For much of the offseason, Pirate management has declared that the 2007 team underachieved and could improve in 2008. Very little seemed to change, and we laughed off those comments as PR nonsense. The truth is, there are some minor differences to this yearís team that could cause improvement. But how much improvement?
The largest difference is that the right players are starting consistently. Nate McLouth will not stay this hot all season, but with each passing game, he convinces me more and more that he can be a quality starter in this league. Since Chris Duffy was injured last June 28, providing McLouth with many more opportunities to play, he has hit .295/.386/.543 in 302 at-bats. He has also stolen bases at a 90% clip while playing adequate defense in center field. There is still a small sample size issue, but it is about time that we begin taking McLouth seriously. Having him in the lineup for an entire season will greatly improve the Piratesí offensive output.
Also, Ryan Doumit has received most of the playing time behind the plate. Last season, he was mostly on the bench, and also got some time at first and in right. He is not a good defensive catcher, but his numbers (.286/.343/.483 since his recall last April) are much more valuable when catching than at another position. When you put McLouth and Doumit on the field, the lineup is much more formidable. If Jason Bay can return to form and Freddy Sanchez gets healthy, the Pirates could suddenly have a fairly dangerous offense. In addition, if Paul Maholm and Zach Duke improve, that would greatly stabilize the rotation.
There are some reasons for optimism, but there are also many justifications for negativity. Tom Gorzelanny is an arm injury waiting to happen and Matt Morris is a liability every time he takes the mound. In addition, there is almost no starting pitching depth on the team or in Indianapolis. If Gorzelanny or another starter misses any significant time with an injury, management will struggle to find someone to capably fill in.
The Pirates also face a severe lack of depth as far as position players. We are witnessing evidence of that right now, as it seems like our shortstop makes an error each game. Jack Wilson has been out of the lineup for less than ten games, and we are already facing major issues because of it. With Sanchez also struggling to return from his shoulder injury, there could be some real problems in our middle infield this season. And donít forget that we still have a below average hitter/fielder at third in Jose Bautista and absolutely no power on the bench.
The team defense will likely be an issue all season as well. The Pirates currently lead Major League Baseball in errors, and are showing no signs of improvement. With Jack on the DL, Adam LaRoche is the only starter that is an above average fielder. And he has missed several games due to a thumb injury and the flu. With a few soft-tossers in the rotation, solid defense is a must for a successful season.
Coming into the season, I expected a slight improvement from last year. I predicted 71 victories, an increase of three wins from 2007. After witnessing about 1/13 of the season, I have seen some positive signs that could stay constant throughout the season. I still expect around 71 wins, but I would not be surprised if the Pirates manage to exceed my prediction by a couple of games. With a lot of luck and some unexpected good performances, they could even approach the hallowed .500 winning percentage. *
*This obviously does not account for any potential fire sales that could leave the Bucs with a severely depleted roster on August 1.