As the Cubs head to Pittsburgh to start their first road trip of the season, I thought I'd take a few minutes to tell you what you need to know about this NL Central rival.
When their fans close their eyes at night, they see Sid Bream in their nightmares.
My buddy Mark might want to avert his eyes for the next few paragraphs. In the early '90s, the Pirates were the class of the NL East. They won three staight division titles from 1990-1992 behind an exciting core of young players which included Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek, Jay Bell
, John Smiley, and Barry Bonds
, who won his first two MVP awards in 1990 and 1992.
Despite their dominance in the East (they won the division by an average margin of 9 games during those three years), they lost to the NL West champs each time. The 1992 NLCS was especially heartbreaking; down two games to none, the Pirates won three of the next four. Tim Wakefield
, called up from the minors at the end of July, threw complete games in games three and six, besting Tom Glavine
Game Seven looked to be in the bag for the Pirates as Doug Drabek shut down the Braves for eight innings. In the ninth, he gave up a leadoff double to Terry Pendleton, David Justice reached on an error, and Sid Bream walked. Manager Jim Leyland stubbed out his cigarette long enough to replace Drabek with Stan Belinda, who got Ron Gant
on a fly to left (scoring a run), walked Damon Berryhill, and retired Brian Hunter. Pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera, rarely used during the regular season, came up and lined a single to left field -- Justice scored easily, and Bonds came up throwing, trying to get Bream and the piano he was carrying. His throw was just late, as Bream lumbered across the plate representing the winning run. All across western Pennsylvania grown men cried in their Iron Citys and young boys wondered what they had done to make God so mad at them. Bobby Cox vowed from that day forward to always carry a non-useful third catcher or sixth infielder on every one of his post-season rosters.
They haven't finished above .500 since Barry Bonds left town.
The winter after that crushing playoff defeat was the beginning of the end. Second baseman Jose Lind was traded to Kansas City; Doug Drabek signed a long-term deal with the Astros, while Barry Bonds did the same in San Francisco, beginning his journey from great baseball player to one of the greatest of all-time to Symbol Of All That Is Wrong With Baseball. The Pirates finished in 5th place in 1993 and haven't improved much since despite new ownership, three or four new plans for the future, and one of the nicest stadiums in the game.
Their off-season plan this winter involved signing three old, slow corner guys.
If you're wondering why I spent so much time talking about stuff that happened more than a decade ago, that's because not much has happened between then and now. Jim Leyland burned out, Gene Lamont presided ineffectually for four years, and Lloyd McClendon was brought in to shake things up in 2001.
Over the last decade they showed a pretty good eye for identifying and devloping young talent, either drafting or trading for Jason Kendall
, Brian Giles
, Denny Neagle
, Jason Schmidt
, Esteban Loaiza
, Aramis Ramirez
, Kris Benson
, Jack Wilson
, and Craig Wilson
, among others. Unfortunately they've watched almost all those players head for greener pastures, and with the exception of the Giles trade which netted them Jason Bay
and Oliver Perez
, they haven't gotten much in return.
As a result, they've had to fill holes however they can. This winter, that meant signing Jeromy Burnitz
to play right field and Joe Randa
to play third base, and trading for Sean Casey
to play first. In past years it wouldn't have been that big of a deal: signing over-the-hill or barely-adequate veterans is a fine strategy if you're treading water for the year and don't have anyone younger to plug in. The problem this year is that they do; Randa is standing in the way of Freddy Sanchez
, while every game that Casey and Burnitz play means one less game played by young Brad Eldred and no-longer-so-young Craig Wilson. And speaking of Wilson...
They don't play their second-best hitter very often.
Jason Bay is undoubtedly the best player on the Pirates. In fact, when you measure by VORP, he was the fifth-best player in the majors last year, behind only D-Lee, A-Rod, Pujols, and Big Papi. That's not bad.
What is bad is the fact that after Bay the player with the most offensive upside might be Craig Wilson, who is currently a man without a position. The Pirates spent the entire winter trying to trade Wilson to just about anyone, but apparently they wanted a Cy Young pitcher or something in return because when the season started he was still on the roster. With Casey and Burnitz ensconced at first and right Wilson has a season of pinch-hitting and spot-starting to look forward to, which is not the most efficient way to use a guy with a career OPS 20% above the league average.
Their ace is young, but he makes up for his youth by being undisciplined.
Pitchingwise, Oliver Perez is a bright spot among the current crop of Pirates, posting a 2.98 ERA and striking out an impressive 239 batters in 2004. He struggled last year, though, and spent some time on the DL after losing a fight with a laundry cart in the Pirates clubhouse.
Beyond Perez, they have a couple of other promising young pitchers (Zach Duke and Victor Santos
) and a couple guys who've been through the injury wringers (John Van Benschoten
, Ryan Vogelsong
, Sean Burnett
So that's the Pirates in a nutshell. When PNC Park opened a few years back it was properly proclaimed as a jewel of a stadium, but continued futility on the field has meant that the expected millions stopped coming pretty quickly. I'm hoping to trek across the COmmonwealth later this season to see a game here in person; maybe by then Kid McClatchy and the rest of the Bucco braintrust will have figured out exactly what the character of this team is, who can help them the most, and how they can position themselves to be competitive in the Central Division for the first time it its ten-year existence.