We woke up this morning to a brave new world that has the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have finished below .500 for the past 18 seasons, alone at the top of the National League Central. It’s tempting to conclude that these Pirates are being driven by high draft picks such as Andrew McCutchen (the official non-Twin of The Platoon Advantage), Paul Maholm, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez. And while those players (excepting Alvarez, who has been a huge disappointment) have indeed been instrumental to the club’s unexpected success, the Pirates actually owe another large portion of their success in 2011 to three long-forgotten Buccos who the club acquired in the very early days of their descent, and were mere afterthoughts even when they were initially acquired by oft-maligned general managers Larry Doughty and Cam Bonifay.
Syd Thrift was apparently an amazing judge of talent in Pittsburgh. While Barry Bonds was already part of the organization, Thrift was responsible for drafting Bobby Bonilla from the White Sox in the Rule 5 draft, then trading for him again after the team returned him. He got Moises Alou in the January draft. He swindled the Yankees for Doug Drabek. Traded Tony Pena for Mike LaValliere and Andy Van Slyke. He got Gary Redus for nothing. And he hired Jim Leyland to run the team. He built the Pirates into contenders, but by the end of 1988, he was forced out by ownership. The core of players he put together would win 289 games from 1990-1992, and garner three straight AL East titles.
His successor, Doughty, did not have the same impact. He did acquire Jay Bell from the Indians for Felix Fermin. He got Don Slaught from the Yankees. And he lucked into acquiring Neal Heaton for his one All Star season. But more often, he was overmatched. With his team in the playoff chase in 1990, he dealt Willie Greene, Scott Ruskin and a player to be named to Montreal for Zane Smith. That player, who Dougherty mistakenly named in his press conference, was Moises Alou. Later that month, he put prospects Wes Chamberlain (Baseball America’s #25 ranked prospect) and Julio Peguero on what he thought was revocable waivers. They turned out to be irrevocable waivers and the Phillies claimed both of them. After the 1991 season, Doughty was fired “because of my gross errors far outweighed my successes,” he told reporters. Before he left, however, he signed an undrafted amateur, Jason Christiansen, to a minor league contract in June. Christiansen would rise through the Pirates system and become a trusted lefty reliever by the mid 1990s.
After Doughty’s replacement, Ted Simmons, suffered a heart attack in 1992, Cam Bonifay was elevated to the General Manager’s job. His tenure, of course, was an utter disaster. The team lost 675 games across the next eight seasons, with a .451 winning percentage. And he was fired in June of 2011, with the team in the middle of a 100 loss seasons, and the club struggling with a 19-41 record. Bonifay garnered a reputation for handing out big contracts to mediocre players, including Kevin Young, Pat Meares, and Derek Bell. In the middle of sinking the Pirates to the depths of the National League, Bonifay made two minor pickups, drafting the immortal Rob Mackowiak in the 53rd round of the 1996 draft, and purchasing Ricardo Rincon from the Mexican League in 1997.
And from these three humble beginnings, the 2011 Pirates were born. Observe:
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Rincon immediately became one of the best LOOGYs in baseball, and was famously shipped the next summer for Indians prospect Brian Giles. This, of course, was one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history. +1 for Bonifay. Giles was also dealt in a successful deal in 2003 that netted the Pirates Jason Bay and Oliver Perez. Bay quickly became a perfect replacement for Giles, and one of the most underrated players in the national League. In 2008, he was sent to the Red Sox in a three way deal that landed four players, none of whom have contributed in Pittsburgh, or are likely to. After some initial success, Perez became the frustrating enigma he is today, and the Pirates managed to unload him onto the Mets with Roberto Hernandez for Xavier Nady.
Jason Christiansen eventually made his way to the Majors in 1995, and played in Pittsburgh until 2000, when he was traded mid-season to the Cardinals for shortstop Jack Wilson. Wilson, of course, was a Pittsburgh mainstay starting the next season until July of 2009, providing strong defense and even randomly won a Silver Slugger award and an All Star appearance in 2004. He was traded with Ian Snell for five players, only one of whom has made any kind of contribution to the Pirates. That’s Ronny Cedeno, the defensive whiz who has surprisingly held his own offensively in 2011 and been worth more than a win above replacement.
Indeed, in 2011, the Pirates are an example to the still moribund Royals that high draft choices are not enough to build a winning team. But taking advantage of opportunities to improve even at the extreme margins can have long-lasting effects on a ballclub when those players are eventually traded in.
Bonus: Friend of the Blog David Kaleida, who writes the excellent 6-4-3 Putout blog, posted an even more in depth look at the Pirates and how they were constructed, going through all the players on the 40 man roster and how they came to Pittsburgh. Awesome work, David!