Littlefield expects to see better team

The G.M. said the Bucs are closer to winning than they have been for years.
DUNEDIN, Fla. (AP) -- He sees it in a pitching staff that has four starters who are 24 or younger. In a farm system that has started sending players to the majors on a regular basis. In a bullpen that looks to be one of the deepest in the majors and a bench that has proven hitters with power.
Coming off 13 consecutive losing seasons and a 95-loss season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty of room for improvement. General manager Dave Littlefield said he has seen that improvement throughout spring training and expects the fans to start seeing it when the Pirates open their first season under new manager Jim Tracy a week from today.
No numbers, please
Littlefield wouldn't speculate Sunday how many games the Pirates will win -- they haven't won more than 79 since 1992 -- nor would he say what he considers an acceptable victory total to be. But he said he is convinced the Pirates are on the verge of becoming better, and in a hurry.
"I think there's some very strong signs that we're going to be better, and the way the [farm] system is structured it's going to be better for a while," Littlefield said. "Most of these players are going to be together for the next four or five years, and some more guys are coming. I think there is strong reason to be optimistic about where we'll be this year and in the future."
The off-season additions of first baseman Sean Casey, right fielder Jeromy Burnitz and third baseman Joe Randa to a team that broke in a half-dozen promising rookies in 2005 have convinced Littlefield that the Pirates are closer to winning than they have been for years.
So does the continuing progress of outfielder Jason Bay, who followed up an NL rookie of the year award in 2004 with an even better season in 2005 (.306, 32 homers, 44 doubles, 6 triples, 101 RBIs).
Making progress
Littlefield draws encouragement from strong springs by prospects who aren't expected to start the season in the majors, including third baseman Jose Bautista (.353, 4 homers), outfielder Ray Sadler and first baseman Brad Eldred. Nate McLouth, an outfielder who came up late last season, is hitting .341 this spring and is pushing center fielder Chris Duffy, who had a .341 average in 39 games last season.
But it is their young pitching that most excites the Pirates. They might have more promising left-handers than any team in the majors, including Zach Duke (8-2, 1.81 ERA in 14 games), Paul Maholm (3-1, 2.18 ERA in six games) and closer Mike Gonzalez, who has a 95-mph fastball. Two young lefties, Tom Gorzelanny and Sean Burnett also don't look far away.
Tracy, the first Pirates manager hired from outside the organization since Jim Leyland, also has impressed Littlefield with his organizational skills and ability to relate to players.
"I'm confident Jim Tracy is going to do a fine job based on having worked with him in the past and seeing his work on a daily basis," said Littlefield, who worked with Tracy in the Expos' organization. "I think I probably feel even better working with him now that he's had five years of major league experience as a manager and after seeing him here at spring training."
But what translates into a successful year for a team that has lost 93 or more games three times in six years? A 75-win season? A .500 season? A season in which the Pirates hang around the NL Central leaders for more than a few weeks or months?
"I don't think one win-total number defines the season but, at the same time, you want to make strides and improve the record," Littlefield said.
Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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