2009 MLB Preview: #30 Pittsburgh Pirates

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Offseason Movement: In typical Pittsburgh fashion, the Bucs didn’t make much of a splash in free agency this year. They did sign infielder Ramon Vazquez, who is coming off a career year with the Rangers, but he’s more of a utility man than a regular. The Pirates also signed outfielder Eric Hinske, who could wind up starting in left field as long as his bruised left ribcage heals in time for Opening Day, but will more likely be the club’s fourth outfielder.

Top Prospect: Pedro Alvarez, 3B
The Pirates finally drafted the best player available in 2008 and bucked the trend of staying away from prospects that command big signing bonuses. Contract negotiations between the club and Alvarez didn’t go smoothly, but all of that can be put in the rearview mirror if breezes through the minors. He was a 2007 Baseball America First Team All-American and was also a Golden Spikes Award Finalist in ’07, as well. He has outstanding hitting ability and rarely chases pitches out of the strike zone. If he stays healthy, Alvarez could be a young superstar in the making.

The Big Question: Can Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny bounce back?
The Pirates thought that they would have a nice 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation entering 2008, but both Snell and Gorzelanny turned in disastrous seasons. Snell finished with a 5.42 ERA; Gorzelanny a 6.66 ERA. Both are still young at 27 and 26, respectively, but 2009 could be a make or break season for the duo. Snell seems more likely to bounce back this season because he has the better overall stuff. (The Bucs also feel like he could team up with Paul Malholm to form the 1-2 combo that he and Gorzelanny were expected to be.) Gorzelanny, however, appears to be battling with Jeff Karstens for the fifth spot in the rotation and his bloated ERA (7.00 as of this writing) in spring training certainly hasn’t helped. Gorzelanny remains the more intriguing option because of his age, but he is dangerously close to dropping off the Pirates’ radar altogether.

Outlook: Not good. The Pirates don’t spend money and don’t draft well, which is why they haven’t produced a winner in nearly 16 seasons. They do have a nice core of 2B Freddy Sanchez, CF Nate McLouth and C Ryan Doumit in the middle of their lineup, but their young pitching staff has to step up. So far, Maholm, Snell, Gorzelanny and Zach Duke haven’t matched the buzz that has surrounded them over the past couple years and even if they do produce this season, the bullpen is riddled with question marks (outside of closer Matt Capps, that is). A lot essentially has to go right for this club just to get out of the basement of the NL Central, nevertheless actually compete for a postseason berth. Hopefully the Bucs will get something out of their starting pitching staff and after stringing together a couple of solid drafts, maybe then they can start competing. But this club appears years away from that.

Projection: 6th NL Central.

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