Pittsburgh is among the most fabled franchises in all of baseball. Hall of Famers donning a Pirates uniform have included Honus Wagner, Paul and Lloyd Waner, Ralph Kiner, Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Willie Stargell. Many would be turning over in their graves if they knew the depths to which this franchise has fallen. These Pirates haven’t plundered anything in ages and raise a white flag to annually celebrate their mathematical elimination from the pennant race. Absent divine intervention, Pittsburgh will bumble their way to a dubious major league record come October: 17 consecutive losing seasons. From a fantasy perspective, the roster may not be a treasure trove but some shiny pearls are there for the taking.
Nate McLouth (OF): Cinderella’s got nothing on McLouth. Scarcely a blip on the fantasy radar at the commencement of 2008, he obliterated most of his career highs, belting 26 homers, swiping 23 bases and earning a Gold Glove for his superlative center field play. We knew he could run (he had 22 swipes the year before) but the power spike was unexpected (his previous career high was 13 homers). He’ll be challenged early and often this season, receiving fewer good pitches without the protection afforded by Jason Bay and Xavier Nady. McLouth’s home run total may not be sustainable (expect closer to 20 this year) supplemented by 30 steals, 95 runs and 90 RBI.
Ryan Doumit (C): One of the hottest fantasy commodities of 2009, Doumit has rocketed up many draft boards to be among the top five catchers taken. Why? How does .318 with 15 homers and 69 RBI sound? Those were Doumit’s totals last year after migrating back behind the dish. The switch-hitter’s emergence can be tied to finally solving left-handers, as he punished them at a .330 clip. He also proved his mettle in tight spots, batting .407 with RISP. There is significant upside potential with the caveat Doumit must remain healthy to realize it. His 431 at bats last year were the most since 2003, due in part to a fairly lengthy injury history. Factor that in if taking the plunge and don‘t overbid or spend too high a draft pick on him. He’s older then you think (28 on opening day), so anticipate a mature approach to occasional slumps and the inevitable Pittsburgh losing streaks.
Matt Capps (RP): Capps has quietly developed into one of the more reliable fantasy closers. The fact he toils on a crummy team frequently allows him slip into the middle rounds of most drafts, where he represents an excellent value. He missed eight weeks last season with a shoulder ailment but returned to action before season’s end and should be whole for 2009. His lack of overpowering stuff makes it imperative he continue exhibiting pinpoint control (a sparkling 8:1 K-BB ratio and 21 saves last season in 54 innings) to be successful. Provided his shoulder holds up, he should provide 25-30 saves at a fraction of the cost better known closers will attract.
Adam LaRoche (1B): LaRoche is certifiably human, but his statistics reflect a certain reptilian quality. Like reptiles, he remains lethargic in the cool of spring (one homer, .163 average last April) but once things heat up, his blood begins boiling and the homers proliferate (seven dingers, 26 RBI and a .321 average in September). The trend has been in evidence three years running, so don’t expect a dramatic change. Fantasy abhors inconsistency, especially in head-to-head leagues. That is why LaRoche, for all his productivity once summer comes, is simply too unreliable for full-time duty. Grab him as a late round reserve and play him whenever his poker gets hot.
Jack Wilson (SS): After collecting 201 hits, stroking 11 homers and batting .308 in 2004, many projected big things for Wilson. Five years later, the wait continues. 2004 increasingly looks like an anomaly, as Wilson’s annual production has settled around .270, eight homers and five steals. The target of trade rumors this off-season, his numbers would actually improve were he moved and surrounded by better hitters. Wilson will remain on the board after all the better known shortstops are gone. Held to just 87 games last season while battling shoulder and calf injuries, consider Wilson a desperation pick in mixed leagues and a marginal choice in N.L. only set-ups.
Paul Maholm (SP): While Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny alternated masquerading as staff ace last year before succumbing to injury, Maholm’s steady contributions have made him the only one of the three worthy of your attention this year. Lacking an overpowering fastball, the southpaw relies on guile and excellent command of his changeup and slider to retire opponents. He has an easily repeatable delivery which minimizes the potential for arm problems. If Maholm approximates his 2008 line (9-9, 3.71 ERA, 1.28 WHIP and a 139:63 K:BB ratio), he would make a worthy addition to the back end of your fantasy rotation.
Steven Pearce (OF): Pearce’s other-worldly performance in 2007 (a combined .333, 31 homers and 113 RBI) deservedly earned him Minor League Player of the Year honors. He participated in spring training with the Pirates in 2008 but was returned to AAA for added seasoning and eventually called-up after the trade deadline. Weighted down by unrealistic expectations, Pearce showed little of the extreme power he displayed in the minors, hitting just four home runs in 109 at bats. He is not assured a spot this year as he must vie for playing time with top prospect Andrew McCutchen and holdover Nyjer Morgan. Take a last round flier on him if you must, but don’t expect anything resembling 2007.
Andrew McCutchen (OF): The 11th pick in the 2005 draft, McCutcheon has been labeled a potential five tool, can’t miss proposition by the Pirates. Just 22, he enters 2009 with a chance to make Pittsburgh’s roster. A speedster with projected 20 home run power, McCutcheon collected 34 steals at AAA last season but was apprehended 19 times, batting .283 with 87 strikeouts. He initially projects as a leadoff hitter with the Pirates, moving down in the order as the power matures. Monitor his development, as he might be a cheap source of steals later in the season if receiving significant playing time.
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