Pittsburgh Pirates – 2012 Horror & Super Roster Made of Castoffs
by Adam Perry, 10/1/2012
Although I studied creative writing in college, my journalism is almost strictly music and literature criticism and A&E features. However, early in my time as a college student in Pittsburgh I often wrote passionate and under-informed articles about the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers. And now, with the state of Pittsburgh sports in perhaps more disarray then anytime in my life, I feel a need to blog about, specifically, what is now unquestionably the worst franchise in the history of sports: The Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Steelers, struggling with age, injury and a bunch of so-so drafts, might be in a rebuilding phase. But with James Harrison, Troy Polamalu and Rashard Mendenhall all perhaps returning this Sunday, anything is possible – from a losing season to a ninth Super Bowl appearance.
The Penguins have two Hall of Fame centers in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, but the off-season loss of young center Jordan Staal is a big hit. Still, anything is possible with Malkin and Crosby still around.
But the Pirates have little or no hope for contending for anything in the near future, as usual, besides high draft picks.
Pittsburgh used to be a proud baseball town. Honus Wagner, Robert Clemente, Ralph Kiner, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds. Bill Mazeroski hitting the only walk-off homer in a World Series Game 7 in history, capping the Pirates’ win over the Yankees in 1960. But the Pirates just blew yet another ninth-inning lead – in typically horrifying fashion – to clinch their North American professional sports record 20th consecutive losing season.
That’s right, the Pirates have not won more games they lost, or broke even, since Barry Bonds left the team for San Francisco after the 1992 season. Owner Bob Nutting does nothing but play politics, make empty promises, and rake in millions of dollars in profit each year while skimping on payroll. General manager Neal Huntington drafts mostly players who don’t became major-leaguers; signs cheap, ineffective veterans well past their prime (some who never had a prime); and gives away his best talent for close to nothing, and sometimes literally nothing. Coach Clint Hurdle, while clearly a good guy and considerably brighter than his inept predecessor John Russell, has steered the Pirates to the two greatest second-half collapses in baseball history in his two years as manager.
In 2011, the Pirates made it to 7 games over .500 just after mid-season, tying their high-water mark since 1992. And then self-destructed on their way to a 90-loss season, ranking as the most precipitous fall from first place in the 140-year history of major-league baseball.
It did not seem possible to anyone who follows sports, but Hurdle and his Pirates outdid themselves this year. On August 6, the team was 16 games over .500, more than doubling their 20-year high-water mark, due to strong starting pitching, a near-flawless bullpen, and Hall of Fame-type hitting from young center-fielder Andrew McCutchen, who was batting near .375 through July.
Then, everything fell apart. Young starting pitcher James McDonald became the worst pitcher in the major leagues, after performing like a Cy Young candidate in the first half. McCutchen’s average dropped by nearly 50 points and he started hitting only singles. The bullpen blew game after game. And general manager Huntington, with his team just a hair behind the Reds for first place at the trade deadline, responded to a dire need for offense by adding Miami first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who had quickly and startlingly gone from All-Star to minor leaguer, and Toronto outfielder Travis Snider, a former high draft pick who has never succeeded in the majors.
Neither hitter helped the Pirates win games. And they didn’t. They are an appalling 14-35 (a .285 winning percentage) in their last 49 games and clinched their record 20th consecutive non-winning season by getting no-hit at home by the rival Reds – the first time the Pirates had been no-hit since Bob Gibson dominated them at Three Rivers Stadium in 1971. And then yesterday, with a one-run lead in the ninth, declining closer Joel Hanrahan gave up a game-tying home run to former Pirate Xavier Paul before allowing another former Pirate, Ryan Ludwick, to score the winning run. Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata, known for bone-headed mistakes and a lack of effort, walked to lead off the bottom of the ninth with the Pirates down 4-3, but was tagged out between second and third after trying to take two bases on an errant pickoff throw. Rookie Starling Marte struck out to end the game.
That one inning of a horrible loss truly captured everything wrong with the Pirates’ last 20 years. Two players that GM Huntington gave away for nothing, and who are ably helping a playoff-bound team with big September hits, beat the Pirates. Clint Hurdle and his staff were unable to corral a young player into playing smart baseball – Tabata should’ve been happy with being put in scoring position with no outs, rather than trying for third. And Hanrahan joined in on the at least partly mentally driven collapse, helping the bullpen blow another important game after twice being named an All-Star. He will no doubt be traded for peanuts in the offseason, as his dominance has declined but his 2012 numbers are still terrific and he will be awarded several million dollars more than his current salary in arbitration. Millions of dollars the Pirates will not pay him.
Perhaps what stings even worse than 20 losing seasons with no end in sight is that Pirates president (apparently for life) Frank Coonelly, who famously called an elderly bar owner in Pittsburgh last year to berate her for her establishment’s good-natured Pirates promotion (discount beer when they lose), announced that the club will retain its GM, coach and director of scouting despite two historic collapses, embarrassing displays of non-fundamentals on the field, and inabilities to both draft, develop and acquire talent AND recognize and retain talent.
So we get to the real meat of this post, and that is my effort to build an MLB lineup made up strictly of players the Pirates cast away at their leisure, who are currently playing for other teams. Most of them are on contenders. Here we go:
CF Brandon Moss (acquired in the failed Jason Bay trade of 2008, when a Pirate with a consistent OPS over .900 was traded for prospects, Moss never stuck with the Pirates and was released. In just 257 AB with Oakland in 2012, Moss has 21 HR and a .945 OPS. He would start on an All-Star team with those numbers, and he is arguably carrying Oakland into the playoffs right now.)
C Ryan Doumit (drafted by the Pirates and never able to surpass 15 HR or play a full season, he was signed as a free agent after 2011 and is hitting a respectable .275 with 18 HR for Minnesota)
LF Ryan Ludwick (acquired at the deadline last year, Ludwick hit a paltry .232 with 2 HR and was a big part of the epic collapse that saw the Pirates going from 7 games over .500 to 90 losses. He has a stellar .890 OPS with 27 HR for the division-champion Reds this year after not being offered a contract by Pittsburgh.)
1B Adam LaRoche (acquired from the Braves in 2007, LaRoche had a respectable OPS over .800 as a Pirate, but was terribly streaky. He was traded by Pittsburgh in 2009 for two players who’ve never stuck in the majors. LaRoche has an impressive 32 HR and a .848 OPS for the Nationals, who have the best record in MLB.)
RF Jose Bautista (drafted by the Pirates, Bautista never had an OPS above .488 for Pittsburgh in parts of five seasons. Traded to Toronto for essentially nobody, Bautista is now a perennial All-Star and famously hit 54 HR in 2010. His 2011 OPS of 1.056 is astounding.)
3B Aramis Ramirez (drafted by the Pirates, Ramirez batting .300 with 34 HR and 112 RBI for the Pirates as a 23-year-old in 2002. Less than two years later, he was traded in a clear salary dump for pathetic players who have been out of baseball for several years. Ramirez has averaged, per season for his career, 30 HR and 108 RBI.)
SS Ronny Cedeno (never a favorite of Pittsburgh fans or managers, Cedeno was released after the 2011 season but is a decent major-league player with an OPS of .745 for the Cubs this year. His replacement, Clint Barmes, has an atrocious .587 OPS in 2012 and is owed $5.5 million guaranteed for 2013.)
2B Cesar Izturis (not great, not awful. Izturis has averaged .255 with a .617 OPS over his career and can play multiple positions. Played just three months with the Pirates in 2007 and then was released.)
P Ryan Vogelsong (acquired by the Pirates in a 2001 salary dump when ownership decided starter Jason Schmidt cost too much. In parts of five seasons with the Pirates, Vogelsong was never effective and was released after the 2006 season. Rejuvenated with the Giants, coincidentally, Vogelsong was an All-Star in 2011 with a 2.71 ERA. This year he is 14.9 with a 3.46 ERA on a division-winning Giants team.)
There you have it. The Pirates clinched their sports-record 20th straight losing season – carrying out the worst collapse in the history of baseball, during which they announced that the front office and head coach will be retained – and it takes only a few minutes to assemble a very, very good team full of All-Stars from the players they have cast aside.
Bob Nutting, Pirates Owner, if you’re reading this: I am withdrawing my support and attention, along with that of my two-year-old daughter, who followed this embarrassing season with me. You have no idea how to run a baseball team, or even hire anyone who does. The fact that you choose to field a team year after year with one of the lowest budgets in pro sports is not an excuse, as Oakland and other teams are winning with low payrolls. The fact that you are based in a small city is no excuse, as St. Louis is roughly the size of Pittsburgh and the Cardinals just won another championship. I’ll watch the Pirates again when you sell the team, but I know that won’t happen soon because you reportedly made a $20 million profit this year, despite the stain you’ve left on my hometown. Please sell the team.