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Bucs look better, thanks to underrated lineup, young staff

| Sunday, April 1, 2007

Jason Bay knows how weary the Pittsburgh Pirates' fans are of bargain-basement ballclubs, broken promises, countless rebuilding projects and way too many affordable but beaten-down older players.

Bay, the biggest star on a team with relatively few identifiable players except to fantasy geeks and persistent perusers of box scores, has known nothing but losing since being dealt to Pittsburgh late in the 2003 season. He has grown very familiar with the struggles of competing with teams whose payrolls are four times as large, and whose hopes for a good season don't vanish during the second or third week of April.

So Bay can only imagine how tired the club's followers are after 14 consecutive losing seasons, two fewer than the major league record.

That's why Bay isn't ready to predict that a team coming off consecutive 95-loss seasons will unseat the World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central or start writing checks the size of those handed out to $300 million worth of players by the Chicago Cubs. But he does see a light at the end of the Pirates' seemingly endless tunnel of losing, and not years after he's out of baseball, either.

"You've got to be definitely excited about what you see," Bay said.

To Bay, there are too many good young arms in the rotation, too many base hits in the middle of the lineup and too much depth in the bullpen for the Pirates to keep this pattern of losing going. Finally, he is convinced that a city whose gem of a ballpark, PNC Park, showcased the All-Star Game last summer is ready to have a team worthy of playing on one baseball's brightest diamonds.

Fireworks, bobbleheads and more fireworks have kept spectators coming to PNC since it opened in 2001. This time, Bay is convinced it will be the ballteam that brings them there.

"I think we have by far the best offensive team we've had," Bay said. "We've still got to go out and do it. But what I've seen ..."

Bay's optimism — and he's a realistic, never-a-boast player — is partly the result of adding former Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche. LaRoche will be in the middle of an underrated order, after shortstop Jack Wilson (500 hits the last three seasons) and NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez and before Bay. LaRoche (32 homers, 90 RBIs) gives the Pirates the left-handed home run hitter they've lacked since they dealt Brian Giles to San Diego in 2003 for Bay.

LaRoche adds something else, too, and it may be why general manager Dave Littlefield patiently waited two months for Atlanta to agree to the deal: the knowledge of what it's like to play on a winner.

"They want to win, but I think nobody's real sure how to do it," LaRoche said.

To Bay, it starts with a young staff that has four starters 25 or younger (Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny), but must build on the flashes of promise it's shown so far — Duke's 8-2 record and 1.81 ERA in 2005, Snell's 14 wins last season.

Salomon Torres (12 saves in as many chances), at age 35, needs to capably replace former closer Mike Gonzalez, who was traded for LaRoche. A solid bullpen (Matt Capps, John Grabow, Damaso Marte) needs to be as reliable as it was when the Pirates went 35-32 after the All-Star break last season, long after a 30-60 start guaranteed another losing season.

"We have more resources here than we anticipated," manager Jim Tracy said.

Catcher Ronny Paulino's spring numbers have been Little League-like, with a .500 or better average most of March, after he hit .310 as a rookie.

"Watching what he's doing and how far he's come since the end of last year, it's almost like we acquired him as a new player, too," Bay said. "I think he's ready to take another step, and that's two new huge bats in the lineup."

One problem area is third base, where Jose Bautista and Jose Castillo need to settle in, play reliable defense and contribute occasional power. Castillo started the last three seasons at second, but Sanchez is there now.

Bay is the constant. He's reliable and productive, increasing his home run and RBI totals every season he's been in Pittsburgh. He had 35 homers, 109 RBIs and was an All-Star game starter last season.

Bay's goal is to stay healthy, play his normal 150-plus games because, he said, "If I get out there enough, I'm going to do the damage."

Sanchez also is a key. Nobody expected him to have highest batting average (.344) by a Pirates player since Roberto Clemente's .345 in 1969 — most of all the Pirates, who had him on the bench until he became a starter a month into the season.

The Pirates need more pleasant surprises like Sanchez. If they get them, Bay thinks these Pirates will be more than the backdrop in everybody else's highlight reel.

"The big thing is that everyone kind of needs to get a little better," he said.

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