Pirates Opening Day outlook

Pirates Opening Day outlook

With several veteran additions to the lineup and the bullpen, and new manager Jim Tracy at the helm, the Pittsburgh Pirates are looking forward to the start of what they hope will be their first winning season since 1992.

Tracy, who spent 2001-05 in Los Angeles as manager of the Dodgers, used the six weeks of Spring Training to familiarize himself with the Pirates roster while instilling in his new players the importance of fundamentals as a key component to playing winning baseball. He believes that doing the little things right can help the Pirates improve their record in close games.

Veterans Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa will be counted on to provide protection in the lineup for emerging star Jason Bay. The Bucs will also look for continued development from young hitters such as Chris Duffy, Ryan Doumit and Jose Castillo. The bench should be improved with Craig Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Jody Gerut serving as reserves rather than starters this season.

The rotation, led by Opening Day starter Oliver Perez and sophomore sensation Zach Duke, will be inexperienced but talented. If the youngsters can give the team five or six solid innings on a consistent basis, the deep bullpen should be able to hold leads on most nights.

1. Chris Duffy, CF:
After hitting .341 in 39 games as a rookie, Duffy will be expected to serve as a spark plug at the top of the lineup. The speedy Duffy has shown a flair for the spectacular in center field.

2. Jack Wilson, SS:
Wilson is consistently among the top defensive shortstops in the game. He will look to return to his 2004 level of play on offense. That season, Wilson had 201 hits and was selected as the National League Silver Slugger winner at shortstop.

3. Sean Casey, 1B:
A Pittsburgh product, Casey will make his Pirates debut after nine seasons with the Reds and Indians. The three-time All-Star and .305 career hitter should thrive at PNC Park with its short right-field porch and huge gap in left-center field.

4. Jason Bay, LF:
After becoming the first Pirate ever to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2004, Bay established himself as one of the top all-around players in the National League last season. His production should increase in 2006 with more talented offensive players surrounding him in the lineup.

5. Jeromy Burnitz, RF:
Burnitz is a veteran left-handed slugger who has averaged 30 home runs per season since 1997. He should provide Bay with much-needed protection in the lineup.

6. Joe Randa, 3B:
Randa, who last played for the Pirates in 1997, is a .285 lifetime hitter who set a career high last season with 17 home runs. He is also a steady, if unspectacular, defensive player whose veteran leadership should pay dividends in the clubhouse.

7. Jose Castillo, 2B:
Castillo is already arguably the best defensive second baseman in the NL, and he teams with Wilson and Duffy to give the Pirates outstanding defense up the middle. Castillo has surprising power at the plate and he could be on the verge of a breakout season.

8. Ryan Doumit, C:
A switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate, Doumit has the ability to be an offensive threat at the big-league level. The second-year player has also made strides to improve his defense and game-calling.

1. Oliver Perez, LHP:
Perez suffered through an injury-plagued 2005 season after emerging as one of the dominant starting pitchers in all of baseball a year earlier. The Pirates are counting on Perez to show more maturity and consistency as the staff ace in '06.

2. Victor Santos, RHP:
Santos will be expected to hold down the second spot in the rotation, at least until Kip Wells returns from the disabled list after the All-Star break. Santos, who was plucked from the Kansas City Royals in the Rule 5 Draft, posted a 3.50 ERA in his first 18 outings with the Milwaukee Brewers last season before struggling to a 7.45 ERA in the second half. At 29, he is Pittsburgh's oldest starter.

3. Zach Duke, LHP:
Duke burst onto the scene as a rookie last season by winning each of his first six decisions and nabbing NL Rookie of the Month honors during each of his first two months in the big leagues. He has plus stuff, above-average command and poise that belies his inexperience. Duke should be a winner for years to come.

4. Ian Snell, LHP:
Snell dominated at all levels of the Minor Leagues, including throwing a no-hitter at Triple-A last season, but that success has not yet translated into big-league success. The hard-throwing right-hander will be given a shot early on in 2006 to show that he can hold his own against Major League hitters.

5. Paul Maholm, LHP:
Maholm suffered a potentially career-threatening eye injury when he was struck in the face by a line drive in 2004. However, the former No. 1 draft pick rebounded to make it all the way to the big leagues by the end of last season. Like Duke, Maholm enjoyed success as a rookie thanks in large part to his poise and command.

The Pirates will boast one of the deepest bullpens in baseball this season if Mike Gonzalez can successfully adjust to his new role as the closer. Gonzalez, whose fastball tops out at 96 mph, has the stuff and the aggressive mentality to close games, but he must show that he has the mindset to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that all closers face during the course of the season. Veteran right-hander Roberto Hernandez, who ranks 10th on the career saves list, will step into the closer's role should Gonzalez falter. Durable right-hander Salomon Torres is an underrated setup man who can pitch almost every day. Southpaws Damaso Marte and John Grabow should give the Pirates a solid 1-2 punch from the left side. Right-hander Ryan Vogelsong will serve as the long reliever.

Wells had surgery on March 6 to repair a blood clot in his right shoulder. He will be out until at least the All-Star break in July. Left-hander Sean Burnett, who spent all of last season on the disabled list while recovering from left elbow and left shoulder surgeries, will begin the season at Triple-A Indianapolis.

Can the young and inexperienced starting pitchers handle the load?

The Pirates did well to improve an offense that ranked near the bottom of the NL in most significant categories last season, and the bullpen was strengthened by the offseason additions of Hernandez and Marte. However, the continued development of the starting pitchers will be the key to this team's fortunes in 2006.

The return to form of Perez, the most physically gifted member of the group, is the key. Perez showed in 2004 that he can carry a staff when he is on his game, and he has to find a way to regain the command that eluded him for much of last season.

Duke and Maholm have the potential to be top-of-the-rotation starters for years to come, but they have combined for just 20 big-league starts. The young lefties must both show that are able to overcome the setbacks that will be sure to come when hitters begin adjusting to them the second or third time through the league. Snell must show that he did not reach his ceiling at Triple-A.

"You get to a point in time in the spring where you sense that there is a group of players who are prepared to go play. They need the challenge and they need the environment of going to a ballpark to play a game and realizing the fact that every single thing that is done has a tremendous amount of meaning to it. We have a number of players who are in that boat." -- Tracy, on his players itching for the season to begin

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