Unproven Bucs must prove their worth
Pittsburgh's prospects need to produce for club to compete in '09
BRADENTON, Fla. -- At 4 p.m. ET on July 31, 2008, the Pirates took a step back, a step that management deemed necessary to move forward. It was that afternoon that the Pirates sold their present for the future.
In essence, there had already been a precursory step backward, that one occurring five days earlier when outfielder Xavier Nady, in the midst of a career year offensively, and left-handed setup man Damaso Marte were shipped to the Yankees. The Pirates netted four prospects -- all unproven in the Majors -- in return.
But on that final day of July, when it was announced that Jason Bay had been dealt to the Red Sox for four unproven players, the Pirates plunged headfirst into their latest rebuilding mode.
There's not much need to rehash what happened next. The jolt to the offensive chemistry cut down on production. And except for a two-start stint from Jeff Karstens, the pitching didn't improve. The result was a 17-34 record to finish the season.
But that was last year. What about now? Is there any reason to believe the results will take a turn up?
Depending upon how you look at it, there are a number of keys to the season for a Pirates team looking to avoid the distinction of a 17th consecutive losing season. But up near the top has to be the ability for this group of players to provide significant contributions. There really isn't much of a choice.
"I don't think there is a guy in that group that can't handle what they're being asked to do," Adam LaRoche said in reference to the players who came to Pittsburgh during those trades. "They are not asking them to come in and take the team on their back, any of them.
"They don't have a ton of pressure," he added. "But they do have the pressure from the rest of their teammates and coaches that we expect them to go out and play like they can. And I think that's been made very clear with all those guys."
It's quite possible that by the end of the season six of the eight players acquired last July will be making contributions in Pittsburgh.
Let's take a look at those pieces:
Brandon Moss: Moss will be the team's starting right fielder and will be counted on for production in the middle of the lineup. In 45 games with the club last year, Moss hit just .222 with 45 strikeouts. He did manage decent run production, with 18 extra-base hits and 23 RBIs after the trade. But the production certainly was not up to par.
However, Moss comes in to camp having reworked his swing and having shrugged off the unreasonable expectations he put on himself last season. The self-induced pressure of trying to prove that he was worth the trade is gone.
"I never felt overmatched one bit," Moss said. "I just let myself get into some mechanical flaws trying to do too much."
Andy LaRoche: No one had a harder time in the new setting than LaRoche, who was booed at PNC Park for much of September. But with management still high on his potential, LaRoche is in line to begin the season as the team's starting third baseman. It will be an opportunity for redemption.
LaRoche hit just .152 in 49 games with Pittsburgh and committed nine errors after being pushed into a starting role after the trade.
"I worked out with Andy a few times in the offseason and you can tell that he's ready to get back up here and prove that he is a Major League Baseball player," shortstop Jack Wilson said. "And everyone in this locker room will tell you that they believe Andy LaRoche is going to do just fine."
LaRoche has been limited in workouts this spring due to some lower back spasms, though the setback is not expected to affect his ability to be ready on Opening Day.
Ross Ohlendorf: Ohlendorf spent time with the Pirates in September after spending August stretching himself out from a reliever to a starter in Triple-A. When Ohlendorf arrived in Pittsburgh, the results weren't there. He suffered from arm fatigue and labored throughout his five starts with the Pirates, going 0-3 with a 6.35 ERA.
After an offseason of rest, though, Ohlendorf's velocity looks sharp early in Spring Training, and he's very much in competition for one of the final rotation spots.
"I think he's got a good frame of mind right now and is ready to go," manager John Russell said. "I think he's really done a lot of good things with his arm strength to make sure he can handle his load."
Jeff Karstens: After a short setback in January, Karstens is back on track this spring and in competition for a rotation spot. Also coming over from the Yankees, Karstens impressed early by pitching 15 scoreless innings in his first two starts.
But those would be the only two wins for Karstens, as he finished the season with six consecutive losses. He finished with a 4.03 ERA in nine starts.
However, much like Ohlendorf, Russell has lauded Karstens' early camp showing. And after being denied a place on the Opening Day roster each of the last two seasons because of injuries, Karstens is determined to overcome that this year.
Craig Hansen: After struggling through serious control issues with the Pirates in 2008, Hansen is a bit of a wild card this spring. His velocity is intriguing, and the fact that he is out of options gives him an upper hand at a bullpen spot since the Pirates don't want to risk losing him.
However, the right-hander is going to have to remedy those control problems. In 16 bullpen appearances with the Pirates last year, Hansen went 1-4 with a 7.47 ERA. He walked 20 and struck out just seven batters in 15 2/3 innings.
Daniel McCutchen: McCutchen is among those competing for a rotation spot this spring, though he would be a long shot, having never pitched in the Majors before. McCutchen spent most of the '08 season in Triple-A and went 4-6 with a 3.58 ERA in 11 starts with the Pirates' Triple-A club in Indianapolis after the trade.
Even though McCutchen is likely to start the season in Indianapolis' rotation again, he is now considered one of the Pirates' top five prospects and could very well be making a contribution in Pittsburgh before season's end.
Jose Tabata: If there was a can't-miss prospect in this bunch, Tabata is that player. He was one of the top prospects in the Yankees' system and took Double-A Altoona by storm when he arrived there after the trade. Tabata hit .348 in 22 games with the Curve, and any concerns about his attitude seem to be in the past.
If Andrew McCutchen starts the season in Triple-A, Tabata will begin in Double-A since the Pirates don't want to move either out of center field. But as soon as McCutchen moves to Pittsburgh, Tabata will shift to Indianapolis, and his arrival in Pittsburgh within the next two seasons seems inevitable.
He's already impressed the Pirates' manager: "Jose Tabata is kind of going under the radar here," Russell said on Sunday. "But this kid has a special bat as well."
Bryan Morris: Morris was the one player in the Bay trade that didn't step into a big league role immediately. However, he arguably has the biggest upside of the four players in that trade. Morris had a bit of a setback when he underwent surgery this offseason to repair a ligament in his right big toe, but he is expected to be ready to go shortly after the season starts.
Morris, who will start the season at high Class A Lynchburg, is the one in this group who will not be ready to make a contribution in Pittsburgh in 2008. Last year, Morris made 17 starts with the Dodgers' Class A affiliate and finished with a 3.20 ERA.
There's no expectation that Moss is going to be Bay, that LaRoche will produce like Nady did a year ago or that Hansen will hold as critical a bullpen role as Marte did in recent years. But at the same time, it's not lost on their teammates that the ability for these players to contribute will go far in this team's success, or lack thereof.
"I think a lot of it depends on how those guys do," center fielder Nate McLouth said. "Obviously, before they made those trades, [management] did [its] homework, and those were guys they wanted who they thought could be impact big league players. If they're right, certainly then those pieces put us a lot closer."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.