Entering Spring Training, I thought these issues were important. Let’s get a status report after ten official games (and one slaughtering of the Manatee Lancers).
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 Doumits another possibility at first, but his splits arent all that favorable to a platoon.
You cant 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.
It looks as if the Bucs are going to give Brad Eldred a chance to win a bench spot with the big club. By letting him take fly balls in the outfield, Tracy lets Eldred add a bit of defensive versatility to his resume (albeit a very, very small bit). The popular phrase this time of year is “sample size,” and that concept definitely applies to Big Country. Still, it’s hard not to be impressed by a .500 batting average with 4 home runs and 5 RBI in 14 at bats entering yesterday’s games. He’s drawing walks, too, which can only help his case. In the past, patience was not recognized as one of his traits.
What does Eldred’s mashing have to do with LaRoche’s ability to hit southpaws? It’s simple: If Eldred makes the team, he’ll surely start at first base against left-handed pitching. At this stage in the game, I’d say that the deck is stacked against him, but I wouldn’t count Brad out just yet.
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 doesnt matter to me if we go 6-0 or 0-6, the record isnt important. What I need to know is how our guys look against their guys. Does Nate McLouth hit Arroyo or Harang well? Whos 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. Im counting on Tracys 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.
The teams have only played two of their five dates (although they did play an additional “B” game not previously scheduled), and for the most part, Jim Tracy has tried to keep the majority of his regulars away from the Reds’ pitchers. You can find the recaps here and here. We’ll probably be able to analyze this better closer to the end of camp.
3. Does Yoslan Herreras stuff show up in games?
I think its great that hes making jaws drop in his bullpen sessions, I really do. But its a different story when you face your first batter after a two-year layoff. A sharp curveball doesnt mean squat if its hammered over the outfield wall. That having been said, Im hoping that Yoslan throws well and earns a spot in Indys rotation. Hed give the system a shot in the arm if he works out.
It did at times. Unfortunately, Yo also had issues with control. It was probably the right move to send him to minor-league camp, as the Bucs have a good number of pitchers who are battling for roster spots and need to be tested. Realistically, Herrera wasn’t going to make the Opening Day roster. Let him beat up on Manatee and Duquesne and a few minor-league squads before debuting with Altoona. There’s no rush. And if there were any questions, he answered them: The stuff is there.
4. Can Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker hit major-league pitching?
Both only had a cup of coffee with Altoona last year, so Im not asking them to make the 25-man roster. I am curious, though, to see how they look against more developed players. Theyre 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. Its kind of like attendance in college: Youre not hurting anyone if you dont show up for class, but if youre on the teachers good side come finals time, you might be in for a bonus point or two.
Yes, yes and yes. You couldn’t ask for much more out of this trio. McCutchen and Bixler are tearing the cover off the ball, and Walker’s staying above water while learning a new position. With strong 2007 seasons, all three could be battling for jobs next spring.
5. Can Jose Bautista play an adequate shortstop?
Despite all of the fuss this off-season, I cant see Jose Castillo losing his starting job. Bautistas versatility lengthens the Pirates bench considerably, and Castillos value as a reserve is minimal. If Bautista can add shortstop to his ever-growing list of positions, then theres no real need for Jose Hernandez.
Don’t know. With injuries to Castillo and Freddy, Jose has had all the playing time he can handle at third base. If it means anything, Jose Hernandez has seen a decent amount of PT at second. It’s too early to read too much into anything, though. There are at least a half dozen reasonable bench configurations right now in my mind.
6. Does Shawn Chacons knee still work?
If it doesnt, 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.
It does, I think. He hasn’t won the fifth starter’s job, but he hasn’t lost it, either. I keep praying for the injury bug to bite a contender’s rotation, but it hasn’t worked out quite yet. I don’t know if there’s room for both Chacon and Youman (in addition to Armas) on the 25-man roster, and Shane has thrown well. It’s a situation to keep an eye on, for sure. The Bucs showed they were willing to cut their losses (Jody Gerut) if things didn’t work out as they planned.
7. How serious is Xavier Nadys stomach ailment?
I laughed last week when I heard that Luis Matos might make the big club. If X isnt 100 percent, though, we might need another outfielderyou cant go into the season with only one entrenched starter and no bench options. Im not sold on Doumits ability to defend any position capably, and please dont mention Jose Castillos VWL escapades in right. Rajai Davis is fast, but so is Willie Parkershould he play outfield for the Pirates? I wouldnt love to see Matos on the team, but as a fifth outfielder hes not really hurting anyone. Id prefer Luis over Mike Edwards or Nick Green.
Thankfully not so serious at all. X has been in the lineup twice without issue, and it looks as if he’ll be good to go when camp breaks. Obviously he’ll need a bit of time to regain some strength, but there’s no reason to worry.
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. Im not supporting a moveI realize the value of rotation depthbut in the right package (for a quality infield prospect), youd have to let go of a starter. Paulie Walnuts is low man on my totem pole.
Bullington surprised me. He didn’t get much of a shot, but he threw two solid outings before being re-assigned to minor-league camp. I hope a taste of success leaves him craving more. Burnett’s getting closer, but he’s not quite there yet. I thought his pitches looked sharp against the Indians on Friday, but he’s not hitting locations as well as he was pre-injury. JVB is lagging behind the other two. Again, it’s early.
9. Who can be counted on to pitch the late innings?
Id run down the list of bullpen candidates, but Im 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. Ill 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?
Torres and Capps stumbled coming out of the chute but have thrown better as of late. Dan Kolb hasn’t done anything wrong yet (nor has Kevin Grybowski, for that matter). The rookie watch isn’t turning up much, but there are still a few weeks to change that.
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 wont 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.
Jack booted one of his first chances of the spring; hopefully that doesn’t set the tone for the season. Jose missed a spot of time with a bum foot and hasn’t seen time at second. Freddy was brilliant up the middle before the sprained MCL. I think the personal relationship between Jack and Freddy can only make the infield stronger. I wouldn’t mind seeing Castillo and Bautista splitting time at third for the rest of Spring Training. I haven’t a clue what Tracy’s bench will look like.