OUR FAULT V: SMALL-NAME FREE AGENTS AND OTHER GIVEAWAYS
Only twice during the free agent era have the Pirates signed a player of sufficiently high profile to warrant draft compensation to the team he departed (although why this was the case with 1979 signing Andy Hassler is unclear. He had no profile). Until 1998, Pittsburgh free agent signings were of the superannuated veteran, high-risk/low upside variety. As such, the Pirates paid for the last 53 games of Gene Tenace‘s career, the last 40 games of Amos Otis, and the last 72 games of Sixto Lezcano. Only the 1979 signing of outfielder Lee Lacy, an undistinguished part-timer with the Dodgers from 1972, paid dividends. Lacy was not blessed with great power or plate judgment, but in six Pittsburgh seasons he was a consistent .300 hitter. Even he, though, must be marked with an asterisk as he was, allegedly, one of the narcotics abusers infesting the Pittsburgh clubhouse at the time. Then again, drugs in the clubhouse didn’t bother anyone in Pittsburgh at the time, so perhaps it isn’t worth mentioning.
In both the 1997 and 1998 off-seasons, the club once again sallied into the free agent market. Pitcher Mike Williams was signed after going 6-16 with a 5.52 ERA from 1996-1997. The following winter, Mike Benjamin, a utility infielder with one of the all-time weak bats (.224/.275/.337 in 507 games through 1998) to a four-year, $3.25 million contract. For a franchise that claimed to have limited resources, Benjamin was a disastrous addition and a clear sign that the owner and his general manager (still Bonifay) did not understand that baseball had entered the age of the two-way infielder.
The Benjamin signing was followed by an even more disastrous move that February, the signing of Minnesota Twins’ free agent shortstop Pat Meares. Meares was Benjamin again, but with slightly more pop (.682 OPS versus .612). He was having trouble finding a taker for his limited talents when the Pirates blew him away with a four-year $12 million contract. The Pirates had also signed free agent third baseman Ed Sprague, another moderate power, I will not eat Green Eggs and Walks player. Pittsburgh now had three slow, right-handed, over-30, low-OBP players in key roles.
Concurrent with these signings, the team made several trades that simultaneously demonstrated the best and worst of what the McClatchy-Bonifay axis had to offer. Lefty spot reliever Ricardo Rincon was sent to Cleveland in exchange for Brian Giles, a 27-year-old outfielder who had excelled in three part-time seasons with the Indians but could not win a fulltime job. This was only the second time during the period in question that the Pirates were able to realize concrete value in a trade, dealing an effective but inessential spare part for a productive everyday player.
Less than a month after the Rincon trade, the Pirates made another move which demonstrated that the organization did not understand what it had accomplished in acquiring Giles, and just why that particular trade, even before Giles had played for the Pirates, was so good. Jon Lieber, whom Bonifay had stolen from the Royals in his very first swap as GM, was a 28-year-old righty pitcher with exemplary control and above-average strikeout totals. From 1997 to 1998 his won-lost record was just 19-28, but his (unadjusted) ERA was league average, meaning that with decent offensive support he would have been closer to breaking even. In short, Lieber wasn’t a Cy Young in the making, but he was a decent pitcher who had a strong chance of blossoming in another setting.
The Cubs were willing to take the chance. In return, the Pirates accepted outfielder/first baseman Brant Brown, a 27-year-old left-handed journeyman with some home run power, an extreme reluctance to take a walk, and zero defensive skills. Brown posted a .283 OBP for the Pirates in nearly fulltime play, then was dealt to the Marlins for the undistinguished outfielder Bruce Aven. Lieber became a 20-game winner in Chicago.
OUR FAULT VI: SOME PIRATES’ FREE AGENT SIGNINGS, 1996-2002: A POEM
We bought ice cream from the Krauzer’s
And shared our only spoon.
I tried not too laugh
When you told me that Honus
Would be coming home soon.
You love him and not me
But it’s not so bad; you see,
You don’t love Pete Rose, Jr. either.
Nor Ricky Jordan (why bother with him?), Doug Strange,
Jeff Tabaka, Pete Schourek, Bob Milacki.
I can see Ivan Cruz, but not Matthew Howard,
Rafael Bournigal if you must,
But never Dave Sveum.
Wil Cordero, a masher in all the wrong ways,
Did well, I admit, as did Todd Ritchie.
Yet why me go solo
For old Luis Sojo?
Brad Clontz, Derek Bell, and Terry Mulholland?
You don’t love me,
Though I was born right nearby,
And I want to come home.
Ken Griffey, Jr.
OUR FAULT VII: WOMACKIAN DOOLEYS
Back on July 17, 1998, the Pirates had dealt starting pitcher Esteban Loaiza, a 26-year-old right-hander of moderate talents, to the Rangers, receiving in return the eternal pitching prospect Todd Van Poppel (8.84 ERA at the time) and rookie second baseman Warren Morris. This had the makings of a very good deal; but for occasional moments, Loaiza remained an average pitcher, while Van Poppel was cheap enough that the Pirates could gamble on his famous, likely mythical, upside. Most importantly, in adding Morris the team was acknowledging the weakness of incumbent second baseman Tony Womack, a home grown infielder who was, at the time, an excellent base runner but couldn’t reach first if you tied him to the back of a Big Wheel and asked your three-year-old daughter to peddle him there.
Morris was a bona fide hot prospect, a 24-year-old fifth-round draft pick who had a .922 OPS at AA Tulsa. Miraculously, Morris was still the same prospect when transplanted to the Pirates’ Southern League team. Over 139 games, Morris hit .331 with 30 doubles, eight triples, 19 home runs, 67 walks, and, bone for traditional stat-lovers, 103 RBIs. Morris bypassed Triple-A and hit well in his major league debut the following season. Unfortunately, like so many young second basemen, Morris failed to grow, losing his bat amidst criticism of his defense. By 2001, Morris was largely out of Pittsburgh’s plans, replaced by the increasingly impotent Meares and Abraham Nunez. Apparently displaced by Morris, Womack had been dealt to the Diamondbacks in February, 1999 for outfielder Paul Weichard and pitcher Jason Boyd. Neither developed.
When catcher Jason Kendall suffered a hideously broken leg in July, 1999, the Pirates felt under pressure to acquire another backstop, even though they had traded for veteran backup Tim Laker earlier in the season. Abruptly giving up on Jose Guillen, an outfielder who the Pirates had rushed to the majors from A-ball back in 1997, they sent him, along with pitcher Jeff Sparks, to the Devil Rays in exchange for veteran Joe Oliver, another low-OBP/occasional power right-hander, and the catching prospect Humberto Cota–who looked good at the time. He has, of course, since gone backwards.
OUR FAULT VIII: OPERATION SHUTDOWN AND CO.
The point being made here is not one that is only possible with the benefit of hindsight, that almost every player acquired in trade by the Pirates was doomed to fail, but rather to establish a pattern that by the sheer weight of its consistency defies the possibility of bad luck or coincidence. Simply, the Pirates made bad choices. They acquired multiple minor leaguers without success. They signed free agents that the rest of baseball did not value.
By 2001, Pat Meares had suffered a hand injury that proved to be permanently incapacitating. His replacement, Jack Wilson, came from the Cardinals in a one-on-one trade for the coveted situational lefty reliever Jason Christianson. McClatchy, Bonifay, and friends had not yet gotten over their addiction to mediocre right-handed hitters. On December 9, 2000, the Pirates signed free agent right fielder Derek Bell to a $5 million contract. For at least two years, Bell had been the least productive corner outfielder in the majors; this was disguised somewhat by an early 2000 hot streak, but his numbers in the second half of the season, .187 with six home runs in full time play, did little to dispel the image of a player in rapid decline.
Bell batted .173 through about a third of the season before an injury mercifully shelved him. Told he would have to compete for a starting job in spring training, 2002, he threatened “Operation Shutdown,” whatever that meant. The Pirates cut him.
OUR FAULT IX: THE DREGS, PLUS ONE LAST GOOD ONE
Padres’ broadcaster Jerry Coleman recently said that ballplayers never realize how bad they are. This was the case with Derek Bell. Ironically, his organization was afflicted with the same problem. But for a few trades, this is where we will leave them, still losing, still wearing the wrong pair of glasses. Cam Bonifay is finally gone, the Bell signing having finally dragged him down. The new general manager is highly spoken of, but ownership remains the same.
The last roundup: the 2000 stress-drive offerings included Wil Cordero, sent to the Indians in exchange for Enrique Wilson (see Part 2 under “The Marte Piñata”) and outfielder Alex Ramirez. Luis Sojo was dealt back to the Yankees in exchange for pitcher Chris Spurling, who has since found some success with the Tigers. In 2001, outfielder Emil Brown was sent to the Padres for pitcher Shawn Camp and outfielder Shawn Garrett. Terry Mulholland, signed on the same day as Bell back in 2000, was moved to the Dodgers for relief/injury vet Mike Fetters, and pitcher Adrian Burnside. Closer Mike Williams was traded to the Astros for starting pitcher Tony McKnight. Finally, starting pitcher Jason Schmidt was awarded to the Giants in return for journeyman outfielder Armando Rios and righty pitcher Ryan Vogelsong.
Later in the year, former first-round pick Chad Hermansen, who had never developed, was traded to the Dodgers for veteran outfielder Darren Lewis. Luckily for the Pirates, Lewis, yet another non-hitting righthander, decided to retire rather than report. That November, Burnside was moved to the Tigers for first baseman Randall Simon, a low OBP/occasional power first baseman, who as a lefty was nonetheless still a novelty.
In the midst of all this sound and fury signifying the Shakespearian nothing passed Todd Ritchie and Kip Wells. On December 13, 2001, the Pirates traded the soft-tossing righty reclamation project Ritchie to the White Sox for three pitching prospects, of which Wells was easily the most promising. It looked like a new beginning in Pittsburgh, a trade in which the franchise had bought low and sold high, selecting just the right parts as their bounty. Alas, in 2002, the Pirates made yet another inexplicable jump into the free agent market, surprising the offensively hopeless Pokey Reese with a lucrative long-term contract. Yet another impatient, powerless righty to amuse the Steeltown faithful. It was just business as usual.
IN PARTS THREE AND FOUR: ALL THE BAD TRADES EVER MADE ON THE ALLEGHENY, PLUS THE ODD GOOD ONE.
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 Brassey’s in 2004. Questions, comments, suggestions, quizzical missives wondering how Mario Mendoza escaped mention in this series welcomed at firstname.lastname@example.org.