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Many questions as spring begins

Many questions for Bucs as spring begins

BRADENTON -- Fourteen seasons have come and gone since Pittsburgh last enjoyed a winning season, but as pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training today, the Pirates embarked on what they hope will be the season to end the franchise's long string of futility.

They need look no farther than the recent past for hope that this might be the year. The Pirates avoided the National League Central cellar last season by going 37-35 after the All-Star break and 40-41 in the final half of the season.

As manager Jim Tracy greets the pitchers and catchers today at Pirates City, he will see a predominantly young staff led by such under-30 pitchers as Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm, Matt Capps and John Grabow, as well as veterans Salomon Torres, Damaso Marte, Shawn Chacon and Tony Armas Jr.

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Next week, when position players report, Tracy will welcome NL batting champion Freddy Sanchez, All-Star left fielder Jason Bay, promising young catcher Ronny Paulino and the team's new first baseman, Adam LaRoche.

No one is talking playoffs, of course, but with so many promising young players coming off strong second halves and such key additions as LaRoche and Armas, the thought of Pittsburgh finishing a season over .500 for the first time since 1992 is not out of the question.

The first step toward that goal comes today.

The Pirates will have two weeks of workouts before their first practice game Feb. 28, against Manatee Community College. They will open their Grapefruit League schedule in Bradenton on March 1, against the Cincinnati Reds.

Tracy will have numerous decisions to make this spring, not the least of which involves some of the pitchers who will report to camp this week.

For example, who will comprise the rest of the rotation between Snell and Duke? Will Maholm and Gorzelanny or some of the other young pitchers, including John Van Benschoten, Sean Burnett and Bryan Bullington, take the next step? Will veterans Chacon and Armas claim rotation slots?

Then there's the back end of the bullpen, where Torres is the projected closer, replacing Mike Gonzalez after the lefty was dealt to Atlanta for LaRoche.

When position players arrive, the evaluations will begin on other key decisions, such as third base, where Sanchez is the incumbent, though might be moving to second base if Jose Bautista has a better spring than Jose Castillo. In that scenario, Sanchez would start at second and Bautista at third, with Castillo going to the bench. But Castillo enjoyed a fine Venezuelan Winter League season, so the stage is set for what should be an interesting competition, and one that will affect both the starting lineup and the makeup of the Pirates' bench.

Another issue will be the leadoff batter. Center fielder Chris Duffy can fly, but he had an up-and-down season in 2006. If he's not ready to take charge at the top of the order, Tracy will have to find someone else.

Tracy has six weeks to find the answers to these questions and more.

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

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