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Stable lineup should be a benefit for Pirates

| Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pirates manager John Russell filled out his lineup card 120 different ways last season.

That was eight fewer versions than in 2008 and the third-lowest total used by the Pirates in the past 10 seasons. Yet, there still was a lot of player movement.

Among the eight starting position players on Opening Day 2009, only third baseman Andy LaRoche went on to start at least 100 games for the Pirates.

Over the past eight years, stats guru Bill James has tracked the number of games started by each team's Opening Day starters. The Pirates amassed 665 games last year — the lowest single-season total James has ever recorded.

"Last year it was kind of a crazy season, with all the trades and the injuries," said LaRoche, who made a team-high 142 starts. "Hopefully, we can keep everybody healthy this season, keep everybody together and get everybody comfortable out there, playing together."

Two-thirds of last year's Opening Day outfield — left fielder Nyjer Morgan and center fielder Nate McLouth — was traded by the end of June. Infielders Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche were dealt in July.

Catcher Ryan Doumit was out nearly three months due to a broken wrist. Right fielder Brandon Moss played his way out of a starting job by batting just .236.

This year, Russell expects the players he put on the field for Monday's season opener will actually become regulars, instead of transients.

"The one thing we can hold onto is that this is the group we want to move forward with and build around," Russell said. "We know that, barring injuries, these guys are going to go out and stay together. That's going to be big."

Lineup consistency will help the infielders, who spent spring training learning each other's nuances in the field.

"Working a lot with (second baseman Aki) Iwamura and (shortstop Ronny) Cedeno, I think we're starting to get comfortable with each other," LaRoche said. "I'm learning what kinds of ground balls Cedeno can get to. I'm learning how to give Iwamura feeds at second base, where he likes 'em and if I can put a little something on them if I need to.

"We're pretty confident that we're going to be a pretty solid infield. The more we play together, the better we'll be."

Ironically, the first player to be bumped out of a starting job this season might be last year's rock, Andy LaRoche. Top prospect Pedro Alvarez is expected to debut by midseason, which could force LaRoche into a utility role.

It's always good to have experienced players on the bench. Reserves Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby both are former starters. Last season, some of the Pirates' mid- and late-season starters — Garrett Jones, Jason Jaramillo, Andrew McCutchen, Delwyn Young — were playing every day for the first time in the majors.

"Heaven forbid we have an injury, but we've got guys this year who can step in and play well, not just fill the spot," Russell said. "We're very strong in that area."

Church has started 100-plus games in three of the past five seasons, and would have surpassed 100 in 2008 if not for sustaining two concussions. Church figures he can succeed even in a limited role with the Pirates.

"If you put in your work, good things will happen," Church said. "If you sit around and mope, that's when things go bad. I'll be ready when they call on me."

Here and gone

Games played in 2009 by Opening Day starter at each position:

Pos. — Player/Games

C — Ryan Doumit/71

1B — Adam LaRoche/86

2B — Freddy Sanchez/84

3B — Andy LaRoche/142

SS — Jack Wilson/74

LF — Nyjer Morgan/69

CF — Nate McLouth/44

RF — Brandon Moss/95

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