. The Pirates’ new infield coach, Perry Hill, has also made quite the impression upon this young Pirates team. Just listen to the players:
“Dude, there’s a buzz here. There just is. I’m telling you. It’s a positive buzz.” –Catcher Ryan Doumit speaking with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"To be totally honest, this is the most fun I've ever had in spring training. I mean, there's always an attitude of being optimistic and wanting to win, but I've never felt it like this ... this atmosphere. It's the staff, the way we're learning things. I've learned things from Perry Hill here and the other guys ... it just makes it fun every day to get up and go to work. You wake up really ready to go." –Second Baseman Freddy Sanchez (Post-Gazette)
This could be just another setup to another dismal season. Remember, I’m the guy who picked with his brain instead of his heart when I predicted the Buccos to finish dead last in the NL Central. However, if this year really is different and the Pirates can build some momentum going into the season, don’t underestimate how powerful team chemistry and a strong clubhouse can be in building towards a good year. While Pirate fans have forgotten what rooting for a team that is even competitive is like (I was eight years old the last time the Buccos won the division. That’s pathetic), there is plenty of precedent for young tight-knit teams competing against all odds. Remember the 1997 Pirates who had a major league low $9 million payroll but were in the thick of the division title chase until the season’s final weekend?
Can you believe that the Pirates are 8-4? Now, I know that it is only Grapefruit League play, which is about as indicative of a team’s regular season performance as the Netherlands’ upset of the Dominican Republic in the WBC is of each team’s respective talent, but nevertheless it is encouraging, particularly the performance of a number of individual players. Here are a few standouts, both good and bad:
The Star of Camp : 3B Andy LaRoche
Remember the Jason Bay trade last year that angered so many Pirate fans? Well, right now the return looks pretty good. Of the three major-league ready prospects the Pirates received in the deal, reliever Craig Hanson has a 0.00 ERA, outfielder Brandon Moss could be the starting right fielder on opening day if he recovers from a bruised thumb in time, and LaRoche is absolutely killing the baseball right now.
How good is Andy? He is hitting .556 with a home run, 4 RBI and 4 walks in 23 plate appearances. Even better, he only has struck out twice. After having such an ugly start to his Pirate career last year, this erstwhile big time prospect could be on the verge of a breakthrough season.
The Future : 3B Pedro Alvarez and OF Jose Tabata
A year ago, neither of these players were even part of the organization. However, Alvarez was the Buccos’ first round pick and Tabata came over as part of the Xavier Nady trade and both players are now considered among the top 3 prospects in the Pittsburgh organization. Alvarez is hitting .417 through 10 games and observers rave about the sound his bat makes when he hits the ball. Tabata has also hit well, but has a smaller sample size. While both players are going to begin the year in the minor leagues, there is little doubt in Bradenton that both will be playing at PNC Park in the next year or two.
The Zero Club: Matt Capps, Craig Hansen, Tyler Yates, Evan Meek
The Pirates had a pretty rough bullpen last year, so having FOUR players that are expected to contribute this year boasting a 0.00 ERA is a good start to fixing the late inning issues of 2008. Even more impressive, Hansen and Meek have pitched in 6 games and Yates has pitched in 5, so their consistently pitching well. Hansen and Meek’s development are especially encouraging as both have a lot of talent and could be big contributors.
This Looks Familiar: Tom Gorzelanny
Gorzelanny had a terrible 2008. After going 14-10 with a 3.88 ERA in 2007, he followed that up with a 6-9 record and a 6.66 ERA. The hallmarks of a Gorzelanny start were a) too many walks, b) too many runs and c) five innings or less. How has he responded to start this year? With a 7.50 ERA in 3 starts, spread over 6 innings. Remember the issue with walks last year? He’s already given up a team high 5, along with allowing 2 Homers (team high) and plunking two batters (team high). Gorzo’s only good news is that there are still 4 weeks left until the regular season begins to fix whatever is wrong with him.
Finally, with a month left before Opening Day, here’s what I think the Pirates’ Roster and Starting lineup will look like in St. Louis.
Starting Pitchers: Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf
Bullpen: Matt Capps, Tyler Yates, Craig Hansen, Evan Meek, Donnie Veal, Sean Burnett, Chris Bootcheck
Outfield: Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutcheon, Brandon Moss, Craig Monroe
Infield: Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Andy LaRoche, Ramon Vazquez, Eric Hinske
Catchers: Ryan Doumit, Robinson Diaz
Starting Lineup against the Cardinals
1) LF Nyjer Morgan
2) 2B Freddy Sanchez
3) CF Nate McLouth
4) 3B Andy LaRoche
5) C Ryan Doumit
6) 1B Adam LaRoche
7) RF Andrew McCutcheon
8) SS Jack Wilson
9) SP Paul Maholm
By: Matt Baxendell
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