Outfielder Jason Bay accomplished something last season that had never been done by a Pirate. He was voted Rookie of the Year by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Brad Eldred, who split last season between Class A Lynchburg and Class AA Altoona, batted .301 overall with 38 home runs and 137 RBIs. That puts the first baseman squarely on the radar as a prospect for a power-starved Pirate team.
Josh Fogg, no better than the Pirates’ fourth starter, is 33–31 in his three seasons in the rotation — for a team that was 46 games under .500 in that span.
Like father, like son
Daryle Ward hit for the cycle May 26 at St. Louis. Daryle and father Gary form the only father-son major leaguers to hit for the cycle. Gary Ward “cycled” as a Minnesota Twin at Milwaukee on Sept. 18, 1980.
The hosts with the most
In 2006, the Pirates will become the first major league franchise to host the All-Star game in three different stadiums — Forbes Field (twice), Three Rivers Stadium (twice) and PNC Park.
What a day
Rob Mackowiak will never forget May 28, the day his son Garrett was born. Nine hours after Garrett was born, Mackowiak hit a walk-off grand slam in the first game of a doubleheader against the Cubs. Just a few hours later, Mackowiak hit a game-tying, two-run home run in the ninth inning of the second game, which the Pirates won in the 10th. On May 29, Mackowiak again torched the Cubs with a home run and five RBIs. Over his next 38 games, Mackowiak hit one home run.
Craig Wilson homered in each of the Pirates’ first two games last season, becoming the fourth Pirate to do that since 1900.
During the winter, the Pirates completed a two-year project — they traded Jason Kendall and his cumbersome contract. During this season, they’ll try to finish a 12-year project — having a winning season. That doesn’t appear likely, again, but the Pirates just might be about to turn the corner.
The Pirates last season found a definite No. 1 starter in lefthander Oliver Perez. Their task this season is to see if righthander Kip Wells can take two steps forward to compensate for the large step backward he took last season when he had only five wins. He’s supposed to be healthy now, and for the Pirates to move forward he has to step up. If Wells doesn’t, he’s a trade candidate by midseason because the Pirates won’t want to invest any more of their precious dollars on him in 2006 and beyond. Lefthander Mark Redman, acquired from Oakland in the Kendall trade, will be a help if for no other reason than to make up for the loss of promising lefthander Sean Burnett, out for 2005 because of elbow surgery. Under-appreciated righthander Josh Fogg continues in the fourth spot, while lefthander Dave Williams probably has a good shot at securing the fifth spot.
The Pirates quickly re-signed closer Jose Mesa after last season, hoping to wring one more solid year from the righthander while grooming standout lefty Mike Gonzalez. Salomon Torres was a workhorse as the setup guy for Mesa and could close if Mesa is traded before August. The Pirates haven’t received much from righthander Ryan Vogelsong as a starter, but they love his arm and his stuff and could stick him in long relief, hoping he’ll finally learn how to pitch. If he does, he’d probably get another crack at the rotation. Rookie Ian Snell, a starter for much of his minor league career, has a good chance to get on-the-job training in the bullpen. Young lefthanders John Grabow and Mike Johnston showed flashes of effectiveness last season.
Jack Wilson emerged as a fixture at shortstop last season, making the All-Star team and becoming the first Pirate to have a 200-hit season since Dave Parker in 1977. Jose Castillo performed well at second base as a rookie, developing into a steady playmaker and double-play partner for Wilson. Castillo, who made the jump from Class AA to the big leagues, was so impressive that Freddy Sanchez, slowed by foot problems last season, could be relegated to bench duty in 2005 — if he makes the team.
The Pirates tried veteran Chris Stynes at third base last season and got stung with a .216 batting average. Ty Wigginton, acquired in the Kris Benson trade, wasn’t any better initially, but he offered encouragement with a late-season surge. Bobby Hill can spell Wigginton a bit at third base against righthanders. Craig Wilson, who can catch and play right field, had a breakout year in 2004 — a career-high 29 home runs and a career-high 82 RBIs in a career-high 561 at-bats — but he wasn’t consistent. Perhaps if he’s the regular first baseman in 2005, he’ll develop that consistency, become a 30-100 player and force the Pirates to make a decision about spending big money to keep him. Slimmed-down Daryle Ward, who could become huge at first base because of PNC Park’s friendliness to left-handed hitters, is another option at first base.
With their first-ever Rookie of the Year in Jason Bay, the Pirates seem set at one outfield spot. Bay proved to be an accomplished left fielder last season, but some in the organization think he could be even better as a center fielder. Now that Bay’s surgically repaired right shoulder is stronger, he might make the move from left to center. That wouldn’t bode well for Tike Redman, a leadoff-type center fielder who was more productive last season after leaving the leadoff spot for the sixth slot. Matt Lawton is scheduled to play right field, but he could move to left, where his speed would be an asset in those cavernous reaches at PNC Park. If Lawton plays left field and Bay plays center, look for Craig Wilson to play right field.
With the departure of Kendall, who caught more games than any player in Pirate history, it’s Humberto Cota’s turn behind the plate. Cota showed surprising pop in limited duty last season and caught a lot of games started by Oliver Perez. The Pirates like Cota, but they obtained Benito Santiago from Kansas City — BALCO baggage and all — as insurance. Santiago should be a big help with Cota’s development, but the former Giant might make a larger impact with the pitchers. The Pirates have no shortage of candidates who could benefit from Santiago’s knowledge.
Left-handed batting Rob Mackowiak, who had a career-high 17 home runs and a career-high 75 RBIs, could anchor the bench after making a combined 122 starts at four different positions in 2004. Rookie J.R. House, who’s out of minor league options, probably will land a big league roster spot. House, primarily a catcher, expanded his versatility in the minor leagues last season by playing some left field and first base. If it sounds as if House might be the Pirates’ next Craig Wilson, you’re paying attention. Hill could be another solid contributor to a bench that still needs a veteran bat.
CEO Kevin McClatchy, who purchased the team in 1996, is receiving pressure from other Pirate owners to get this thing turned around. However, the Pirates’ payroll isn’t likely to increase enough this season to enable the team to avoid a 13th-consecutive losing season, so that turnaround will have to, as they say, wait until next year. With the All-Star game coming to town in 2006, the Pirates are hoping to receive a large spike in season-ticket sales, both this winter and next, and that could facilitate the Pirates’ raising their payroll in a year.
The Pirates will continue to tread water in 2005 while waiting for rescue from what could be an abundant bunch of life savers from the farm system in 2006. GM Dave Littlefield’s first priority upon taking over in June 2001 was strengthening a farm system weakened severely by unproductive drafts in the mid-1990s. This season, a lot of legitimate prospects will reach Class AAA Indianapolis and Class AA Altoona, so Pirate fans are about to see if Littlefield and his staff have accomplished that. If so, the years of signing stop-gap free agents should be over and the long-awaited days of internal help could be about to dawn.