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Pirates face long climb back

Streaks of sun darted through the clouds above Pirate City as Andy Van Slyke walked out of the clubhouse.

Once bright with promise, the Pirates are a rebuilding team _ and Van Slyke knows it. He watched his teammates mingle on the field and, despite the usual blind hope of spring training, he strained to answer a question.

"I don't know if we can win," said Van Slyke, Pittsburgh's stellar outfielder. He paused. "I don't know.

"We basically won in the past because of our pitching. We were a bad team last year because of our pitching."

Much has been made of the big-name departures from Pittsburgh, especially when MVP Barry Bonds packed his gear for San Francisco in 1993. But the Pirates scored more runs last season (4.4 per game) than in 1992, when they won their third straight NL East crown.

However, the staff ERA ballooned from 3.35 to 4.77. Doug Drabek left for Houston, and the pitchers who remained broke down. Pittsburgh, the NL East champion from 1990-92, won 21 fewer games (75-87). Now the Pirates' hopes rest on rehabilitations, surgeries and comebacks.

Left-hander Zane Smith (3-7) pitched sparingly after shoulder surgery.

Lefty Randy Tomlin (14-9 in '92) sunk to 4-8 and had arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone spur in his left elbow.

Right-handed knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, a phenom rookie in 1992 (8-1), became the '93 Opening Day pitcher and skidded to 6-11. He also had his elbow 'scoped because of bone chips.

Relief pitcher Alejandro Pena missed last season because of elbow surgery.

A healthy Pena will be a plus, if he's not needed too much.

"What was suicide for us last year was that we just didn't get any innings out of our starters," manager Jim Leyland said. "We were in our bullpen way too early and way too often.

"If our starters are okay, then the bullpen will be okay. Zane looks healthy, but we can't rush him. Wakefield is a mystery. He had a great year, then a lousy year."

Wakefield probably won't collect a lot of wins, Leyland said. "Knuckleballers traditionally don't. But we need to get innings from him."

Wakefield said he tried too hard last year, "tried things I wasn't capable of doing. It got me in trouble early, and I hit the panic button.

"It was a learning experience. I'm glad it's over with. I'm ready to get going."

Is Smith ready? He smiled at the question, turned his palms up and shrugged his shoulders.

"I think my arm is in shape," he said. "My arm feels 10 times better than last year. By the end of spring training, I should be 100 percent or normal or whatever you call it."

Call it healthy, Leyland hopes.

"If our pitchers aren't healthy, we're going to have to get lightning in a bottle from somebody we're not counting on," Leyland said.

For now, Smith, Tomlin and Wakefield are starters, along with last season's rookies, Steve Cooke (10-10, 3.89) and Paul Wagner (8-8, 4.27).

"Our everyday club is in pretty good shape," Leyland said. "It's not a bad everyday club."

Leyland could not be so hopeful last season, until rookies Carlos Garcia (.269, second base) and Al Martin (.281, outfield) came through.

Also, third baseman Jeff King (.295) and catcher Don Slaught (.300) had their best seasons as Pirates. Shortstop Jay Bell (.310) won the Gold Glove Award.

Van Slyke is coming back after breaking his collarbone in June. He batted .322 until then. Outfielder Orlando Merced (.313) also returns.

"We can be a good team again," Van Slyke said. "If we pitch well."