Mailbag: Bucs' 'D' best in baseball?

Mailbag: Do Bucs have the best 'D' in baseball?

When the Pirates take the field in 2006, I think they will be one of the best, if not the best, defensive baseball teams in the league. Do you agree?
-- Nick W., Bethel Park, Pa.

I am not willing to go as far as to predict that the Pirates will be the best defensive team in baseball next season, but I will say that they should be the best Pirates defensive unit in recent years.

The Bucs are particularly strong where it counts the most -- up the middle. Shortstop Jack Wilson and second baseman Jose Castillo are arguably the best double play combination in baseball, and both are legitimate Gold Glove candidates. Chris Duffy was nothing short of spectacular in center field as a rookie. If there is any weakness in this area it is behind the plate, although Humberto Cota and Ryan Doumit showed signs of improvement a year ago.

The corners certainly aren't bad, either. Left fielder Jason Bay has the range to play center field, which comes in handy for a guy who has to patrol the left field expanse at PNC Park 81 times per season. Right fielder Jeromy Burnitz, first baseman Sean Casey and third baseman Joe Randa are all better than average defenders.

For all of the talk about the Pirates' ability to improve their offense this offseason, we shouldn't underestimate the importance of the strides that they have made on defense. The team has given away far too many extra outs since moving to PNC Park, and this has led, directly and indirectly, to a lot of losses in close games.

Do you see Josh Fogg catching on with any other team? He was good when the Pirates left him in there. He seemed to have gotten the raw end of the deal last year in the rotation.
-- Stephanie K.

Fogg recently signed a one-year deal with the Colorado Rockies. The Rockies, Giants, Reds, Nationals and Diamondbacks all reportedly showed an interest in Fogg. The Rockies, however, were apparently the only team willing to offer him a guaranteed big-league contract and the 40-man roster spot that goes with it.

I have to disagree with your assessment of Fogg getting a raw deal in Pittsburgh, Stephanie. He had just two wins in his final 18 starts, and the Pirates knew that he probably wouldn't be in their future plans. They simply decided to give some of their younger starters an opportunity to show what they could do in the big leagues.

Do you really think the Pirates are going to jump from the bad year they had in 2005 to a good year this year after all of the changes that they made over the offseason?
-- Doug V., Uniontown, Pa.

I guess that depends on your definition of "good," Doug.

If by good you mean a division championship, then I don't see the Pirates meeting that lofty goal. There are just too many questions with the starting rotation. And the offense, although improved, is not among the league's elite by any stretch of the imagination.

If by good you mean they will have more wins than losses, then this remains a possibility. However, the Bucs will still have to have a lot of things go their way for this to happen, most notably rebound seasons from Kip Wells and Oliver Perez. Let's not forget that the Pirates finished 28 games under .500 in 2005. That's a lot of ground to make up in one year.

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Could you list the players currently on the 40-man roster for the Bucs?
-- Linda S., Tyrone, Pa.

You can access the 40-man roster on pirates.com. A list of Pittsburgh's non-roster invitees is also available on the site.

What happened to Brian Meadows?
-- Taj S., Pittsburgh

The Los Angeles Dodgers signed Meadows to a Minor League deal and offered him a non-roster invitation to Spring Training.

OK, I'm a little worried here. I read that the only Pirate signed beyond this year is Bay. I know this season hasn't even started yet, but isn't it worrisome that talented players such as Jack Wilson and Castillo aren't guaranteed to be in the Pirates uniform?
-- Courtney S., Pittsburgh

It's not quite as bad as it sounds, Courtney.

Fortunately, the other 39 guys on the roster besides Bay won't instantly become free agents after this season. In fact, the majority of these players will be under the control of the Pirates for years to come.

To simplify the contract situations as much as possible, a Major League roster can basically be divided into four different groups: players with fewer than three years of service time, players with fewer than six years of service time, players with six years or more of service time who are signed to multi-year contracts, and players with six years or more of service time who are signed to one-year deals.

Those with fewer than six years of service time are under control of the team. The so-called "zero-to-three" players are basically assigned a contract by the team, usually for close to the Major League minimum salary. About two-thirds of the Pirates' 40-man roster falls into this category.

Those players with between three and six years of service time are eligible for salary arbitration, but they can not leave as free agents unless the Pirates decide not to offer them a contract. This was the case with Fogg.

After six years of service time, players are eligible for free agency and they can sign with any team that they like. Wells, Craig Wilson, Jack Wilson and Salomon Torres will all be eligible for free agency for the first time next winter.

Veterans Casey, Randa and Roberto Hernandez are all under contracts that will expire after this season. Pittsburgh has a club option for Burnitz for 2007, which means it will be up to the Bucs to decide whether or not they want to bring him back for another season.

I know this can be a lot to wrap your mind around.

In summary, the seven players the Pirates could lose before the 2007 season are Wells, Jack Wilson, Craig Wilson, Torres, Casey, Randa and Hernandez. The other 32 Pirates besides Bay, although they will not technically be under contract, will remain under the control of the team.

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.