By Doug DeBiase, MLB Analyst (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (75-87) - Fourth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Juan Acevedo, RP - Mark Guthrie, RP - Jose Mesa, SP - Rick Reed, OF - Chris Singleton, 3B - Chris Stynes
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: SP - Jeff D'Amico, 3B - Jose Hernandez, 2B - Pokey Reese, OF - Reggie Sanders, OF - Matt Stairs, RP - Julian Tavarez
PROJECTED LINEUP: Tike Redman (CF); Jack Wilson (SS); Jason Kendall (C); Raul Mondesi (RF); Randall Simon (1B); Chris Stynes (3B); Jason Bay (LF); Bobby Hill (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Kip Wells (RHP); Kris Benson (RHP); Josh Fogg (RHP); Oliver Perez (LHP); Ryan Vogelsong (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jose Mesa (RHP)
MANAGER: Lloyd McClendon
As it has been since they lost the 1992 National League Championship Series, the theme for the 2004 Pittsburgh Pirates season is rebuilding.
The Pirates have tried on several occasions to sign second-tier players to lengthy contracts, only to see them fail and underachieve greatly. When that didn't work, the organization told its dwindling fan base that it was looking to build from within with prospects. When those prospects didn't work, it said wait five years for the even younger prospects to develop.
Either way, none of the plans have worked and the Pirates are now the residents of one of the greatest ballparks in baseball, PNC Park. The sad thing is that no one really knows about it, because no one wants to go and watch a bunch of underachievers play.
The Pirates hired manager Lloyd McClendon prior to the 2001 season when the team moved into its new facility. McClendon's hands were tied in his first season as the team trudged through injuries and finished with an awful 62-100 record. But McClendon has shown steady progression as a manager since then, improving by 10 wins in 2002 (72-89) and three in 2003 (75-87). McClendon may face several managers that are more experienced in managing a game, but none of them can match his intensity. The fact is clear, as his players play with the same aggressive nature that McClendon did as an outfielder with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Pirates have done their share of losing in the last three seasons, but it's been because of a void of talent, not lack of hustle. McClendon was given a one-year contract extension midway through last season and his positive attitude and vibrant energy is just what a young team needs.
Behind McClendon is general manager Dave Littlefield, who gave the fans of Pittsburgh a reason for optimism last season by signing free agents such as Reggie Sanders, Kenny Lofton, Randall Simon, Matt Stairs and Jeff Suppan. The team did not meet the expectations that were set for it, but all of the players listed above had one of their more productive seasons in recent memory. That shows the shrewd business-like attitude Littlefield has in signing players to short-term deals and not ruining the payroll like previous GM Cam Bonifay did with bad player investments.
Littlefield came to Pittsburgh from Florida in 2001 and quickly went to work, developing a barren farm system. Last season, all six Pirates' minor league affiliates had winning records and advanced to their respective playoffs. The strength on every one of those teams was pitching, as Littlefield believes that wins championships. He has hoarded a bunch of young and talented arms in the organization that he plans to develop and use as trade-bait to gain position players -- something the team lacks currently. Many in Pittsburgh have confidence in Littlefield due to the fact that he turned the corner and got some prospects to appear on the horizon. Littlefield believes the future is bright in Pittsburgh if the arms in the minors develop.
The job of organizing and leading the infield this season will be up to shortstop Jack Wilson. Wilson can range into the hole with the best of them to take away base hits, but his throwing and bouts of mental lapses in the field where he commits errors (career-high 17 in 2003) cause concern among management. Wilson did finish sixth among National League shortstops in fielding percentage last season with a .975 clip. The front office is happy and excited about Wilson's improvements at the plate in each season since he was a rookie in 2001. Wilson set career-highs in average (.256), home runs (9) and RBI (62) last season.
Wilson's double-play partner is still to be determined as several players are vying for the second base position in spring training. Prospects Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez were acquired from the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, respectively, in mid-season trades in 2003. But so far they have been injured and have not seen much action this spring. Both came to the Pirates last season with injuries and were forced to miss nearly all of the campaign after being traded.
Sanchez batted .341 with five home runs and 51 RBI for Triple-A Pawtucket of the International League last season, but struggled when he was called up to the majors for a brief stint with Boston in early June. Sanchez, who hit only .235 with two RBI at the top-level, was overpowered by fastball pitchers and offspeed pitchers threw off his timing with lots of breaking balls. When he is able to come off the disabled list, the Pirates are excited about his fielding, as Sanchez was perfect in the field on 18 chances for Boston last season.
Hill, who had seen time with the Cubs in each of the last two seasons, played a game with Pittsburgh last season before a lower back sprain forced him to miss the rest of the year. Hill has been able to play in a few games this spring, but can not go on back-to-back days due to stiffness in his back. When he has played this spring, Hill has shown some power in his bat by blasting three home runs. Both are top prospects and whoever gets healthy first will more than likely be the starter this season and in the future.
The corners will be another question mark. First base will be manned by free agent Randall Simon, who spent the first half of last season with the club before being traded to the Cubs for their postseason run. After he garnered minimal interest from other clubs this offseason, Simon came back to the Pirates and will look to provide a lefthanded power bat in the lineup. Simon came to Pittsburgh last season with the reputation of being a solid contact hitter with a marginal glove. With the Pirates, Simon made several highlight plays in the field with a .994 fielding percentage, but only batted .274 with 10 home runs and 51 RBI. The Pirates hope that Simon's offensive output will return to the .301 average with 19 homers and 82 RBI that he had in 2002 when he was named Detroit's MVP.
Chris Stynes was added via free agency in the winter to be the team's third baseman. Stynes did hit .255 with 11 home runs and 73 RBI for Colorado last season, but 10 of those 11 shots came at Coors Field, which can make a marginal hitter look great. Stynes' bat isn't as powerful as former third baseman Aramis Ramirez's, but his fielding is much better. Stynes committed just nine errors, splitting time between second and third base last season, while Ramirez had 18 before being traded in mid-July to the Cubs. The Pirates are void of any third base prospects, so Stynes should have no problem keeping the job throughout the season as long as his play is steady.
The best player and only All-Star on the team is catcher Jason Kendall. Kendall made it to the mid-summer classic in three of his first five seasons with one start. He would have made it four if it wasn't for an horrific ankle injury before the event that cost him the last half of the 1999 season. Kendall, a .304 lifetime hitter, rebounded from two sub-par seasons to hit .325 last season. That mark was good enough for sixth best in the NL. Kendall will never hit for power and drive in runs as the Pirates have failed in their attempt to do that for the last eight seasons. But Kendall is one of the better contact hitters in the game and hardly strikes out (40 in 587 AB in 2003). Those numbers are good for a catcher, but not when Kendall is due to make $42 million over the next four seasons. The team has tried to trade him several times the last few seasons, including two attempts with San Diego which were botched last season. Most players would get fed up with it and not try as hard, but Kendall is a pro's pro and plays hard on every play. He is not one of the best defensive catchers in the game, but he is the most durable by starting 150 games behind the plate. Those reasons are why several teams would still trade for him, because of his passion for the game. No one knows how much longer Kendall will stay in Pittsburgh, but they do know that he never quits and that is why he is a fan favorite.
The Pirates entered last season with one of baseball's best outfields in Brian Giles, Kenny Lofton and Reggie Sanders. None of them return in 2004 and a group of young prospects, along with Raul Mondesi, will look to step up this season.
Center field is Tike Redman's to lose. Redman was virtually off the Pirates' radar last season after two poor stints with the club in 2001 and 2002. But Redman joined the team in early August after Lofton was traded and tied for the major league lead with 76 hits after August 1. Redman had 22 multi-hit games in just 56 contests last season, while batting .330. Redman will also be the team's leadoff hitter and showed patience at the plate last season, which was something lacking from him in his prior two stints. Redman is just as fast as Lofton and can cover just as much ground in a spacious centerfield at PNC Park. Redman committed just two errors last season for a .985 fielding percentage. But Lofton had experience and a knack to track down the tough fly balls.
Giles had been a fixture in left field for the Pirates for the last five seasons. But after Pittsburgh was forced to cut payroll midway through last season, Giles got his wish and was traded to his hometown in San Diego. The Pirates in return did get the Padres' top outfield prospect in Jason Bay, who showed several flashes of brilliance in the final months of the 2003 season. In 27 games with Pittsburgh, Bay hit .291 with three homers and 12 RBI. Bay has tremendous power as he homered in four straight games for Triple-A Omaha last season. In just 307 at-bats in the minors last season, Bay cranked out 20 homers. Several people around baseball say Bay's arm is stronger than Giles' and can get off a throw quicker. The only problem with Bay is that the 25- year-old had offseason shoulder surgery and will likely start the season on the disabled list, which will hinder his development.
As scary as it sounds, Mondesi, who has had character issues in the past, will be the mentor of the young outfield this season. Mondesi came to the Pirates via free agency in February after splitting time last season between the New York Yankees and Arizona. The 1994 National League Rookie of the Year batted .272 with 24 home runs and 71 RBI in a combined 143 games last season, so it's clear that Mondesi still has enough juice left in his bat to swing for the fences. The question of whether it has enough to ignite what looks to be a stagnant Pittsburgh offense is another question. Mondesi still does have one of the strongest arms in the majors and he should have an easy time roaming a quaint little right field at PNC Park. One major positive for the Pirates should be that Mondesi will show up to the ballpark to play hard everyday. After his signing, Mondesi professed that he had achieved one of his childhood dreams to play in right field for the Pirates, just like his idol from the Dominican Republic, Roberto Clemente, did several years ago.
If the Pirates are to make any progress this season, it should come from a starting staff that many in baseball feel is one of the most underrated.
The ace of the staff will be right-hander Kip Wells, who went 10-9 last season with 3.28 ERA, good enough to crack the top-10 in the NL. Wells' record would have been more impressive, but the bullpen blew seven leads that he entrusted to it throughout the season. It didn't help Wells' cause when the offense hardly showed up for any of his outings. For instance, Wells yielded just two runs on three hits in 7 2/3 innings of work in a June game at Tampa Bay last season, but suffered a 2-1 loss. Wells is durable as he has pitched nearly 400 innings since the team acquired him in a trade from the Chicago White Sox in 2002. Wells is also an asset at the plate, where he went 2-for-2 as a pinch- hitter last season, including launching a 350-foot bomb to left field for a home run at PNC Park.
Following Wells is former No. 1 overall draft pick Kris Benson. The right hander has shown several flashes of brilliance, but due to injury and inconsistency, has greatly underachieved. The Pirates have invested six years and $20 million to a pitcher that has produced just 35 wins in his career. To make matters worse, Benson hasn't pitched a full season since 2000. The former Clemson standout missed the entire 2001 season after reconstructive elbow surgery and didn't return until midway through the 2002 season after rehabilitation. Benson started strong in 2003 by going 2-0 and only allowing two earned runs in wins over stacked offensive lineups such as Philadelphia and Cincinnati. It went all down hill after that, as Benson posted a career- high 4.97 ERA as opponents hit .295 against him. Benson was pitching with a strained shoulder muscle and shut it down in July to get surgery done to repair the muscle. So far this spring, Benson has looked fine and not complained of any pain, but the Pirates have seen this before and know that they will wait to hold judgment until late May or early June.
The No. 3 spot looks to be filled by right-hander Josh Fogg, who came over to Pittsburgh along with Wells in a 2002 trade. Fogg tied with Wells for the team lead in wins last season with 10, but the former Florida star also suffered 10 losses. Fogg got off to a sizzling start in 2002 as a rookie when he went 3-0 with 1.46 ERA in April, but has suffered since and has not posted an ERA below 4.26 in 11 months since those gaudy numbers. Opposing batters have also recorded a .293 average in that time frame. One of the reasons for those numbers is that Fogg is susceptible to the long ball as he leaves his fastball and change-ups up in the zone when he is not hitting his spots. When Fogg is on, he can hit any corner and his curveballs can make hitters look foolish. His accuracy wins games for him and the Pirates believe that with more experience, he will be even better with his control.
The fourth hurler that the Pirates will throw out is lefty Oliver Perez. Perez came to the Pirates in the Giles' deal last August and is already the hardest throwing prospect the organization has. Perez's fastball has been clocked at 98 mph. He struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings. But his control scares the organization and will be watched closely this season as he continues to learn the ropes of pitching in the big leagues on a regular basis. That fact is pointed out in his 5.47 bases on balls allowed per nine innings. Combined, Perez went 4-10 with a 5.56 ERA last season, but the Padres were hesitant to give him up when the Pirates were offering Giles.
The fifth spot is up for grabs between veteran Rick Reed (a former Pirates castoff in the late 1980s), newcomer Sean Burnett and prospect-turned-out of options Ryan Vogelsong. Reed revived his career with the New York Mets two years ago, but struggled with the Twins last season. Reed looked to have the inside track on the spot, but injured his back early in spring training and has not been able to throw since. Burnett has not appeared above the Double-A level and is more of an off-speed, control pitcher. But he won Eastern League Pitcher of the Year by going 14-6 with a 3.21 ERA in 159 innings. Vogelsong, once considered a strong prospect in the organization, has been derailed with injuries since he arrived in 2001 in a trade involving Jason Schmidt and San Francisco. Vogelsong is out of options and needs to show that he has control to pitch at the top level. He has had two opportunities to pitch for Pittsburgh, but has been overmatched each time.
What was considered a strength heading into last season turned out to be the team's Achilles' heel.
The Pirates do not have a true closer yet, but it will come from journeymen Jose Mesa, Juan Acevedo and Salomon Torres.
Mesa converted 22 saves last season with Philadelphia, but lost the job in July after several blown opportunities and the acquisition of Mike Williams from the Pirates. The 38-year-old can still bring heat, but at a consistent level is another question. Mesa left his ball up in the zone last season, which enabled hitters to turn on his pitches and put them in play.
Acevedo started the season with the Yankees, but never made it out of May with an ERA over 9.00 in the first month and a half. Acevedo landed with the Tigers, but did not fare much better as Detroit suffered through a 119-loss season.
Torres has been a versatile pitcher for the Pirates the last two seasons. Torres has been a reliever and a starter, but is more suited to coming in during the later innings as hitters quickly adjust to his pitches a second time around. Torres, who has mainly been used as a long reliever, can top out around 93-94 mph with his fastball and that intrigues the Pirates enough to give him a look at the spot. Torres did convert two saves last season after closer Mike Williams was dealt to Philadelphia.
The two left-handed setup men will be Joe Beimel and John Grabow. Beimel had a strong 2002 season, but his ERA ballooned to above 9.00 last season and was knocked around hard by right-handed batters. Grabow had a brief stint with the Pirates last September. In his first action at the major league level, Grabow impressed by striking out nine in just five innings pitched.
The right-handers will be Brian Boehringer and Jason Boyd. Just like Beimel, Boehringer had a strong 2002, but also saw his ERA balloon above 9.00 last season. Boehringer fell out of favor with McClendon late in the season and did not see many appearances in the final two months. Boyd, a former Pirate, came over from Cleveland in the off-season and was immediately involved in a bar fight that landed him in jail. Boyd is notorious for off the field altercations and his mind has never been focused entirely on the field. Boyd did go 3-1 with 31 strikeouts last season, and the Pirates are hoping that he lives up to those numbers this year.
The Pirates won't have one of the best benches in baseball, but it will definitely be full of several players that can play several positions. For starters, Craig Wilson can play either catcher, first base and right field, but all three positions are manned by players with guaranteed contracts. He hit .262 with 18 home runs and 48 RBI in 2003. Wilson was named to the Topps All- Rookie team in 2001 after he tied a major league record for pinch hit home runs in a season with eight. He has 13 for his career and can be counted on to produce hits off the bench. It's been hard to find an everyday position for Wilson because of his defensive liabilities. The Pirates can hide him in a small right field at PNC Park, but not in other ballparks. Rob Mackowiak will never be an everyday player in the majors, but is definitely suited for the role of utility player. Mackowiak can play any position except catcher and is viciously aggressive when he gets the chance to play. He also has some power in his bat, as he hit 16 homers two seasons ago. But he is prone to large strikeout totals due to his free swinging (53 in 174 AB last season). Abraham Nunez is in the same boat as Mackowiak. Nunez was once considered a top prospect a long time ago, but never panned out as one. He is very versatile in his reserve role, as he can play any infield position. Humberto Cota will likely be another reserve on the bench as he will be the team's backup catcher. Whomever doesn't win the starting second base job (Hill or Sanchez) will also come off the bench.
The Pirates seem destined to limp to a 12th straight losing season in 2004. A lack of offense and a pitching staff that is long on potential, but short on experience and success, make this a hard team to place money on for a surprise season.
One thing is certain, though, they will compete in every game due to the fiery nature of McClendon.
The front office keeps telling fans to wait another year or two for the prospects to reach the majors and succeed. Even if they do, there might not be any fans who want to come out and watch.
For Pittsburgh to be successful this season, the pitching staff will have to live up to expectation and the offense will need Mondesi, Simon and Wilson to each hit over 25 home runs. Kendall will have to hit around .330 again this season with an increase in home runs and RBI. Redman will have to hit over .300 in the leadoff spot and get on base to set the tone with his steals. The bullpen just needs to be a lot better than it was last season.
Those are a lot of question marks for a team that is trying to rid its image of perennial losers.