Bucs hope for swift adjustment this season
BRADENTON, Fla. — It's no coincidence that two of the best base-stealing teams in the majors met last year in the World Series.
As baseball's amazing home run era draws to a close, speed is playing a larger role in the game. It's a factor the Pirates must utilize better than they did last season.
"Ever since all these steroid allegations came up, I think it's going to bring speed back," center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. "Everyone won't be bopping the ball out of the ballpark like crazy. Speed is going to be an advantage, now that they're cleaning up the game."
Tampa Bay racked up 142 stolen bases last year, tops in the majors. The Philadelphia Phillies ranked fourth with 136 steals. The Pirates stole 57 bases, which was the second-lowest total in the majors.
"This year, I feel more confident with the speed we've got," Pirates manager John Russell said. "We given ourselves an opportunity to have a more dynamic lineup, as far as getting guys on base, getting them moving and bringing them in."
The two key players will be Morgan and Nate McLouth.
McLouth was a base-stealing threat in the minors — he had 40 steals in 2003 at Single-A Lynchburg. With the Pirates, McLouth had 22 steals in 2007 and 23 last year.
"One of my main goals is to get some more bags this year, get up in the 30-35 range," McLouth said. "We're sometimes going to need to advance 90 feet without a ball being put in play. It's something I'll be concentrating on from the get-go."
Last season, Morgan had just nine steals in 58 games with the Pirates but has the potential to do much more damage. In 431 games in the minors, Morgan has stolen 190 bases.
"Me being aggressive — but smart — is going to definitely help this team," Morgan said.
Morgan ran the Pirates out of some innings last year with ill-timed decisions.
"If we run ourselves into outs, they're still outs," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We have to be aggressive but intelligent baserunners."
No major leaguer has reached triple digits in steals since Vince Coleman swiped 109 bags in 1987. In the modern era, it's only happened eight times — three each by Coleman and Rickey Henderson, and once by Lou Brock and Maury Wills.
Cincinnati Reds outfielder Willy Tavares raised eyebrows last week by boasting that he hopes to steal 100 bases this season. You can count Morgan among the doubters.
"I don't think it can be done anymore, with all the slide steps and everybody's watching you and all that," Morgan said. "I really don't see it happening again."
But the best way to utilize speed is not always just stealing bases. The Pirates will not swipe a bag or two each night, but they still be productive on the basepaths in every game.
"For us, it's more important to be able to go two bases on a ball in the gap or being able to score from second on a single or from first on a ball into the gap," Huntington said. "It gives a manager more flexibility. It gives a lineup more of a threat to put pressure on a defense."
The feel for steal
2009 stolen base leaders:
1. Rays: 142
2. Rockies: 141
3. Mets: 138
4. Phillies: 136
5. Angels: 129
29. Pirates: 57