- Phil Rogers
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Another year, another losing season.
Another losing season, another manager sacked.
Jim Tracy got the boot after Pittsburgh's last-place finish in the weak National League Central. Longtime GM Dave Littlefield was also canned, with Neal Huntington replacing him.
The reality is this is a second-division team with second-division personnel. While the Pirates' strength should be their starting rotation, that group compiled a 5.02 ERA last season, ranking ahead of only three teams in the NL. The bullpen was even worse, and the lineup (724 runs, 12th in the NL) almost as bad.
Middle relief: Matt Capps looks solid as a closer. Damaso Marte provides a good left-hander, but Salomon Torres' problems have left the roster devoid of quality right-handed set-up relief. The Pirates need to lessen the load on the starting rotation.
Third baseman with power: Neither Jose Bautista nor 2006 batting champ Freddy Sanchez, who shifted to second base last season, projects as a power hitter. Huntington would like to get more run production from third.
Bench help: The Pirates traded the versatile Rob Mackowiak to the White Sox two years ago and have needed that type of player ever since.
In the picture: Huntington doesn't have much money to spend so he'll be forced to try to find a bargain among the second-tier free agents. There's always a large supply of relief pitching available, so he could get the help he needs.
Jason Bay: A two-time All-Star, Bay is one of the higher-profile Pirates. But his production hasn't matched his reputation (the Pirates' left fielders ranked 15th in the NL in OPS last season), and Huntington would consider moving him if he could fill his need at third base.
Zach Duke or Paul Maholm: Not too many teams trade away young left-handed starters, but Pittsburgh has the depth to consider such a deal after trading for Matt Morris at the deadline a year ago. Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell are in front of Duke and Maholm in the rotation.
CF Nyjer Morgan: In his short time in the majors, the energetic, turbocharged Morgan proved himself capable of becoming a Gold Glove center fielder. The question is whether his bat will hold up to a full season. If he has a good spring the Pirates could consider moving Nate McLouth.
1B-OF Steve Pearce: There's little doubt that this guy can hit, as he batted .328 with 31 homers last season, including a .294 average in 23 games with Pittsburgh. He could become a regular if Bay is traded or could break in moving between first base, left field and right field.
OF Andrew McCutcheon: Speed is the best tool for McCutcheon, who joins Morgan in the crowd pushing McLouth. He will probably open next season in Triple-A.
3B Neil Walker: A hometown boy, the converted catcher could fill the need for a power-hitting third baseman, but definitely needs more development. He's a switch-hitter, which adds to his value, and hit .288 with 13 homers in Double-A last year. He could be in the big leagues by the second half of the season.
Littlefield did leave Huntington a nucleus to build around, but the question is whether there are any impact players on a roster filled with nice players. It has been a long time since Pittsburgh has developed or been able to acquire stars, and the 15 consecutive losing seasons are testimony to that.
The goal for the Pirates remains .500, but it's not a huge leap from there to contending in the Central. There is really no reason why a team like Pittsburgh has to be more or less permanently relegated to the second division in the modern game.
Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through Amazon.com or by direct order from Triumph Books (800-222-4657).
New GM Neal Huntington needs to fill several holes, and in order to do that may consider trading outfielder Jason Bay.