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Pirates' five burning questions

| Thursday, March 22, 2007

Five burning questions at the outset of spring training:

1. Will Jose Castillo finally reach his potential? Castillo turns 26 next month; he should be entering his prime. Scouts say Castillo has the tools to be a slugger and a defensive whiz. So, what gives• Poor work ethic and a tendency to take mental vacations while the ball is in play have put Castillo in jeopardy of losing the starting job at second base.

2. Is Adam LaRoche ready to bat cleanup• LaRoche has been in the fourth spot in just 41 games over the past three seasons, and hit .255 with four homers and 30 RBI. Sanwiched between Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay, LaRoche must become more of a threat and improve his average against left-handed pitchers.

3. Will Chris Duffy be a productive leadoff hitter• Duffy is one of the four or five fastest runners in the National League, but there's more to the job than just being speedy. Duffy's on-base percentage sagged to .317 last season from .385 in 2005. He was successful on 26 of 27 steal attempts last summer. He could swipe 40-plus if he stays patient at the plate.

4. Is Freddy Sanchez a budding star or a one-year wonder• Management considered Sanchez a mere backup in April, but his torrid hitting made it impossible to keep him on the bench. Although Sanchez need not win another batting title to prove himself, a big-time dropoff -- say, a .260 season -- might convert some folks back into doubters.

5. Will the core of the starting rotation -- Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny -- take another step forward? Those four pitchers began last season with 27 combined starts in the majors. They wound up getting 34 victories. Getting that win total north of 40 would be huge. Now's the time, as a second wave of young arms -- Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, John Van Benschoten, Brad Lincoln and Yoslan Herrera -- is on its way.

Five prospects to watch:

1. Andrew McCutchen - A bit ahead of schedule, the countdown toward his big-league debut is on. Only 20, McCutchen already is looking like the steal of the 2005 draft, when the Pirates took him with the 11th overall pick. The speedy center fielder will start the year with Double-A Altoona, and could be a September callup.

2. Neil Walker - He was drafted out of Pine-Richland High as a catcher, but his road to the majors is blocked by Ronny Paulino. With an eye toward the future, Walker will be tried at third base and the outfield this spring.

3. Brad Eldred - "Big Country" clubbed 12 homers with the Pirates in 2005, but will he ever hit another one for the club• Adam LaRoche isn't going anywhere, and Xaiver Nady and Ryan Doumit also are options at first base. The logjam would be even worse if Walker moves to first.

4. Brad Lincoln - A right-hander whose fastball touches 95 mph, Lincoln has been projected as a No. 2 starter in the majors. After becoming the fourth overall pick last June, he was shut down twice due to injuries and tossed just 7.2 innings in rookie ball. He could contend for a rotation spot next year.

5. Brian Bixler - Every time a Jack Wilson trade rumor is whispered the next year or two, Bixler's ears will perk up. The 24-year-old shortstop showed he can hit at Class A Lynchburg (.303) and AA Altoona (.301) last season. He probably won't be a star in the majors, but he could become a solid starter at short or second.

Five digits to consider:

94 - Appearances last season by Salomon Torres, the most by any reliever in the majors. Now that Torres is the closer, somebody else -- or perhaps a couple of somebodies -- will have to pick up the slack.

5 - Pinch-hit home runs by the Pirates last season. They all were hit by three players who no longer are with the club: Jeromy Burnitz (three) Joe Randa and Craig Wilson (one apiece).

88 - Errorless games by the Pirates in 2006, a franchise record. A repeat would be a big-time boost for the starting pitchers.

1,200 - Strikeouts by Pirates batters in 2006, a team record. Even with Adam LaRoche in the lineup, the Pirates don't have enough thump to win without putting the ball in play more often.

71 - Extra-base hits last season by LaRoche, which tied him with David Wright and Scott Rolen for 14th-most in the majors.

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