Guns N' Roses began working on a new album in the early '90s. It was to be called "Chinese Democracy." Every few years, rumors would float to the surface that a release date was imminent, but the record never materialized. Now, in 2008, after tons of personnel changes and failed comeback attempts, the band's discography still remains unchanged.
Around the same time Axl Rose was on top of the world, so were the Pittsburgh Pirates. But ever since their own tragic "spaghetti incident" -- with the Braves' Sid Bream stretching out like a wet noodle to score the winning run of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS -- the Pirates also have been floundering. Since that game, the team has failed to reach .500 and is currently on its sixth manager.
So why should Pirates fans think 2008 will be any different with John Russell at the helm than it was with Jim "Slash" Leyland or Lloyd "Buckethead" McClendon? Why should Pirates fans think that what is, for all intents and purposes, the same team that had the NL's worst record in 2007 will do any better? In short, why should Pirate fans expect "Chinese Democracy"?
A change in attitude in the clubhouse and from the front office is nice, but what the Pirates need to succeed is for Jason Bay to return to his 2005 form, for Adam LaRoche to rediscover the stroke he seems to have left behind in Atlanta, for pitchers like Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny to continue their steady progress, and for the rebuilt farm system to start producing some homegrown talent who can step in and contribute on an everyday basis.
General manager Neal Huntington has said all the team needs is a little patience. Funny, I think Axl Rose said that once ... and the wait continues ...
Ballpark: PNC Park is a pitcher's park, plain and simple, which is exactly what the team wanted when it designed the new stadium to replace Three Rivers. The change from artificial turf to grass helps to keep the staff ERA down, and a deeper left-field power alley gives pitchers room to make mistakes against right-handed hitters. Is it any wonder that the Pirates boast three lefties in their rotation? The most telling statistic is that according to the Park Factor numbers, PNC Park is incredibly low (ranked 26th) in home runs, despite the fact that only Fenway Park is smaller, and that there is scarcely any foul territory, which gives hitters extra chances when those swings that "just missed" end up drifting into the stands, rather than into fielder's gloves.
Intriguing spring battle: It would make a terrific reality show: "Who Wants to Pitch for the Pirates?" We know Matt Capps is the closer, and lefties Damaso Marte and John Grabow are going to be the primary set-up men. But after that? Bring in a crazy mismatched cast of offseason waiver claims, a Rule 5 Draft selection, injury reclamation projects, an aging Japanese import, converted starters without a job, several veterans looking for one last shot at glory, and a bunch of young prospects, let them live together and compete for a major league job. Franquelis Osoria is as good a bet as anyone to emerge from this competition as the go-to right-hander, but unless he or somebody else really steps up, it could be another long season for the Pirates. Without a reliable bullpen, the starters will be asked to pitch deeper into games, and those extra innings could spell late-season swoons. Or conversely, Pittsburgh goes with whoever looks best and crosses its fingers that sixth-inning leads don't suddenly become seventh-inning deficits before they can get to Marte and Grabow.
Trainer's room: Another Pirate who can't seem to stay healthy is Ryan Doumit, who qualifies at both catcher and outfielder. He has some pop in his bat, but unfortunately, the time behind the plate has been unkind to his body. Hamstring problems, a sprained left wrist and a sprained right ankle severely limited his playing time in 2007. The Pirates were thinking about signing a veteran backstop to free up Doumit from his catching duties, which could be a good thing. While 10-15 home runs may not be what you look for from an everyday outfielder, it certainly would be nice from your catcher spot, and for this season anyway, you can play Doumit there, whether he does for Pittsburgh or not.
Chris Duffy's career path continues to be derailed by injuries. Center field appeared to be his last year, but a sprained ankle sidelined him in June. During his rehab, Duffy had shoulder surgery as well, to rid himself of the pain he'd had since 2005, which had made him afraid to even throw the ball back to the infield after catches. He won't be ready to go at full speed when pitchers and catchers report, and likely will start the season at Triple-A. If the Pirates do call him up to the club during the season, he's worth a look, especially if you need some speed. Of course, there may not be a job for him to come back to ...
Schedule Preview: Pittsburgh has an unusual June stretch where they play five consecutive series against American League teams. After visits to Baltimore and the White Sox, they return home to face Toronto, the Yankees and Tampa Bay. On the one hand, playing three teams who had 90 losses last season gives the team a chance to gain a lot of confidence. Plus, the two toughest series are at home, where at least one big bat will be taken out of the visiting lineup, giving the Pirates a fighting chance. I'd definitely pay attention to this section of the schedule. A few solid pitching performances in a row could have a long-lasting positive impact and point toward a successful rest of the season. Of course, should the team get roughed up and go 4-11 over this stretch, it could be your cue to cut bait on all Pirates before it's too late.
Fantasy Stud: Jason Bay's 2007 is going to cause a lot of owners to pass on the Pirates' best player. And they'd certainly have every right to be concerned. Paying top dollar for a .220 second-half isn't exactly going to win you many fantasy titles. He had some problems with his knees, which could account for the drop-off, but he should be at full strength for 2008. To be frank, a return to 30 home runs and 100-plus RBIs would be far less surprising than a repeat of last season's numbers. And apparently, the Pirates agree. If they had any doubt that Bay was poised to return to form, they would have jumped on one of the many trade offers they got for him during the winter meetings. They did not, and we think Bay will repay that confidence with another All-Star season.
Prospects to watch for 2008: Brian Bixler will be ready to take over at shortstop at some point during the 2008 season. The 2004 second-round draft pick likely will start the season at Triple-A, where he stole 28 bases last season, until the Pirates feel he's ready for the day-to-day grind at the major league level. And when they do, they'll likely send Jack Wilson packing to make room for him.
Steve Pearce started last season in Class A and climbed steadily up the ladder, eventually ending up in Pittsburgh in September after hitting 31 home runs during his rise to the big leagues. The team liked him enough to get rid of Josh Phelps, leaving Pearce as the probable backup for Adam LaRoche at first base. LaRoche's presence means Pearce won't see a whole lot of action, but with his ability to also play the outfield, he may get some opportunities to spell Xavier Nady or Jason Bay from time to time.
The signing of Chris Gomez was probably made, in part, to give Neil Walker another year at Triple-A. Offensively, Walker is probably ready, but it has only been a year since he started the transition from catcher to third base, and he could probably use a little more time to get the defensive footwork down. There's an outside chance he might get called up sooner, but we think the Pirates will ride things out with Jose Bautista and start fresh with Walker next April.
Fearless prediction: Call me crazy, but I'm going to be optimistic. The Cubs topped the NL Central with only 85 wins last season. In 2006, the Cardinals won it with 83. I'm not crazy enough to think they can go from worst to first, but it's not unreasonable to think this team can't have some early season success, and build on the confidence they gain from it. Add in a influx of enthusiasm from Triple-A in the form of Brian Bixler, and would it be so unrealistic to see the Pirates within seven games of the division lead come September. I think Jason Bay has a monster year, and the team's appetite for destruction carries them to an 82-80 finish. "Chinese Democracy" isn't quite here yet, but it's not as far away as you'd think.
A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.