Saturday, April 4, 2009

BASEBALL PRESEASON: PITTSBURGH THE TAMPA BAY OF 2009

Prior to the NFL season last fall, I advised fantasy football owners not to draft Tom Brady or Peyton Manning to high - I believed Tom Brady would not finish the season and that Manning would struggle early in the season coming off an injury.
Bingo - right on.
Heading into the Major League Baseball season, with most fantasy drafts complete and owners scrambling for waiver-wire wonders, believe me when I say one team to key on is the Pittsburgh Pirates.
You may laugh and scoff, but I firmly believe the Pirates are going to be the Tampa Bay Rays of 2009. I am in five fantasy baseball leagues and I have Pirates players on 4-of-5 rosters. They might not get to the World Series, but I think they will challenge all season for a spot in the playoffs.
Yes, they enter this season with 16 straight losing seasons and I don't know of anyone predicting more than 75-80 wins for the Pirates. And yes, the start of the season will be tough with a road-heavy schedule with 28 of their first 48 games on the road.
But after talking to some friends who cover baseball around the country and watching how teams have done in spring training, I believe the Pirates are primed for a breakout season, especially in a weak National League Central Division.
There are 13 new players on the team and there is more depth, both active and in the minors, than what the Pirates have had the last five years.
Middle relief and the lack of a long reliever are the biggest weaknesses. But that area has little or no bearing on fantasy team production. The kicker is long relief could be a moot point because I think the starting pitchers will get the Pirates into the sixth and seventh innings.
The starting rotation consists of Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens, most likely in that order. Maholm, Duke, Snell and Ohlendorf are pitchers who will definitely produce. Duke is a huge value player, posting a 3.86 ERA in the spring and pitching five shutout innings in his last preseason start. Ohlendorf has also had a solid spring and Snell, once he overcomes his current stomach virus, will also produce decent fantasy numbers.
Matt Capps is the closer, but if he falters Tyler Yates and John Grabow, the current setup guys for Capps, could step in.
The batting lineup looks like this - 1. Nyjer Morgan (LF), 2. Freddy Sanchez (2B), 3. Nate McLouth (CF), 4. Ryan Doumit (C), 5. Adam LaRoche (1B), 6. Brandon Moss (RF), 7. Andy LaRoche (3B, 8. Jack Wilson (SS).
Key on Andy LaRoche, Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth for consistent production. Andy LaRoche had a huge spring with a .386 batting average. The sleeper is Craig Monroe, who is the fourth outfielder on the depth chart. But this guy won't be kept on the bench long - he led the team with seven homers and 15 RBIs this spring. Brandon Moss is another guy to watch.
Don't ignore the Pirates and you'll thank me.

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