MANAGER JIMTRACY second season with Pirates
ONE MORNING inmid-January, with the silence of the frigid Kansas prairie surrounding him,27-year-old first baseman Adam LaRoche worked in the barn of his 2,100-acreranch. The trade rumors that shadowed him for much of the winter had ended, soLaRoche could concentrate on small jobs like welding the gates on his propertybefore reporting to the Braves for his fourth full season in the majors. Whenhis cellphone rang and he heard Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz on theline, LaRoche thought his boss was calling to chat about his 2007 contract.Instead, after a minute of small talk, Schuerholz told him, "You're goingto the Pirates." The Braves had dealt LaRoche for lefthanded closer MikeGonzalez.
As the son offormer lefty reliever Dave LaRoche, who pitched for five teams in a 14-yearmajor league career, Adam always wondered how it would feel to hear the wordsYou've been traded. He admits that his first thoughts included what a bad teamhe was going to, but on the whole he wasn't disturbed. "I told my dad, andhe had great perspective on it," says LaRoche. "He said, 'You've beenin the big guys' shadow in Atlanta for a few years, and now you get to reversethat role. You'll help the young guys. You're ready. This is perfect.' And Iknew he was right."
For years thecash-strapped Pirates waited until free agency had run its course beforeaddressing their power needs, signing one-year pluggers who then would put uplackluster numbers (Derek Bell, for example, in 2001 and Joe Randa and JeromyBurnitz last year). But in LaRoche they acquired lefthanded power (32 home runsand a .561 slugging percentage in '06) they hope to keep around. "We tradeda good closer for him, and it's risky business," says G.M. DaveLittlefield. "But we're hoping he's a very good hitter and good fielderjust entering his prime."
Manager JimTracy is considering batting Jason Bay fourth and LaRoche fifth, instead of3--4, because he believes centerfielder Chris Duffy has the potential to steal50 bases in the leadoff spot and he wants defending National League battingchamp Freddy Sanchez hitting third. (Shortstop Jack Wilson is expected to batin the number 2 slot but given his career .306 on-base percentage, he's a goodcandidate to eventually be dropped in the order.) "There's a genuineexcitement about our offense, and we're going to be together for a fewyears," says Bay, who had a total of 67 homers, 210 RBIs and 211 runs overthe last two seasons. "Adam's the key. It's not like we had someone givingus 25 homers and 80 RBIs. We're almost starting from zero with him."
A by-product ofthe deal, the Pirates discovered in spring training, is the clubhouse influenceof a guy who's been with a winner. "I really want to bring that [winningmentality]," LaRoche says. "A few guys have already asked me, 'What'sthe difference with a winning team?' I think it's pretty simple. In Atlanta wethought we were going to win every day. That's different from hoping you'llwin. I want to be the kind of influence here that Chipper Jones was on me whenI got to Atlanta."
This will likelybe another long year at PNC Park because Pittsburgh doesn't have the pitchingto contend. Projected ace Zach Duke allowed 40 more hits than innings pitchedlast year and finished 10--15; the rest of the rotation is a mess. The additionof LaRoche means the Pirates at least have the offensive firepower now to putup eight runs from time to time, and the Pirates will have to win a bunch of8--6 games to be playing meaningful games after the All Star break.
a modestproposal ...
If the Piratesare going to surprise anybody this season, they're going to have to get themost out of their quartet of young starters: Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholmand Tom Gorzelanny. All of them are ground ball pitchers, and not surprisingly,the Pittsburgh staff finished sixth in the majors last season with agroundout-to-fly-out ratio of 1.36. That means infield defense is at a premiumand the Pirates are taking a big risk by moving batting champion Freddy Sanchezfrom third base to second. According to Baseball Prospectus's fielding runsstatistic, Sanchez has saved 21 more runs per 162 games than an average thirdbaseman but has been 13 runs worse per 162 games than average when playingsecond, where he played 58 games in 2005. That isn't a price worth paying justto get a hitter such as Jose Bautista (.235 in '06) into the lineup.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTER WITH 2006 STATISTICS
|MICHAEL RYAN *|
|RH||Tony Armas Jr.*||198||9||12||97||1.50||5.03|
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
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Home run totalof the Pirates last season, the lowest in the National League and a dozen fewerthan the next worst team, the Dodgers. The total also represents the 14thconsecutive year that Pittsburgh has finished in the bottom half of the leaguein dingers. The highest the club has finished in the category since BarryBonds's free-agent departure in 1992 is eighth, in '95.