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Old 03-27-2008, 02:57 AM   #1
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Default Brave & Crazy: Hogan's 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates thread

Baseball 2008: Five reasons to believe in Pirates ... or not
If lineup, rotation exceed expectations, so might the team
Thursday, March 27, 2008
By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Paul Maholm is reason No. 1.BRADENTON, Fla. -- On the surface, the 2008 Pirates would appear to be the most predictable team in the history of professional sports.

They are coming off 15 consecutive losing seasons, they did little more than tinker with a roster that lost 94 games, the median age of their everyday players is a low-ceiling 28, and their will be a $25 million payroll gap between them and everyone else in the National League's Central Division.

Not much suspense, right?

Damaso Marte, the Pirates' usually reserved reliever, sees it differently.

"Look around here," he said the other day at his McKechnie Field clubhouse stall. "Look at our young starters. Look at the back of our bullpen. Look at how our hitters hit in the second half last year."

He ruefully lowers his brow.

"People think we can't win? We've got a surprise for them."

It remains to be seen, naturally, how much of that is typical spring optimism or a true portent.

Here are five reasons why the Pirates could -- that is could -- be winners for the first time since 1992:

5. No one will run off with the division.
After all, after it took only 85 victories to finish first in 2007.

There might still be some quality, particularly with the formidable lineups in Milwaukee and Chicago, but few are projecting the Brewers and Cubs to join the league's elite, largely because of flawed pitching.

Milwaukee's staff remains led by injury-prone Ben Sheets and is shallow beyond that. Same with Chicago beyond Carlos Zambrano. Each team's bullpen could be exceptional, but how much will that matter if they are behind?

Cincinnati could surprise, led by one of the league's top three pitchers in Aaron Harang, buoyed by the familiar big bats of Adam Dunn and Ken Griffey Jr., and infused with terrific young talent. But that is no certainty.

St. Louis and Houston, long the 1-2 class of the Central, each appear set for a backward step.

4. The lineup has no glaring holes.
Not exactly powerful praise, particularly since the lineup is basically the same one that batted .267 -- four points below the league average -- and seldom saw a pitch it did not like.

But there was that amazing August of 2007, lest anyone forget, when aliens possessed the Pirates and coaxed them to the best offensive month of any team in Major League Baseball, including a leading 45 home runs.

Was it a fluke?

Simple logic would suggest it was.

But how, then, to explain that the only lineup regulars who performed well above their career norms were Jack Wilson at .362, Freddy Sanchez at .374 and Adam LaRoche at .348. The rest were at usual levels or below, including Jason Bay at .237.

"It's just that we all hit at the same time," Ronny Paulino recalled. He hit .269. "We can do that again."

It could help, too, if the Pirates, finally, after years of wishing for Andy Van Slyke, solve their center-field problem. A power-hitting, base-stealing Nate McLouth might suffice.

3. Help could be on the way.
If the Pirates appear on their way to having a successful season, owner Bob Nutting, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington are on record as saying they will add to the roster.

It remains to be seen what that would require and, more important, what that would entail.

But imagine the impact, including emotionally, of a significant roster boost after the team already has gained some steam.

2. Fundamentally speaking, they could improve.
Sure, every manager preaches fundamentals. But, under John Russell, this spring training has included daily meetings aimed at highly specific training -- the pitchers had one at 8:30 a.m. yesterday -- as well as incessant drills, vocal communication and plenty of repetition.

As one veteran player put, presumably in a complimentary way, "These guys don't miss anything."

There is no way to quantify what improved fundamentals will mean to the Pirates, nor is there any way to know now if they will be seen.

1. Paul Maholm.
It is a gross oversimplification to suggest any one player, even an Albert Pujols, could transform a 94-loss team. But it might not be an overstatement to suggest that, if Maholm walks over from the losing to the winning side, the Pirates' rotation might suddenly go from having potential to being potent.

And he knows it.

"Yeah, I do," he said. "But hey, thanks for the pressure."

Think of Maholm as the swing vote in an election. If Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny pitch as they did last season or even better, and Maholm joins them, the Pirates have a successful majority not just for the coming summer but for years. Anything Matt Morris or Zach Duke do would be a bonus after their down seasons.

Besides, Maholm is 25, a former first-round pick, coming off an encouraging second half of 2007 and, for what it is worth, has been the Pirates' best player -- position or pitcher -- all spring.

The time seems right.


Now, here are five reasons why the Pirates will wind up with a 16th consecutive losing season, one shy of the professional sports record set by the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies.

5. No change means no change.
The math is daunting for a 68-win team to improve to 82 or better.

The Pirates have turned from winners to losers from one season to the next only nine times in their first 121 years, and they have done it only three times when the first season had a winning percentage of .420 -- the mark in 2007 -- or lower. Last time for that was 1957, and there is no babyfaced Roberto Clemente in this group.

On top of that, asking the same group to do it ... even management has publicly acknowledged it is asking quite a lot.

4. An early shower in April?
Few teams in baseball can be counted out in the first two months, but the Pirates have all kinds of reasons to carry that added burden.

For one, the last time they were competitive as deep into a season as June was in 2005, after that now mystical night of June 11 when they crushed Tampa Bay, 18-2, at home to improve to ... gasp, 30-30.

Who will forget the fans waving that huge ".500" banner above the left-field rotunda the next afternoon, only to see a loss and the permanent abandonment of mediocrity?

To management's credit, no one is shying away from the strong-start talk, as had been the case in years past.

"Absolutely no question, we've got to win in April," Russell said. "We're not in a position to be waiting around."

3. Whither the bullpen?
Matt Capps could be one of the league's best closers -- who will know until he has more save opportunities? -- and Damaso Marte and John Grabow are effective, durable left-handers. Newcomer Tyler Yates could help, too, if he can shake off a poor second half in 2007.

After that ...

This should put it in perspective: The rest of the bullpen will consist of three pitchers who will not find out until the final two days of this spring training that they have not been cut.

That is not necessarily a bad thing, provided sinker-baller Franquelis Osoria can perform up to long-held expectations and Phil Dumatrait can find a way to harness dynamic breaking stuff from the left side. But uncertainties abound.

2. Whither the depth?
Pause and picture the Pirates losing any everyday player, starting pitcher or late-inning reliever, and imagine the replacement.

OK, now take the outfielders out of the equation.

Not easy, is it?

1. That seven-letter word stitched across the front of the jersey.
The Pirates' many outreaches to their rich past, as well as other attempts to pursue what Coonelly calls a "culture of excellence" surely will have an impact someday. The franchise as a whole is behaving in a first-class fashion, top to bottom, from upgraded facilities to superior communication to a human touch in handling some players' personal issues.

But the current stigma, no matter Coonelly's February speech to the players urging them to relinquish ownership of it, will not go away without winning.

"For 15 years, the name of the Pirates has been associated with losing, and that's tough," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "It seems like it's to the point where people outside the team expect it. They're waiting for it. 'Here we go again.' And that stinks for us. We know what we're capable of doing."

He rolled his eyes.

"Yeah, I know we say that every year. But we've got good players. I mean, good players. If we play up to our abilities, I honestly, truly believe we can compete with anybody. We've got pitchers who can shut teams down. We've got hitters who can put up numbers. There's just no reason why we shouldn't be able to compete. But I understand, everyone's still waiting for that."
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