Pirates don't have much to show for 17 years of wheeling & dealing
The Pirates are headed toward a record-setting 17th consecutive losing season
Eight of the nine players in last year's Opening Day lineup have been traded
Most of the prospects acquired by Pittsburgh have not panned out as expected
It may be the most beautiful sight in baseball, and yet, it is somehow sad. The Roberto Clemente Bridge, already painted gold in the color that defines the sports teams of the city, basking in an evening summer sun, while the most dedicated fans in baseball trudge across it and into an equally gorgeous ballpark that hosts an annually ugly team. It must be the ballpark, and the view and the misplaced hope of success that is drawing those fans each night, because it sure isn't the baseball.
Since winning their third straight NL East title in 1992, the Pirates have become baseball's version of the bridge to nowhere, headed toward a 17th consecutive losing season that would mark the longest stretch of continued ineptitude in the history of American team sports. Since entering PNC Park, they've lost more games than any team in the league. They are caught in a never-ending cycle of rebuilding that continues again this season with a dizzying array of trades that have pushed back their timetable for being genuinely competitive even further into an ever uncertain future.
The rebuilding first began in the winter of 1992, when the Pirates released veterans such as Bob Patterson and Cecil Espy, traded slick-fielding second baseman Jose Lind and, most famously, allowed former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek and two-time MVP Barry Bonds to leave as free agents. Catcher Mike LaValliere responded to the moves by calling the Pirates a "joke" and "a major league farm club."
LaValliere's biting words have gone from haunting prediction to mocking fact. The Pirates are one of just two NL teams, along with the Expos/Nationals, to have not reached the playoffs since '92. They've been through six managers, four general managers and three ownership groups, all with one constant: losing.
The Pirates have indeed become a joke, but for the loyal fans of Pittsburgh, this is no laughing matter. Over the past two months the Pirates have made seven trades that have reaffirmed what LaValliere first predicted all those years ago: They are now a major league farm club. For evidence, one need only look at their Opening Day lineup from 2008, less than two full seasons ago:
Eight of those nine players have since been traded. Only Doumit, who might have been an attractive trading chip had he he not missed three months with a broken wrist this year, remains. The other eight players have been a part of eight different trades that have returned 25 players, the majority of whom are still years away from reaching the majors.
Pirates fans, bless them, have expressed cautious optimism that their new brass, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, have a plan in place that will finally end their misery and produce a winning team, which is why some are willing to take a wait-and-see approach before judging whether the litany of trades pans out. They shouldn't hold their breath. No team in baseball has dealt away as much talent in recent years as the Pirates have, and gotten so little in return. Below is a breakdown of 10 such trades the Pirates have made since their streak of losing seasons began that illustrate their financial difficulties as well as their organizational failures in drafting, scouting, player development and fan relations. Just as they have on the field for each of the past 17 seasons, in each of these trades, the Pirates came out on the losing end every time.
Traded: Aug. 28, 1996, to Braves for Corey Pointer and Ron Wright. Braves later sent Jason Schmidt to complete the trade.
The Pirates were going nowhere, en route to their fourth straight losing season, but they had a valuable commodity. A young left-handed starter coveted by several contending teams. Ultimately, Neagle, a 27-year-old who was 13-8 with a 3.43 ERA, was dealt to the Braves. He helped Atlanta win the NL East, then pitched well, albeit without a decision, in the playoffs and World Series. The next year he won 20 games and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. He followed it up by winning 16 in 1998 and 15 in 2000. His career petered out after that, but Pointer and Wright turned out to be non-factors. Pointer never made the majors and Wright got three at-bats with the Mariners in 2002. (See below on Schmidt.)
Words to live by (all quotes here come from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): "Ron Wright's going to hit a lot of home runs."
Jay Bell and Jeff King
Traded: Dec. 13, 1996, to Royals for Jeff Martin, Jeff Granger, Joe Randa and Jeff Wallace.
After the '96 season, the Pirates dealt the only two stars remaining from their glory years to the equally cash-strapped Royals. King, coming off a 30-homer, 111-RBI season for the Bucs, averaged 26 home runs and 102 RBIs the next two seasons but retired after the 1999 season. Bell had been a steady hitter with moderate pop, but he set career highs with 21 homers and 92 RBIs for the Royals, and in 1999 with the Diamondbacks he batted .289 with 38 home runs and 112 RBIs and made the All-Star team. Martin pitched just 17 games above A-ball for the Pirates and never reached the majors, Granger pitched in nine games for Pittsburgh in 1997 and never made it back to the bigs, and Wallace was a mostly anonymous middle reliever who was released in 2000. Randa batted .302 in one season in Pittsburgh, then was taken by the Diamondbacks in the expansion draft and quickly dealt to the Tigers.
Words to live by: "He's the one guy we wanted pretty badly."
Traded: July 17, 1998 to Rangers for Warren Morris and Todd Van Poppel.
Loaiza was nothing special at the time of the deal, posting a losing career record of 27-28. He didn't do much for the Rangers, or the Blue Jays for that matter when he was dealt there in 2000. But in 2003 he won 21 games for the White Sox and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. He made the All-Star Game again the next season before being traded to the Yankees, beginning a vagabond tour of the majors that saw him pitch for five teams in the next five years. But Van Poppel and Morris were both huge busts. Van Poppel, whom the Pirates weren't that high on even when they made the trade, pitched in only 18 games in '98 and spent all of '99 in the minors before being allowed to leave as a free agent. Morris had a solid rookie year in 1999 -- .288 with a .360 OBP, 15 homers and 73 RBIs -- but he tailed off dramatically the next year, was gone from the team after the 2001 season and out of baseball by the end of 2003.
Words to live by: "Morris is the key element for us in the trade for what he can be for us in the future."
Traded: Dec. 14, 1998 to Cubs for Brant Brown.
Like Loaiza, Lieber was not particularly impressive at the time he was dealt, owning a 38-47 record and making $2 million a year when he was dealt. But he went on to become a solid starter aided by stellar control, winning 20 games for the Cubs in 2001 and making the NL All-Star team, then going 14-8 for the Yankees in 2004 and 17-13 for the Phillies in '05. Brown batted .232 in one season in Pittsburgh, then was traded to the Marlins for the equally forgettable Bruce Aven.
Words to live by: "That's who I'm counting on."
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