Pirates management discusses team

Bucs management discuss team at PirateFest

PITTSBURGH -- From players brought in (Adam LaRoche) to players not (Jeff Weaver), from who'll play second base (it may not be the guy who started 145 games there last year) to why some players aren't locked up to long-term deals, the first installment of "Ask Pirates Management" provided some honest and insightful answers to fans' questions at PirateFest on Friday night.

The panel, consisting of Pirates CEO Kevin McClatchy, general manager Dave Littlefield and manager Jim Tracy, fielded queries from fans for nearly an hour at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It was clear there was plenty on the crowd's collective mind, as the questions ran the gamut from the Pirates farm system's top prospects to the economic state of the game.

It was no surprise that the top subject was about LaRoche, the new first baseman recently acquired from the Atlanta Braves. LaRoche-related questions involved the long process of consumating the deal to where he may hit in the lineup.

"People are always surprised to hear that we were in discussions with the Braves on LaRoche for six months," Littlefield said. "We had conversations with other teams on similar players. This one got done. There's no doubt there seems to be more life or excitement at times [with deals]."

"From a lineup standpoint, we had problems last year because we were so right-handed heavy," Tracy said. "Putting [LaRoche] in between Freddy [Sanchez] and Jason [Bay] makes all the sense in the world. This acquisition has addressed a lot of needs.

"He's a great defensive player, too. You don't think about that because of our need for a left-handed power hitter."

One of the more interesting things to come out of the Q&A session was what might happen directly to LaRoche's right on the infield. Jose Castillo started 141 games at second base for the Pirates in 2006 but did not have a good season, especially down the stretch, and didn't win any fans among the Pirates' brass for his inability or unwillingness to make adjustments. Tracy has fielded many questions about Castillo's future and he made it pretty clear that his spot in the middle of the infield is anything but secure.

"Freddy Sanchez will play every day somewhere," Tracy said. "The beautiful thing about him is he doesn't care where it is, as long as we keep going in the direction we were heading in during the second half.

"A lot of what will be determined in our infield will depend on what kind of game Jose Castillo -- along with Jose Bautista -- brings into Spring Training."

It wasn't difficult to read between the lines. Castillo and Bautista will be competing for a spot in the everyday Pirates lineup, though at different defensive positions. If Castillo wins the competition, he'll play second and Sanchez will play third regularly. If Bautista comes out ahead, he'll play third and Sanchez will shift over to second.

Other on-field personnel discussions involved who the likely closer will be (answer: Salomon Torres), who the fifth starter will be -- it won't be Weaver, who'll sign with Seattle, according to Littlefield. "It's open season on that spot, but whoever doesn't win that derby, we're looking for some guys for longer relief," Tracy said -- and whether Ronny Paulino will improve enough behind the plate to remain the Pirates' No. 1 catcher.

"Our pitching staff suffered in the first half and I saw things that happened that can't happen on a Major League field," Tracy said about Paulino, who was charged with nine passed balls in 2006, a concern to one fan. "Paulino brought stability we needed, but we knew there would be some bumps. We're going to have him go through agility workouts to help with his footwork in Spring Training so we don't see as many balls go to the backstop. He understands that, and I think he will be up to the challenge."

As is often the case when a group of devoted Pirates fans come together, talk eventually did turn to economics. One fan felt that nothing has changed in terms of the unbalance among different organizations, as evidenced by a deal like the four-year, $42 million deal Jeff Suppan inked with the Brewers. McClatchy agreed to an extent about some of the outlandish contracts, but was quick to point out that the overall scenery has changed for the better.

"The economics have changed over the past two [Collective Barganing] agreements," McClatchy said. "We went from no revenue sharing to last year when over $300 million was shared. There have been incremental changes, though it's not to where it needs to be by my standpoint.

"Some of the contracts, I'm glad we didn't sign some of them. It's a question of how you spend the money, not the amount you spend. It's taken a while to get to this point, but we've got just about every position locked up with young players. These guys [Littlefield and Tracy] think we can win with what we have."

That, of course, leads to the ultimate question for Pirates fans who have been waiting for the Bucs' first winning season since 1993. Just what does "winning" or "improving" mean? For most, it means finishing over the magical .500 mark. The Pirates management, especially considering a team in its division won the World Series with 83 victories, doesn't want to put a cap on success.

"I'll acknowledge we all want to be over .500," Littlefield said. "But I don't want to put a ceiling on it. I think there's talent and we want to improve to a significant degree, but to put a number on it may not be the way to go."

Pirates management will be back again on Saturday, from 4-5 p.m. CT, to once again take fans' interesting, and often hard-hitting, questions.

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