August 27, 2003
"This is Our Fault"
The McClatchy Ownership as Team Builder, Part III
In part one of this series on the roster-building woes of the Pirates--most of them self-inflicted as the organization careens from crisis to crisis like an inebriated pachyderm with a stuttering problem pirouetting through a mine field while trying to recite key scenes from Finnegan's Wake--it was alleged that the Pirates have a long history of making disastrous trades, and that in fact the list of good trades barely existed. Herewith, the evidence.
SHORTSTOPS, WE GOT SHORTSTOPS!
1927: Pirates trade SS Joe Cronin to Kansas City Blues (American Association) for cash
The Pirates gave up on Cronin at 21, which, to be fair, the Washington Senators almost did too, until Bob Quinn of the Red Sox saved them by demanding the team's starting shortstop in trade for Buddy Myer. Despite a case of the Steve Sax/Chuck Knoblauch yips that would force him to field grounders on his knees during a later stint with the Red Sox, Cronin drove in over 100 runs eight times and went to Cooperstown.
Wright was one of the few slugging shortstops of his age; in the juiced year of 1930 he would hit .321/.360/.543 for Brooklyn. The Pirates had become wary of him because his arm--previously touted as one of the game's great pieces of meat--had gone bad, reportedly due to an injury suffered while playing handball, or throwing clubs with Calvin Coolidge, or maybe dancing the Charleston. Petty was 12-16 as a Pirate, while Riconda appeared in only eight games.
Just 22, Bartell had nearly 1,700 games and three pennants to go. Thevenow, 27, was a terrible hitter even for a shortstop of the era, and quite likely one of the five worst hitters of all-time with more than 1,000 games played. Willoughby's career had nine games left.
At least the Pirates waited a decade before dealing another good shortstop. This time, the 29-year-old, career .324 hitter Vaughan brought no prospects, only two guys Leo Durocher was eager to get rid of (Coscarart and Phelps), a 27-year-old first baseman who couldn't hit, and a 37-year-old pitcher.
Over 40 years later it's still hard to figure what the Pirates were thinking; Groat, 31, had been the 1960 MVP and hadn't slipped dramatically. As it was, he had enough left to finish second in the 1963 MVP voting and to start at short for the 1964 champions. Gotay played seven games for the Pirates. Cardwell, 27, went 33-33, 3.38.
Patek and Frank Taveras (Pittsburgh's shortstop throughout the 70s) were similar kinds of players, but Patek was a tiny bit better. The return of the three-time All-Star included a veteran shortstop who was one of the great bad bats, a 26-year-old catcher who would hit .147 in 217 career at-bats (third-worst all-time, >225 PA division), and a journeyman righty who left his fastball in the city of fountains.
THIRTEEN MONTHS OF ROSTER INSANITY
11/5/1976: Pirates trade C Manny Sanguillen and $100,000 to A's for Manager Chuck Tanner
Sanguillen was 33 and about to go into the traditional catcher's steep 30-something decline, but neither the Pirates nor the A's knew that; he was, to that point, a hitter with a career .303 average and .742 OPS during a period when the typical catcher was at .247/.677. He should have brought more in trade than just Mr. Happy, whose spectacular lack of discipline led to the collapse of the team. Even if Sanguillen had brought Joe McCarthy rather than Tanner, it's debatable whether any manager is worth as much as a good player.
Good or bad, you make the call: the Pirates agreed to forego 13 seasons (two All-Star) of Reynolds' bunt-crazy, on-base impaired, occasional pop career (a longtime Astro, Reynolds' offensive production was muted by his home park). In exchange, the Pirates received five seasons of strong work (29-19, 36 SV, 3.21 ERA) from one of the few lefty middlemen actually worth his pay.
But for Martinez, a mid-range pitching prospect, all the players here were playing out their options. At the time of the trade, Zisk's career averages were .299/.366/.477. Gossage and Forster were already established as two of the elite relievers of the day. The problem, and this was in no way unique to the Pirates, was that they were unable to realize any value for two pitchers determined to test the market.
Otherwise known as the "Let's trade the whole damned farm system for one second baseman, and don't we wish we hadn't dumped Willie Randolph on the Yankees" deal.
"It's like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him the same question: why. He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time." - Steve McQueen, The Magnificent Seven. Blyleven clashed with his manager and didn't pitch up to his ability (34-28, 3.47); Milner had one good season left. Oliver as a Ranger: .319/.358/.466 over four seasons.
DO WE WANT MIKE EASLER OR DON'T WE?
4/4/1977: Pirates trade P Randy Sealy to Angels for OF Mike Easler
Drafted at age 18 in 1969, Easler could always hit but his fielding was suspect; the Pirates were his fourth organization. Total major league plate appearances to this point: 88. Sealy never made the show.
10/27/1978: Pirates trade Mike Easler to Red Sox for cash
Easler got 18 PAs for the Bucs in '77 and hit .444 with a homer. That earned him a trip to Triple-A Columbus in 1978, where he won the International League batting crown. This earned him exactly no time with the big club. The Sox, however, were interested.
3/15/1979: Pirates trade OF George Hill, P Martin Rivas, and cash to Red Sox for Mike Easler
Check out the timeline: it took the Red Sox only a couple of weeks of Spring Training to decide they weren't interested in the lefty slugger. The Pirates too had changed their mind and had to fork over two minor leaguers (where they stayed) and dough to get back a player they had just gotten rid of.
12/6/1983: Pirates trade Mike Easler to Red Sox for LHP John Tudor
After a year on the bench, Easler finally got into the lineup in 1980 and commenced a three-year run of .301/.353/.473, enough to convince the Sox that perhaps they had been too hasty back in '79.
WE EAT OUR YOUNG
It goes without saying that Casey Stengel was a great baseball mind, and he was a very good player when used properly (as he showed with the Giants just a few years later). At this time, though, he was just 27, impulsive, and very, very angry about his level of compensation. Brooklyn's Charles Ebbets was eager to send him someplace like Pittsburgh, where the owner, Barney Dreyfuss, would be even less receptive to his demands for more money. Not long after starting with the Pirates, Stengel was refusing to run hard or slide, saying: "With the salary I got here, I'm so hollow and starving that I'm liable to explode like a light-bulb if I hit the ground too hard." Late that season he quit the Pirates to join the Navy. This was before the government's "work or fight" order effectively shut down baseball. Spitballer Grimes, 23, had compiled a 5-19 record with a sub-par 3.30 ERA. United with pitching guru Wilbert Robinson of the Dodgers, he'd surpass the 20-win mark four times from 1918-1926.
Star player versus manager: with rare exceptions--say Pete Alexander vs. Joe McCarthy--the team is going to lose whenever it backs the manager. There are few skippers who can contribute the equivalent of 100 runs created with their brains. Cuyler was the Carlos Beltran of his day, a speedster with power--imagine Beltran hitting .355 and running out everything and you'd have the right idea. In 1927, Cuyler was a veteran of four big league campaigns and a key factor in the Pirates' pennant winner. Nonetheless, manager Donie Bush benched him toward the end of the season and did not use him in the four-game World Series with the Yankees. In 1926, Cuyler had batted third and played center field. Bush moved him to left field and batted him second. Cuyler took this as an insult, and the resultant friction between he and Bush led to a benching. After being swept by the Yankees in the Series, the Pirates elected to keep Bush--for another year and change. Cuyler went on until 1938, hitting .315/.381/.458 and playing on two Cubs pennant winners.
Buddy Bell's daddy, just 23, got into trouble with GM Branch Rickey because he wanted his family to travel with him. This seems an odd thing for Rickey--advocate of abstemiousness and the institution of marriage--to be offended by, but the great general manager was 71, and as has been said many times, as we grow older our beliefs become a parody of what they were when we were younger. Bell was first sent to the Pacific Coast League, a punitive demotion, then dumped after the season. There were 166 home runs and four 100-RBI seasons to come.
6/4/1953: Pirates trade OF Ralph Kiner, C Joe Garagiola, P Howie Pollet, OF Catfish Metkovich to Cubs for C Toby Atwell, P Bob Schultz, 1B Preston Ward, 3B Gene Freese, OF Bob Addis, OF Gene Hermanski, $150,000
Rickey was fervid in his desire to trade Ralph Kiner, who was not acceptable to the Mahatma as the best player on his team; Kiner's limitations could be traded for a passel of promising prospects. By the time Rickey finally convinced ownership that Kiner had to go, the slugger looked a lot less attractive to prospective buyers than he had just two years before. As such, Gene Freese was the only young player in the deal, the main benefit to the Pirates being payroll reduction/cash infusion.
A chance for the Yankees to export payroll in the form of busted free agent signing Kemp, the Pirates unnecessarily sweetened the deal with the junior outfield throw-in. That New York also received the manager's son was just icing; they were so anxious to rid themselves of Kemp that they would have taken anyone.
On the surface of it, this would seem a steal, a pitcher who was 17-38 in his career for the slugging Bonilla. But analyzing trades requires looking at circumstances at the time of the deal; DeLeon was just 25, had a live arm, and hadn't pitched nearly as badly as his record suggested. Worse, the trade wouldn't have been necessary in the first place had the Pirates protected Bonilla in the Rule V draft. Losing DeLeon was the price of that oversight.
Steven Goldman writes The Pinstriped Bible for www.yesnetwork.com, where he waxes snarky about the adventures of the New York Yankees, plus almost anyone and anything else that comes to mind. Steve's book on the early career of Casey Stengel will be published by Brasseys in 2004. Questions, comments, and suggestions welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.