Friday, March 31, 2006

The 2006 Outlook

Here's the thing about the 2006 Pittsburgh Pirates, they might be a really fun team to watch this year. Then again, they might not. They probably won't contend under any forseeable circumstances, but that doesn't mean they can't have a good year. For some reason in the last week or so, I've been feeling a lot more positive than I usually do about the Pirates, though it might just be due to the opening of the season.

Ever since PNC Park opened, all Pirates fans have really wanted was a year where we got to see a bunch of young (or at least fairly young) players get a shot to play and play hard and maybe even get better as the year went on. With exceptions made for a couple individual players, we don't ever really get to see that. On the surface, it doesn't really look like we'll get to see it this year either, our biggest offseason "upgrades" were Joe Randa, who stands in the way of Freddy Sanchez and Jose Bautista, Sean Casey, who makes Craig Wilson a full time right fielder where he stands in McLouth's way, and Jeromy Burnitz, who gets in Craig's way in right. Three lumbering, over the hill guys with sunny dispositions that the team hopes will bring some fans to the park. If these three stay healthy, you can be sure another year of typical Pirates baseball will ensue.

And yet, how can one expect those three to stay healthy over the course of the season? The youngest by far is Casey at 31, and he's already breaking down. Nate McLouth played so well this spring the team simply couldn't avoid giving him a roster spot and Bautista very nearly did the same (in fact, it could probably be argued that he did plenty this spring with a .345/.431/.691 line in 55 ABs). My point is that even with all the money invested in the Terrible Trio we imported this offseason, there's a distinct possibility that certain guys make themselves impossible to ignore once the season starts (I use this term loosely, 12 hours ago I would've told you it was impossible for Jody Gerut not to make the team out of camp and Littlefield pissed all over that today). The point is, I think the guys capable of making this an exciting team to watch next year exist and I don't think it's a stretch that we see them this year.

Of course, there's also the pitching. The staff this year has the potential to be one of the most electrifying combination of pitchers we've seen in Pittsburgh in years. Yeah, the fact that Zach Duke's lackluster spring has lasted this long scares me a little bit. Yeah, I hate the fact that all of my faith in return to form for Ollie is placed on one spring training start. Yeah, I'm not sure I have any idea what to expect from Ian Snell. Yeah, Victor Santos is in the rotation. But Zach Duke has good stuff, Ollie's start on Wednesday had people absolutely buzzing in a way that I don't recall seeing since that game against the 'Stros towards the end of '04 when Houston was on an unstoppable roll towards the Wild Card and Ollie stopped them in their tracks with something like a 14-K masterpiece (plus he's throwing a split-fingered changeup that looks filthy), Snell certainly seems to be motivated by all of the shit talked on him by the organization and has even learned a third pitch, and Santos is only a stopgap until at the very most, Kip is ready to comeback for his Jason Schmidt like farewell, but will most likely be replaced by Gorzellany or Burnett quick enough that in two years most people will forget that Victor Santos ever wore a Pirates jersey. I haven't even mentioned Paul Maholm.

So here's the bottom line on the 2006 Pirates, if things break in the correct manner (as in, Randa and Burnitz and Casey get hurt or perform so poorly that they just HAVE to be taken out of the lineup) I really think we have a decent young baseball team on our hands. Good enough to beat the Cards this year? No. Good enough hang around .500? Well, I've seen stranger things. Even if things don't break the right way, it's possible that our pitching could carry us. Then again, it's also a very (very very very) distinct possibility that Casey, Burnitz, and Randa don't get hurt and don't play well enough to be traded, but aren't bad enough to lose their spots in the lineup. And yeah, with all the mostly unknown qualities involved with our pitching staff, the wheels could definitely come off. Hell, there might not even be wheels. And yeah, I do realize that what I'm describing here is a "IF these guys get hurt or play bad and lose their spots and IF these other guys step up and fill their slots like the MIGHT be able to and IF the pitching is as good as we think it is, then there MIGHT be a chance that we avoid losing more than 81 games this year," is similar to this famous exchange from Dumb and Dumber:

Lloyd: Hit me with it! I've come a long way to see you, Mary. The least you can do is level with me. What are my chances?
Mary: Not good.
Lloyd: You mean, not good like one out of a hundred?
Mary: I'd say more like one out of a million.
Lloyd: So you're telling me there's a chance.
That's all I'm saying. There's a chance. It's not really a good one and there's a ton of IFs and MIGHTs, but we're Pirates fans. There's a chance, and at this point, it's probably greedy to ask for more.