Pirates quick hits

Pirates quick hits

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Last season was one of growth for the Pirates, whose main starting rotation had pitched just 38 Major League games combined heading into 2006. It also was one of change, as players had to grow accustomed to Jim Tracy during his first season as Pittsburgh skipper.

The team did well in the offseason with the acquisition of the hard-hitting lefty Adam LaRoche, and it welcomes back a more experienced pitching staff and solid bullpen. The combination has a good shot at producing Pittsburgh's first winning season since 1992.

Team strength: The bullpen, though young, held a combined 3.89 ERA with a 23-25 record and 39 saves. When the starters struggled in April, the relief was there to eat up innings -- 506 2/3 on the season.

Achilles' heel: Hitting from the leadoff spot was a concern last season, as just one team in the Major Leagues (Milwaukee) hit for a lower average from the first spot than Pittsburgh's .246. The Pirates had just a .314 on-base percentage from their No. 1 hitters combined, tied with Houston for 28th in the big leagues.

Top newcomer: Acquiring LaRoche from Atlanta during the offseason gave the Pirates what they were waiting for: a consistent presence at first base and a power-hitting lefty in the lineup. LaRoche, 27, hit .285 for the Braves last season with 38 doubles, 32 homers and 90 RBIs.

Ready to make the leap: Catcher/first baseman Ryan Doumit swings a big stick, and it's going to be difficult for Pittsburgh to keep him out of the lineup. The difficulty lies in where he'll play, since Ronny Paulino has shored up the catching spot and LaRoche mans first.

On the hot seat: Jose Castillo may lose his spot in the lineup if he doesn't prove himself this spring. The three-year veteran appeared to lose focus at times during last season, and although he played well during the Venezuelan Winter League to show he still had the stuff, he'll have to go the extra mile to impress his way back into being a full-timer.

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You can bank on: Salomon Torres, who logged time in a league-leading 94 games in 2006, has 156 appearances during the last three seasons combined. At 35 years old, he's also a mature presence in a bullpen stocked full of 20-somethings.

Litmus test: If LaRoche is consistent against left-handed pitching, he could be the extra little push the Pirates needed during all of those one- and two-run losses last year.

Games you don't want to miss: Cardinals, April 9-11: A three-game set with St. Louis to start the home season will be a measuring stick for Pittsburgh, which swept the world champions at home in August.

Yankees, June 8-10: New York returns a hard-hitting crew that will test the Pirates talented, but young, rotation.

Phillies, Aug. 17-19: The intrastate rivals come to town to compete for bragging rights.

Dawn Klemish is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.