Brandon Moss and Andy LaRoche are poised to be everyday starters and integral parts of the lineup. Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen are all in competition for the rotation -- with four spots up for grabs. At least one of the three, and possibly two, will be in that rotation. And Craig Hansen could assume a critical bullpen spot. None of these six players has extensive Major League experience, so it likely won't be until well into the season when this question can be answered.
2. How big a difference can new pitching coach Joe Kerrigan make with a staff that was among the National League's worst last season?
If the Pirates are going to be able to compete this season, they will need a collective renaissance from their pitching staff. Take away Paul Maholm's showing in 2008 and the results from the rest of the staff were disastrous. That entire staff, with a few late-season additions, is returning this year, but it has a new teacher with Kerrigan now in place. Much has been said about Kerrigan's vast experience, and the expectation laid upon him is that he is the right guy to get this group of young pitchers to perform to their capabilities.
3. Can Maholm, Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit sustain their breakout 2008 seasons?
What each of these three did in 2008 has the trio already being labeled as the cornerstones of this organization. With so much uncertainty surrounding the rotation, the Pirates would like to be able to rely on Maholm to anchor the staff much as he did in '08. And with Jason Bay and Xavier Nady gone, McLouth and Doumit are going to be the critical pieces in the middle of the lineup. McLouth is coming off an All-Star season, while Doumit was able to remain relatively injury-free in '08 for the first time in his career.
67-95, sixth place in NL Central
Projected batting order
1. LF Nyjer Morgan
.294 BA, .345 OBP, .375 SLG, 0 HR, 7 RBI in 2008
2. 2B Freddy Sanchez
.271 BA, .298 OBP, .371 SLG, 9 HR, 52 RBI in 2008
3. CF Nate McLouth
.276 BA, .356 OBP, .497 SLG, 26 HR, 94 RBI in 2008
4. C Ryan Doumit
.318 BA, .357 OBP, .501 SLG, 15 HR, 69 RBI in 2008
5. 1B Adam LaRoche
.270 BA, .341 OBP, .500 SLG, 25 HR, 85 RBI in 2008
6. RF Brandon Moss
.222 BA, .288 OBP, .424 SLG, 6 HR, 23 RBI in 2008
7. 3B Andy LaRoche
.152 BA, .227 OBP, .232 SLG, 3 HR, 12 RBI in 2008
8. 2B Jack Wilson
.272 BA, .312 OBP, .348 SLG, 1 HR, 22 RBI in 2008
1. Paul Maholm
, 9-9, 3.71 ERA in 2008
2. Ian Snell
, 7-12, 5.42 in 2008
3. Tom Gorzelanny
, 6-9, 6.66 in 2008
4. Zach Duke
, 5-14, 4.82 in 2008
5. Ross Ohlendorf
, 0-3, 6.35 in 2008
Closer: Matt Capps
, 21 saves in 26 chances, 3.02 ERA in 2008
Right-handed setup man: Tyler Yates
, 4.66 ERA in 2008
Left-handed setup man: John Grabow
, 2.84 ERA in 2008
The new guys
Hinske was the Pirates' last offseason signing, though he could be their most critical. Hinske comes to Pittsburgh after a season with the AL champion Rays and gives the Pirates a legitimate fourth outfielder option. He will provide power off the bench and can fill in at either of the corner infield or corner outfield positions. Because of his versatility, Hinske is expected to see substantial playing time.
Vazquez was the only other free-agent signing made by the Pirates this winter. He'll assume the role as the Pirates' primary backup option in the infield. He has extensive Major League experience at second, third and short. Vazquez is also coming off his best offensive season, having hit .290 in 105 games with the Rangers last year. Keep in mind, too, that Vazquez could step in to be the team's everyday shortstop should the Pirates trade Wilson midseason.
Jaramillo was a part of an under-the-radar swap of catchers at the December Winter Meetings. Ronny Paulino went to the Phillies in exchange for Jaramillo. The 26-year-old Jaramillo has no Major League experience, but he will be competing to be Doumit's backup for the season.
Veal is the hard-throwing left-hander whom the Pirates selected in the Rule 5 Draft this offseason. For him to remain with the club, he'll have to make the team's 25-man roster out of Spring Training and stick in the Majors all year long. But to do so, Kerrigan is going to have to help Veal overcome some substantial control issues. If Veal, 24, can regain his control, his mid-90s velocity is something the Pirates are excited about.
Another addition to the team's 40-man roster this winter, Vasquez was claimed off waivers in January. He is not expected to make the team out of Spring Training, but could be a starting or bullpen option later on if the Pirates can get him to regain his 2007 form.
Prospects to watch
All eyes will be on Alvarez now that members of the Pirates' management team have made it public that they are disappointed with the shape Alvarez arrived in this fall. After dragging out Draft signing negotiations until late September, Alvarez, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 Draft, did not keep up on his conditioning program. Still, the third baseman is the organization's top prospect and will be getting his first taste of Major League camp.
McCutchen has been invited to big league camp every spring since being drafted in 2005, and this should be the year that the highly touted outfield prospect makes his Major League debut. It's still a long shot that McCutchen makes the team out of Spring Training. But if he breaks out with a stellar camp, he will certainly make management think twice before sending him back to Triple-A.
Though fans would like Walker to be given a chance to compete with Andy LaRoche for the Pirates' starting third-base job, management still believes Walker needs time in the Minors. Still, he is beginning his third season as a third baseman and has made huge strides defensively.
McCutchen was one of the eight players acquired in the two Trade Deadline deals last July and immediately became one of the more promising pitchers in the upper levels of the Pirates' Minor League system. He will be given the chance to compete for a starting rotation spot in Pittsburgh, though a start in Triple-A seems more likely.
On the rebound
No one had a more frustrating final two months of the season than LaRoche did last year. After being made the starting third baseman after being acquired on July 31, LaRoche scuffled defensively and looked overmatched offensively. He made some minor stance adjustments this offseason and has refocused mentally. He'll be given the chance to be the starting third baseman again, though it remains to be seen how patient management will be with him if he is slow out of the gate.
Gorzelanny went from competition for title of staff ace to the rotation's biggest disappointment in 2008. However, after rededicating himself to a workout plan, Gorzelanny will arrive at Spring Training in peak physical condition. The lefty will have to compete for a spot in the starting rotation, but his conditioning and clean bill of health would seem to bode well for a resurgence.
In April 2008, Wilson landed on the disabled list for the first time in his career and then spent all season battling injuries. Wilson played in a career-low 87 games and missed significant time with a strained left calf and then with a right index finger fracture. Few believed that the veteran shortstop would be back with the Pirates this season, but now that he is, Wilson is ready to rebound with a full, healthy season.
Beginning with his Opening Day start, Snell rarely looked like himself last year. He had a career-high 89 walks and career-low 135 strikeouts last season. A midseason injury to his pitching arm likely contributed to Snell's woes. This year, the Pirates are counting on Snell to be a strong presence at the top of the rotation.
Starting the season healthy will be a big step forward for Sanchez, who missed much of Spring Training both in 2007 and '08 because of injuries. Sanchez was affected by right shoulder discomfort all of last season, though an extended period of rest this winter is believed to have remedied those issues. The injury hurt Sanchez's defensive throwing range more than anything, but it also played a role in Sanchez having his worst offensive showing in three seasons.
Mientkiewicz has been replaced by Hinske and Vazquez, though it remains to be seen if anyone can assume the leadership role Mientkiewicz had in 2008. He was the team's most vocal clubhouse presence. But with upgrades to the bench this offseason, Mientkiewicz was squeezed out of a chance to return in a back-up role.
The Pirates would have liked to have brought Michaels back as an extra outfielder, but he signed a contract with the Astros before the Pirates could make an offer. He had some big pinch-hits off the bench and also assumed a veteran clubhouse role.
Paulino had fallen out of favor with management in 2008 and proved to be an afterthought during the season. He spent much of the year back in Triple-A, only two years after hitting .310 in his rookie season with the club. A change of scenery in Philadelphia should serve Paulino well.
Gomez returned to the Orioles this offseason after just one season on the bench with the Pirates. He was used less often than Michaels and Mientkiewicz and hit .231 as a pinch-hitter.