2009 Pirates Preview: 17 Things to Watch For (Besides the losing streak)

So far in my preview of the 2009 season I’ve covered the expectations for every player on the opening day roster, the players we will likely see mentioned in trade rumors this year, and the top 30 prospects for 2009. The biggest story of the 2009 season has yet to be mentioned. That story is the consecutive losing streak.

The Pirates have lost 16 years in a row, with 2009 looking very much like year 17. That 17th year would be a record, not just in all of baseball, but in all sports. It’s not exactly encouraging to look forward to a 17th losing season in a row, especially when the team doesn’t look close to breaking that losing streak.

I say Opening Day is a day of hope. Every team is 0-0 (well, except for Atlanta and Philadelphia). Rather than focusing on the likely 17th losing season in a row, here are 17 things to look forward to in the 2009 season.

17. The performance of the 2008 draft class. The Pirates went all out, spending almost $10 M in the 2008 draft, including going over slot on several high impact players in the later rounds. We saw some early performance from guys like Matt Hague last year, but 2009 will be the first full season, giving us an early idea of exactly how good this draft was.

16. Can Quinton Miller be an ace? The Pirates took Miller in the 20th round, despite a commitment from Miller to UNC. Baseball America considered Miller a top five round talent who slipped due to that commitment. The Pirates paid Miller $900,000 to steal him away from UNC. Miller’s fastball has been clocked at 95 MPH, and although he’s a long way off from the majors, he could be the ace we lack on the major league roster.

15. Robbie Grossman – Steal of the Draft? Grossman was a late first/early second round talent according to Baseball America, who slipped to the Pirates in the sixth round due to a poor senior year, and a commitment to Texas. The Pirates paid him $1 M to sign him away from his commitment to Texas. Grossman is a five tool athlete who ranks as the seventh best prospect in the top prospects consensus.

14. The return of dollar dog night. Seriously, this was my favorite promotion the Pirates did, and I’m glad to see it’s back.

13. The pitching depth. The Pirates received Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, and Jeff Karstens in the Xavier Nady trade. They also signed Virgil Vasquez this off-season to join other players like Tom Gorzelanny and Jimmy Barthmaier. I consider all of these guys to be 3-5 starters. The Pirates need two of these pitchers to emerge as fixtures in the rotation this season.

12. What trades will we see? I mentioned in Saturday’s preview the players we could see traded. Which trades will we see happen, and what type of return will we get for the guys traded away?

11. Can the minor league guys step up? This is linked to #12. The Pirates have options in the minors to replace guys like Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, and Jack Wilson. These options are Steve Pearce at first, Shelby Ford at second, and Brian Bixler at short. The performance of these players could dictate which major league players are traded, and which are kept.

10. Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss. The Pirates received LaRoche and Moss in the Jason Bay trade. An optimistic expectation would be a .280/20 HR season from Moss, and a .270/25 HR season from LaRoche. The Pirates have other options at each position, such as Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata in the outfield, and Pedro Alvarez at third. Success from LaRoche could allow the Pirates to move Alvarez to first. Moss would provide good insurance if Tabata or McCutchen don’t work out.

9. Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris. The Pirates are thin on pitching prospects, with Morris and Lincoln being their top options. Both were first round picks in the 2006 draft (Morris was taken by the Dodgers before coming over in the Jason Bay trade), and both had Tommy John surgery, only to return in 2008. Both have a chance to be in the rotation in 2010 with a strong 2009.

8. Can Ian Snell bounce back? Snell had a 3.76 ERA in 2007, only to flop in 2008 with a 5.42 ERA. Snell’s BABIP was an incredibly unlucky .338, which suggests the 2008 numbers were a fluke. I think Snell will bounce back, giving the Pirates a decent number two starter.

7. Which Freddy Sanchez will step up? Freddy Sanchez hit for a .271 average last year, mostly due to a .226 average in the first half. Sanchez hit .346 in the second half to bring his average up. I don’t think Sanchez hits .346 this year, but anything above .300 would be good.

6. Adam LaRoche in April. LaRoche is a career .182 hitter in April, with a homer every 33 at bats. He’s got a .289 average in his career from May through the end of the year, with a homer every 19.59 at bats. Will 2009 be the year he breaks the April slump?

5. Jose Tabata’s AA success. Jose Tabata was the Yankees top prospect this time last year, but slumped in AA, and fell out of favor, before coming over in the Nady trade. Tabata hit .348 in Altoona after the trade, and had a strong performance in Spring Training. He ranks as the third best prospect in the consensus, and could be starting in the majors in 2010 if he continues the success we’ve seen since the trade.

4. Andrew McCutchen in the majors. McCutchen will most likely be up this year. The question isn’t if he will be up, but when will he be up? McCutchen is one of the top prospects for the Pirates, and a key part of the future. Success from him will certainly give hope to ending the consecutive losing…well, let’s move on.

3. Maholm, Doumit, and McLouth. Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, and Nate McLouth were the breakout players last year, and all three were rewarded with extensions this off-season. Each player needs to show that the 2008 results were no fluke. That’s especially true for Maholm, as the Pirates have seen plenty of pitchers flop after one year of success. If Maholm maintains his success, Snell bounces back, and two of the pitchers from #13 step up, the Pirates will have a decent rotation (yes, that’s a lot of “if’s”).

2. Another solid draft in 2009. The Pirates had a great draft in 2008, which will certainly help the future of the organization. That can’t be a one time thing. The 2009 draft is one of the most important things this season, especially with top prospects like Dustin Ackley, Grant Green, and Alex White potentially available at pick number four.

1. Pedro Alvarez. He’s been compared to Barry Bonds, and is clearly our top prospect, as well as the biggest key to our future. Alvarez could be ready for the majors this season, but I don’t see him getting the call until mid-April 2010. Our first round history is horrible since Bonds, so it would be great to see a legit star player in the system.

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Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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