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4 pittsburgh Pirates
Stephen Cannella
March 27, 2000
The owner has expressed high hopes for his young, improving club. Too high
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March 27, 2000

4 Pittsburgh Pirates

The owner has expressed high hopes for his young, improving club. Too high

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by the numbers

1999 Team Statistics (NL rank)

1999 record: 78-83 (third in NL Central)

Batting average

.259 (14)

Opponents' batting average

.263 (6)

Runs scored

775 (12)


4.33 (6)

Home runs

171 (10)

Fielding percentage

.976 (15)

It's been four years since Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy and general manager Cam Bonifay implemented their Five Year Plan, the blueprint that would morph Pittsburgh into a contender by the time new 38,000-seat PNC Park throws open its doors in 2001. "Screw the Five Year Plan," says All-Star catcher Jason Kendall. "I don't care what anybody says, we have to win this year. When the new stadium comes we'll worry about it then. I'm so sick of hearing about the new stadium."

McClatchy apparently shares Kendall's impatience; over the winter the owner declared that the Pirates should win 90 games in 2000. Such a proclamation is kind of like the kid with the local lemonade stand announcing that he's buying out Minute Maid. Ninety wins? Pittsburgh hasn't broken the 80-win barrier since 1992. Furthermore, the Pirates enter the season with a payroll around $30 million; only two of the 12 teams that spent less than $40 million last year (the Reds and the Athletics) even had winning records. "I think [ McClatchy's statement] got distorted a little bit," Bonifay says. "He was saying we would improve, and that if we pitched real well and avoided injuries, that would be an attainable goal for us."

"Who knows?" says shortstop Pat Meares about the possibility of 90 wins. "We thought we had a pretty good club last year, and it fell apart on us."

That it did. Meares's sprained wrist in spring training was the first in a season-long injury parade that claimed, among others, Kendall, centerfielder Brian Giles and two closers, Rich Loiselle and Jose Silva, for extended periods of time. "It was almost comical by the end," says Meares, who tried to play for two weeks in April, had surgery in May and did not return to the field until 10 days were left in the season.

There were, however, some encouraging developments in '99, most notably the emergence of a young and talented rotation. Starters Jason Schmidt, Todd Ritchie and Kris Benson (average age: 26) were a combined 39-34 and led the staff to the National League's sixth-best ERA (4.33). Benson, the first overall pick in the '96 draft, led NL rookies in ERA (4.07), innings (196?) and strikeouts (139). Released by the Twins after the '98 season, Ritchie had never made a big league start before his call-up by Pittsburgh in late April. Despite missing two weeks in August with shoulder tendinitis, he went 15-9 (the most victories by a Pirate since Doug Drabek won 15 in '92) and was sixth in the league with a 3.49 ERA. "I've always said the Pirates are no fun to play," says Cardinals manager Tony La Russa. "Their rotation stacks up against anybody."

They're also no fun to watch when they're in the field. The pitching staff got little help last year, when the Pirates made 147 errors and gave up 93 unearned runs, more than any team in the league except the stone-handed Expos. The return of Meares will shore up the defense a bit, but there are still plenty of holes. New leftfielder Wil Cordero was given the largest free-agent deal in club history (three years, $9 million), but it's safe to say it wasn't for his defensive prowess. Kevin Young led NL first basemen with 23 errors. There's potential for more disaster afield as 21-year-old Aramis Ramirez has been handed the third base job and 22-year-old Chad Hermansen—a former infielder who committed 39 errors in the minors in '97—the centerfield position.

Ramirez and Hermansen are also being asked to carry a heavy offensive load for a lineup that is short on power. The two youngsters have good offensive r�sum�s: Ramirez had a .328 average and 21 homers at Triple A Nashville last year, and Hermansen bashed 60 homers in his two seasons in Nashville, in 1998 and '99. "We also have Bruce Aven and John Vander Wal and Adrian Brown in the outfield," says Bonifay, who traded the productive Al Martin to the Padres in the off-season to make room for Hermansen. "So [the burden's] not all on Chad."

The righthanded-hitting Cordero and the return of leadoff hitter Kendall (who was hitting .332 with 22 stolen bases when he suffered a season-ending broken ankle last July) will make the lineup more imposing against lefthanded pitching—the Pirates were a sorry 17-30 against southpaw starters last year. But keeping up with the other offensive powerhouses in the division is out of the question. So too is 90 wins, which one AL scout calls "ludicrous."

"We're obviously in a rebuilding stage here," says Giles, who moves from center to right after a breakout '99 season in which he hit .315, knocked in 115 runs and played stellar defense. "I don't know if you can put a number on how many wins we should have. We're just hoping everybody is healthy come Opening Day."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]