"Right inthe noggin," Sean Casey said, as he rubbed his sunburned brow. A dayearlier Casey, the Pirates' new first baseman after spending the last eightseasons with the Reds, was batting in his first spring game against his formerball club when Cincinnati leftthander Michael Gosling plunked him squarely inthe helmet with a fastball. Casey was unhurt and with his usual good graceslaughed it off the next day while chatting in the clubhouse. "Quite awelcome back home," said the player who was so beloved in Cincy that he wasnicknamed the Mayor.
Relocating toPittsburgh--the Pirates obtained him in December for lefthander Dave Williamsand picked up $7.5 million of the $8.5 million he's due in this, the last yearof his contract--is another homecoming of sorts for Casey, who grew up in UpperSt. Clair, Pa., a 15-minute drive from Pittsburgh. His father, Jim, boughtseason-ticket packages for Wednesday- and Sunday-afternoon games at ThreeRivers 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 sittingin the stands with my dad," Casey says. "To come back and play for thePirates was one of those things I always wanted to do."
Caseyexemplifies Pittsburgh's off-season approach: supplement a youthful core withdependable veterans on one-year contracts. Allowed to increase the payroll from$35 million to $47 million, general manager Dave Littlefield also signedrightfielder Jeromy Burnitz ($6.7 million), third baseman Joe Randa ($4million) and righthanded setup man Roberto Hernandez ($2.75 million); thatoutlay was the most spent on free agents in franchise history.
On the one handCasey, Burnitz and Randa are stopgaps at positions the Pirates soon expect tofill with rising minor leaguers: first baseman Brad Eldred, who last season hit40 home runs in 469 at bats split between the minors and Pittsburgh; outfielderNate McLouth, a .292 career minor league hitter who has averaged 29 stolenbases a season; and third baseman Jose Bautista, who slugged 23 homers atDouble A Altoona and has a rifle arm. On the other hand the veterans are provencommodities 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 acquiringCasey, the Pirates added an immensely popular ballplayer and communityambassador who will hit for high average (his lifetime mark is .305) and get onbase (.371 OBP). He has always had too little pop for a corner infielder, buthe is unapologetic about it. "My whole career, my power numbers have beenanalyzed, but I'm not a power hitter, never have been," he says. "I'vealways hit for high average and driven in runs, gotten on base. That's mymeasure."
The Piratesgrant as much. Says Littlefield, "I don't think our expectation is 30 homeruns. As we're trying to improve, we'd like guys who don't strike out, work thecount and get on base at a more regular rate."
Pittsburgh optednot to make similar upgrades to its rotation--instead, the Pirates jettisonedWilliams and Mark Redman in trades, and didn't try to re-sign JoshFogg--because the club believes its young starters are the franchise's greatestasset. But those three castoffs, plus righthander Kip Wells, who is lost untilat least the All-Star break after surgery to remove a blood clot under hisright armpit, accounted for 72% of the rotation's innings last year. Thatplaces an immediate burden on phenoms Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, thepresumptive one-two starters, who excelled in brief bows last season but havenot yet logged heavy major league innings.
Pittsburghbelieves it has left behind its 13 consecutive losing seasons, the longestactive streak in professional sports, and likes the young, cost-controlled coreit'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 thefinancial house back in order," Littlefield says, "but we've got sometalent coming down the pipeline, and we're turning the corner as afranchise."
Last year Jason Bay joined Dave Parker (1978) and Barry Bonds ('90, '92) as theonly Pirates to hit .300 with 30 homers and 20 steals. Parker and Bonds won theNL MVP in those years.
a modest proposal
As a result ofthe Pirates' acquiring first baseman Sean Casey and outfielder Jeromy Burnitzin the off-season, Craig Wilson (right), who split time at those positions, waspushed to the bench. It wasn't long ago--2004, to be exact--that Wilson hit 29homers, drove in 82 runs and slugged .499 playing almost every day. Even duringhis injury-marred '05 season he had a .387 OBP in 59 games. Finding playingtime for the 29-year-old slugger (perhaps at catcher, his original position,where Pittsburgh is going with Ryan Doumit) would help a team that's projectedto have one of the worst offenses in the league.
projected roster with 2005 statistics
sixth in NL Central
first season with Pittsburgh
SS J. Wilson
JOE RANDA [Newacquisition]
SEAN CASEY [Newacquisition]
JEROMY BURNITZ[New acquisition]
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
LH Zach Duke
LH Paul Maholm (R)
LH Oliver Perez
RH Ian Snell
RH Brandon Duckworth
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 59)
coming to a ballpark near you this summer ...
Another in thePirates' well-stocked cupboard of young lefthanded starters, Tom Gorzelanny,23, struck out 9.4 batters per nine innings in 1292/3 innings at Double AAltoona. Says Pirates director of player development Brian Graham, "Youlook at the way he releases the ball, the velocity he gets--and that it'scoming from the left side. He needs to work on his command, but Gorzelanny hasan impressive package." He should get a second-half look.
Casey may not be a typical slugging first baseman, but he's a career .305hitter who will drive in runs.
DAVID DUROCHIK/SPORTPICS (WILSON); MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGES (GORZELANNY)