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Jeff Pearlman
June 28, 1999
Back in the Picture By spending more, the Pirates have amassed the talent to be a spunky wild-card contender
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June 28, 1999


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The Standing
In this season of big-ticket pitchers some journeyman hurlers have become mainstays in their team's starting rotation. Here's our ranking of 1999's most delightful pitching surprises, with their records through Sunday:



1. Paul Byrd, Phillies
Outdoing Schilling in wins and ERA should keep him out of minors for first time in nine pro seasons

10-3, 3.24

2. Kent Bottenf ield, Cardinals
True stopper: Nine of 10 wins came after losses by Cards, his 10th pro team since April 1992

10-3, 3.94

3. Brian Bohanon, Rockies
Southpaw. 30. has already passed career-high victory total of seven, attained last year

9-3, 5.77

4. Omar Olivares, Angels
Barely made rotation in spring training but leads Anaheim in wins and ranks seventh in league in ERA

6-5, 3.45

5. Omar Daal, Diamondbacks
Last year's 2.88 ERA no fluke; at $2.6 million, he s cheap compared with most others in Arizona rotation

7-4, 3.29

6. Todd Ritchie, Pirates
Hadn't started on any level since 1996; Five wins shy of tying career best II, set in Class A in '92

6-5, 4.35

7. MikeOquist, A's
After horrid 6.22 ERA last year, went to spring training as nonroster invitee; now Oakland's top winner

6-5, 5.21

8. Jeff Suppan, Royals
Just 24, he has been with three organizations; entered this season with career ERA of 5.90

3-4, 3.38

9. Steve Parris, Reds
Paid dues, having been claimed on waivers twice, released twice, injured two times in six-year span

4-1, 4.72

10. Frankie Rodriguez, Mariners
Sprung from Twins in May. former phenom celebrated with two fine starts for pitching-starved Seattle

2-1, 5.40

Back in the Picture
By spending more, the Pirates have amassed the talent to be a spunky wild-card contender

Leftfielder Al Martin cringes when he hears fans comparing this year's Pirates to the low-on-cash, low-on-talent bunch that made a surprising run in 1997 before finishing five games behind the Astros in the National League Central. "I hear how this year's team is just like that one," says Martin, who has been with Pittsburgh since '92, "and I always think: I sure hope not."

The 1997 Pirates were spunky, but they finished 79-83. "You know the difference between men and now?" says Martin. "That team was loads of fun, but we stunk. Now we're pretty good."

Indeed, while Pittsburgh still may be no match for Houston—after losing three straight to the Padres last weekend, the Pirates (34-33) trailed the Astros by seven games—it appears to have the ability to hang with the crowd (Cubs, Giants, Mets, Phils, Reds and Rockies) in the run for the National League wild card.

One bright sign for the long haul is that Pittsburgh, which hiked its payroll from $13.7 million in 1998 to $22.2 million this year (27th in the majors), plans to raise it to $35 million next season and to $45 million in 2001, when the team moves into a new stadium. This off-season the front office showed it was serious by signing first baseman Kevin Young to a four-year, $24 million contract extension.

A bigger budget also means that Pittsburgh can afford to make a mistake or two and not collapse. Last December general manager Cam Bonifay signed free-agent starter Pete Schourek to a two-year, $4 million contract in hopes mat the lefthander would anchor the rotation. Through Sunday, Schourek was 2-5 and had been sent to the bullpen. Bonifay also dealt righty starter Jon Lieber to the Cubs for outfielder Brant Brown, who was to be the Pirates' everyday centerfielder; Lieber was 6-2, and Brown had played his way into a part-time role in right.

What Pittsburgh lacks in starting pitching, it has made up for with credible middle relief and emerging closer Mike Williams, who had 12 saves and a 2.48 ERA. On offense the Pirates are no powerhouse—outfielder Brian Giles led the team with 13 homers—but they were sixth in the league in hitting (.274) and tied for fourth in doubles (138).

Catcher Jason Kendall (.344, 19 stolen bases) has drawn most of the ink in Pittsburgh, but as Young goes, so go the Pirates. Seven years ago Young was Pittsburgh's top prospect, but after reaching the big leagues, he flopped. "Kevin had a little of the I'm-the-Pirates'-minor-league-phenom in him," says Martin. Young hit .236 in 1993 and over the next two years spent as much time in the bushes as he did in the bigs. Pittsburgh released him during spring training '96, and he was picked up by the Royals, then cut again after that season.

The following spring the Pirates gave Young another chance, and he hit .300 with a team-high 18 home runs and 74 RBIs in only 97 games to lead Pittsburgh's run. Last season, as the Bucs wobbled to a 69-93 record, he led them again with 27 homers and 108 RBIs. "I learned you can't take anything for granted in this game—especially your talent," says Young, who was hitting .323 through Sunday. "There are a lot of players here who have been through tough times and appreciate winning. It was like that in 1997, and it's like that again."

J. D. Drew Struggles
Grounded Redbird

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