Youthful Bucs look to lead the way

Youthful Bucs look to lead the way

BRADENTON, Fla. -- You've heard it before, Pirates fans. You've probably heard it more times than you want to hear it. But please, be patient. Help is on the way.

Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa, this winter's biggest-name acquisitions for the Buccos, are nice players. They're not the guys who will anchor the next round of happy Pirates days, though. That will be the kids -- pitchers like Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, hitters like Jose Bautista and Brad Eldred.

The Pirates do expect the new veterans to produce, not simply to mentor. But the truth is, the Pirates will go as far, and only as far, as their youngsters can take them -- particularly those in their rotation.

If there's one reason for hope in the short term, it's not anyone like Casey, Randa or Burnitz. It's the man who will be writing their names in the lineup, new manager Jim Tracy. The former Dodger head man is as fine a game manager as the National League has to offer, and his relentless positivity in the clubhouse can't hurt.

Tracy was the right man for the job, but that's because he would have been the right man for just about any job.

"I was comfortable that Jim Tracy was an excellent choice," said general manager Dave Littlefield. "I'm confident, from having worked with the guy for five or six years, that he's a very good communicator, he understands the game well, he has lots of experience as a Major League and Minor League manager, and he's won."

Half of Tracy's task will be to get the most out of a lineup that mixes veterans such as Casey, Burnitz and Randa with youngsters such as Chris Duffy and Ryan Doumit. At the heart of the mix is Jason Bay, who has taken over from former Buc Brian Giles as the best hitter nobody knows about.

The other half will be to finesse a talented but unproven starting rotation and an overhauled bullpen. He'll need to get innings out of the starters without wearing them down and help them learn to deal with adversity without damaging their confidence.

It helps that, even in the absence of Kip Wells, there are many options to choose from on the pitching staff. Oliver Perez and Zach Duke front the rotation, with a long line of guys trying to fill it out. There's Maholm, whom the team loves even though some prospect mavens are down on him. There's Tom Gorzelanny. There's Ian Snell. There's ability.

There are also veteran fallbacks like Victor Santos. But if the Pirates are successful this year, it's more likely to be with a prospect turning into a player rather than a retread filling out a spot.

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"I think we made a decision last fall when we had our review and planning meetings that we felt comfortable with the talent level of these starters we had," said Littlefield.

If they falter, a revamped bullpen will be able to help. Mike Gonzalez likely moves into the ninth-inning role, taking over for Jose Mesa. Added to the mix were Damaso Marte and Roberto Hernandez. There will be rough days for any young pitchers, so that corps will be called on a good bit.

It's a bit of a make-good year for the kid pitchers. Perez is coming off a disappointing season, but he was dominant in 2004. Duke has given the club nothing not to like. After those two come a number of guys fans have heard about for a long time, but who have yet to be really heard from.

"This is an extremely important year for the Pirates and their farm system," said Jonathan Mayo, MLB.com's top Minors analyst. "For the past couple of years, the organization has been preaching patience in waiting for help from down on the farm to arrive.

"Now, many of them are here, particularly on the mound. It's unfair to expect miracles, but how the young talent reaching Pittsburgh right now performs will dictate how much improvement the Pirates show during the 2006 season."

Littlefield is optimistic about 2006, but he's also looking down the road. The veterans the Pirates brought in all have one-year deals; they're here to help, but also to keep spots warm while the prospects develop.

"I think we're going to be significantly improved," said Littlefield. "And I think we're very well positioned or the next four or five years."

Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.