I haven’t had a chance to do much of a preview here at WHYGAVS, so I’m going to do a two-parter over the weekened here to get ready for Monday’s opener. The premise is simple; I’m going to look at who’s in each important position now, who’s likely to be there when the season ends, and if there’s a different long-term outlook. I’ll do the position players today and the pitchers tomorrow.
Ryan Doumit’s not going anywhere in the immediate future, and I think the team is hoping that he’s able to stay healthy enough to be a long-term answer at catcher. It’s obvious why; he’s one of the best hitting catchers in the National League when he’s healthy and getting offense from an unlikely source would be a big boost for a team like the Pirates. The health questions here are huge, though. We were all excited to see him play 116 games last year. How long can he possibly last behind the plate? There’s no obvious successors in the minors, though, so let’s all hope that he grows out of the injuries or something.
Adam LaRoche is there now, though I kind of doubt he will be in September. There’s always a team looking for some left-handed pop when the trade deadline comes calling and if the pattern that LaRoche has established to this point in his career holds true, he should be mashing the ball by mid-July. His contract is up and he’s not really anything more than an average first baseman, so there’s no real reason to hold on to him. If he’s traded this year, Steve Pearce is the obvious choice to play out the string at first base, though there’s no guarantee he’ll impress the front office enough to earn that shot. Long-term, I think the Pirates would secretly tell you they want Pedro Alvarez at first. That’s not because his defense at third isn’t good enough, but rather if Andy LaRoche steps up at third, Alvarez will move to first to keep him there.
Freddy Sanchez is the second baseman now, but I think he’s probably a little more likely to be traded before the deadline than his buddy Jack Wilson. He had an awesome second half last year and batted-ball data indicated that his ugly first half involved some bad luck. He’s not going to hit .340 again this year and his defense is never going to be good, but if he can stay healthy and hit .310 through the All-Star break, I think teams will be calling. The immediate replacement would either be Brian Bixler or Shelby Ford, depending on how they play in AAA and what other positions need filled. The team has sort of indicated that they see Ford as the long-term solution at second base. He’s got some health questions, but he’s hit fairly well at each stop he’s made, especially given all the time he’s missed with injuries. I guess it’s possible that he’ll blossom at AAA this year if he can stay healthy and get regular at-bats. He’s certainly one to keep an eye on.
This is Andy LaRoche’s position to lose. The problem is that after his ugly stint with the Pirates in 2008, I don’t think anyone will be surprised if he does, in fact, lose it. Everyone knows the story right now; his minor league numbers are awesome, his major league numbers have varied from middling to abysmal, and now he’s 25 and no one knows what he is. He had an awesome spring, which lends some credence to the thumb injury explanation for last year, but until he hits in the majors, everyone is going to be skeptical. If he does breakthrough this year, it’s awesome news for the Pirates because they can move Pedro Alvarez across the diamond and have both corner infield spots set, plus they don’t have to rely on Neil Walker breaking through as part of the long-term plan. If he doesn’t hit, either Alvarez stays at third and the Pirates need to find a first baseman, or they hope for a huge step forward from Walker. Simply put, Andy LaRoche finding his stroke at the plate in 2009 could be one of the best things to happen for the future of the Pirates.
Everyone expects to see Jack Wilson traded this year, but I don’t see it coming. I don’t think he’ll be extended either. He’ll be here for 2009 to give his usual above average defense and poor bat, and then he’ll be gone. The immediate succesor at when Wilson does eventually leave town is Brian Bixler, but even with his awesome spring I don’t see him as more than a utility guy. His glove is decent and his bat likely won’t be much better than Wilson’s. There’s not a really another answer low in the system right now, especially not after Jarek Cunningham’s knee injury may force a move to another position. Shortstop is certainly one position the Pirates need a long-term answer at.
It’s Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, and Brandon Moss right now, but at least two of these guys don’t figure in to the long-term plans. Morgan is going to be displaced by Andrew McCutchen pretty early in the season, it seems, and Moss has a year to prove himself before Jose Tabata starts pressing him for his spot in right. In a perfect world, Moss would have a breakout year this year and the Pirates could then trade him when Tabata’s ready to take his position, but given all of the question marks surrounding both of them (Moss’s health and Tabata’s … lifestyle?) I think the Pirates would settle for one of the two breaking out. For me, the big question here is McLouth. Even with his big breakout year, he’s kind of a tweener in the outfield with a corner’s defense, but a great bat for a center fielder. His value is probably never going to get higher than it is this year, especially if he starts out hot at the plate again. Trading McLouth would create a pretty epic fallout with the fans, but he might be the best trade chip, especially if Moss breaks out or the Pirates draft Dustin Ackley and improve the Pirates’ depth in the outfield.