Pirates believe they have a winner
Offseason improvements have Bucs feeling confident
Jack Wilson has been the starting shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates since his rookie season in 2001. He's been an All-Star, a Silver Slugger winner, and he's finished as the runner-up for the Gold Glove Award for four consecutive years.
What Wilson has not done -- what no Pirate since 1992 has done -- is play on a winning team in Pittsburgh, a team that is still playing meaningful games in August and September.
The Bucs shortstop firmly believes that's all going to change in 2006.
"Being around the big leagues the last five years, you know what it takes to win. I think this team has it," said Wilson.
Wilson is not alone.
Although the Pirates players, coaches and management aren't about to make any bold predictions that could come back to bite them later in the year, there has been a genuine belief in the Pittsburgh clubhouse this spring that the legacy of losing that has hung like a black cloud over the organization for 13 years is finally about to be eradicated.
"The biggest thing is the attitude," said Pirates All-Star outfielder Jason Bay. "The last few years we've come off of losing seasons and made a minor move here or there. It was basically the same guys and hoping that we'd step up. We never turned that corner.
"You look around here now and there is a little more expectation. That's good for us because there is a little more of a drive. We're expected to win. You look around and we have the guys who can win. I think that is going to be huge for us."
The Pirates believe that they have several reasons for optimism.
The offense and the bench should be improved thanks to the offseason acquisitions of first baseman Sean Casey, third baseman Joe Randa and right fielder Jeromy Burnitz. With these additions, the Bucs have taken some pressure off less experienced hitters such as Bay, Jose Castillo, Chris Duffy and Ryan Doumit to produce on a consistent basis.
"I think with the younger guys we have had in the lineup, myself included, a lot was expected of us early on," Bay said. "Now, you look at the established guys in the middle and that's going to make some teams really focus in on the middle of the lineup. If they get a little lackadaisical outside of that, we've got some guys who can hurt you."
The Pirates should also be among one of the top defensive units in the National League this season. Wilson and Castillo are arguably the league's best double-play combination, Duffy is a ball-hawk in center field, and every other position will be manned by an above-average defensive player.
"Any position on that field you want to look at, you've got a guy that can catch baseballs," said new manager Jim Tracy.
Starting pitching is the one area of the team that is a concern. The Pirates will be relying upon talented, but inexperienced starters such as Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and Opening Day starter Oliver Perez to consistently give them five or six solid innings per night before turning the ball over to the deep bullpen.
"We're real young on the mound," admits Tracy. "That's not to say that they can't be good. I didn't say that they cannot be good. And I'm not saying that that's an excuse for us to perform poorly. It's not. And it won't be at any point in time you guys sit down with me."
Tracy believes that the defense and bullpen will serve as an effective safety net should the young starters struggle from time to time.
"It will help them immensely," said Tracy. "They can be reassured of the fact that they do not have to be shy about going after the bat and pitching to the bat."
"I think our defense is probably tops in the league," said Wilson. "That is going to make our pitching staff that much better. They should be pretty comfortable. If they struggle at all, get us a ground ball and we'll turn two for you."
In addition to the revamped lineup, bench and bullpen, the Pirates are also confident that they have improved the overall demeanor of the team by adding veterans such as Casey, Randa, Burnitz and reliever Roberto Hernandez. When the going gets tough, these players will be expected to step into leadership roles.
"There is no doubt that the veteran influence of some of the guys here can help," said Burnitz. "You learn how to ride the ups and downs, whereas a guy who is younger maybe takes it harder. In that regard, experience helps for sure."
It is the combination of all of these elements that has the Bucs feeling confident that the All-Star Game won't be the only thing worth celebrating at PNC Park this summer.
"After what's been said and the work we've done this spring, the expectation level here should be much higher than it's been in the past," said Tracy. "I've made it very clear that's where we're headed.
"These players understand what they have to do to win."
Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.