Cumberland Times-News

January 25, 2009

Good start a must for Pirates, LaRoches

Mike Mathews

LAVALE — Midway through last year’s Major League Baseball season it was pretty much a certainty the Pittsburgh Pirates would be trading Jason Bay.

When it finally happened, three teams and six players were involved, with Bay moving to Boston, and Manny Ramirez going from the Red Sox to the Dodgers.

Andy LaRoche found himself headed to Pittsburgh, where he’d be reunited with older brother Adam to form half of the Pirates infield.

The Dodgers’ second-best prospect according Baseball America entering the 2008 season, Andy LaRoche knows the importance of getting off to a good start.

He didn’t have one at Pittsburgh. A thumb injury a few days after the trade and the pressure of being the new kid on the block were two of the reasons that made the final months of the season so difficult.

“I tried to make a good impression when I first got there. It didn’t really work out as I planned,’’ said LaRoche, who had an 0-for-27 streak in August. In 49 games with the Bucs he batted .152 with three homers and 12 RBI. He also committed nine errors.

“I want to forget about last year,’’ he said.

If ever there were a team in need of a good start in 2009, it would be the Pirates, hoping for their first winning season since 1992. And if there were a person in need of a good start more than any other, it would be a LaRoche. Either Andy or Adam, who has had rotten starts the last two seasons, only to warm up by midseason to post respectable numbers.

“It’s really important to get off to a good start. I’ve learned from last year ... I struggled a little bit and had some injuries,’’ said Andy during the Pirates Caravan stop here last week. “I didn’t get into any kind of groove and I couldn’t get my swing down. I’ve worked on some things this offseason with hitting coach Don Long and am looking forward to this spring and getting a fresh start.”

LaRoche had a .295 career batting average in the minors with 95 home runs and 333 RBIs. His big-league career consists of just 111 games, 316 at-bats and a .184 average.

“I’m going into the season with a clean slate, ready to win the job out of spring training at third base, and go from there,’’ he said. “I want to make this a better team and make some improvement on from last year.”

A few seasons ago, Ryan Doumit was in the much the same position as LaRoche — trying to win a job and prove himself.

Those days are over for the switch-hitting catcher, who recently signed a $10.7 million, 3-year deal which, with incentives, could be worth as much as $27 million over five seasons.

Doumit was hitting .350 with five homers and 15 RBIs after 29 games last year when he fractured his left thumb in May and missed almost a month.

He ended up batting .318 and would have been fourth in the NL but came up 37 at-bats shy of qualifying for the batting title. He played in 116 games, led the NL with a .407 average with runners in scoring position, had 15 homers and 69 RBIs.

Despite being in the majors for just three seasons (.278 career average, 75 doubles, 36 HR, 153 RBI) Doumit, especially with Bay and Xavier Nady gone, sees himself in more of a leadership role this season.

“Absolutely, and not just because the catcher is kind of regarded as the quarterback on the field,’’ he said. “It’s one of those things where I’ve always kind of looked at myself as a leader.

“I like to lead by example. I know what it takes to win. I’ve been on winning, championship teams in the minors, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we show up this year.”

For every team, it starts on the mound. For the Pirates, it means a dramatic improvement is in order.

Last year’s staff had a 5.08 ERA, the worst in the NL. The starters combined for a league-low 33 wins. Paul Maholm led the team in wins, with nine.

The clock is ticking on Zach Duke (5-14, 4.82 last year), Tom Gorzelanny (6-9, 6.66), Phil Dumatrait (3-4, 5.26) and even Ian Snell (7-12, 5.42).

Sean Burnett led the Eastern League in wins (14-6, 3.21) with the Altoona Curve in 2003. After a 5-5 season as a starter with the Bucs in 2004, he missed the 2005 season with an injury, and finally worked his way back to Pittsburgh last year, going 1-1 with a 4.76 ERA in 58 relief appearances. In 56 2/3 innings, he allowed 57 hits and struck out 42.

“Personally, I’d rather start but I don’t even think it’s in question because we’ve got too many good arms,’’ he said. “Right now I like the bullpen and it’s my job. I’m looking forward to going back to the bullpen.”

Burnett said last year he, like LaRoche, may have tried to do too much, too soon.

“I finally had a healthy year but I kind of struggled a little bit, trying to do too much, when I first was called up.”

It was the first full season in the bullpen for Burnett, who began the year at Triple-A Indianapolis and was called up in May. A first-round draft pick in 2000, he had a 54-41 record and 3.34 career ERA in the minors.

“Every team that wins has pitching. The starter’s got to get you into the sixth or seventh inning a majority of the time. The last couple of years we haven’t done that,’’ he said. “Last year we put offense together last year before the trades. We were just giving up too many runs.”

Manager John Russell agreed.

“Pitching will take you a long way. It wins championships, and that’s one of our goals,’’ he said. “We feel like we have a good nucleus of young arms. I think we took a step backwards last year, which was unfortunate, but I look for really good leaps this year.”

Mike Mathews is a Cumberland Times-News sportswriter. Contact Mike Mathews at mmathews@times-news.com.