I have a buddy who is a die-hard Pittsburgh fan, and by default pledges allegiance to the Pirates. The other day he told me that they're going to win 87 games this season and be in contention for the NL Wild Card. I laughed at him. He is dyslexic, so he may have really meant 78 wins, but even that is preposterous. Let's take a look at what the Buccos have to offer this season and see if coming anywhere within heat-seeking missile distance to .500 is plausible.
(*2008 stats listed)
Freshly minted with a posh contract is the Pirates lone star in Nate McLouth (.276/.853, 26 hr, 23 sb). He's a Gold Glove center fielder with speed and power and truly is an all-around threat. Backing him up are switch hitting catcher Ryan Doumit (.318/.858, 15 hr) and 1st baseman Adam LaRoche (.270/.841, 25 hr). Doumit can hit (hey that rhymed), but needs to stay in the lineup (only 86 games in '07 and 116 in '08). Adam is a notoriously slow starter, who needs to produce in the early going should the Pirates want to be in the "ball park" of a winning record.
The rest of the lineup is unproven, mediocre, or just not that good. Unproven: Left fielder Nyjer Morgan (.294/.720, 9 sb, in 58 games) has the "prospect" tag, but it's time for him to prove himself in the big leagues. Accompanying him in the outfield over in right is another prospect with a lot to prove in Brandon Moss (.246/.741, 8 hr in 79 games). Mediocre: Xavier Nady and Jason Bay gone, yet shortstop Jack Wilson (.272/.659) remains. Wilson is incredibly overpaid for being a barely league average SS...stupid Pirates. 2nd baseman Freddy Sanchez (.271/.669) runs slower than an 18-wheeler in gridlock and has no power or on base skills. Not Good: the other brother 3rd baseman Andy LaRoche (.166/.508) may still be considered a prospect by some, but after 111 games in the majors and only a .184 batting average you get labeled "suck" in my book.
The bench consists of zero experience backup catcher/Phillies castoff Jason Jaramillo or Robinzon Diaz (.300/.600), Brad Lidge strikeout victim Eric Hinske (.247/.798) at corner infield/outfield, Tigers/Cubs/Twins flunky outfielder Craig Monroe (.202/.679), youngins Brian Bixler (.157/.423), Steven Pearce (.248/.716), Neil Walker (no MLB time), and Luis Cruz (.224/.546), infielder Ramon Vazquez (.290/.795) coming off a career year with Texas, and outfielder Jeff Salazar (.211/.675).
There's a chance this offense could be middle-of-the-road, but Wilson and Sanchez don't help the cause. If LaRoche, Doumit, and McLouth can remain healthy and produce like they did last season that's a good start, but at least 2 others need to step up as reinforcements.
Paul Maholm (9-9, 3.71 era, 1.28 whip) is the staff ace, but only has one season of success under his belt. Filing in after him is some combination of the ugly cast of Zach Duke (5-14, 4.82, 1.50), Tom Gorzelanny (6-9, 6.66, 1.80, that's either a sign that he's evil or on the brink of an about-face), Ian Snell (7-12, 5.42, 1.76), Jeff Karstens (2-6, 4.03, 1.34), and Ross Ohlendorf (1-4, 6.46, 1.87).
This staff was what was supposed to lead the Buccos back to the postseason. During their rebuilding phase (which has lasted 16 seasons so far) the Pirates brass kept hyping their young pitching. Well, their pitching may still be youngish, but are certainly without the hype now.
Closer Matt Capps (3.02 era, 0.97 whip, 21 saves) is good, but needs to stay healthy to help. Lefty John Grabow (6-3, 4 s, 2.84, 1.23) is also a stabilizing force. Tyler Yates (6-3, 4.66, 1.54) is good at times and really bad at others, but he has the ability to become a setup man because of his strikeout pitch. The rest of the bullpen will be a hodgepodge of Craig Hansen (6.22, 1.79), Sean Burnett (4.76, 1.61), Jesse Chavez (6.60, 1.93), Phil Dumatrait (5.26, 1.58), Romulo Sanchez (4.05, 1.50), Donnie Veal (no MLB time), Daniel Meek (6.92, 1.77), or Denny Bautista (5.22, 1.71).
That's the f'ugliest bunch of misfits I've seen assembled since the days of the Devil Rays horrendous relief corps. Some of them aren't even good enough to be considered "ifs", because they're surefire "won'ts".
The offense won't score enough runs and the pitching will give up too many runs. The offense has a chance to at least become league average should a couple players breakout (namely Morgan and Moss). However, the rotation is littered with high eras and is entirely too hittable, as is the bullpen. I honestly feel they may have the worst pitching staff in the National League. Therefore, 87 wins are a wet dream, 78 wins are a mirage, and 100 losses is a distinct possibility.