PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Pirates begin spring training a month from now with the same lineup they fielded at the end of last season. The same rotation. A new manager and coaching staff, but a weakened bullpen and bench.
Somehow, after doing almost nothing in the offseason, they expect to be better than the teams that lost 94 games in 2007 and 95 games each in 2006 and 2005.
In perhaps the most uneventful offseason in their 121-season history, the Pirates' only major league pickup has been utility infielder Chris Gomez. They traded former closer Salomon Torres for three marginal Brewers prospects, chose not to re-sign reliever Shawn Chacon and released bench players Josh Phelps and Matt Kata, both of whom were arbitration-eligible.
A year ago, the Pirates gave their fans a sliver of hope the offense might improve by trading for first baseman Adam LaRoche. This time, a club that has the NL Central's lowest payroll and no apparent plan to increase it significantly in the near future has made only a few minor league free agent and Rule 5 draft pickups.
Neal Huntington, readying for his first spring training as general manager, is listening to the complaints and pleadings of fans who haven't watched a winner since 1992 and clearly don't expect to watch one in 2008.
He understands the ever-growing frustration with a club that is only one more bad year away from a record-tying 16th consecutive losing season.
``I know we haven't done much of anything, but we're not going to make the same mistakes of the past by running a declining, overpriced free agent in here,'' Huntington said Tuesday. ``This a bad free agent market and bringing in an overpriced free agent is not a good business decision.''
Huntington said the club was close to making several trades but all fell through, apparently because he felt they wouldn't get enough high-quality prospects in return.
``To make trades, you have to have players that other clubs want, and a depth of prospects ... and we don't have that now,'' Huntington said. ``To build an organization, we have to protect our current depth and improve it. We had opportunities to explore doing that, but we couldn't find a good match.''
No doubt Huntington was envious when the Oakland Athletics got prime prospects back in trades for outfielder Nick Swisher and starting pitcher Dan Haren, exactly the kind of players the Pirates don't have to make such deals.
There was outside interest in their four young starting pitchers - left-handers Tom Gorzelanny, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm and right-hander Ian Snell - but the Pirates consider them to be their strength.
Duke and Maholm both reported to the club's pitching minicamp in Bradenton, Fla., a week ago lighter and in better shape than they were last season.
The Pirates explored trading former All-Star outfielder Jason Bay, who is coming off his first down season in the majors (.247, 21 homers, 84 RBIs). But they would have dealt Bay at a low point in his career, amid concerns about his ongoing knee problems.
Bay had left knee surgery following the 2006 season and was bothered by right knee tendinitis last season.
The Pirates recently sent a member of their medical staff to check on Bay's offseason progress. They will closely monitor his knees once spring training starts, though he might not be restricted early in camp like he was last year.
Huntington, hired with less than two weeks remaining in the 2007 season, understands that fans expected to see more changes that merely a new GM, president (Frank Coonelly) and manager (John Russell).
``We came in here with the goal of making this organization better, and we've taken tremendous strides in the scouting and development side,'' Huntington said. ``We anticipated doing more with the major league team (by now) ... but there's a delicate balance needed to try to compete in the present and build a team that will be sustainable in the future, with a deep and talented minor league system.''
To get better in 2008, the Pirates are counting on upgraded seasons from players such as Bay, LaRoche and catcher Ronny Paulino and more consistency - and more victories - from their starting staff.
``We had a large contingent underperform, and we're going to be better as a group,'' Huntington said. ``Who's going to be much better, that's the million-dollar question. If we play better as a group, and do what we're capable of doing, it could be a very interesting year.''

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