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Pirates Spring Training preview
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01/30/2003 7:31 pm ET 
Pirates Spring Training preview
Pitchers need improved offensive support in 2003
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Randall Simon batted .302 with 18 home runs and 82 RBIs for the Tigers last season. (AP Photo)
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PITTSBURGH -- When the Pirates make their annual trek from Pittsburgh to Bradenton, Fla., this month, they must remember to pack their bats.

There is no denying the Bucs are much better off this spring than they were just one year ago. The club's 10-win improvement from 2001 to 2002 is a testament to their development. But if they hope to build upon the progress that has been made, the offense will have to start pulling its weight.

Pittsburgh struggled at the plate throughout the 2002 season -- finishing last in the Major Leagues with a .244 batting average and 28th in runs scored. Game after game, the much-improved pitching staff kept the game close with the hope the offense could scratch out a few runs. More often than not, however, the Bucs came up on the short end of low-scoring affairs.

Improving the offense became priority No. 1 for general manager Dave Littlefield in the offseason. His first move was to overhaul the coaching staff. Hitting coach Dave Clark was one of five members of the big league staff to be reassigned or fired in October. Gerald Perry, who had spent the previous three seasons with the Seattle Mariners, was brought in as Clark's replacement.

If Perry's track record is any indication, it should be a move in the right direction. Under his direction, the Mariners set a team record for walks in 2000, led the American League with a .288 batting average in 2001 and were fourth last season with a .275 team average.

complete coverage: spring training 2003
"We feel really good about being able to acquire Gerald Perry as our hitting coach," said Littlefield. "He has a very strong reputation in the industry, he's got good experience at the minor-league level having been a hitting coach at a couple of different levels as well as a hitting coordinator, and he was obviously a part of some good hitting teams in Seattle."

While optimistic about Perry's abilities, Littlefield understands that a coach can only do so much.

"We do have a challenging group of hitters to work with," said Littlefield. "It's well-documented that we strike out a lot.

"As to how much more patience we can show at the plate, how much more contact we can make and how much more production we can get out of these guys, the majority of the onus falls on the players."

Littlefield made two on-field additions during the offseason he hopes will make Perry's job a little less challenging. The first was the acquisition of first baseman Randall Simon in a November trade with the Detroit Tigers.

The left-handed hitting Simon batted .302 with 18 home runs and 82 RBIs in 2002 and was named the Detroit Tigers' team MVP. After putting up those types of numbers in cavernous Comerica Park, the Pirates believe that he is a good fit for PNC Park, a venue that favors left-handed hitters.

"As we identified some different guys, (Simon) was one of the guys in the mix that provided some production, was at a position we felt we needed to get some production out of and was at a price that fit for us," said Littlefield.

The second major on-field addition for the Pirates was the free agent signing of outfielder Matt Stairs. Stairs hit 38 home runs with the Oakland A's in 1999 but has seen his production drop considerably in the three seasons since. He hit just .244 with 16 home runs and 44 RBIs in 107 games with Milwaukee last season.

    Matt Stairs   /   OF
Height: 5'9"
Weight: 215
Bats/Throws: L/R

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Stairs spent the offseason shedding excess pounds and appears primed to make a majority of starts against right-handed pitching this season. He believes the increased playing time will result in better numbers.

"The last couple of years, I think my name has dropped off a little bit," said Stairs. "I just have to get more playing time. I think they are going to see when I come that I have a lot of energy, I'll have fun and whatever it takes to win a ballgame, I will try to do.

"Hopefully, I can play right field there and get some at-bats and help the team improve in the standings and get up there to where we can play with St. Louis and Houston."

While the additions of Perry, Simon and Stairs should help to breath life into the offense, it's the health of third baseman Aramis Ramirez that could be the key to their season.

    Aramis Ramirez   /   3B
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 219
Bats/Throws: R/R

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After hitting .300 with 34 home runs and 112 RBIs in 2001, Ramirez came out of the gates swinging a hot bat last April while leading the Bucs to a surprising 9-5 start. That all changed when he charged the mound in Milwaukee on April 17th after being hit by a Ben Sheets pitch. Ramirez injured his ankle in the scrum that followed and was never the same. He finished the season with a disappointing .234 average and just 18 home runs and 71 RBIs. Without a healthy Ramirez in the lineup, outfielder Brian Giles had no protection and teams simply pitched around him.

Determined to make up for the lost season, Ramirez followed an offseason conditioning program prescribed to him by the club and eliminated fried foods from his diets. As a result, the 25-year-old is in the best shape of his big league career.

Manager Lloyd McClendon saw the fruits of Ramirez's labor at the team's voluntary mini-camp in January. It's safe to say McClendon was very pleased to see Ramirez looking so fit.

"The young man has shown his commitment to making amends for what happened last year not only from a physical standpoint but from a mental standpoint," said McClendon. "It really shows his maturity and hopefully it will lead to good things on the field for us."

The Pirates used offseason additions to make great strides towards improving their pitching staff and defense last spring. If they hope to snap their 10-year run of losing seasons, the offense will need to make the same type of progress in Bradenton over the course of the next six weeks.

Ed Eagle is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at ed.eagle@pittsburghpirates.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.



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