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Starkey: Pirates to go 9-153

| Thursday, March 31, 2011

The text arrived on a recent rainy morning, randomly, from a friend who has lived in Pittsburgh all his life. Grew up in Mt. Washington worshiping Roberto Clemente. Loves baseball.

"What comes first," he wondered, "insanity or talking about the Pirates all summer?"

I wouldn't know. I went insane for that very reason seven Julys ago.

But that won't stop me from making my annual prediction, and I finally figured out why I'm wrong all the time. I give the Pirates too much credit.

Last year, for example, I had them pegged for 99 losses. They finished with 105. Three years ago — during a night on the town with Charlie Sheen — I picked them to win 82 games. They won 67.

This year, I'm not taking any chances.

This year, I'm going to hit the under.

This year, to be safe, I am picking the Pirates to go 9-153.

Using sabermetrics, my theory breaks down like this: To win 10 games, the Pirates would have to average 1.66 victories per month. I'm not seein' it. Winning nine, on the other hand, would require just 1.5 victories per month.

Have you seen this rotation• Ron Villone would look like Ron Guidry on this crew. Josh Sharpless would be Josh Beckett.

It's truly remarkable. In fact, of all the remarkable things that have transpired during the Pirates' pesky 18-year losing streak — you know, like Al Martin blowing a game by failing to score from third on a single and John Russell removing Zach Duke from the 2009 home finale with two out in the ninth, nobody on and Duke throwing a shutout — one stands out: Despite drafting in the top 10 a dozen times, this franchise will begin the season without a No. 1 starter.

Or a No. 2 starter.

Or a No. 3 starter.

I'm told there are a couple of talented 14-year-olds in the system. Be patient. They have great stuff. Just like Charlie Morton ... who's still in the rotation!

The shame of it is the Pirates finally have a lineup worth watching. My upbeat prediction is that third baseman Pedro Alvarez, though he might strike out 190 times, will become the first Pirates player since Willie Stargell in 1973 to hit 40 home runs.

I'm also intrigued by the possibilities for Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen.

Walker shocked the baseball world — especially the Pirates — by becoming an impact second baseman last season. McCutchen is the Pirates' best homegrown player since Barry Bonds. A breathtaking talent.

As for Tabata, people have been saying for 15 years — or ever since he turned 18 — that he will add power. Even if he doesn't, he has the look of a highly effective two-way player.

The platoon of Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz in right field seems sensible, as does the addition of first baseman Lyle Overbay ('course, Aki seemed like a good idea at the time, too).

Maybe since nothing is expected, this will be the year Ryan Doumit exceeds expectations. Probably not. And he'll probably be traded because even the Yankees don't keep $5.1 million backup catchers.

The bottom of the order isn't so promising. Chris Snyder, a career .229 hitter, apparently will be the catcher when he is healthy, and unless I imagined this in a hallucinatory state (Sheen again), Ronny Cedeno returns as the starting shortstop. That should be fun.

Meanwhile, in the front office, GM Neal Huntington sits in the very unusual and awkward position of having fewer years on his contract (one) than his manager (three), assuming Huntington didn't sign another secret extension this past winter.

The new manager, Clint Hurdle, is to Russell what Red Bull is to the world's heaviest barbiturate. He sure seems that way, anyhow: a hard-edged, fiery, relentlessly optimistic sort.

I wonder if he'll still be that way in the middle of September, with his team shooting for victory No. 8.

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