New stadium, same old Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- If the Pittsburgh Pirates don't sell another ticket this season, they still are assured of shattering the franchise's attendance record (2,065,302 in 1991 at Three Rivers Stadium).
The drawing card is fabulous PNC Park, the Bucs' new home on the North Shore of the Allegheny River.
The Pirates' success at the box office is a good thing because their on-the-field product, despite a $20 million bump in payroll, has the Bucs off to the same poor start that had them threatening to rack up 100 losses last season.
Imagine how many more tickets they would sell if the Bucs could play anywhere close to .500 ball.
High expectations: ≈The off-season was filled with hope for a brighter future: a new home, a new manager (Lloyd McClendon) and a return to contention that the Pirates have experienced only once in the past eight seasons.
The ballpark has more than lived up to its expectations.
The team hasn't.
Reality says the Bucs are a more expensive but still way-below-average baseball team. Their clutch-hitting is non-existent, taxing an already-weakened pitching staff.
The increased payroll (to $53 million) included huge raises for outfielder Brian Giles and catcher Jason Kendall. Both deserved hikes, though baseball's wacky economic structure forced the Bucs to overpay to keep Kendall ($60 million for six years).
General manager Cam Bonifay also signed two lower-tier free agents: 32-year-old outfielder Derek Bell and 38-year-old pitcher Terry Mulholland.
That's it.
This year's 9-14 April record has been overshadowed by the demolition of Three Rivers Stadium and the opening of the new ballpark.
But the newness is wearing off and fans are noticing that the team on the field has more than its share of players that are too young or just plain mediocre.
Injuries: Injuries to 60 percent of the Pirates' starting rotation certainly haven't helped.
Jason Schmidt (left abdominal strain), Kris Benson (sprained pitching elbow) and Francisco Cordova (elbow surgery) could be back by mid-May.
But the Pirates' hopes of contending in the N.L. Central could be mortally wounded by Memorial Day if they don't start playing at least .500 ball.
To be fair, outfielder/first baseman John Vander Wal is off to a fabulous start. And third baseman Aramis Ramirez is finally living up to the hype that preceded his arrival in Pittsburgh by leading the team in RBIs, something very precious on this low-scoring team.
Adrian Brown's shoulder tendinitis hasn't helped. Last year, Brown was one of the team's few pleasant surprises as the lead-off batter hit .315.
The team's biggest weakness is its glut of mediocre and overpriced middle infielders.
Perhaps the biggest mistake of Bonifay's career came two years ago when he signed shortstop Pat Meares to a four-year contract worth $16 million.
Meares has been so unimpressive that McClendon moved him to second base to make room for 23-year-old rookie Jack Wilson, a prospect whose .164 batting average in April suggests he needs more time facing Triple A pitching.
Former Indians backup Enrique Wilson started at shortstop in Tuesday's game against the Giants, but his .135 April batting average shows he's not taking advantage of the situation.
Two others, Warren Morris and Mike Benjamin, are seeking eventual playing time. Morris was just recalled from Triple A Nashville while Benjamin recovers from a right elbow strain.
Help needed: Obviously, Giles, Kendall, Brown and Vander Wal can carry this team only so far.
And eventually the luster of a new ballpark wears out. The empty seats at Jacobs Field this season are proof.
The excitement of contending for a postseason berth is another season away for the Pirates.
At least.
XTom Williams covers major league baseball for The Vindicator.

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