Pirates Opening Day outlook

Pirates Opening Day outlook

Finally, things seem to be settling down in Pittsburgh.

One year ago, the Pirates -- and everyone else, for that matter -- were wondering how such a young pitching rotation was going to hold up. The eventual National League batting champion began 2006 on the bench. A left-handed bat that hit for power, as well as an everyday first baseman, was nowhere to be found.

Then, the youngsters not only held their own, but did well. Freddy Sanchez came from nowhere, hit .344 and claimed an infield spot as his own. The acquisition of Adam LaRoche from Atlanta proved useful both in the field and at the plate.

While there still are minor issues to address, the Pirates are looking hard at finishing the season above .500 for the first time since 1992.

BATTING ORDER
1. Chris Duffy, CF: Duffy is again in charge of getting it started for this powerful lineup, but he needs to play more like he did in the second half of 2006, when he had a .345 on-base percentage, and less like the first, when it was hovering around .250.

2. Jack Wilson, SS: Wilson has been a lock for situational hitting during the preseason, something he credits to knowing the big bats are following him. As one of the team's "senior" members, Wilson will be expected to make his sixth straight full season a productive one, both at the plate and in the field as the infield's spirited veteran leader.

3. Freddy Sanchez, 2B: The defending National League batting champion fought his way off the bench last year to become not only a model of production and hard work, but the starting third baseman. He's had some trouble this spring with a twisted ligament in his right knee, but don't expect him to take long to get back into the form that allowed him to hit .344 and drive in 85 runs last season.

4. Adam LaRoche, 1B: Acquired from Atlanta in the offseason, the left-handed power-hitter appears to be what many suppose is the answer both to Pittsburgh's lack of an everyday first baseman and missing offensive pop in 2006.

5. Jason Bay, LF: If Bay wants to raise his stock, he'll work on boosting his average with runners in scoring position -- which was .242 a year ago. Still, the left fielder proved he's no slouch at the plate with a .286 average and his second straight 100-plus RBI season.

6. Xavier Nady, RF: A guy who's won the Pirates' admiration by showing he can play a number of positions well, Nady must show this year that he'll be just as successful at one position. Grapefruit League results are encouraging, as Nady was errorless during the preseason while hitting .281 (9-for-32); both after returning from an infection in his intestine that cost him the first two weeks of camp.

7. Ronny Paulino, C: Paulino was a pleasant surprise during the early part of last season, coming up from the Minors to displace Humberto Cota as the Pirates' starting catcher. He exploded at the plate this spring by hitting .512 (22-for-43) as of March 26. Should his success carry over to the regular season, he'll provide consistency and strengthen an already powerful lineup.

8. Jose Bautista, 3B: Bautista showed great plate discipline in the Grapefruit League to beat out incumbent infielder Jose Castillo for the starting job. He was consistent in the field as well, showing versatility that seems to be a carryover of what he's learned from playing five positions with four teams as he floated around the league last season before returning to Pittsburgh.

opening day 2007

ROTATION
1. Zach Duke, LHP: The Pirates ace proved himself a workhorse last season by leading the team in starts (34) and innings pitched (215 1/3), but he needs to improve on his consistency during his sophomore campaign -- the 23-year-old had a 10-15 record and 4.47 ERA in 2006.

2. Ian Snell, RHP: Snell made a name for himself in 2006 by notching club-highs in wins (14) and strikeouts (169) as a rookie. Manager Jim Tracy is impressed with Snell's maturation in the offseason, which led to a positive Grapefruit League experience and set the precursor for a successful year.

3. Tom Gorzelanny, LHP: Gorzelanny struggled with control problems during the first inning of the majority of his Spring Training outings as he tweaked some minor mechanical issues. If he gets everything ironed out before Opening Day, the 24-year-old should do well in what will be his first full season in the Majors.

4. Paul Maholm, LHP: Not necessarily flashy, but fairly efficient with a 4.76 ERA over 30 starts last season, Maholm fits the prototype of a third or fourth man in the rotation, and is someone Tracy said was interchangeable with Gorzelanny should the better matchup show itself. Maholm also excels at inducing ground-ball outs.

5. Tony Armas, RHP: Acquired as a free agent in February, Armas quickly stepped in to claim the final open spot left in the rotation. As reigning old-timer on staff (he has 151 big-league starts, the other four have 136 combined), Armas needs to set good examples for his four less-experienced pitchers. If he can stay away from injury, he should be a 30-game starter with an ERA in the low 4s.

BULLPEN
One of the lingering unknowns heading into Opening Day is how well newly appointed closer Salomon Torres can fill the closer's role after the offseason departure of Mike Gonzalez. Torres stepped up his game at the end of 2006 and led the league in saves (12) over the season's final month, but he has been erratic this spring, with a 14.21 ERA over seven appearances (6 1/3 innings).

Torres freely admits it seems to take him some time to get the ball rolling at the season's start for whatever the reason, but as the go-to guy there's extra pressure to work out the kinks before Opening Day.

He's got a dependable setup man in workhorse Matt Capps, who a year ago appeared in 85 games and emerged with a 9-1 record and 3.79 ERA. Capps struggled a bit with his control this spring with eight earned runs in 6 1/3 innings pitched, but Tracy seems confident the 23-year-old will shake whatever held him back.

Shawn Chacon was shifted from a starting spot to the bullpen in late March, which isn't entirely new to the righty, since he relieved in 66 games for Colorado in 2004. Chacon, a midseason acquisition from the Yankees, will make his mark as the all-important innings-eater -- essential to a team with so many young starters, as the Pirates learned early on during last season.

Damaso Marte and John Grabow were figured to provide the lefty punch out of the 'pen, but with Grabow questionable to start the year because of tenderness in his throwing arm, Juan Perez will likely be called on to fill the void. Pittsburgh may also turn to Dan Kolb, a 32-year-old who had 39 saves for Milwaukee in 2004, or 26-year-old Jonah Bayliss, who's got just 22 Major League games under his belt but has shown much promise during the preseason.

OPENING DELAYED
Sanchez is still nursing a sore right knee, which he twisted while turning a double play against Philadelphia on March 6. His progress is slow but steady, and there's a good chance he'll start the season on the disabled list, which can be made retroactive nine days from the end of Spring Training, meaning he'd miss just the first series.

The same goes for Grabow, who's been sidelined since March 11 with inflammation in his pitching elbow. Without him, the Pirates were forced to look elsewhere, tabbing Jose Perez to fill the spot of a second lefty in the bullpen.

BURNING QUESTION
There's been some thought as to how Sanchez's injury will affect Pittsburgh's offense. Sanchez maintains that, once fully healed, he's going to remain as aggressive both at the plate and in the field, but at the same time, he's never had a serious injury before, so it's anyone's guess as to how he'll respond.

Though Tracy allowed that Pittsburgh is in a better spot when choosing a fill-in at second base than it was a year ago, it's obvious the Pirates will miss Sanchez's .344 average, his 85 RBIs and his league-leading 53 doubles.

The lineup may undergo a bit of shuffling as well, because Castillo, Sanchez's temporary replacement, is probably more suited to bat later in the order than third, Sanchez's normal spot.

When Sanchez returns, there's also the question of how missing so many at-bats in the preseason may affect him, since he only went to the plate seven times in the Grapefruit League prior to his injury. Should he struggle, it'll be up to guys such as Bay and LaRoche to step up their game to make up for it.

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.