After another painful season from the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021, one where the team looked completely outmatched every time they took the field, it has fans reminiscing of the years when they had some competitive edge. Years like 1960, 1971 and 2013 are commonly discussed – as they should be – but with how poorly they played in 2020 and 2021, there are some years that, even though they ended with a losing record, looked way better than the seasons do now.
One of those years was 2003.
Considering we’re almost coming up on 20 years since then, it’s a good time to reminisce on some names that helped make the 2000s somewhat tolerable for Pirates fans.
Before we dissect who was on the active roster at the time, we must first go over the team itself. The Pirates finished fourth in the NL Central with a 75-87 record, just 13 games back of the divisional champion Chicago Cubs (88-74).
Starting off, the team was led by Lloyd McClendon, who’s only real accolade in Pittsburgh was being the first manager in history to steal first base. However, he was a part of the National League coaching staff during that year’s All-Star Game, so that was nice.
VIDEO: June 15, 2001 - Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon gets ejected and steals first base.
Collectively, the Bucs’ lineup had lots of diversity in terms of player age. Finishing the season with a batter average age of 29.7 – just below the league average of 29.5 – the Pirates posted a .267/.338/.420 line, which was better every team in the division besides the St. Louis Cardinals (.279/.350/.454).
The team also centered around speed, finishing second in the NL in triples (45) and fourth in stolen bases (86).
One area that the Pirates struggled heavily with was pitching, amassing an underwhelming 4.64 ERA as a team – good for 12th place out of 16 teams in the NL. The team also failed to break 1,000 strikeouts. Despite this, the Pirates tied with five other teams for fourth place in shutouts (10), according to Baseball-Reference.
Pirates’ pitchers found success in other ways, as they did not allow many free passes that season, finishing tied for second in the NL with 3.1 walks per game, and they also collected 44 saves, tying them with the Milwaukee Brewers for fourth place.
So if they found some luck in a lot of areas, what went wrong?
Well, the blame can be spread amongst the middle relief/late-inning guys, as three of their five primary arms finished with ERAs above five.
All-in-all, although the team posted a mediocre kind of season… at least it’s better than what we saw last year.
When looking at the roster in 2003, it’s easy to see why offense was a strong point for the Pirates. From the starting lineup to their bench, hitting was plentiful.
Catcher Jason Kendall, who was nearing the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh, continued to be the thorn in pitchers’ sides, hitting .325/.399/.416 and finishing the season with an OPS of .816. Defensively, he put up only 10 errors in 1,278 innings – the most by any player on the Pirates that season.
The infield was… interesting. Manning the corners were Randall Simon who hit .274 in 91 games, while a young Aramis Ramirez hit .280, but struggled defensively by committing a team-high 24 errors.
VIDEO: April 13, 2003 - Pirates fall to Cubs despite strong effort by Aramis Ramirez.
Meanwhile, Jack Wilson and Jeff Reboulet held down the middle infield defensively, but couldn’t generate much offense. At least Reboulet had that sweet mustache.
The outfield, however, fueled the way for the Pirates in 2003.
Led by Reggie Sanders, Brian Giles and Kenny Lofton, the trio put together a .287 cumulative batting average with 56 home runs and 183 RBI. Sanders saw the most luck out of the three, let alone anyone on the team, with 31 home runs and 87 RBI.
VIDEO: June 21, 2003 - Brian Giles robs Brandon Phillips of a home run.
Lofton would play 84 games with the Pirates – before he and Ramirez were traded to the Chicago Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback and a PTBNL, later revealed as infielder Bobby Hill – and collected 94 hits with 18 stolen bases.
“Hill had a .253 average in 64 games with the Cubs. He spent part of the 2002 season as Chicago’s starting second baseman,” - Associated Press, 2003
Giles was traded to the San Diego Padres later that season in exchange for Oliver Perez and finished out his Pirates tenure with a .299 average with 16 home runs and a team-high 30 doubles.
Following Lofton’s departure, players like Tike Redman, Jason Bay and Matt Stairs would fill the outfield gaps until the end of the season with relative success. Redman utilized his speed to leg out seven triples, Bay tallied a .423 on-base percentage with a .506 slugging percentage and Stairs helped power the offense with 20 home runs.
VIDEO: Sept. 19, 2003 - Jason Bay collects 8 RBI in win over Chicago Cubs.
One other notable contributor was utility man Craig Wilson, who hit .262/.360/.511 with 18 home runs.
Who tallied the most HBP on the Pirates in 2003?
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Over to the pitching, the starting rotation had some things to cheer about, especially Kip Wells. The 26-year-old joined Jeff Suppan and Josh Fogg with 10 wins on the season. Wells also posted a 3.57 ERA in 197 innings pitched.
Did we mention Wells could hit too?
Jeff D’Amico and Kris Benson really struggled that year. D’Amico went 9-16 with a 4.57 ERA, while Benson went 5-9 with a 4.97 ERA.
The bullpen didn’t help the team much, other than Julian Tavarez who went 3-3 with a 3.66 ERA in 83 innings pitched — the second-most by any Pirates reliever that season. In addition to those numbers, he allowed just one home run all season, leaving his HR/9 at 0.1.
The revolving door in the bullpen featured young arms like the aforementioned Perez; Nelson Figueroa and Salomon Torres, who combined for nine wins; Mike Williams, the team’s closer who had 25 saves but posted a miserable 1-3 record and 6.27 ERA; and Pat Mahomes, father of NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Similar to last season, finding a good arm was a struggle for the Pirates in 2003.
The worst part about the ‘03 Pirates was that they had adequate talent that fans wouldn’t mind seeing today. However, with the amount of star power across the league and a lackluster pitching staff, the team that looked good on Opening Day was not destined for success that year.