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Savran: Late-season renewal gives reason for hope

Saturday, September 20, 2003

Hope springs eternal. Then again, so does losing when you've become expert at it.

That makes hope pretty much all you've got. It also brings into question what exactly Pirates fans can hope for.

Not to be bad, or as bad?

Still, the performance of a few players offers some intrigue, maybe even some promise, for next season. It's not so much their decent record the past couple of months, it's the players who have been instrumental in compiling it.

What to do with Craig Wilson? How about playing him?

Heading into the weekend, he had 46 home runs in about 800 major-league at bats, which translates to about 30 homers in a 500 at-bat season.

Of course, the simple math doesn't always compute, and there's the oft-proven theory that more at-bats won't necessarily increase production but will expose the flaws of a player.

People used to question Chuck Tanner about his limited use of outfielder Lee Lacy, whose average hovered around .300.

Tanner would respond by saying that if he played Lacy more often, Lacy wouldn't hit .300. Some guys have to be spotted to maximize their production, and that question hangs like a rain cloud over Wilson.

But there is evidence to support playing him more. Does he strike out a lot? Yes, but how many 30 home run guys don't?

And the thing you have to like about him is that he consistently takes pitchers deep into counts. He may not make contact on the final swing of his at-bat, but he forces pitchers to work for their out, which gives him a good look at what the guy is offering.

There are some who would think Wilson cannot get regular playing time because he doesn't play any one defensive position well enough.

I disagree. He may not have to dust his mantel to make room for a Gold Glove any time soon, but he hasn't hurt or embarrassed himself defensively at any of the positions he plays. Look, this was a team that entrusted first base to Randall Simon, hardly a ballerina in the field.

The Pirates can find a place or places for Wilson to play, including catcher, without severely jeopardizing the defense. They need his bat in the lineup -- or at least they need to find out about that bat.

Proving that resurrections can occur in late summer as well as the spring are the makeovers of Tike Redman and Rob Mackowiak.

Redman was sliced unceremoniously from the 40-man roster, baseball's way of writing your obituary while you're still breathing. Maybe 300 at-bats aren't enough to prove that he's finally the quality leadoff hitter/center fielder they've been hunting for.

But it appears that Redman has finally conceded the home run title to Barry Bonds. He's going away with pitches, playing to his strength, which is to say he doesn't have enough to hit the river.

Maybe watching and talking with Lofton this past spring convinced him that there's a lot of room -- and money -- for a player with his skills.

Once dead and buried, Redman looks very much alive now and very much like a catalyst at the top of the lineup.

Mackowiak's rebirth may be more amazing. He looked as if he was swinging at a pinata and fielding fly balls off his hat early this season. Nashville looked like too good a place for him. And this is a guy not without skills.

He hit 16 homers last year in fewer than 400 at-bats with the Pirates, has some speed and a pretty decent RBIs-to-at-bat ratio.

Now he, too, is back from the dead. And on a team with few established everyday starters, they'll need his versatility.

Further, they need players willing to get dirty, which this guy is definitely willing to do.

There are a number of other intriguing players: J.J. Davis, Jason Bay, Carlos Rivera, Freddy Sanchez, Bobby Hill. Many of the possibilities will be greatly affected by three major decisions this off season: What to do with Matt Stairs, Reggie Sanders and Jason Kendall.

And we haven't even begun to discuss the pitching staff.

But the Pirates will finish with a better record this season than last, which is a bit like saying you're the skinniest guy at the fat farm. Still, it's better than the alternative.

At least the new nucleus is comprised of younger, more affordable players who have achieved some success in the majors, albeit very modest.

The Pirates have been adrift and directionless for so long, they at last may have created a navigational plan. Maybe even some hope.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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