Pirates pitchers allowed the fewest home runs of any staff in the majors last season -- 149, down from 178 the year before.
Two young players with star potential emerged last season -- that's a start, at least
Nothing felt right. Last spring, for the first time since he was a pencil-thin teen pitching on the rugged fields of Culiacan, Mexico, Oliver Perez felt lost on the mound. "I didn't know what I was doing," says the 23-year-old lefthander. "It was like I'd completely forgotten how to pitch." The Pirates had ordered Perez to overhaul the delivery he'd used all his life, an erratic and convoluted motion that the coaches thought would lead to arm trouble. "He was throwing at all kinds of arm angles, from all kinds of balance points, with a different follow-through on each pitch," says pitching coach Spin Williams. "We wanted to simplify everything for him."
After hitters battered Perez all spring -- he allowed 16 runs and 22 hits in 16 1/3 innings while throwing with a more compact motion and consistent arm angles -- he found his groove in his first regular-season start. "I felt good," Perez says. "I couldn't explain it, but everything felt smooth for the first time." Two weeks later the refurbished Perez struck out 10 Reds in a complete-game shutout, and Pittsburgh had an ace to build around. After their 12th straight losing season in 2004, however, the Pirates remain under construction.
"We lost 89 games last year, but there were a lot of good things that happened on this team," says shortstop Jack Wilson. "Maybe the biggest thing of all was how, overnight, Oliver became one of the best pitchers in the game." That's only a slight exaggeration. Perez finished 2004 ranked fourth in the National League in strikeouts (239), sixth in ERA (2.98) and third in opponent batting average (.207). Only seven pitchers in history have had a higher single-season strikeout rate than Perez's 10.97 K's per nine innings. "He's the closest thing to Randy Johnson you'll see," raved Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, after facing Perez last July. "He can throw it 97 mph, and he's got a developing changeup."
Pittsburgh is counting on Perez to anchor a starting rotation that was 12th in the league with a 4.68 ERA and enters the season loaded with uncertainties. Among them: Can Josh Fogg pick up where he left off (5-3, 3.32 ERA in 15 starts after the All-Star break)? Can Kip Wells, who was bothered last year by elbow pain, stay healthy? After a rocky season in Oakland, can Mark Redman, acquired from the A's for All-Star catcher Jason Kendall, regain the consistency he had with the Marlins during their '03 world championship run?
The Pirates have another up-and-comer in leftfielder Jason Bay, 26, an oenophile and opera lover from British Columbia who became the franchise's first Rookie of the Year, despite missing the first month and a half recovering from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Although he hit .282 with 26 homers and a .550 slugging percentage in a lineup that ranked 13th in the league in slugging (.401), homers (142) and runs (680), Bay says he wasn't at full strength at any point. Over the winter he trained hard at a Seattle community college with close friend and Indians outfield prospect Grady Sizemore. "Because of my shoulder, I never got a chance to get into good playing shape," he says. "It's great to be able to go into this year feeling 100 percent."
As a minor leaguer Bay displayed good plate discipline and had a robust on-base percentage, but last season he struck out 129 times in 411 at bats. "I think that's a sign of how much better he's going to get," says Pittsburgh manager Lloyd McClendon. "You know those strikeouts are going to come down, and when they do, watch out."
With players like Perez and Bay, McClendon believes the Pirates' first winning season since '92 -- when McClendon was a backup outfielder for the club -- is right around the corner. "Last year we won three games less than we won the year before, but we had one of the youngest teams in baseball, and in August we were three games below .500 and playing well," he says. "We're seeing our youngsters grow up, get better and come together. For a small-market team like us, that's all you can hope for." -- Albert Chen