Season Preview: The Pittsburgh Pirates

Yarr. Nearing the end of our 2007 season preview of the National League Central is a sneak peak at the Pittsburgh Pirates' upcoming year.

Homegrown pitchers Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny combined to make 107 starts last year and are set to lead the Pirates in what they hope will be a winning season - their first in 14 straight years.

Duke is the most experienced member of the group, with 48 big league starts notched in his belt. However, the 23-year-old southpaw still has plenty of room to grow after a 2006 season where he won only 10 of his 25 decisions and finished with a 4.47 ERA and opponent's batting average of .302. Maholm, 24, struggled early on in 2006 as well, dropping 8 of his first 11 decisions before the lefty bounced back in the second half, winning 5 of his last 7 decisions to finish with an 8-10 record and a 4.76 ERA.

The scrappy right-handed Snell, 25, emerged as the staff ace by winning 14 games with 169 strikeouts in 186 innings. Gorzelanny may be the most talented of the four. The lefty was one of the top pitchers in AAA before being promoted to the bigs for good on July 6th, going 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA over an impressive five-start stretch before being sidelined by a sore left elbow. The 24-year-old recovered from the injury just in time to make three starts in September.

While Pittsburgh's bullpen certainly took a hit when Mike Gonzalez was traded to the Atlanta Braves in January, the relievers are still expected to be one of the team's greatest strengths in 2007.

After serving primarily as a setup man for the past three seasons, Salomon Torres should be able to thrive in the closer role. The rubber-armed Torres tied the franchise record by appearing in 94 games with the Bucs and his 1.22 ERA after the All-Star break was the second best among all relievers.

Left-handers John Grabow and Damaso Marte and righty Matt Capps have also proven to be reliable late-inning options, and they'll all be back for 2007. Grabow appeared in a career-high 72 games and stranded an NL-best 82.5% of the runners he inherited. Marte, in his second stint with the Pirates, posted a 3.70 ERA with 63 strikeouts in 58.1 innings over a career-high 75 appearances. Capps went 9-1 with a 3.79 ERA with 56 K's and just 12 walks in 80.2 innings, leading all Major League rookies with 85 appearances and is expected to take over for Torres as the top setup man from the right side. The bullpen became even deeper this winter when the Pirates signed veteran right-hander Dan Kolb to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Spring Training. Kolb, 31, had 39 saves in 2004 with the Brewers, but in 2006, he went 2-2 with one save and a 4.84 ERA in 53 appearances.

The remaining members of the relief corps that will compete for the final spots in the bullpen include right-handers Josh Sharpless, Brian Rogers, Jonah Bayliss, Jesse Chavez and Franquelis Osoria along with lefty Juan Perez.

The Pittsburgh Pirates settled their outfield situation this offseason by acquiring first baseman Adam LaRoche in the mid-January trade that allowed Xavier Nady to shift to right field on a full-time basis. However, the question of center fielder Chris Duffy's consistency in the leadoff spot still looms. While his production is one of the Pirates' biggest uncertainties, left fielder Jason Bay is about as close as the Bucs have to a sure thing. Jose Bautista, Nate McLouth and a healthy Jody Gerut will serve as Pittsburgh's reserve outfielders.

Shortstop Jack Wilson and second baseman Jose Castillo entered last season as one of the best double-play combinations in all of baseball. One incredibly disappointing season later, the Pirates' middle infield duo are looking to reestablish themselves among the best in the National League. Wilson, who is the longest active Pirate, has been making highlight-reel plays since taking over the starting job at short as a rookie in 2001. That scenario has taken a decided turn as he committed a career-high 18 errors last season with a .972 fielding percentage, appearing to be a bit slower after bulking up during the previous offseason. Castillo also looked sluggish on the field after putting on additional weight while rehabbing a knee injury. He committed a career-high 18 errors as well, while posting a career-low .975 fielding percentage. Castillo also struggled at the plate, batting just .224 over the final four months of the season, including a miserable 8-for-73 at the end of the year.

With Nady off to the outfield, lefty LaRoche will hold down the first base corner. He hit .285 with 32 homers and 82 RBIs last season with the Braves, and is expected to do the same in his fourth season in the majors. Third base will be filled by NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez, despite lacking the power of a typical corner infielder. The right-hander has shown that he can be a huge presence in the middle of the lineup with his league-leading 53 doubles and 85 RBIs and .386 average with runners in scoring position while hitting just six home runs last season.

The Pirates will once again have several options behind the plate with a top prospect knocking down the door as well. Catcher Ronny Paulino, 25, jumped to the top of the depth chart after an outstanding rookie season in 2006, finishing second among all NL rookies with a .310 batting average. The 25-year-old, switch-hitting backup Ryan Doumit, must stay healthy if he wants any chance at taking the starting job away from Paulino. He spent half of last season on the DL due to a left hamstring tear and appeared in just 61 games. The top two contenders to fill the backup role behind Doumit are Humberto Cota and Carlos Maldonado.

The Bucs finished last season with a terrible 67-95 record, 16.5 games behind the division-leading and eventual World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals. One obvious way to improve their play this season would be to start winning games on the road. In 2006, they recorded only 24 victories in their 81 games away from PNC Park.

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