Did you know that the Pittsburgh Pirates have had 17 straight losing seasons? The last time the Pirates had a winning season, the first George Bush was our president. Miley Cyrus wasn't even born the last time the Pirates had a winning season. There are a lot of reasons as to why the Pirates have been bad. Losing Barry Bonds to free agency due to financial considerations hurt a lot. A big part is the unbalanced nature of Major League Baseball, where big-market teams like the Yankees generate a ton of money, and are able to spend that money on players, whereas small-market teams such as the Pirates don't have nearly as much money to spend. But a lot of small market teams manage to make the playoffs, and even the Kansas City Royals, who are a small-market team seemingly run by rhesus monkeys, stumbled into a winning season over the past 17 years. So, while the system is stacked against the Pirates, they've done more than enough on their own to guarantee yet another losing season. So, in "tribute" to the Pirates' remarkable streak, which will surely continue for at least another year, here are 17 bad moves over a nightmare stretch for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
1. Drafting Mark Farris over Nomar Garciaparra - Unlike the NFL or NBA Draft, the Major League Baseball Draft is more of a crapshoot, where prospects are picked on potential and are not expected to contribute right away. Because of that, there are very few certainties, even in the first round, and many high draft picks never make it to the big leagues. I get that, but here's the thing. With the 11th pick in the 1994 Draft, the Pirates had a choice between two shortstops, one who was a two-time college All-American from Georgia Tech who had led his team to the finals of the College World Series, while the other was a high schooler from Texas who was known more for his football exploits. The Pirates went with the Texan, Farris. It went poorly, as Farris spent five years in the minors before quitting baseball to play quarterback for Texas A&M. Garciaparra, who was picked may have had an injury-shortened career, but he was a six-time All Star and considered one of the best players in baseball during his prime. I would consider that a poor choice.
2. Releasing Tim Wakefield- Wakefield was part of the last winning Pirates team in '92, where he went 8-1 and won two games in the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves. He struggled over the next two year, and just before the start of the 1995 season, the Pirates cut bait on Wakefield, preferring to go with legends like John Ericks and Steve Parris instead. Wakefield went on to become the 1995 Comeback Player of the Year with the Boston Red Sox, going 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA. 15 years later, Wakefield is still in the Red Sox starting rotation, and is currently 3rd All-Time in Wins and 2nd in strikeouts in Red Sox History. At the time, it didn't seem like the Pirates were losing much by releasing Wakefield, but it looks a lot worse in hindsight.
3. Trading Jay Bell and Jeff King to the Royals for Joe Randa and three failed prospects- In 1996 Bell was the Pirates All-Star shortstop, while King was the Pirates best hitter. Due to financial reasons, the Pirates were forced to trade the two. However, the Pirates failed to get anything close to equal value for their two best players. In exchange for Bell and King, the Royals traded 3B Joe Randa, who only lasted one year in Pittsburgh before leaving due to free agency, and three pitching prospects named Jeff. One prospect, Jeff Martin, never made it past Double-A. Jeff Granger, thought to be the best prospect in the deal, pitched a total of 5 innings for the Pirates, while the third, Jeff Wallace, had a decent year of middle relief in 1999, but struggled in 2000 before the Pirates gave up on him. So, in exchange for their two best players at the time, the Pirates received one good year out of Randa, a decent year from Wallace, and two guys that never made it. Meanwhile, in 1997, Bell and combined for 49 home runs and 212 runs batted in, and Bell would have better years after that (King only played until 1999).
4. Signing Kevin Elster to a 1 year, 1.75 million dollar contract - The Pirates needed a replacement for Bell, instead they got Kevin Elster, who only played 39 games due to a broken wrist, and wasn't good in the 39 games he did play in. It might not seem like that big of a deal, but considering Elster was making over 10 percent of the Pirates payroll that year (the team payroll was 10.5 million) the Pirates relatively paid a lot and got nothing in return.
5. First 16 picks in the 1998 draft fail to make the big leagues- As I said before, the Draft is a bit of a crapshoot. However, you would think that you could just make your picks at random and at least one of your first 16 picks would make the major leagues. Their first round pick (Clint Johnson) was a pitcher who washed out and tried to switch to first base, but failed to make headway, while their second round pick (Jeremy Cotton) apparently never made it out of rookie ball, because I can't find any minor league stats on him.
6. Trading Jon Lieber for Brant Brown- Lieber was a rare commodity for the Pirates, a major league caliber starting pitcher. He was never a star for the Pirates, but he ate innings up and generally kept his team in the game when he was on the mound. After the 1998 season, the Pirates, aiming for the sky, ended up shooting themselves in the foot by trading Lieber to the Cubs for outfielder Brant Brown. Brown lasted one season with the Pirates, hitting .232, before the Pirates traded him to the Marlins for someone you've never heard of. By 2000, Brown was out of the majors for good. A year after that, Lieber was a 20 game winner for the Chicago Cubs, and would remain a solid starting pitcher for a few years after that.
7. Signing Pat Meares to a 4 year, 15 million dollar contract extension- At his best, Meares was a league-average shortstop. The Pirates, in need of such a player, signed Meares as a free agent in 1999. Which would be fine, but the Pirates, being impressed by Meares after six games, decided to give him 15 million dollars for the next four years. Because anytime you can lock up an average shortstop, you have to do it. Meares got hurt shortly after signing, playing in only 21 games in 1999. He came back in 2000 and put up two years of replacement level hitting and below average defense. The Pirates then paid him eight million dollars to stay on the disabled list for the last two years of his contract. If the Pirates had taken that eight million and burned it, it would at least have gotten a fire out of it, which is more than what they got by giving it to Meares.
8. Signing Kevin Young to a 4-year, 24 million dollar contract- Young was a good, but not great first baseman for the Pirates during the late nineties. The Pirates opted to actually spend money and signed Young to a 4 year deal, even if there were 15 to 20 first basemen better than Young at the time, but whatever. However, in true Pirates fashion, Young quickly changed from a good player into a financial albatross, as he suddenly became much worse during the 2000 season, and never regained his previous form.
9. Trading Jose Guillen for Humberto Cota, Joe Oliver- In hindsight, Guillen was rushed to the majors by the Pirates as a 21 year old in 1997. The Pirates compounded their mistake by trading Guillen to Tampa Bay for two catchers. This in spite of the fact that their best player at the time (Jason Kendall) was a catcher. Oliver played 45 games for the Pirates, while Cota spent a few years as a backup catcher for the team. Meanwhile, Guillen developed into a power threat, enjoying a few seasons of success. Even if Guillen is kind of a hothead and is tremendously overpaid at the moment by the Royals, at least he had years of success before that, something the two guys the Pirates traded for cannot say.
10. Signing Derek Bell to a 2 year, 9.25 million dollar contract- This is by far my favorite mistake. Bell signed with the Pirates in 2001 to be the Pirates right fielder. He did poorly his first year, battling injuries and hitting .173. The next year, the Pirates announced that there would be a competition for the right field position. This enraged Bell, who felt his track record as an average right fielder in the past entitled him the spot. Bell announced that if he were forced to compete for the job, he would go into "Operation Shutdown". Baseball fans were left to wonder what exactly that would be, because the Pirates waived Bell shortly after, and ended up paying Bell 4.75 million dollars for not playing in 2002. Bell took his money and ran, never playing another major league game again.
11. Signing Jason Kendall to a 6 year, 60 million dollar contract - Kendall was, other than Brian Giles, the closest thing the Pirates had to a Franchise player for a number of years. He was a three-time All Star, hit for a high average and provided solid defense at catcher. It makes sense that the Pirates would try to keep him. But I fear the Pirates were a bit eager in giving Kendall a 60 million dollar contract. For one, Kendall had little power to begin with, and as soon as he signed the deal, for whatever reason his power went away. Secondly, the Pirates have always had small payrolls, and because of this contract, they ended allocating nearly a quarter of their entire payroll to Kendall, who, while he had a couple of good seasons after singing the contract, never matched his previous contributions. The Pirates ended up trading away Kendall, but still ended up having a pay a hefty percentage of his contract just to get him off the roster.
12. Trading Jason Schmidt for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong- Schmidt was a decent pitcher for the Pirates, but as of 2001 still offered a lot of promise, and therefore was a player heavily in demand. The Pirates decided to trade Schmidt, not a bad idea in of itself, but got nothing of value in return. Instead they got Rios, who played 78 games for the Pirates and was out of the Major Leagues by 2003, and Vogelsong was a pitcher who was to pitching what Coleman Francis was to acting. Schmidt, meanwhile, became an ace with the Giants.
13. Drafting Bryan Bullington to save money- In 2002, the Pirates had the first pick in the draft. It was a good year to have it, as guys like BJ Upton, Prince Fielder, Zack Grienke, Scott Kazmir, and Cole Hamels were all picked in the first round that year, along with a bunch of other solid players like Joe Saunders and Nick Swisher. With the opportunity to pick any one of these fine players, the Pirates went with Bullington. Not because they thought he was better than those guys, but because he would be cheaper to sign. After all, money to pay guys like Pat Meares just don't grow on trees. The General Manager at the time said that he "hopes Bullington will become a solid number 3 starter". So, let me get this straight, you have the number one pick in the draft, can choose anyone you want, and you decide to pick a guy that you hope becomes a middle-of-the-rotation player. Unfortunately, Bullington wasn't even that good, as he pitched a whole 18 innings for the Pirates before being released. Bullington has struggled with injuries, and the odds of him becoming even a solid major leaguer at this point are slim. Tough break for him, but just another example of bad management by the Pirates.
14. Trading Aramis Ramirez (and Kenny Lofton) to the Cubs for Jose Hernandez, Bobby Hill, and someone else- Ramirez is a rarity these days, a prospect successfully developed by the Pirates. In 2001, the then 23 year old hit 34 home runs and drove in 112 runs. While he struggled in 2002, he bounced back the next year, and looked like he would be a solid player for years to come. Which he has been, but not for the Pirates. See, Ramirez was entering the part of his career where he starts to get expensive, and the Pirates felt that even though Ramirez had a modest contract at the time, they should get something out of him while they still can. So, along with center fielder Lofton, Ramirez was off to Chicago, for Jose Hernandez, a below average player who played 58 games for the Pirates before becoming a free agent, and Bobby Hill, a second base prospect who spent three years in Pittsburgh before they decided that he ain't right. The Pirates also received Matt Brubeck, a pitcher that never pitched in the big leagues. Meanwhile, Ramirez has been one of the best third basemen in the game over the past few years, and with a few more good years, could become a Hall of Fame candidate.
15. Singing Raul Mondesi to a 1-year, 1.15 million dollar contract - At first, this might not seem like that bad of a deal, but after about a month, it became another bad Pirates move. Mondesi hit decently during his first month on the club, but apparently, Mondesi had enough of the Pirates. So he concocted a scheme, saying he had to leave the team because gunmen had his house under siege. He must have recovered from that incident rather quickly, because he inked a deal with the Angels about a week after leaving the Pirates. There was other factors involved (the Pirates supposedly witheld a check and Mondesi was being extorted at the time) but man alive, Mondesi really wanted out of Pittsburgh.
16. Trading for Sean Casey and signing Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz, paying them a combined 18.5 million- In 2006, the Pirates payroll was about 47 million dollars. Over a third of that figure went to Casey(8.5 million) a first baseman that hit for little power, Burnitz (6 million) a right fielder that was past his prime, and the return of Joe Randa(4 million) who just served to block Freddy Sanchez, a very good and much cheaper player, from the lineup. Casey played 59 games with the Pirates before being traded to Detroit, while Burnitz (.230 average, 81 OPS+) and Randa (.267 BA, 4 Hr) played out the season in Pittsburgh, with little success. Randa got hurt during the season and was replaced by Sanchez, who only managed to win the 2006 NL Batting Title. This may not seem like the worst of moves, but considering the Pirates had three players (Sanchez, Nate McLouth, and Craig Wilson) that could match or exceed the contributions of these men for a lot lower price, well, it seems to me the Pirates could have spent their money better.
17. Trading for Matt Morris- In 2007, the Pirates traded outfielder Rajaj Davis (who had a decent season in Oakland last year) to get Morris, a good pitcher once upon a time but now an overpaid player. The Pirates were well out of the pennant race, and Morris was past his prime, so the reason why the Pirates would take on a man who is owed over 10 million dollars the next two years was bewildering. At the time of the trade, the feeling was that the Pirates' front office must be smoking crack. The results after the trade were no surprise, as Morris struggled in 2007 with the Pirates, and then, for the low price of $10 million, pitched 22 innings with a 9.67 ERA before being released.
Well, that was depressing, What's sad is that a lot of these moves are about their lack of money, and then the Pirates go and spend there money recklessly, 5 million for Derek Bell here, 10 million for Matt Morris here. Sure, the Pirates are at a competitive disadvantage, but if they were smarter, they could at least contend every once in a while. After all, their division (the NL Central) is not the strongest, and teams like the Athletics, Twins, and Rockies have shown that teams can be successful, at least for a few years, if they are smart with how they build their team. Today, the Pirates have a few promising players (center fielder Andrew McCutcheon, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, among others), but a winning season still seems at least two years away. Time will tell if the Pirates latest plan, which was trading all the veterans they can and rebuilding with young prospects, will bear fruit in the future.
If you're still reading, thank you. I know it was long, but hopefully it was at least a decent read. If anyone has any future ideas for posts, or you would like to contribute to The Canon Review, than e-mail me at KtheC2001@gmail.com. I will try not to go into Operation Shutdown anytime soon.