Pirates Burning Question

Pittsburgh Pirates Burning Question: Are the Pirates' building blocks finally in place?

Since taking over as general manager of the Pirates in 2007, Neal Huntington has traded several regulars including Xavier Nady, Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez for minor leaguers in hopes of developing a solid young core in Pittsburgh. Coming off of their 17th straight losing season, the Buccos finally believe that they have the makings of a bright future thanks to the 2009 emergence of several young players anchored by dynamic outfielder Andrew McCutchen. This offseason, the Pirates made an encouraging move, trading for a veteran by acquiring second baseman Akinori Iwamura from the Rays. On the other hand, trade rumors have swirled involving potential trades of established players including Ryan Doumit. After years of spinning their wheels with veteran teams, the Pirates are finally heading in the right direction. While this year will most likely yield another losing season in Pittsburgh, help is on the way led by McCutchen, former first-round draft picks Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez along with several of the players acquired in their recent trades like former Yankees farmhand Jose Tabata and former Giants pitching prospect Tim Alderson. The front office has authorized expanded draft spending, and the Pirates have spent more money on the last two drafts than any team in baseball. That could forebear a new era in the Steel City.

2009 Pirates at a Glance:

The Good: Two rookies on the opposite end of the prospect spectrum provided the brightest moments of the Pirates 2009 season. Highly touted prospect Andrew McCutchen lived up to expectations in his rookie season, batting .286 with 12 home runs and a team-high 22 stolen bases. The 22-year-old speedster showed surprising pop and gave Pirates fans a moment to celebrate with a three-homer game against the Nationals in August. Meanwhile, journeyman minor leaguer Garrett Jones put on a power show of his own after being called up in July. The 29-year-old first baseman blasted 21 home runs in just 314 at-bats including 10 in his first month with the Pirates. Zach Duke, Pat Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf gave the Pirates a respectable top end of the rotation, combining for 30 of the team's 62 wins.

The Bad: Other than McCutchen and Jones, the Pirates offense was atrocious in 2009, scoring a major-league worst 636 runs and finishing with the 28th best average in the majors at .252. A poor bullpen that finished with just 28 saves and a 4.66 ERA greatly hurt the team's pitching staff. The Pirates finally gave up on two of their former top starters, trading Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny to the Mariners and Cubs respectively after each spent parts of the 2009 season in the minors.

2010 Rookie to Watch: Pedro Alvarez, 3B.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, Pedro Alvarez is the Pirates best hitting prospect since Barry Bonds came through the system in the mid-1980s. A true power threat who blasted a legendary shot estimated at 550 feet in Spring Training, Alvarez has the ability to change the middle of the Pirates lineup for years to come. Issues about his weight and concerns about his defensive ability at third base arose during his minor league career but there is a strong possibibility Alvarez will be part of baseball's next wave of elite sluggers. An immediate frontrunner for Rookie of the Year if he breaks camp with the team, Alvarez will most likely begin the year in the minors as the cost-conscious Pirates attempt to prolong his time under team control. No matter when he makes his first appearance, the New York-born lefty will undoubtedly make his impact felt in 2010.

2010 Breakout Player: Lastings Milledge, OF.

Although he made his major league debut in 2006, Lastings Milledge will be just 24 years old on Opening Day of 2010. Oozing with talent, the former Mets prospect showed signs of coming into his own with Washington in 2008 before being traded to the Pirates in 2009. Despite having his overall numbers doomed by a terrible start to the 2009 season when he hit .just .167 in April, Milledge was actually quite productive in his time with the Pirates. Milledge batted .291 with four home runs and drove in 20 runs in his 65 games with the Pittsburgh while showing plus abilities in the outfield. As long as he keeps his head on straight and avoids injuries, Milledge has the makings of a star and should team with McCutchen to give the Pirates one of baseball's most exciting outfields for years to come. A .300 average with 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases in 2010 would be a great step in the right direction for Milledge.

2010 Pirate on the Hot Seat: Andy LaRoche, 3B.

The younger brother of former Pirates 1B Adam LaRoche, Andy has yet to establish himself as at the hot corner in his year and a half in Pittsburgh. Late in the 2008 season, LaRoche called his performance embarrassing, stating that it was a disappointment to have wasted the chance he was given with the Pirates by hitting just .152 with three home runs in 49 games. Things didn't go a whole lot better for LaRoche in 2009 as he mustered just a .258 batting average with 12 home runs in a full-time role at third base. With top prospect Pedro Alvarez's time coming sooner than later, LaRoche needs a big 2009 to establish himself as a part of the Pirates' long-term plans or he will forever be remembered as a player acquired in a trade involving Jason Bay and Manny Ramirez who didn't pan out in Pittsburgh.