How big of a difference can a new manager and coaching staff make?
Does this group of players have the pieces to stay competitive until the final month of the season?
Does the team have a legitimate chance to reach the elusive .500 mark?
It will take months for these lingering questions to be answered, but the journey starts in Atlanta on Monday.
If the Pirates can take a lead late into the game, they've got a trio of stoppers in John Grabow, Damaso Marte and closer Matt Capps. Capps was near perfect in save situations last season -- his first as a closer -- while Marte was one of the stingiest relievers for left-handed hitters to reach base against. Get to these three guys and a Pirates lead should seem secure.
Projected starting lineup
|1. CF Nate McLouth|
|2. SS Jack Wilson|
|3. 2B Freddy Sanchez|
|4. 1B Adam LaRoche|
|5. LF Jason Bay|
|6. RF Xavier Nady|
|7. 3B Jose Bautista|
|8. C Ronny Paulino|
| 1. RHP Ian Snell|
|2. LHP Tom Gorzelanny|
|3. LHP Zach Duke|
|4. RHP Matt Morris|
|5. LHP Paul Maholm|
| Closer: RHP Matt Capps|
|Setup: LHP Damaso Marte|
|Setup: RHP Taylor Yates|
|Middle: RHP Franquelis Osoria |
|Middle: LHP John Grabow |
|Long: LHP Phil Dumatrait |
Without notable speed or power, the offense is going to have to rely on consistency up and down its lineup in order to score enough runs. Falling into early holes must be avoided, as the team can't depend on the long ball to bail itself out very often. In other words, doing the little things right and executing the fundamentals will be crucial. So, too, will be maintaining consistency.
You'll know they're rollin' if...
The offense is consistently scoring four or more runs a game. The team isn't formed to overwhelm opponents on the offensive end, but the Bucs need consistent production from the middle of the order to spot their young rotation enough runs per game. There's arguably no more glaring a statistic from last season than this one: In 70 games, the Pirates scored fewer than four runs. They won just 11 of those. However, when scoring at least four last year, the Pirates were 57-35.
You'll know they're in trouble if...
The starters aren't consistently pitching past the sixth inning. Because the success of this club will depend heavily upon the arms of the starting staff, the Pirates need their young starters to take another step forward this season. There needs to be consistency and longevity. Individually, there needs to be better efficiency. The team was 58-42 in '07 when the starters pitched through the sixth inning.
With the Cubs predicted by many to be the team to beat in the National League Central, the Pirates will have a good feeling about where they stack up against the division's best when they face the Chicago club six times in a two-week period in April. The Cubs' offense will challenge Pittsburgh's pitching staff, and the two series as a whole could potentially give an early sign to how well the Pirates can be expected to do in the division.
The team's Interleague schedule doesn't appear to be as difficult as it's been in recent years, as the team plays just two American League teams that finished 2007 with winning records. The Pirates will face three of the bottom four AL finishers last season -- the Rays, White Sox and Orioles -- in addition to welcoming the Yankees and Blue Jays to PNC Park. Interleague Play has been an Achilles' Heel for years now (it finished 5-10 last year), but with a favorable schedule this season, maybe that's due to change.
The Bottom Line
Snapping that streak of 15 losing seasons is not going to be an easy task for a club that made very few -- if any -- upgrades to the roster over the offseason. The offensive consistency that wasn't there a year ago is a must for the Pirates to be competitive, as the team is depending on a number of its players to achieve levels significantly higher than they did a year before. Ultimately, this season could go a long way in defining which players will be a part of the organization's future and how long the organization's rebuilding process will take.