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10/05/09 2:04 AM ET

Much-improved Bucs feeling competitive

Confident brass excited over depth, talent level

PITTSBURGH -- Shortly after he was hired as the club's general manager in September 2007, general manager Neal Huntington completed a thorough organizational assessment, after which he came to one concerning conclusion -- the team didn't have nearly enough depth.

Over the next two seasons, the latter of which ended Sunday, Huntington went about addressing -- albeit often in a publicly unpopular manner -- that lack of depth. The roster turnover this year alone has been both jarring and startling, though Huntington has, unquestionably, improved the overall organizational depth.

Regardless, that still leaves Pirates fans stirring, with one lingering question: Does any of this put Pittsburgh closer to winning again?

"We will return to winning baseball again when we have both the talent and the aptitude of a winning organization," Pirates president Frank Coonelly answered last month. "The talent level in the organization is far higher than it has been in many, many years. We are excited about the young talent that has made it to Pittsburgh over the last two years, and the talent that is coming."

There's no concrete answer in that, though Pirates management will contend that the organization is closer to winning now than it was two years back.

The Bucs do go into the winter ahead with notable depth at every position. In fact, outside of center fielder Andrew McCutchen and catcher Ryan Doumit, it's hard to say that any other position player actually has a job completely locked up for 2010.

"I think there's going to be a lot of tough decisions all over the field," manager John Russell said. "There's going to be a lot of competition. That's kind of a light at the end of the tunnel for us. We've got a lot of players coming that have been playing very well."

Still, the issue highlighted by the team's tumultuous freefall during the season's final two months is whether that depth includes enough talent for this team to finally be competitive again. The hope is that a number of these relatively young players continue to take steps forward in their development, though that is never guaranteed.

In order to avoid having to rely solely on this same group of players, the Pirates do have the opportunity to add via trade and free agency this offseason. After shedding significant payroll dollars, they have plenty of money to spend, and management has said that it intends to look externally for help.

"As difficult as it's been, we are seeing some individual reasons to believe that it's going to be better next year," Huntington said. "We're going to continue to explore to try and find ways to make this club better."

To what degree they make a splash remains to be seen, and it's tough to envision the Pirates adding a number of significant pieces when they have a number in waiting internally.

Here are those options as we take a look at where the Pirates' roster stands as an interesting winter looms:

Contract issues
Free agents: None.
Eligible for arbitration: Denny Bautista, RHP; Matt Capps, RHP; Ronny Cedeno, SS; Zach Duke, LHP; Jeff Karstens, RHP (possible Super Two); Tyler Yates, RHP.
Player options: None.
Club options: None.
Non-tender possibilities: Denny Bautista, RHP; Tyler Yates, RHP.

• Ryan Doumit, .250 BA, 10 HRs, 38 RBIs
• Jason Jaramillo, .252 BA, 3 HRs, 26 RBIs
• Robinzon Diaz, .279 BA, 1 HR, 19 RBIs
• Erik Kratz, .273 BA, 11 HRs, 43 RBIs (AAA)

Despite a disappointing season, Doumit will enter 2010 as the projected starting backstop. The battle to be his backup is likely to again include Jaramillo and Diaz. Jaramillo left a good impression in his first full season in the Majors and likely has the upper hand because of his strong defensive skills. However, Diaz is out of options after this season, so the Pirates would risk losing him if he doesn't make the roster out of Spring Training. Kratz isn't likely to crack the Opening Day roster, but the Pirates would like to him to stay in the organization, where he could provide depth if needed later in the year.

First base
• Garrett Jones, .293 BA, 21 HRs, 44 RBIs
• Steve Pearce, .206 BA, 4 HRs, 16 RBIs
• Jeff Clement, .274 BA, 21 HRs, 90 RBIs in Triple-A

The first-base and right-field positions both hinge on what the Pirates decide to do with Jones, who has earned the opportunity to start somewhere next season. If he is used in right, the first-base position will likely belong to Clement or Pearce. Pearce has had his chance during the last two months of the '09 season and performed so-so. The Bucs would have liked to have seen a little more offense than they did. Clement, a former first-round Draft pick, has offensive potential, but has yet to sustain it in the Majors. There are also some questions about him defensively.

Second base
• Delwyn Young, .266 BA, 7 HRs, 43 RBIs
• Ramon Vazquez, .230 BA, 1 HR, 16 RBIs
• Luis Cruz, .282 BA, 0 HRs, 2 RBIs

If the Pirates opt not to look outside the organization, the starting job will likely fall on Young, who made great defensive strides with his work with infield coach Perry Hill. The Pirates like Young's offensive potential and are hopeful that he can be just good enough to not be a liability in the field. He has not been named a definitive start yet, though. Vazquez would serve as his primary backup most likely. Cruz is on this list solely as a candidate to win a utility role.

• Ronny Cedeno, .258 BA, 5 HRs, 21 RBIs
• Brian Bixler, .275 BA, 9 HRs, 43 RBIs (AAA)

The Pirates wanted to see what they had with Cedeno during the last two months of the season, and the club has been pleasantly surprised to find more offensive production in him than he had previously shown. There were never questions about his defensive abilities, and now that he's shown an ability to handle the bat about as well as his predecessor, he's likely earned the nod to start at short next year. Again, the Pirates have no other internal options. Bixler has lost his chance to be an everyday player, but he could make the team in a utility role.

Third base
• Andy LaRoche, .258 BA, 12 HRs, 64 RBIs
• Neil Walker, .264 BA, 14 HRs, 69 RBIs (AAA)
• Pedro Alvarez, .288 BA, 27 HRs, 95 RBIs (A/AA)

Who's on third? This is the most popular question around Pittsburgh these days. In 2009, it was LaRoche, who turned out to be an above-average defensive player, but without the pop that the Pirates had expected him to have. He didn't exactly put a stranglehold on the position going into '10, but management has said he will go into 2010 with the upper hand at being the team's starting third baseman. Walker, who was with the club in September, is another option, though he hasn't shown a ton of offensive consistency either at the Minor League level. The Pirates would like him to accomplish more at Triple-A Indianapolis. This position has Alvarez written all over it once he's ready, though the Pirates will likely wait until the summer to call him up.

• Andrew McCutchen, .286 BA, 12 HRs, 54 RBIs
• Lastings Milledge, .279 BA, 4 HRs, 21 RBIs
• Garrett Jones, .293 BA, 21 HRs, 44 RBIs
• Brandon Moss, .236 BA, 7 HRs, 41 RBIs
• Jose Tabata, .293 BA, 5 HRs, 35 RBIs (AA/AAA)

McCutchen is a given in center, and it's hard to not see Milledge as the starting left fielder again. If the Pirates don't need Jones at first, he'll take that final spot in right. If not, Moss could be a placeholder until Tabata is ready, though the Pirates will also look outside the organization for corner outfield help. The Bucs will give Tabata a look in spring to see if he's ready to start the season in Pittsburgh, but if the organization wants to do what it did with McCutchen and push Tabata's free-agency year back an extra year, it will wait until at least the summer to call him up. Moss' chance to prove that he's an everyday outfielder came and went in 2009.

• Paul Maholm, 8-9, 4.44 ERA, 119 Ks
• Zach Duke, 11-16, 4.06 ERA, 106 Ks
• Ross Ohlendorf, 11-10, 3.92 ERA, 109 Ks
• Charlie Morton, 5-9, 4.55 ERA, 62 Ks
• Kevin Hart, 4-9, 5.44 ERA, 53 Ks
• Daniel McCutchen, 1-2, 4.21 ERA, 19 Ks
• Brad Lincoln, 7-7, 3.37 ERA, 107 Ks (AA/AAA)
• Jose Ascanio, 0-2, 4.00 ERA
• Jeff Karstens, 4-6, 5.42 ERA, 52 Ks
• Eric Hacker, 6-7, 4.45 ERA, 102 Ks (AA/AAA)
• Virgil Vasquez, 2-5, 5.84 ERA, 29 Ks

Talk about depth -- there's no area that speaks to this concept more than when it comes to starting-pitching options. Three spots are already locked up with Maholm, Duke and Ohlendorf. Lincoln, the Pirates' first-round Draft pick in 2006, will get a look this spring, but he's likely to start the season back at Triple-A. Hart, Morton and McCutchen -- all of whom started for the Pirates this season -- are the likeliest candidates for the final two rotation openings. Ascanio, who was injured for most of the time after the Pirates acquired him, will get a look, and Pittsburgh could always decide to move Karstens back into a starting role if it wanted to. Subpar results from Phil Dumatrait and Vasquez this season likely have those two on the outside looking in. That is, if they are even still with the club after it makes some 40-man roster decisions.

• Matt Capps, 4-8, 5.80 ERA, 27 saves
• Jesse Chavez, 1-4, 4.01 ERA
• Joel Hanrahan, 1-4, 4.78 ERA
• Evan Meek, 1-1, 3.45 ERA
• Craig Hansen, 0-0, 5.68 ERA
• Steven Jackson, 2-3, 3.14 ERA
• Jose Ascanio, 0-2, 4.00 ERA
• Jeff Sues, 2-6, 4.67 ERA (AA/AAA)

For now, Capps has the upper hand at the 2010 closer's role, though that would assume that the Pirates don't non-tender him and that he rediscovers his command quickly. Meek, Chavez and Hanrahan established themselves as reliable right-handed options, and each has the chance to move into a prominent late-inning role next year. The Pirates still lack left-handed options, which likely will cause them to look for help in that area this winter. Yates wouldn't be ready to return from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery until midseason at best, though the club hasn't ruled out against bringing him back. If Ascanio doesn't make the rotation, expect him to be in the bullpen since he is out of options. Karstens looks to be the likeliest long man if the Pirates decide to carry one out of Spring Training next year. Right now, the Pirates are unsure of whether Hansen will be healthy enough to pitch next year.

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