I know it's more than three months overdue for you Pirate fans, but your mailbag is now back for good.
First off, thanks to all of you who have welcomed me to the Bucs baseball beat and to all those who have sent me your questions and comments. And yes, I even read your rants.
I'm finally getting settled into Pittsburgh after moving here from Missouri, though I am far from mastering the bridges and tunnel system the city has to offer. Let's just say I never needed a street-by-street map in small-town Missouri.
Since arriving here, I have had my first pierogi (though I still haven't mastered the spelling of the word), and next I plan on taking my taste buds to a Primanti Brothers restaurant once I get back from Cincinnati.
Anyways, while I keep trying to figure out how to get around town, you keep sending me your questions. And I hope I don't regret saying it, but nothing's off-limits. Oh, and don't forget to put down your hometowns in your e-mails.
Now, to your beloved Bucs ...
If Adam LaRoche stays struggling, where do you see the future with him with the Bucs, contract-wise? Also, how does Brad Eldred fit into the picture? I know they are going to give him some time in right field, but he is a first baseman at heart. Is Eldred just another Craig Wilson -- moved around, then shipped off?
-- John D., Oil City, Pa.
When the Pirates shipped Mike Gonzalez to Atlanta for Adam LaRoche last January, they weren't acquiring a player who would be here and gone within a year. The Bucs traded for LaRoche with nothing less than the expectation that he would be a fixture in the middle of their lineup for years to come. And despite LaRoche's early-season struggles, that hasn't changed.
LaRoche is making only $3.2 million this year, and while he isn't signed beyond this season, he will likely stay very affordable for Pittsburgh. Assuming LaRoche can get back into the groove that he was in during the second half of last season, $3.2 million is a deal for a first baseman who has the talent to consistently be a 30-homers, 100-RBIs guy.
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John, you're not the only one who has written me concerned about the lack of productivity from LaRoche so far this season. And it may not be what you want to hear, but give the first baseman the benefit of the doubt. His numbers in May have been a sizable improvement from a cold April, when he batted .133.
He admitted to me last week that he felt himself pressing a little too much when he arrived in Pittsburgh, trying to live up to the hype surrounding the trade. He heard fans talking about him as the last piece of the puzzle for the offense, and he tried too hard to live up to it. That initial transition period is over, meaning LaRoche can now settle in, relax and finally show why there was all that hype to begin with.
So what does this mean for Eldred? The team made a good move in sending the first baseman down to Triple-A because he just wasn't getting the at-bats he needed in Pittsburgh in order to stay sharp. Some consistent playing time may help Eldred get back the power that made him such an intriguing prospect when the Pirates drafted him back in 2002.
But with the Pirates seemingly set at first and right, Eldred may be out of a spot. His power could make him intriguing to other clubs should the Pirates decide to shop him around to address some of their other needs.
Of the Pirates' top three Minor League pitching prospects, who has the lowest ERA, and should they be brought up sooner rather than later?
-- Jermaine H.
I assume, Jermaine, that you are referring to the Triple-A trio of John Van Benschoten, Sean Burnett and Bryan Bullington. As of Sunday night, when I finished this mailbag, Bullington had the lowest ERA of the three at 2.64.
With the struggles of the starting rotation this season, all three of these names have been tossed around as possible options to join the big-league club. However, the Pirates front office is still concerned with the fact that all three of those young pitchers are recovering from recent surgeries to their pitching arms. The last thing the Pirates want to do is rush these young pitchers to the Majors at the expense of their long-term health, and justifiably so.
If one of them is going to be brought up, my prediction is that the choice would be Burnett, simply because he is the furthest removed from surgery. The 24-year-old lefty had Tommy John surgery in September 2004, and after starting 13 games for the Pirates that season, missed all of 2005. He is now in his second full season back.
Don't be surprised, however, if management decides to let all three get one more full season under their belts at Indianapolis before they seriously begin to contend for a spot among the starting five. The approach with these talented arms is a better-safe-than-sorry one at this point.
Despite poor starts by Zach Duke, Tony Armas, Paul Maholm, LaRoche and that anemic offense, I am shocked that the Bucs are only five games under .500 at this point in the season. What's keeping them in it? Is it good management or are our Buccos better than their record?
-- Eric H., Hudson, Ohio
The best answer to that question has to be the most obvious one: the National League Central. We recently passed the quarter mark of the season, and not a single team in the Central has yet to impress much of anyone. The Brewers got off to a quick start, but thay are in the middle of a five-game losing streak that has brought them back down to Earth -- and to the rest of the mediocre teams in the division.
If you put the Bucs in another division, say the NL East, they would be 10 games out of first and likely already out of any hope for a division title. Fortunately for them, the weak division only has the Pirates in third place and only 5 1/2 games out right now.
And to answer your question, I think your Buccos may really be better than their record leads on. Maybe I haven't been around this ballclub for the past 14 years to become jaded with the team's results, but I don't believe this year's team has performed up to its capabilities yet.
Only two of the rotation's five starters have been consistent, and until this past weekend in Cincinnati, the offense had lacked the production the team expected from a lineup that has a defending NL batting champion, a two-time All-Star, and a first baseman who batted .323 after the All-Star break last year in it.
Can the Pirates win a weak NL division? I haven't been that far removed from Bucs baseball over the years to go that far out on a limb. But at this point, I'd say a solid -- and reasonable -- goal would be to break that .500 mark.
Is Duke hiding an injury? I cannot believe he is the same pitcher that came up two years ago and just dominated. What's wrong with him?
-- Dottie S., New York City
If it makes you feel any better, Dottie, Duke can't believe it either. Obviously he has not looked like the pitcher that joined the Pirates halfway through the 2005 season and put up unbelievable rookie numbers.
However, the Pirates have no reason to believe Duke is pitching with an injury. The lefty is still working with pitching coach Jim Colborn to try and sort out some problems with his delivery. The biggest problem for Duke has been trying to adjust the release point in his motion off the rubber to achieve a more downward plane on his pitches.
There's obviously more work to be done, which was evident after another tough outing on Sunday for the 24-year-old lefty.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.