February 24, 2003
Team Health Reports
Team Health Report: Pittsburgh Pirates
Upside. Any team that suffered through several losing seasons in a row loves hearing the word upside. The Pirates are trying to develop it, and could gain a healthy dose of it if the team's low-minors talent keeps developing.
I have something of a soft spot for the Pirates, but they tempered that good will with what could be their biggest and worst off-season move. Long-time trainer Kent Biggerstaff was "not retained" after over 30 years with the team. When I visited "Biggy" in May, he was bringing back Kris Benson from Tommy John surgery, and Jason Kendall said that without Biggy, he might not be walking, let alone playing baseball. While I understand that Dave Littlefield, like any new GM, wants to bring in his own people, I can't help but think that Biggerstaff was one that would have been worth keeping.
Biggerstaff's dismissal sticks out because of Littlefield's success with other moves. From dumping Derek Bell to fleecing Kenny Williams to the recent bargain-basement signing of Reggie Sanders, the Pirates have made positive strides despite their limited budget.
On the injury front, the Pirates get three yellows at the top of their rotation, but don't look at this as a negative. In Kris Benson, Kip Wells, and Josh Fogg, the Bucs have the makings of a rotation that may not be as dominant as Oakland's or the Yankees', but certainly stacks up well against most teams in the league. Benson is nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery and is at the point where command really begins to return. He came on at the end of 2002 and should return to the form he was beginning to show before the injury. I like Benson a lot, but would like him better as a No. 2 starter than an ace. For the Pirates--a team that isn't at a point where signing an expensive ace would put it over the top--Benson will do fine at the top of the rotation for now.
Wells and Fogg both came to the Bucs in the Todd Ritchie deal, and both had similar seasons. Both surprised early and faded late. Since neither had been used to the workload, the fatigue isn't surprising at all. Lloyd McClendon handled them well all season and neither suffered much abuse in their first full season as a major league starter. I'd expect both to be 180- to 200-inning pitchers in the number three or four starter's role. It's a bit unlikely that pitchers aged 26 and 27 will improve significantly, but they should settle into their roles more comfortably in 2003. Why the yellow lights then? Wells and Fogg are both still in the adjustment phase all starters go through, and both lost significant velocity at the end of last season. The risk of a collapse is there, but both have PECOTA scores that match well with my assessment. (Go on, check the book...)
At the bottom of the rotation or back end of the bullpen, the Pirates have given Spin Williams some interesting material. Jeff D'Amico, Dave Williams, and Ryan Vogelsong are all capable pitchers when healthy, while Jeff Suppan, Brian Meadows and Salomon Torres could be innings-eaters and placeholders. One of the top three could step up and become an ace, there's room to take risks on injury-prone pitchers with upside at the bottom, and Meadows is precisely the type of pitcher to have around to keep your good arms from wearing themselves out.
In the field, the Pirates have two dim yellow lights based on past injuries. Jason Kendall seems to have fully recovered from the brutal ankle injury he suffered a few years ago, only to be derailed by thumb problems. He--unlike Juan Gonzalez, who has a similar problem--had surgery to repair the thumb. Now 18 months later, some power should return. With catchers, minor injuries that give a break from everyday beating can often be a positive in the long-term. I don't have a good comparable for Kendall--few players have two such serious injuries in a career--so that path isn't applicable. Can Kendall return to the speedy, .900 OPS catcher of old? Probably not, but few teams wouldn't take a leadoff catcher with a .350 OBP and some power upside.
Aramis Ramirez gets his yellow light based on his past inability to remain healthy. Much of this score is based on the near-loss of his 2002 season. Ramirez's ankle was badly sprained last year, and it took him nearly two months to get back to reasonably normal function. Despite this, Ramirez was trotted out to third almost punitively, and his numbers plummeted as a result. Still, this injury is one that should heal with the off-season, and there's no reason to believe that anything from his skill set was lost in 2002. Even a return to a league average level would be a boost, but I'd actually expect Ramirez to return to his 2001 level or better.
The final player of injury note is also the most recent signing. Reggie Sanders comes in to provide another solid bat, but one of the reasons he was available as camps opened is his thick medical file. Sanders has dealt mostly with hamstring problems over the past few years. He should be no different in 2003, but the Pirates have decent backup options with Rob Mackowiak and Matt Stairs available. Given proper rest, Sanders should be very productive, but a blowout is possible and has to be factored into any projection.
Overall the Pirates project as one of the healthier teams in the league, especially if they can overcome the loss of Biggerstaff. If their young talent can develop on the farm and maintain the same healthy track record, people will eventually start hitting PNC Park for more than the breathtaking downtown view and those amazing sandwiches stuffed with french fries and cole slaw.