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Bucs will count on growth from core

Bucs will count on growth from core

PITTSBURGH -- For the last 16 seasons, Pirates fans have held firm to the notion that there is always next year. But sitting less than 200 days away from Opening Day 2009, skepticism remains in the way of assuming that next year will be different than the last.

The fact that another losing season would set a professional-sports worst of 17 straight has by no means been lost by the public or the organization. However, a concerted effort to thwart that streak with a one-year fix is not in the works.

With the departures of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady via midseason trades, a new, younger core has been ushered in, though that makes predictions of what's to come in 2009 that much more difficult.

The outcome could be much like the frustrating 17-39 span in the first 56 games after Nady was traded in July, since the team that takes the field next year is expected to be much like the one that finished on the field this season. The hope lies in the expectation, though, that is that there will be noted improvement in this core.

Expect the Pirates' budgeted payroll for next season to be around $55 million, which, even taking into account the increased salaries for eight arbitration-eligible players, leaves the Pirates with ample payroll flexibility.

The Pirates' Opening Day payroll was slightly under $49 million this year, and remember, that included salaries to Matt Morris ($9.5 million), Jason Bay ($5.75 million) and Xavier Nady ($3.35 million) that will not be in the equation next season.

But despite having the flexibility, Pirates management has also said that it will not necessarily flush all that available money into the free-agent market just because it's there. In other words, it seems likely that the organization will likely not use all its available funds next season.

Since a significant splash in the offseason market is unlikely, the bottom line is that both the near (i.e.: 2009) and long-term future lies heavily in the talent already in the organization.

CONTRACT ISSUES
Free agents: Doug Mientkiewicz, INF; Jason Michaels, OF; Chris Gomez, INF; Luis Rivas, INF

Eligible for arbitration: Adam LaRoche, 1B; John Grabow, LHP; Nate McLouth, OF; Paul Maholm, LHP; Ryan Doumit, C; Zach Duke, LHP; Tyler Yates, RHP; and Denny Bautista, RHP

Player options: none

Club options: none

Non-tender possibilities: none likely

CATCHERS
Ryan Doumit, .318 BA, 15 HRs, 69 RBIs
Raul Chavez, .259 BA, 10 RBIs, 12 R
Ronny Paulino, .212 BA, 18 RBIs, .306 BA (Triple-A), 18 RBIs (Triple-A)

After a breakout season, the switch-hitting Doumit will go into 2009 with the starting catching job locked up. Who his backup will be -- Chavez, Paulino or Robinzon Diaz, perhaps? -- is the only question.

FIRST BASE
Adam LaRoche, .270 BA, 25 HRs, 85 RBIs

The Pirates would like to find a way for LaRoche to put two strong halves together, but regardless, if he's tendered a contract, he'll open the season as the team's starter for the third straight year. Doug Mientkiewicz would be a worthy backup if he returns, or else Steve Pearce could assume that role.

SECOND BASE
Freddy Sanchez, .271 BA, 26 2Bs, 9 HRs, 52 RBIs
Luis Cruz, .279, 61 RBI, 60 R (Double-A/Triple-A)

Sanchez plans to heal his achy right shoulder with plenty of rest this offseason, which should help him both in the field and at the plate. After leading the team in average in 2006 and 2007, Sanchez will look to have similar success in a healthy 2009.

SHORTSTOP
Jack Wilson, .272 BA, 18 2Bs, 22 RBIs
Brian Bixler, .280 BA, 36 RBIs, 23 SBs, .346 OBP (Triple-A)

Whether or not the Pirates trade away Wilson will be one of the biggest offseason stories. With his $7.25 million salary, it's a legitimate possibility. The question then becomes, is Bixler or Cruz ready to step in on an everyday basis?

THIRD BASE
Andy LaRoche, .166 BA, 5 HRs, 18 RBIs
Neil Walker, .242 BA, 16 HRs, 80 RBIs (Triple-A)

LaRoche will start the season at third, but if he struggles the way he did after joining the Pirates, he might not be a fixture there. Walker has been one of the organization's most promising prospects, but management isn't sure he's ready for the grind of an entire Major League season.

OUTFIELD
Nate McLouth, .276 BA, 26 HRs, 94 RBIs, 23 SBs
Brandon Moss, .222 BA, 6 HRs, 21 RBIs
Nyjer Morgan, .298 BA, 44 SBs, .349 OBP (Triple-A)
Steve Pearce, .251 BA, 12 HRs, 60 RBIs (Triple-A)
Andrew McCutchen, .283 BA, .372 OBP, 50 RBIs, 34 SBs (Triple-A)

McLouth and Moss are locks to start in 2009, while Morgan would seem to have the upper hand at the third spot with the way he ended the season. But McCutchen, the consensus top prospect in the organization, almost certainly will take an outfield spot in PNC Park at some point before the end of the season.

ROTATION
Paul Maholm, 9-9, 3.71 ERA, 139 Ks
Ian Snell, 7-12, 5.42 ERA, 135 Ks
Tom Gorzelanny, 6-9, 6.66 ERA
Zach Duke, 5-14, 4.82 ERA
Ross Ohlendorf, 5-4, 3.65 ERA (Triple-A)
Jeff Karstens, 2-6, 4.03 ERA
Jimmy Barthmaier, 5-5, 4.02 ERA, 111 Ks (Double-A/Triple-A)

Daniel McCutchen, 11-12, 3.57 ERA, 151 Ks (Double-A/Triple-A)

Spring Training is going to be an audition for all of these guys, with only Maholm having a starting spot already locked up. Ohlendorf, Karstens and McCutchen were all acquired at the Trade Deadline and may be ready to take spots away from others who have been rotation fixtures for a few years.

BULLPEN
Matt Capps, 2-3, 3.02 ERA, 21 saves
Tyler Yates, 6-3, 4.66 ERA
John Grabow, 6-3, 2.84 ERA, 62 Ks
Denny Bautista, 4-3, 6.10 ERA
Sean Burnett, 1-1, 4.76 ERA
Craig Hansen, 1-4, 7.47 ERA

Capps will be the closer, with Yates and Grabow likely filling the setup roles. Overall, the bullpen looks to shape up to be full of power arms, but the obvious concern is whether these pitchers have the control to go with the velocity.

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

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