One of the most common misconceptions about the Pittsburgh Pirates is that they have an extensive history of developing good baseball players and then trading them once they reach their prime and become expensive. I have written about this myth in the past, but I figured now would be a good time to revisit the topic. With the season about to begin and Andrew McCutchen signing a long-term contract extension, many articles have recently wondered if the Pirates’ history of trading their stars has finally ended. In reality, this situation has happened very rarely over the last two decades.
The following is a list of every player since 1993 that had at least one 3-WAR season (per Baseball-Reference) with the Pirates and then went on to post at least one 3-WAR season with another team. As a reminder, an average player would accumulate about 2 WAR in a given season.
Despite receiving virtually nothing in exchange for Bay, it is hard to argue with the timing in which the Pirates chose to deal him. Bay bounced back and had an excellent 2009 season in Boston, but has struggled through injuries and poor performance the past two years.
Kendall’s early-career doubles power deserted him after he played through a thumb injury in 2001, but he still managed to be a very valuable player due to his contact ability and willingness to catch almost every day. The Pirates traded him at the right time, as his batting average dipped considerably once he hit his 30’s.
Giles’ best years were spent in Pittsburgh, but he put up a few more above average seasons in San Diego after the Pirates traded him. This trade may have stung a bit more if Bay had not come back in return.
There is no legitimate excuse for this trade. The Pirates rushed Ramirez to the big leagues, and then sent him to Chicago in a salary dump once he started getting expensive. Ramirez spent his prime with the Cubs and the Pirates missed out on an impact talent.
Schmidt saw most of his success after leaving Pittsburgh. He was mostly solid with the Pirates, but never took it to the next level in his five seasons with the team. With free agency looming in 2001, the Pirates dumped him on the Giants in hopes of getting something in return for the departing pitcher. Unfortunately, Schmidt finally figured things out when he arrived in San Francisco, and was an All-Star caliber pitcher for several years.
The Pirates should have kept Randa around after his only season with the team, but he was generally more of a solid player than an important guy to build around. He was a good defensive third baseman with a bat that usually came in slightly below league average.
King finally broke out near the end of his Pirates career, and had another good season after being traded to the Royals. However, he stumbled a bit in 1998 and retired suddenly during the 1999 campaign. The Pirates did not miss out on much by trading him when they did.
Bell struggled a bit in his final two years in Pittsburgh, and his career seemed to be trending downward as he moved into his 30’s. However, he experienced a resurgence after being traded to Kansas City, and put up several more good seasons. He even hit a career high 38 home runs with the Diamondbacks in 1999. The Pirates could have used him during that time, but is hard to fault them for thinking he was finished.
Neagle was one of the first guys to go when the Pirates began cleaning house in late 1996 to prepare for a rebuilding phase. He was a year-and-a-half from free agency at the time of the trade. Neagle pitched well for the Braves for two years, but quickly declined after that. He signed an expensive four-year deal with the Rockies prior to the 2001 season and was miserable in Colorado. His final major league appearance came in 2003, with a full year still remaining on his contract. The Pirates received Schmidt in the Neagle trade.
The Ramirez trade is the one clear, shining example of the Pirates developing an impact talent only to trade him away while he was still in his prime. It was an inexcusable trade, and the team deserves extensive criticism for it. That being said, it was pretty much the only time this happened. They missed out on several quality seasons from Giles, but received a younger, less expensive player in Bay to replace him. They traded Bell before he was finished, but he was already 30 and coming off back-to-back mediocre years at the time of the trade. Schmidt was 28 and about to leave via free agency when he was dealt, and had never established himself enough to warrant a big contract.
Since the streak of losing seasons began, these are the only four instances in which the Pirates have had a player put up an above average season in Pittsburgh followed by multiple above average seasons elsewhere. There have been other talents they have missed out on, due to either poor decisions or simple bad luck. Jose Bautista was shipped out for a minor league catcher (after more than half of all MLB teams opted not to claim him on waivers). Chris Young was traded for reliever Matt Herges, who was promptly released before throwing a single pitch in Pittsburgh. Juan Oviedo (aka Leo Nunez) was sent to the Royals in exchange for Benito Santiago’s final 23 MLB plate appearances. Jose Guillen was traded for stopgap catcher Joe Oliver in a misguided attempt to finish the 1999 season with a winning record. And so on. But none of those players fit the narrative that says the Pirates develop talented players and trade them once they establish themselves as quality big leaguers.
The Pirates are not just a farm club for the rest of major league baseball, developing talented players only to ship them out of town once they are established. The larger problem has always been their struggle to develop quality talent in the first place.