By Albert Chen, SI.com
Player I Saw Whom I Really Liked
Oliver Perez, LHP. "Randy Johnson's gone now, so I guess that makes Oliver the best lefty in the National League," says Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson, a first-time All-Star in 2004. Well, Jack, there is this new guy in the league named Mark Mulder ... but we do hear you. Perez, who nationally still has a lower Q rating than American Idol's Mario Vazquez, last year evolved into one of baseball's most feared pitchers. Consider: The 23-year-old phenom had the highest strikeout rate in the majors (11 per nine innings), ranked second in the NL in opponent batting average (.202), sixth in ERA (2.98) and fourth in strikeouts (239). Perez has looked sharp in recent bullpen sessions, which is great news to the Pirates staff because Perez was sidelined the first two weeks of camp by shoulder stiffness. Perez thrived last year after pitching coach Spin Williams overhauled Perez's high-maintenance delivery, which prior to last season was, to hear skipper Lloyd McClendon tell it, "helter skelter." Says Williams: "He's achieved comfort with his delivery and become the pitcher he has the potential to become." McClendon isn't ready to give Perez the ace tag just yet, however. "He needs to show he can do this consistently, and if he does, he's going to be one of the best pitchers in baseball," he says." Perez is a native of Culiacan, Mexico, where he also played basketball and soccer. "I was a pretty good athlete, but always so skinny," says Perez, who even now is chopstick thin at 6-foot-2, 200 pounds. While he negotiated Perez's contract with the Pirates this spring, agent Mike Fischlin, who works under Scott Boras, presented to the team a pamphlet of statistics that showed Perez comparing favorably to Sandy Koufax. Perez laughs at the lofty comparison. "I'm just trying to get better and do my thing," he says.
Team's biggest strengths
Bullpen. Don't ask McClendon to talk about his relief crew. "I'm not going to say anything about it. A few years ago I went off about how great our bullpen was going to be and it was awful," he says. "Last year I said how worried about it, and it was tremendous." Last year the Pirates' bullpen had the best ERA (3.64) among non-playoff teams. Jose Mesa was brilliant in the closer's role, saving 18 straight games from April 5 to June 29. Mesa thrived in 2004 because he used an array of pitches, going to the split-fingered fastball more and adding more curveballs and sliders to his repertoire after depending too much on his fastball during a dreadful 2003 season. Just as surprising as Mesa was setup man Salomon Torres, who befuddled hitters with his mid-90 mph four-seamer. The 32-year-old Torres had never pitched exclusively out of the bullpen until last year. He became stronger as the season progressed, posting a 2.25 ERA in his last 37 games.
Team's biggest weakness
Offense. Despite the coming of age of Jason Bay -- last year's NL Rookie of the Year winner -- the lineup still lacks pop. The trade of on-base specialist Jason Kendall to Oakland hurts, though the Pirates think that Matt Lawton, acquired from Cleveland, can be a spark at the top of the lineup. Pittsburgh finished 13th in the league in slugging (.401), 13th in homers (142) and 13th in runs scored (680). McClendon believes that Bay and Wilson will only get better in 2005, but with a lineup that features the uninspiring Ty Wiggington, Jose Castillo and Benito Santiago, the Pirates still offer too many easy outs.
NL pitchers, beware. Bay says he never felt 100 percent at any point last season -- but now he does. "My upper body wasn't that strong last year, I was still getting over some injuries," he says. Bay feels much stronger this spring, which probably means more homers in 2005. Bay missed a month-and-a-half of the season and still slugged 26 homers in 411 at-bats. He's a future All-Star, there's little question, but McClendon doesn't see him as a pure power hitter. "He's a great gap-to-gap, line-drive hitter who can hit home runs," says the skipper. ... The other day McClendon leaned back on his chair in his office at the Pirates' complex in Bradenton, looked at the list of his pitchers on his wall and smiled at what he saw. "Every year we come here and we have a chart that we've left up here [from the previous spring], and we can't wait to tear it down because it looks so pitiful," he said. "You're like, holy s--- those are the guys we had in camp last year? You look up there this year and you think, this ain't bad." McClendon cites his depth in the rotation (beyond Perez and Josh Fogg and Kip Wells, the Pirates have Mark Redman, Ryan Vogelsong and Dave Williams) and his deep bullpen. ... McClendon's team won only 72 games in 2005, three fewer than they did in 2004, but he still considers the season to be a success. "In August we were three games under .500, playing real good baseball. We had traded [Kris] Benson, Kip Wells was hurt and Sean Burnett got hurt. You lose that kind of depth on a small-market ballclub and it's tough to make up for it. I felt we had a good season last year. And now we have a new goal in mind in 2005." What's the goal? McClendon smiles, "I'm not going to tell you that." One thing, though, is clear in Pittsburgh: Expectations have risen.