Bucs trying to find right mix for lineup
Biggest question is if shortstop Wilson will hit second or eighth
BRADENTON, Fla. -- As the Pirates prepare to head into the final stretch of Spring Training, there are still a number of questions that need to be answered.
The center-field job is still up for grabs, and it looks like it will be up until the final days of the month. Four openings in the bullpen remain vacant. And the rotation order behind Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny continues to be manager John Russell's secret.
But the March 31 season opener will also reveal another interesting answer, and that's what lineup Russell deems most advantageous as he tries to catalyze an offense that was not among the league's best last year.
"We're going to put our best lineup together where we feel it will make us strong," Russell said, admitting he's toyed around with different batting orders but not yet ready to reveal what those are.
Maintaining a consistent offense was something that the Pirates never quite succeeded in doing last season. Their offense was outscored 846-724 by season's end, and the club finished 12th in the National League in total runs scored. Pittsburgh's team batting average and on-base percentage were also in the bottom half of the league.
Along the way, there were batting-order issues that were never quite solved.
It took until the fourth month of the season before the Pirates felt comfortable with the production from their leadoff hitter. And despite having adequate middle-of-the-order talent, the heart of Pittsburgh's lineup never produced up to par.
By the end of the season, the Pirates had used 123 different lineups.
As the 2008 season prepares to open and the newest batting order prepares to be determined, one of the most intriguing questions will be the placement of shortstop Jack Wilson.
Wilson hit primarily in the eight-hole last season, one year after being the team's No. 2 hitter. He's spent almost his entire seven years hitting exclusively in one of those two spots and will likely be in one of those two places this season.
"Both are challenging in their own way," Wilson said. "The second spot, you get a lot of situational hitting. The eight hole, you have the pitcher batting behind you, so there is always a lot to think about there. It's the only hole where you really have to pay attention with what's going on behind you."
Does he have a preference?
"No," Wilson answered. "I'll be ready to go wherever they tell me."
In his career, Wilson has played 598 games as the team's second hitter in the lineup and just under half that many (279) hitting in the eighth spot. Despite the different situations Wilson faces in each of the two spots, the difference in his career batting averages in both spots is close to nothing. He has a .272 career average hitting second and a .273 career average hitting eighth.
So far this spring, Wilson has hit in the second spot in the order in 12 of the 13 Grapefruit League games that he has started. Could that be a prelude for what's to come this season? Russell has said not necessarily.
"We'll see," said a non-committal Russell. "We're just making sure we'll get at-bats. We'll put Jack in accordingly."
Russell added that he expects to have that batting order tentatively nailed down by the middle of next week.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.