A list of the ten most pressing Pirates-related Spring Training issues, according to me:
1. Can Adam LaRoche hit left-handed pitching?
Like it or not, a manager bound for Cooperstown thought it best to sit Adam down against southpaws for the majority of 2006. The Pirates acquired Lefty McThump to be their everyday first baseman; if he struggles, though, it might behoove Jim Tracy to start Bautista in right and shift Nady to first against lefties. Ryan Doumit’s another possibility at first, but his splits aren’t all that favorable to a platoon.
You can’t sit Adam down solely on the basis of his Spring Training performance, but a poor camp coupled with a slow start might make it easier to give him the hook.
2. How do the Pirates match up with the Reds?
The Bucs have five dates (including one split squad contest) scheduled against Cincinnati in Grapefruit League play. It doesn’t matter to me if we go 6-0 or 0-6, the record isn’t important. What I need to know is how our guys look against their guys. Does Nate McLouth hit Arroyo or Harang well? Who’s better against Adam Dunn, Damaso Marte or John Grabow? Or maybe Shane Youman? If we need a hit against Mike Stanton, should Doumit or Hernandez get the call? We know that Jim Tracy loves to play match-up baseball; these six games should give skipper an edge going into the season. I’m counting on Tracy’s living up to his billing as an upper-echelon baseball manager, meaning that he should be able to outwit Jerry Narron when push comes to shove.
3. Does Yoslan Herrera’s stuff show up in games?
I think it’s great that he’s making jaws drop in his bullpen sessions, I really do. But it’s a different story when you face your first batter after a two-year layoff. A sharp curveball doesn’t mean squat if it’s hammered over the outfield wall. That having been said, I’m hoping that Yoslan throws well and earns a spot in Indy’s rotation. He’d give the system a shot in the arm if he works out.
4. Can Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker hit major-league pitching?
Both only had a cup of coffee with Altoona last year, so I’m not asking them to make the 25-man roster. I am curious, though, to see how they look against more developed players. They’re both probably a year away from being able to handle full-time work in the bigs, but strong impressions made this March could change the way Dave Littlefield handles the trade deadline, even if ever so slightly.
Brian Bixler is in the same boat. He can move more quickly through AAA if management remembers a handful of multi-hit games from Bradenton. It’s kind of like attendance in college: You’re not hurting anyone if you don’t show up for class, but if you’re on the teacher’s good side come finals time, you might be in for a bonus point or two.
5. Can Jose Bautista play an adequate shortstop?
Despite all of the fuss this off-season, I can’t see Jose Castillo losing his starting job. Bautista’s versatility lengthens the Pirates’ bench considerably, and Castillo’s value as a reserve is minimal. If Bautista can add shortstop to his ever-growing list of positions, then there’s no real need for Jose Hernandez.
6. Does Shawn Chacon’s knee still work?
If it doesn’t, please pay one-sixth of $3 million instead of the whole amount. Keeping a broken-down Chacon on the roster steals a job from Shane Youman (or Marty McLeary, or Jonah Bayliss, or Jesse Chavez, et al). The Craig Wilson trade becomes more of a joke, but manning up and cutting dead weight is a step in the right direction.
7. How serious is Xavier Nady’s stomach ailment?
I laughed last week when I heard that Luis Matos might make the big club. If X isn’t 100 percent, though, we might need another outfielder–you can’t go into the season with only one entrenched starter and no bench options. I’m not sold on Doumit’s ability to defend any position capably, and please don’t mention Jose Castillo’s VWL escapades in right. Rajai Davis is fast, but so is Willie Parker–should he play outfield for the Pirates? I wouldn’t love to see Matos on the team, but as a fifth outfielder he’s not really hurting anyone. I’d prefer Luis over Mike Edwards or Nick Green.
8. Are Burnett, Bullington and Van Benschoten close to major-league ready?
Young pitchers break (as evidenced by this ill-fated group). To think that Duke, Snell, Gorzelanny and Maholm will make it through 2007 unscathed is to ignore the cold hard truth. At some point, at least one of these three (and/or Herrera) will be called on to make a handful of starts. Hopefully someone will distinguish himself from the pack (my guess is Burnett) and give Littlefield a reason not to promote Masumi Kuwata and the public relations circus act.
If a couple of these guys perform in the first half, it could mean adios to Paul Maholm come July 31st. I’m not supporting a move–I realize the value of rotation depth–but in the right package (for a quality infield prospect), you’d have to let go of a starter. Paulie Walnuts is low man on my totem pole.
9. Who can be counted on to pitch the late innings?
I’d run down the list of bullpen candidates, but I’m trying to keep this post on one page. All we know right now is that Salomon has the ninth inning and Marte, Grabow and Matt Capps have the eighth. I’ll assume that Dan Kolb makes the club (that seems like a DL/Tracy kind of decision), but is he anything more than a mop-up man at this point? Can the Pirates have another stud reliever come out of nowhere (Brian Rogers? Chavez? Romulo!) to take a job away from a vet? Will Josh Sharpless continue his meteoric progression through the system and throw meaningful innings from April until September? Can Jonah Bayliss translate AAA success into major-league results?
10. Are lighter versions of Jack Wilson and Jose Castillo the keys to solid defensive play in the infield?
The offense got a little kick in the butt this off-season, but the Pirates are still a team that will rely on pitching and defense to win ballgames. If Wilson and Castillo field as they did in 2005, I won’t care if they hit .260. Hopefully the less-chunky versions of these two glovemen will allow for a wider range in the field and more highlight-reel plays for SportsCenter. The young hurlers will throw with confidence knowing that they have a brick wall behind them. Having Sanchez and LaRoche at the corners can only help.
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