The acquisition of slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche from the Atlanta Braves should go a long way towards adding some much-needed left-handed power to the meat of the Pirates batting order. LaRoche is coming off of a season in which he set career highs with a .285 batting average, 32 home runs, 90 RBIs and a .915 OPS, including a .323 average and 19 home runs in 66 games after the All-Star break.
How much will the addition of one player improve the Pirates' overall lineup?
"It's significantly better. We've got more balance," said Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield. "We're adding a 30 home run bat, a guy who's been productive and appears to be getting better. It sets up the lineup better to have a left-handed hitter in the middle with Sanchez, Bay and [Xavier] Nady."
LaRoche, 27, will likely hit cleanup for the Pirates in between Sanchez and Bay in 2007 after hitting primarily out of the seventh spot with Atlanta behind perennial All-Stars Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones. He's looking forward to the responsibility that will come with anchoring the middle of the lineup rather than playing a support role.
"[The added pressure] doesn't bother me at all," LaRoche said. "I want to be the go-to guy that people count on to get the job done."
Pirates manager Jim Tracy, who watched his team lose a Major League-record 25 one-run games before Independence Day last season, believes that the addition of LaRoche will have a domino effect on the rest of his lineup. As Tracy sees it, opposing teams will no longer be able to simply pitch around Sanchez and Bay in crucial situations.
"We watched a number of times last season as Freddy Sanchez and Jason Bay were walked intentionally," said Tracy. "I think the opportunity to put a left-handed hitter with this type of power in between those guys makes the task of managing against our lineup much more difficult. Our better offensive players will get a chance to participate in that type of situation.
"The balance of our lineup with the addition of this one player and what he brings to the table brings another element to our offense that we were working without a year ago."
Still, Tracy does not expect LaRoche alone to pick up the offensive slack. He wants to see young players such as Ronny Paulino, Jose Bautista, and Chris Duffy continue to build off of the strides that they made at the plate down the stretch in 2006, when the Bucs finished with their first winning second half since 1992.
"We have to realize that [LaRoche] is not coming in here to have to feel like he's got the weight of the world on his shoulders, and he has to pick up the rest of the guys and carry them across the finish line. It won't work that way," said Tracy.
"We've added a really, really nice piece to our baseball team. That being said, the other guys have to continue to stay on board and realize that they need to continue to improve as players. They need to realize what it was that made us so successful in the second half so that it becomes a collective effort."
In order for Tracy's synergist approach to offense to be effective, the Pirates players must become much better at making the most of their at-bats with runners on base. Swinging for the fences with a runner at third base and none out simply isn't going to cut it.
"You have to have productive outs that either help put us in a position to score runs or create a run. Those are quality at-bats," said Tracy.
"The approach in these types of situations is imperative. I saw approaches last year where a ground ball to the middle of the infield could have put us in a position to win. Instead of swinging like we're going to hit the ball over the Outfield Steakhouse out there in left-center field, we could have won a game with a hit. We need to continue to understand what it is that needs to be done in offensive situations that will put us in a position to win."
Another key to the Pirates' offensive success in 2007 will be the play of center fielder and leadoff man Duffy, who batted .282 with an on-base percentage of .345 and 23 steals in 24 attempts after returning to Pittsburgh in August following his self-imposed exile from baseball. Duffy's blazing speed can put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, and it's no coincidence that the Pirates went 10-5 in one-run games over the last two months of the season with Duffy at the top of the lineup.
"He's the stage setter," said Tracy. "If he does it in the manner in which he did it in the second half of the season last year, he could be just an unbelievable asset for us to become a much more productive offensive team."
And being even a slightly more productive team could go a long way towards helping the Pirates make a move in the National League Central standings in 2007. Perhaps the most telling statistic of the Bucs' 2006 season was that they were 50-34 during games in which they scored four runs or more, and 17-61 when they were held to three runs or fewer.
"We have to do our fair share of offensive production to enable our pitchers to be able to do their thing," said Tracy. "When you play 55 one-run games, more than any other team in Major League Baseball a year ago, you were in a whole lot of those situations where the outcomes of several games could have been changed if the approaches were better. We must be better at cashing in on those situations."