A Forgotten Franchise
Remember Barry Bonds?
Of course you do, though we haven’t seen him play in almost a year. It seems like he’s been gone forever.
It's hard to believe that it was just a season ago that he passed Hank Aaron for the home-run crown.
Now, remember Barry Bonds...On the Pirates?
Yeah, that certainly seems like ages ago. It was actually 16 years ago to be exact.
It’s also the last time (1992) that the Pirates finished a season with a winning record.
That means that there are Latin American players signed by major-league clubs that were possibly not even born the last time that the Pittsburgh Pirates were north of .500.
A Franchise Restored
The Pirates certainly looked the part of a perennial contender back in the early ‘90s.
They had won three-straight division titles and had the best young player in the National League in Bonds.
One of the most storied franchises in baseball (if you can believe that now) was back on top after just one winning season between 1984 and 1989, five years after they won the last of their five championships in 1979.
In the final game that Barry Bonds ever played for the Pirates, they were leading the Braves 2-0 going into the bottom of the ninth, with 15-game-winner Doug Drabek just three outs away from sending the Bucs to their 10th World Series.
It was all for naught though, as the Braves scored three in the ninth, and the Pirates were sent packing. Little did they know that was also the last time they’d get a glimpse of glory, for what’s going on almost two decades.
Sid Bream scored the winning run in that Game Seven after a Bonds throw to the plate was not in time. You can’t really blame Bonds for that Game-Seven loss, but you can’t help but think that the 16 years that have followed don’t have anything to do with the Pirates' two-time MVP leaving town for a record contract with the Giants.
It was a blow that the team has simply never been able to recover from.
A New Era
Barry Bonds led the Pirates in almost every important offensive category in the 1992 season. You name it, and he pretty much did it.
He wasn’t a great player on a great team. He was the team.
There is almost no modern comparison to what it was like for the Pirates to lose Bonds at that time.
Remove Manny Ramirez or David Ortiz from the Boston Red Sox, and they still win.
Take away Alex Rodriguez from the Yankees, and they’ll be okay, too.
Those are teams with a lot of good players. They can sustain such a blow and not even have to replace a singular superstar to still complete.
I suppose the best comparison would be the St. Louis Cardinals and Albert Pujols. They wouldn’t be a very good team without him, but would they go from three outs from a World Series title to the worst team in baseball over the next 16 years?
The following year, after Bonds left, the Pirates dropped from 96 wins and a division title to 75 wins and a fifth-place finish.
Still, not all the blame falls on Bonds for the big collapse in the year after he left.
For one, management could have done something about it. Let’s face it, management has everything to do with this record run of ineptitude.
As for that one season, Andy Van Slyke, the second-best hitter behind Bonds on the ’92 team, missed half of the season and was at the end of his career. Also, the team ERA jumped from 3.35 to 4.77.
The only pitcher to start a game that season and finish with a winning record was 29-year old Jeff Ballard, who started five games and was 4-1 on the season in 25 appearances. Only Steve Cooke was a starter with an ERA under four (3.89), and that would be far and away the best of his three full major-league seasons.
Al Martin became the new “slugger” on the Pirates, with his team-leading 18 home runs and .481 slugging percentage. You can compare that to Bonds' .624 slugging percentage from the previous year, but why torture yourself?
1994 would be better for the Pirates for only one reason: It was shortened by a strike.
Prospects Don’t Deliver on Their Promise
As the early '90s became the mid-'90s, the Pirates were still a team stuck at the bottom of the division, but it seemed like they were getting younger and had a few bright spots to look forward to in the future.
By 1995, the young staff was anchored by Denny Neagle, Esteban Loaiza, and Jon Lieber.
Orlando Merced, Jeff King, and Al Martin were becoming reliable veterans that you could at least count on to keep you in the game.
But they weren’t just lacking a Barry Bonds-type star. They were lacking any kind of star.
In 1996, it looked like Jeff King was finally going to step it up another level. He belted 30 homers and drove in 111 runs for the Pirates, but they still finished in fifth place.
On the bright side, 1996 saw the debuts of 22-year old Jason Kendall and 23-year old Jason Schmidt—a player they acquired in a deal with the Atlanta Braves for the 14-6 Denny Neagle.
At the very least, it seemed the Pirates could be fun to watch again.
Flip This House
The trade of Denny Neagle would be just one of the many moves the Pirates would make during their run of awful baseball. It would also be one of the very few to work out well for them.
It wasn’t just the baseball played on the field that made the Pirates bad, but the moves made in the front office.
The year after they acquired Schmidt was their best season by far since 1992.
That year, 1997, saw them finish second in the division and just two wins away from an 81-81 record—what could have been their saving grace from these 16-straight losing seasons.
They were led by Kendall, Martin, Kevin Young, Tony Womack, and 21-year old Jose Guillen on offense. The pitching had a very respectable 4.28 ERA, with no starting pitcher older than 27.
Sure, Neagle went 20-5 for the Braves, and they made an awful offseason trade of leading hitter Jeff King for one year of Joe Randa, but they did finish in second-place, and they had a young, up-and-coming squad.
Except that the moves didn’t stop there.
In 1998, the wheels fell off, and the Pirates slipped back to sixth in the division. Despite getting good production from Kendall, Young, Womack, Jose Guillen, the debut of Aramis Ramirez, and having a team ERA of 3.91, they won just 69 games.
Before the 1999 season, they had traded Tony Womack to the Arizona Diamondbacks. While Womack isn’t a superstar, he did steal 118 bases for the Bucs in his two years as starter, and he went on to win a World Series with the D’Backs. The Pirates couldn’t replace Womack, and they started five different players in the next six years.
Those second basemen were baseball “legends” Warren Morris, Pat Meares, Pokey Reese, Jeff Reboulet, and Jose Castillo.
Near the trade deadline in 1998, they sent Esteban Loaiza to Texas for Morris and Todd Van Poppel.
In the offseason, they sent Lieber, a reliable innings-eater, to the Chicago Cubs for utility player Brant Brown. He played for the Pirates for one year.
In July of ’99, they sent Jose Guillen to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Joe Oliver and Humberto Cota.
Two years later, they sent Schmidt (and John Vander Wal) to the Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. Rios was out of the league two years later, while Schmidt twice finished in the top-five for Cy Young voting with the Giants.
Now, in 2003—11 years after their last winning season—the Pirates made another deadline deal, and this one probably takes the cake for the worst trade of all. They sent third baseman Aramis Ramirez (and Kenny Lofton, I might add) to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and minor leaguer Matt Bruback.
Hernandez played 58 games for the Pirates that year and was gone for good. Hill played 126 games for the Pirates in 2004, batting .266 with 27 RBI. He would be gone a year later. I don’t need to remind baseball fans about whether or not Aramis Ramirez has been good since the trade.
The one good deal they made was trading their star, Brian Giles, to the Padres in return for Jason Bay and Oliver Perez. While Perez faded after his first year (which was brilliant) in Pittsburgh, it was worth it just to get Bay for Giles.
But that’s only one good deal after dozens of bad ones.
Through all of those years, they said goodbye to Jason Schmidt, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Esteban Loaiza, Tony Womack, Jon Lieber, and Jose Guillen. Today, they have Jason Bay to show for it.
On top of that, they released Tim Wakefield, Bronson Arroyo was picked up by the Red Sox on waivers, and Gary Matthews Jr. was sold to the New York Mets.
After all of those years of holding onto Jason Kendall and refusing to trade their overrated catcher, they traded him to Oakland before the 2005 season for Mark Redman, Arthur Rhodes, and cash. Rhodes never pitched for the Pirates, and Redman went 5-15 in his one season there. I hope they spent the cash wisely.
The Pirates are a team that completely changes from year to year. The only sure thing about the players is that they will get dealt when it appears they will become too expensive.
Ryan Doumit is the third starting catcher since Kendall’s departure.
Since Kevin Young left after 2002, Randall Simon, Daryle Ward, Sean Casey, Craig Wilson, and Adam LaRoche have all seen significant time at first base. Rookie Steven Pearce will most likely be the sixth by next season.
It would take forever to count the number of pitchers to start for the Pirates in the 2000s. They have more turnover than a local Starbucks.
What Can the Future Bring?
I could say, “Now is the time for the Pirates to show what they are made of.” But the truth is, that time should have come 15 years ago, and every year since. What the ownership in Pittsburgh is doing makes very little sense.
Last week, the Pirates made their annual deadline deal, sending Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the Yankees for four players.
I actually don’t mind this deal, as Nady was having a career year and you get Jose Tabata, a Baseball America top 100, in return. For the Pirates, a team without much of a farm system, any prospect helps.
On the downside though, this is how they go every season, losing more than they win. The Pirates are eight games under .500, so it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that they could have finished with a winning record.
But sending off one of your best hitters and best relievers for a player who probably won’t see the majors before 2011 doesn’t send a message to the fans that the time for winning is now.
So when will that time be?
If they finish off the deadline by trading Jason Bay to a contender, that time won’t be coming anytime soon.
If they hold onto Bay, they could start a trend not yet seen in Pittsburgh. Currently, the outfield includes Bay and Nate McClouth, one of the best young outfielders in the game. By next season it will include Baseball America’s 14th best prospect heading into the year, Andrew McCutchen.
That outfield, plus Doumit, Pearce, and third baseman Neil Walker, is a pretty good start for the Pirates, and this could feel like 1997 again. Of course, their current team ERA of 5.25 doesn’t help matters, but at least it’s a start.
The biggest test for the Pirates won’t come this year, it will come next year when Jason Bay will be looking for a contract extension. He’ll either get the extension that the Pirates have refused to give so many times to so many stars, or he’ll be traded for players that could be ready in two or three years.
The problem being that three or four years after those players debut, it will be time to trade them for the next batch of prospects. Meanwhile, the fans don’t recognize the names on the backs of the jerseys anymore, and one of baseball’s oldest and most decorated teams will fade off into oblivion.
If they aren’t going to pursue free agents (when’s the last time you ever heard the Pirates sign a big-name free agent?), then they are going to have to start holding onto their own.
Their biggest deals right now pay Jack Wilson about $6 million a year and Jason Bay about $5.5 million. Both of those contracts expire after next year.
While it’s going to be, “See you later!” to Wilson, what to do with Bay? He’ll most certainly be asking for a raise in the eight-figure range. Can the Pirates do that when their payroll is only $48 million?
It certainly isn’t all about having the biggest payroll. The Rays lead the AL East while paying their players the least amount in baseball.
But can there even be a comparison to the Rays and the Pirates? Even the 2007 Rays, who had the worst record in the league?
Even before they added David Price, the top pitching-prospect in baseball, the farm was loaded with Evan Longoria, Reid Brignac, Wade Davis, and others. The team had already been getting production out of young players like Carl Crawford, James Shield, and Scott Kazmir.
Is there one pitcher on the Pirates as good, or with the potential to be as good, as any of those two pitchers? Even to be as good as Matt Garza?
No, and not even in the farm system is that true.
Neil Walker could be a very good third baseman, and McCutchen could have a great career in centerfield. Top pick Pedro Alvarez (if he ever signs) appears to be a great hitter that would nicely fill in that hole left by Aramis Ramirez.
But even with that, they still don’t match up with the Rays. After adding Tabata, the Pirates now have four players in the Baseball America's top 100. The Rays could have probably had four in the top 10.
What’s a Buc To Do?
If management had any sense, they’d get out there and sign some free agents, but they won’t do that. Not any good ones at least.
They won’t sign a shortstop like Orlando Cabrera or Rafael Furcal because they’d cost too much, and they’d have to pay Jack Wilson $6 million to ride the pine.
They won’t do what they really should do, which is say “screw it” and break the bank on CC Sabathia or Ben Sheets. If they did that, not only would they win more games, but they’d keep them away from a division rival.
There are other options though.
They could sign a guy like Randy Wolf. Someone that is cheaper than the stars, but would still be consistent and an innings eater.
They could get bullpen help in Dan Wheeler or Rafael Soriano. These moves would at least improve the pitching, if not by a lot, then at least by enough to keep them close in a few more games.
By the end of next season, some more attractive free agents become available. Bobby Crosby and Khalil Greene could be less expensive (yet very intriguing) options at shortstop.
Octavio Dotel and Fernando Rodney to improve the bullpen.
And if you were feeling like making a splash, there’s always Matt Holliday, Vladimir Guerrero, Carl Crawford, and Rich Harden.
No, they won’t sign those guys, but they should.
They should at least make an effort.
I have never seen a team worse than the Tigers of 2003, when they lost 119 games. But it wasn’t too long before they went to the World Series.
How’d they do it? By making a splash.
They signed Ivan Rodriguez and traded for Carlos Guillen. Subtle, but very significant moves that saw them improve by 29 wins.
The next year, they traded for Placido Polanco and signed Magglio Ordonez, who was cheaper because he was coming off injuries.
Before 2006, they signed veteran pitcher Kenny Rogers and brought up minor leaguers Curtis Granderson and Justin Verlander.
All of these moves were relatively inexpensive and very low key, yet they propelled them to the AL Pennant.
It’s not rocket science to sign a few key players that are at least better than what you have now, take some risks on players who are coming off injuries and can be had for cheaper, and make smaller trades to acquire players that aren’t wanted by their current ballclubs.
Fantasy managers sell high and buy low all the time. Why can’t real general managers learn how to do the same?
The Pirates sold high on Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, and in the future, it could be a great move, but it also keeps them that much further from ending this streak of 16-straight losing seasons.
They’ll need to start buying low as well.
Well, they need to start buying...Period. Just ask Barry Bonds.