Pirates on the verge of breaking through?
By Seth Livingstone, USA TODAY
BRADENTON, Fla. — Pittsburgh Pirates manager Jim Tracy watched pitcher Paul Maholm give up three runs in the first inning of a spring training game against the New York Yankees. Yet Tracy wasn't bummed out.
That's because Maholm limited the damage and followed with two shutout innings. "Last season we'd have been more than likely out of that game in the first inning," Tracy says. "To walk back out there like that kid did and rectify himself with two very easy innings, that's growth."
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It's all about that maturation process for a Pittsburgh team that will — on paper — closely resemble the one that finished the season 37-35 after a 30-60 start last season. The 2006 team that dropped 24 of 33 one-run games before the break went 14-6 in those type of games in the second half.
"We have the opportunity to use that second half as a springboard," Tracy says. "There is enough talent in this room to be a very successful team."
Can the 2007 Pirates become a National League version of the 2006 Tigers? "I'm not in the prediction business, other than to say that I think we've gotten better and I think better days are ahead," general manager Dave Littlefield says.
There are parallels to the Tigers for a Pirates franchise down so long (14 consecutive losing seasons) that it seemed to have forgotten how to win.
As the Pirates pitching staff grows together, it might be complementing a lineup that's in full bloom. The Pirates added the left-handed power they were lacking by trading for first baseman Adam LaRoche, who hit a career-high 32 homers for the Atlanta Braves. He boosts an offense that was last in the NL in runs scored but features NL batting champ Freddy Sanchez at third and All-Star outfielder Jason Bay (35 homers, 109 RBI).
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"He adds to our team a strategic component," Tracy says. "We were way too right-handed. All those one-run games we were involved in last year, teams passed on pitching to Sanchez and Bay."
Bay sees something else: "To be able to go out and find a guy who fit our profile — a young guy like LaRoche, who was probably the No. 1 guy on the wish list … how many teams are able to say, 'We want this guy,' and actually get him? That's big for us and our fans. We've been on the other end of a few of those deals."
Tracy is stressing that an unselfish, back-to-basics approach with his pitchers as well as position players. "Our pitchers are beginning to gain a full understanding of what they have to do in order to give themselves a chance to win," he says.
"I see a lot of young guys that are hungry to get on the right track and start wining," LaRoche says of his new surroundings. "For years, this team has asked guys to step into the middle of the fire. They don't have that year or two cushion. It's nice that just about all of them have at least a year's experience."
At 28, newly acquired right-hander Tony Armas is the only member of the rotation older than 25. Armas will be joined by lefties Maholm (11-11 in his first 36 big-league starts), opening-day starter Zach Duke (18-17 in his first two seasons) and Tom Gorzelanny (2-5 as a rookie), as well as right-hander Ian Snell, who won 14 games last year.
"Our guys still have to continue to get better, especially our starting pitching," Bay says. "That's basically where we live and die. But we're more confident knowing what Snell did last year and what Gorzelanny and Maholm did."
"It's the first time I've come to camp where you see everyone believing we have a chance to go out and do something special," says Jack Wilson, Pittsburgh's starting shortstop for a seventh season. "We do think we're going to turn some heads this season."