By Brian Gillespie, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (72-89) - Fifth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: OF - Matt Lawton, SP - Mark Redman, C - Benito Santiago, RP - Rick White
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: RP - Frank Brooks, C - Jason Kendall, RP - Arthur Rhodes
PROJECTED LINEUP: Matt Lawton (RF); Jack Wilson (SS); Jason Bay (LF); Craig Wilson (1B); Ty Wigginton (3B); Benito Santiago (C); Tike Redman (CF), Jose Castillo (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Kip Wells (RHP); Oliver Perez (LHP); Mark Redman (LHP); Josh Fogg (RHP); David Williams (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jose Mesa (RHP)
MANAGER: Lloyd McClendon
It's a make or break year for Pittsburgh Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, who has been hanging on to his job with an ever loosening grip over the last few seasons.
The fifth-year skipper has managed just a 281-365 mark in his first four campaigns at the helm. Whispers grew to roars prior to last season about his ouster, but the Pittsburgh front office fended off the doubters by extending him through this season in early April. This goodwill jester won't likely happen again, as Pirates general manager Dave Littlefield has run out of patience.
McClendon isn't the only one to blame for the Pirates' mediocrity over the decade, as they have constantly been in flux with their best young players eventually leaving for more money or having to be traded. Pittsburgh happily supplied the New York Mets with former No. 1 pick Kris Benson prior to the trade deadline in 2004 and finally dealt franchise stalwart Jason Kendall to Oakland in the offseason.
While ridding themselves of Benson and Kendall saves the Pirates a substantial amount of money, it doesn't necessarily strengthen their club. For Benson, the Pirates received solid third baseman Ty Wigginton, minor league pitcher Matt Peterson and infielder Jose Bautista. Wigginton will be starting at the hot corner for the Pirates, but Peterson and Bautisa will be little short term help in the minors.
In the Kendall deal, the Pirates fetched veteran pitchers Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes from Oakland. Rhodes was then sent to Cleveland for two-time All-Star rightfielder Matt Lawton. While Lawton will provide the Pirates with a solid leadoff man, he is injury prone and could end up being a problem down the road.
The best part of either trade for the Pirates may turn out to be lefthander Redman, who has posted double-digit victories in consecutive seasons. Redman has registered three seasons with 10 or more wins in his seven-year career. The lefty duo of Oliver Perez and Redman will be a challenge for any opposing club in a three-game series.
Pittsburgh's infield is highlighted by the breakout Wilson tandem of Jack (SS) and Craig (1B). The Wilsons combined for 40 homers and 141 RBI last season, as Jack hit .308 with 11 homers and 59 RBI, and Craig managed 29 HRs and 82 RBI with a .264 average. Jack earned a two-year contract worth $8 million in the offseason, while Craig avoided arbitration with a one-year, $3 million deal.
Jack Wilson and second-year major leaguer Jose Castillo will be Pittsburgh's double-play combination. Castillo was elevated from Double-A to the majors last season, struggling to a .256 average with eight homers and 39 RBI. The 24-year-old must work on his plate patience, as he struck out 92 times in 383 at-bats last year.
Wigginton is a solid major leaguer with two-plus seasons under his belt between New York and Pittsburgh. The 27-year-old did not fare well in his new surroundings following the trade last season, hitting just .220 with five homers and 24 RBI in 58 games for Pittsburgh. With the pressure of the trade off, Wigginton should be much improved.
To replace Kendall, the Pirates went out and signed ancient catcher Benito Santiago. Known for his amazing arm, Santiago should provide an excellent veteran presence in the Pittsburgh clubhouse.
The Pirates have shuffled their outfield to accommodate Lawton, moving Jason Bay to left and sending Rob Mackowiak to center to possibly platoon with Tike Redman. A lot of the Pirates' success this season will hinge on Lawton's transition to the Steel City. Lawton was healthy for the first time since 2000 last season, hitting 20 homers, scoring a career-high 109 runs and stealing 23 bases. If Lawton can post an on-base percentage near .375, it would be a big lift for Pittsburgh.
Bay hasn't exactly been injury-free in his career either, as he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his shoulder in 2003 and currently is bothered by a wrist injury. Nonetheless, Bay was terrific for the Pirates in his rookie campaign, posting a club rookie record 26 homers and 82 RBI en route to garnering National League Rookie of the Year honors. Bay led all rookies in homers, RBI and slugging percentage (.550).
Mackowiak is poised for a big year at the plate after knocking opposing pitchers around in the spring. The veteran didn't exactly excel last season, posting just a .246 average with 17 homers and 75 RBI.
Tike Redman did a terrific job in center last season, hitting .280 with eight homers and 51 RBI. The speedster, who also stole 18 bases, may need some more seasoning before being re-inserted into the starting lineup.
Veteran righthander Kip Wells will likely be the Pirates No. 1 starter to begin the 2005 campaign, but that could change if he can't top his 2004 stats. Wells won just five games in just 24 starts while amassing a 4.55 ERA. The Houston, TX native did struggle with a sore elbow and a blister on the middle finger of his pitching hand for most of the season. Wells had a stiff elbow early in the spring, but has since recovered nicely.
Oliver Perez easily has the best young arm in the Pirates' system. The southpaw has Cy Young-esque stuff with a fastball that reaches 97 and a pair of relentless sliders that tend to break late. His talents were evident last season, as he went 12-10 with a 2.98 ERA (6th-NL) and 239 strikeouts (4th-NL). Perez was tops in major league starting pitchers for strikeouts (11.0) per nine frames.
Mark Redman, Josh Fogg and David Williams will round out the Pittsburgh rotation. Last season, Redman went 11-12 with a 4.71 ERA, while Fogg went 11-10 with a 4.64 ERA and Williams posted a 2-3 record with a 4.42 ERA. Fogg has won 33 games over the last three years for Pittsburgh, including going 5-3 with a 3.32 ERA down the stretch in 2004.
McClendon's first option out of the 'pen in rubber-armed set-up man Salomon Torres. Last season, Torres appeared in 84 games, the most for a Pittsburgh pitcher in 22 years. Torres, who posted a 7-7 record with a 2.64 ERA and 30 holds last season, wouldn't mind reaching the 90-appearance plateau. However, no major league reliever has appeared in 90 games since 1987.
When McClendon needs a lefty out of the 'pen, he normally looks to John Grabow to take the ball. Grabow went to the mound 60 times in his first full major league season, going 2-5 with a 5.11 ERA. The 26-year-old's stats were skewed downward in the second half, as he ran out of gas.
Another overworked hurler in 2004 was righthander Brian Meadows, as he made 68 appearances with mixed results (2-4, 3.58). Meadows was converted from a starter to middle relief last season.
Back to close games for the Pirates is veteran Jose Mesa, who recovered from a downtrodden 2003 campaign with Philly to post 43 saves and a 5-2 record with a 3.25 ERA in 70 appearances for Pittsburgh in 2004. Mesa has registered 40 or more saves in six different seasons.
Look for both Daryle Ward and Freddy Sanchez to see substantial playing time. Ward, backup at both first base and right field, highlighted his 2004 campaign by hitting for the cycle, but he eventually landed on the disabled list due to a sprained right thumb. Meanwhile, Sanchez is a rookie looking to replace the jettisoned Abraham Nunez as the utility infielder.
The Pirates are hoping that 13 is a lucky number for them in 2005, as they haven't been to the postseason since 1992. Of course, they haven't won more than 75 games in any of the last five campaigns, making their playoff trip even more unlikely. Look for the Pirates to remain in the 70-win range this season while finishing near the bottom of the NL Central.