When you look at the offensive disaster that the Pirates could be in 2009, you don't necessarily register that the team is actually pretty well set on the offensive side of things for the coming future. Still, if Andy LaRoche finds his bat this year and the Bucs' prospects progress like people generally expect them to, the Pirates could be fairly well set at every position on the diamond save the middle infield spots for the forseeable future. The big long-term question mark for the Pirates right now is the pitching staff.
For as much complaining as some have done about Jeff Karstens receiving the fifth slot in the rotation, there shouldn't really be any doubt that the Pirates' starting five this year are much better than the mess that took turns on the mound last year. All you have to do to see that is look at the back end; Karstens isn't going to be worse than the Matt Morris/John Van Benschoten/Yoslan Herrera monstrosity in the five slot, Ross Ohlendorf should offer some improvement over Tom Gorzelanny's disaster last year, and Ian Snell was much improved in his last few starts in 2008 and there's reason to think that if he doesn't find his 2007 form again in 2009, he probably won't be as bad as last year.
This isn't to say that these guys are good per se, simply that they're not likely to be as bad as last year. Similarly, the Pirates do have at least some kind of depth with the rotation this year. If Karstens struggles, Jason Davis, Dan McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmaier, and even Virgil Vasquez all offer some kind of insurance that should keep the back end of the rotation from being a disaster area like it was last year.
There's not really any part of the rotation that's headed anywhere else this year and so that sort of makes the goal for the season to determine how many of about eight guys (Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Ross Ohlendorf, Dan McCutchen, Jimmy Barthmaier, Jeff Karstens, Zach Duke, and I guess even Tom Gorzelanny) can be productive pitchers at a Major League level in the future. Not one of these guys are good enough to be a true ace, but I think several of them have the potential to inhabit the back end of a good big league rotation.
The other important thing to keep an eye on this year is how the top two pitching prospects fare in the minors. Both Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris are entering their second season after Tommy John surgery, and by now their recoveries should be complete. Both pitched fairly well in 2008, but both need to show more now that they're out of the shadow of their surgeries. There's a bit more potential in both of these guys than anyone currently fighting for a big league rotation spot, and it'd be nice to see them start to fulfill that potential.
There was a big stink raised over Jesse Chavez getting the last bullpen spot, but I can't really figure out why. Evan Meek needs to get healthy before he takes a bullpen spot, I think it was obvious the Pirates wanted to keep Jason Davis starting, and as well as Chris Bootcheck pitched, he's a known quantity and Chavez isn't. At least there's some potential based on his minor league rates for Chavez to be a useful big league reliever.
Right now, the Pirates' 'pen is terrifying to think about as a fan or a Pirate starter. Chavez, Craig Hansen, Tyler Yates, and Donnie Veal all have control problems and while Meek improved last year after going back to the minors, his control is likely going to be a question mark as well. Throw in Sean Burnett, who can't pitch to righties, and we've got one of the worse bullpens I can remember, especially if (when) John Grabow is traded.
That doesn't mean it's all bad news. Hansen actually pitched well down the stretch after his well-publicized meltdowns and Yates was lights out in September. I really like Meek after seeing him pitch in person last year and I think he's going to make a good big league reliever once he gets healthy enough to stick with the team this year. Veal's a very interesting pitcher if he can stick with the team, even if the team probably has him marked for the rotation in the long-term. Which is all to say that Huntington's MO of acquiring pitchers with electric arms and not much control is the source of a lot of laughter, but I'm not ready to say that it's not going to work. If you look at Capps, Meek, and Hansen, then mix in Veal, Ross Ohlendorf (who I think ends up in the bullpen down the road) and Danny Moskos, I think that could be a good bullpen in two years. At the very least, it's got a pretty nice ceiling.