Scouting the competition: The Pirates

We continue our look at the other 29 teams around the majors with a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team the Braves did business with last offseason.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have not had a winning season since 1992. We all remember that season. It was when a hit by Francisco Cabrera and a long gallop toward home plate by Sid Bream killed the Pirates chances for a World Series appearance.

Unfortunately for Pirates' fans the 2007 season was not the time for the streak to end. Their team (68-94) improved only one game from last season, and the Pirates seem stuck in that 67-75 win area.

But the Pirates do have a bit of a change in place for next season. Frank Coonelly was brought in from the MLB office to be the team's President, and he then hired young Indians' executive Neal Huntington as the General Manager.

There is no word yet on the Pirates keeping Manager Jim Tracy, who has averaged 67.5 wins in his two seasons on the job. Don't be shocked if Tracy gets the boot and a big-name manager is brought in to replace him.

The Pirates need to spend some money on talent. Years of bringing up young players have just not worked. So it will be interesting to see if they do loosen the purse strings a bit to bring in some needed veteran players.

Pittsburgh's rotation is not bad. They have two solid starters in Ian Snell (9-12, 3.76) and Tom Gorzelanny (14-10, 3.88) and a decent middle-of-the-rotation starter in Paul Maholm (10-15, 5.02). Those three together averaged 196 innings pitched – not a bad mark for a trio.

A trade-deadline deal brought Matt Morris from the Giants and the veteran started fifteen games for Pittsburgh, but his ERA was 6.10. Morris could bounce back next season, but he's got to give the club much better production.

Zach Duke was the Pirates' Opening Day starter last April, but elbow trouble limited him to only 19 starts. He came back in the last weekend of the season with a good showing, but he's going to have to prove he's healthy next spring.

John Van Benschoten was horrible as Duke's sometime replacement. He made 9 starts and was 0-7 with an ERA of 9.61. But the former first rounder has talent and has to be an option for next season.

Might the Pirates use the depth in the rotation to improve the lineup? Well they used the depth in the bullpen a year ago to get Adam LaRoche from the Braves and might need to do a similar trade this winter. The lineup still needs help, although LaRoche did very well in his first season in Pittsburgh (.273, 21 home runs, 88 RBI, .347 OBP) after his normal slow start.

There may be a switch at shortstop, where Jack Wilson has been on the trade market for a few months. Detroit might revisit their interest in Wilson as they move Carlos Guillen to first base. The Pirates could turn to Cesar Izturis, acquired from the Cubs late in the year, to replace Wilson.

The double-play partner at second was Freddy Sanchez, who hit .304 with 11 home runs and 81RBI. He had a pretty good season following his batting title in 2006. Sanchez is a year away from free agency and the Pirates may use his value to improve the team.

Jose Bautista held down third base and hit .254 with 15 home runs and 63 runs batted in. He was adequate, but the mediocrity at that position hurt the lineup. Jose Castillo was no better as a stand-in.

Jason Bay had a disappointing season as the left fielder. He hit only .247 with 21 home runs and 84 runs batted in. Bay does have value, and you wonder if he might be shopped this winter. He could probably bring in a good package of players.

Xavier Nady was productive in right field, hitting .278 with 20 home runs and 72 runs batted in. But center field was a trouble spot, with Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth splitting time there. McLouth did show promise, with a .351 OBP and 22 stolen bases in 252 at bats.

Andrew McCutchen is the Pirates' best prospect and could battle for time in center field next spring.

The other part of the pitching staff is a bright spot, with Matt Capps now the closer. Capps pitched in 76 games and had 18 saves with a 2.28 ERA. He took over from Salomon Torres as the closer and thrived in that position. Torres struggled a bit as the setup man so he may be trade bait.

Damaso Marte had 15 holds and a 2.38 ERA. John Grabow is another lefty and pitched well in 63 games. But the depth in the bullpen is not there, and they need some veteran help.

The biggest thing the Pirates need is some veterans to compliment the young talent. But you wonder if a few change-of-scenery trades could be made to simply shake up the lineup. They have some tradable pieces, and they could be very active especially if there is more flexibility with the budget.

The Braves did business with Pittsburgh last winter, but Dave Littlefield the GM who pulled off the LaRoche-for-Gonzalez trade is now gone. Might the Braves look to Pittsburgh for a starting pitcher? Well Snell and Maholm could be available, and they could fit the need for Atlanta as potential innings eaters.

Would the Braves consider Jason Bay or Xavier Nady (eligible for arbitration but represented by Scott Boras) as an outfield option? Both are corner outfielders, but both could also be available this offseason.

The Pirates need experience, and the Braves will have an experienced shortstop available in Edgar Renteria. It's not out of the question for the Braves to discuss some of their pitchers (Snell?) or an outfielder in a deal for Renteria.

Inconsistency and inexperience were the themes for the Pirates in 2007, so it will be interesting to see how they respond to that with a new management team in place. The core is there, but some money must be spent to compliment that young talent.


Pirates Pending Free Agents: Shawn Chacon, Tony Armas (team option for $5 million)

Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at thebravesshow@email.com.



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