01/26/07 5:08 PM ET
Bucs buzzing about upcoming season
Addition of LaRoche excites young stars at PirateFest
By George Von Benko / Special to MLB.com
Now the Pirates' Hot Stove is red-hot with buzz from the fans, the Bucs' front office and the players.
The Pirates are holding their annual PirateFest this weekend, and at a media gathering, some of the players were quite enthused about the addition of a big left-handed bat to the lineup.
Pirates All-Star outfielder Jason Bay was thrilled.
"Yeah, it's huge, especially like I said before with us looking at a need that we had at the beginning of the offseason and making a list of names to fit that need, and he was probably No. 1 on that list," Bay said. "How many teams can go into the offseason and say that's the guy we want, and then him being available and putting a package together to get him that doesn't totally deplete your team.
"As much as we all love Gonzo, we have another guy that can fill the closer's role, and if you're dealing with the Braves, you're trying to get a 30-home run, 100-RBI guy. You're going to have to give something up and we did. But we got the guy we wanted."
Bucs All-Star third baseman Freddy Sanchez, who led the National League in hitting with a .344 average last season, is pleased that the club has added another big bat to the lineup.
"That's huge," Sanchez gushed. "That solidifies the heart of the lineup. You look at our lineup right now, top to bottom, we're pretty solid. We're solid at every position and the lineup looks great. I'm excited. We look good -- I like the way things have turned out."
LaRoche hit .285 with 32 homers and 90 RBIs last season, and he was seventh in the NL with a .561 slugging percentage. After some trepidation about the trade, he now embraces the move to Pittsburgh.
"I was still a little shocked after it happened. Before I went to Pittsburgh for that 24-hour period, it was disappointing," LaRoche said. "I think it's always a little disappointing no matter where you're at, it doesn't matter. And I think because it was home for us -- Atlanta was home for the last three years for my family and I, so I had to get over that.
"It went a lot easier when I got to Pittsburgh and got to meet with Littlefield and [manager] Jim Tracy and a lot of the front office and understood a little bit about the direction they were going in with this team and what they are trying to do."
Pittsburgh has had 14 consecutive losing seasons, and LaRoche knows a lot of the fans view him as a savior. But he isn't putting any added pressure on himself.
"To be honest with you, I'm not going to put that on my shoulders because I know doing that is not going to help in anything that I'm going to do on the field," LaRoche said. "I'm going to go out there and I'm going to have fun and I'm going to hopefully bring over some stuff to these young guys that I've learned in Atlanta and got to learn from Chipper [Jones] and Andruw [Jones] and [John] Smoltz and the older guys over there.
"Nobody panics, and [they] just keep playing and keep taking the field and it's going to turn around. When you get everybody thinking like that, it's amazing how many games you can win."
Fueling the Pirates' optimism is a corps of young starting pitchers -- Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny. Add to that a very capable bullpen and there is a buzz in the air about the Pirates. That is something that hasn't been seen in Pittsburgh for a long time.
Snell, who notched 14 victories last season, sees reason for optimism.
"We learned a lot last season," Snell said. "A lot of us learned how to pitch and a lot of us learned how to hit off professional pitchers. We're all young and we just came together as a group and actually as a team. We just started playing real good. It's just a good feeling, because we went to a lot of places where the teams were in the playoff race and we kind of knocked them down.
"When you go into a stadium that's packed -- I asked bench coach Jim Lett, 'Is this how it is in the playoffs?' I just had a big smile on my face because I want to be there, and one day we will be there."
After going 37-35 in the second half of last season, maybe the young Bucs can get to the playoffs this year.
"The only way you can go about creating a buzz, you have to look back at the most recent past and say, 'What is it that has taken place that gives us reason to feel this way?'" Tracy said. "You saw a young club that grew by leaps and bounds over the course of one season. You saw a general manager that went to work and did a terrific job and acquired a terrific player to go with a mix of a young nucleus that's very talented.
"The other thing is a young nucleus that has an opportunity to play baseball together with one another for over the course of the better part of the next three years. That group that we're talking about at some point have had to realize some form of success, which they did, and so they get it and they understand what it is that we have to do in order for the numbers to be much more favorable in the win column than in the loss column.
"They got a taste of that in the second half of 2006. We've got a strong building block to taken into Bradenton, [Fla.,] here in a few weeks."
George Von Benko is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.