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"Right in the noggin," Sean Casey said, as he rubbed his sunburned brow. A day earlier Casey, the Pirates' new first baseman after spending the last eight seasons with the Reds, was batting in his first spring game against his former ball club when Cincinnati leftthander Michael Gosling plunked him squarely in the helmet with a fastball. Casey was unhurt and with his usual good graces laughed it off the next day while chatting in the clubhouse. "Quite a welcome back home," said the player who was so beloved in Cincy that he was nicknamed the Mayor.
Relocating to Pittsburgh--the Pirates obtained him in December for lefthander Dave Williams and picked up $7.5 million of the $8.5 million he's due in this, the last year of his contract--is another homecoming of sorts for Casey, who grew up in Upper St. Clair, Pa., a 15-minute drive from Pittsburgh. His father, Jim, bought season-ticket packages for Wednesday- and Sunday-afternoon games at Three Rivers Stadium and took young Sean. At 23 Sean was in the National League. "Every time I played there, I still felt like that 15-year-old kid sitting in the stands with my dad," Casey says. "To come back and play for the Pirates was one of those things I always wanted to do."
Casey exemplifies Pittsburgh's off-season approach: supplement a youthful core with dependable veterans on one-year contracts. Allowed to increase the payroll from $35 million to $47 million, general manager Dave Littlefield also signed rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz ($6.7 million), third baseman Joe Randa ($4 million) and righthanded setup man Roberto Hernandez ($2.75 million); that outlay was the most spent on free agents in franchise history.
On the one hand Casey, Burnitz and Randa are stopgaps at positions the Pirates soon expect to fill with rising minor leaguers: first baseman Brad Eldred, who last season hit 40 home runs in 469 at bats split between the minors and Pittsburgh; outfielder Nate McLouth, a .292 career minor league hitter who has averaged 29 stolen bases a season; and third baseman Jose Bautista, who slugged 23 homers at Double A Altoona and has a rifle arm. On the other hand the veterans are proven commodities who'll immediately upgrade a lineup that was 14th in runs scored; they'll also give leftfielder Jason Bay, at 27 a rising star in the game, protection he has lacked.
In acquiring Casey, the Pirates added an immensely popular ballplayer and community ambassador who will hit for high average (his lifetime mark is .305) and get on base (.371 OBP). He has always had too little pop for a corner infielder, but he is unapologetic about it. "My whole career, my power numbers have been analyzed, but I'm not a power hitter, never have been," he says. "I've always hit for high average and driven in runs, gotten on base. That's my measure."
The Pirates grant as much. Says Littlefield, "I don't think our expectation is 30 home runs. As we're trying to improve, we'd like guys who don't strike out, work the count and get on base at a more regular rate."
Pittsburgh opted not to make similar upgrades to its rotation--instead, the Pirates jettisoned Williams and Mark Redman in trades, and didn't try to re-sign Josh Fogg--because the club believes its young starters are the franchise's greatest asset. But those three castoffs, plus righthander Kip Wells, who is lost until at least the All-Star break after surgery to remove a blood clot under his right armpit, accounted for 72% of the rotation's innings last year. That places an immediate burden on phenoms Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, the presumptive one-two starters, who excelled in brief bows last season but have not yet logged heavy major league innings.
Pittsburgh believes it has left behind its 13 consecutive losing seasons, the longest active streak in professional sports, and likes the young, cost-controlled core it's beginning to lock up. (Bay signed a four-year, $18.25 million extension, and shortstop Jack Wilson took three at $20.2 million.) "We had to get the financial house back in order," Littlefield says, "but we've got some talent coming down the pipeline, and we're turning the corner as a franchise."