The unstoppable, inaccurate narrative surrounding the Pittsburgh Pirates

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.

Jason Bay

Year Team WAR
2005 Pirates 4.5
2006 Pirates 4.1
2009 Red Sox 5.1

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.

Jason Kendall

Year Team WAR
1997 Pirates 4.5
1998 Pirates 5.7
1999 Pirates 4.2
2000 Pirates 4.7
2003 Pirates 3.5
2004 Pirates 4.9
2006 Athletics 3.0

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.

Brian Giles

Year Team WAR
1998 Indians 3.8
1999 Pirates 6.7
2000 Pirates 6.4
2001 Pirates 5.6
2002 Pirates 5.3
2003 Pirates/Padres 4.0
2004 Padres 3.0
2005 Padres 4.3
2008 Padres 3.9

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.

Aramis Ramirez

Year Team WAR
2001 Pirates 4.2
2004 Cubs 4.6
2007 Cubs 4.3
2008 Cubs 4.5
2011 Cubs 3.6

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.

Jason Schmidt

Year Team WAR
1998 Pirates 3.2
2003 Giants 5.9
2004 Giants 5.4
2006 Giants 3.9

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.

Joe Randa

Year Team WAR
1997 Pirates 3.5
2003 Royals 3.3

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.

Jeff King

Year Team WAR
1996 Pirates 3.3
1997 Royals 3.5

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.

Jay Bell

Year Team WAR
1991 Pirates 3.4
1992 Pirates 3.9
1993 Pirates 5.5
1994 Pirates 3.3
1997 Royals 5.3
1998 Diamondbacks 3.6
1999 Diamondbacks 5.3

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.

Denny Neagle

Year Team WAR
1995 Pirates 4.5
1996 Pirates 5.3
1997 Braves 4.1

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.

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About Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.
  • John Lease

    So they’ve sucked so bad they aren’t even a farm team?  I don’t think your examples support your conclusion.

    • Bob

       There are plenty of additional examples but players didn’t have a favorable WAR.  Sanchez trade was great, he was over 30, injured, no power and inflated salary.  Nady/Marte trade got a terrific return.  Please name 1 trade other than Bautista and Ramirez that actually didn’t benefit the Pirates.  Please, I will wait. 

      • dropkickmurphys

        Bay and Schmidt jump to mind.  Bay was a very good player when traded and not one of the four players acquired amounted to anything.  When teams like the Pirates trade a player as good as Bay was at the time, salary relief isn’t enough of a return.  They have to get talent.

        • Ian Rothermund

          Yeah it was bad, but it’s not like we really gave anything up in the long run; that’s the point of the article.  Trades don’t always work out either, so if that’s it….I’m not sure if you’re the one that has a solid hypothesis.  Oh yeah, and Schmidt sucked while he was here, so idk what we realistically expected in return at the time. 

          The difference would have really been highlighted if they had been grooming Andrew McCutchen to eventually trade.  For an actual baseball player like that, is when we’re talking serious prospects in return.  For the types of players the Pirates were trading from the early-to-late 2000’s, the most we could expect are guys that are closer to longer shots and former prospects.

          I just find it strange to complain and dwell on the fact that we didn’t get awesome players for our moderate to totally crap players that we offered in return. 

          All things considering, you have to admit that the Pirates as they exist today are better because of the trades that they’ve made in recent history, not worse.  Making good trades is about building value to the organization through the equation of assuming that, future production > past production, and that, youth > age.  In that regard, I consider their trades for the most part successful.  If you have a solid base of trades that work out for an equal amount of production with younger players, as well as assuming better production with younger players more often than taking a loss, that’s called success.

          • dropkickmurphys

            The trade for Tabata was good.  The Bay trade was awful, a disaster.  Sanchez was decent but nothing special.  Wilson was decent but again no talent return.  The Dotel trade was good.

            I don’t measure trades by what the departing players did with their new teams, because the trade is about what the Pirates get in return.  Getting talent is how teams are built.  Again, I point to the Nationals, they got Ramos for Capps.  They got Morse for less than any of the trades the I mentioned above.  Simply getting salary relief isn’t enough to build a contending team.

  • cocktailsfor2

    Yeah, but NH said McLouth was “a cornerstone,” and then traded the ALL-STAR GOLD GLOVER away!  How can you EVER trust this management team again?

    rabble rabble rabble

    • Bob

       Because look at what McLouth did and look at what we got in return.  We got a #3 SP and a 4 tool CF in Hernandez.  Now that we have McLouth back it is probably the greatest trade ever. 

      • cocktailsfor2

         Yes. That was the joke.

    • Pittcat90

      Hey, I went to college in that area.  I transferred to the Red Line many times to see the Bucs pound the Cubs in the late 80’s

  • burgh_fan

    Excellent post. I’ve been trying to convince everyone else of this as well. The Pirates problem isn’t that they get rid of all their good players its that they don’t have them in the first place.

    On this list it would have been nice to keep Ramirez and Schmidt around a little longer but neither player was as good in Pittsburgh as they were in their other locations.

  • dropkickmurphys

    This is a good bit of selective data sampling.  There is no consistency in the data.  Its bad research.

    The Pirates may not have traded players when they’ve hit their prime, but they do trade them when they get too expensive.

    The bigger problem is that Cam, DL and NH haven’t received a lot of talent in return for the players they’ve traded.

    • MattBandi

      “The Pirates may not have traded players when they’ve hit their prime, but they do trade them when they get too expensive.”
      Why does this matter if those players don’t perform well after being traded?

      • Bob

         Matt, it seems everyone except you and I are the dumb ones that think these trades were bad.  I agree Ramirez trade was terrible but none of the other trades were bad.  Even the Freddy Sanchez deal wasn’t bad, yea, Alderson isn’t going to make the show but we got rid of a 30 year old 2B with no power and an inflated salary.  What do these haters think about Nady/Marte trade?  Pretty good if you ask me, a #3 SP, starting RF and some organizational depth for a washed up Nady/Marte. 

        • Ian Rothermund

           Personally, I agree with DropKick.  I mean, where is the return?  I mean, yeah we got Tabata, Karstens, and D-Cutch for a bucket of balls.  We got McGehee for an old relief pitcher.  They traded Nate McClouth by himself for Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke just for him to suck for 3 years and then come back anyways.

          I mean, seriously…..when are we going to start seeing the return on all these crappy players the Pirates traded away? 

          It was just too bad that Doumit and Maholm sucked so bad that the Pirates never had the opportunity to unload them.  If they really drove a hard bargain, maybe they could have gotten a new TV or something for the locker room.  For the both of them, obviously.  Either of them by themselves would have only resulted in a really small TV. lol.

          • dropkickmurphys

            If you want an example of getting something for salary relief (even though that’s not why the Nationals traded him) see the Capps to Twins deal the Nationals made.  They traded a relief pitcher who was too expensive for a very good starting catcher.

      • dropkickmurphys

        Boy did you whiff with that response.  First, I was agreeing to a point about Pirates trading players in their prime.  Second, it matters that the Pirates are willing to part with good players when they are too expensive for the Pirates.  Bay, Schmidt and Ramirez were productive after leaving the Pirates.  Why you lumped Randa in there is beyond me.  He was an under productive corner infielder.  

        Finally, where you really whiffed was getting nothing for those players.  If one is going to trade these kinds of players, one has to get several prospects who perform for them.  The Pirates generally have not done that.

        I have no issue with dealing players who are too expensive.  The Pirates do that.  I believe you are trying to claim that they don’t.  It is no myth that the Pirates trade players who they feel are too expensive.

        • MattBandi

          I’m beginning to question whether you read the post.

          • dropkickmurphys

            Yes.  You wrote that its a myth that the Pirates trade players when they reach their prime AND become expensive.  Your statement that its a myth can only be satisfied when both conditions are met.  

            Your statement is false because they do trade players when they become too expensive.  I might even agree that they haven’t trade players who are in their prime (although Bautista, ARam and Schmidt disprove that condition too) but that doesn’t change the fact that they trade players when the players get expensive.

            So you see, I couldn’t have broken down your logic (or lack of it) without reading your post.

          • Tim Williams

            “Your statement is false because they do trade players when they become too expensive.”

            Two things here. First, the fact that they’ve traded players who were expensive doesn’t mean they trade players BECAUSE they were expensive.
            Second, there are only so many possible outcomes for player transactions. If a player is traded, it means he has value. You typically don’t see a player traded when he’s not expensive. That would mean the player has plenty of years of control left. You’re going to have a hard time finding teams who deal those types of players, unless they’re getting a good return.
            Typically players are traded when they are expensive. Usually they’re traded because they’re close to free agency and the team probably won’t be able to sign them. That’s been the case with the majority of the trades the Pirates have made. And that would make them just like the majority of teams in baseball.

          • dropkickmurphys

            No issues with any of that.  In fact, I believe I wrote that I don’t have a problem with trading players that are too expensive.  

            My issue is that the main point of Matt’s post was that its a falsehood that the Pirates trade players who are in their prime and are too expensive.  As I stated, and you now affirmed, the Pirates do trade players who are too expensive.  Which, means Matt’s thesis is false.

            I’m not criticizing the Pirates for trading expensive players.  In fact, I’ve been against almost every expensive and inadequate signing.  I’m just pointing out Matt’s inaccuracies.

            I don’t know why you said that someone said the Pirates trade players BECAUSE they are too expensive. I never made that argument. Probably a bit of obfuscation on someone’s part but not mine.

          • MattBandi

            You still seem to be missing the point of the post.

          • dropkickmurphys

            No.  Your point was wrong.  There was nothing to miss. Even Tim points out that the Pirates have traded expensive players.

          • Tim Williams

            What exactly is your argument? You’re not making any sense here, and it comes across like your arguing just to argue. I don’t think anyone is denying that the Pirates have traded expensive players. I think everyone is in agreement that this has happened in the past.

          • dropkickmurphys

            Except Matt..his first sentence is:
            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. He saying the Pirates don’t trade expensive players.  And we all agree they do.  Its that easy.  He was wrong. 

          • Tim Williams

            Yeah, and you’re the only one who doesn’t seem to understand that the focus is on the “good baseball players” part. To me, Matt’s point was that people tend to over-value the players who were traded away, when in fact the Pirates haven’t had a lot of good players to begin with. Considering everyone else agrees, I’d say you’re wrong here.

          • dropkickmurphys

            Then you need to teach your bloggers how to write. He makes his point in the opening sentence.  His point is wrong.  

          • Tim Williams

            I’m not doing this game with you man. Everyone got the point of the article. This is just you looking for reasons to argue. Get a life.

  • Henduck

    Quick analogy:  A poor kid thinks his yo-yo is the greatest toy ever invented.  That’s because he’s never seen a rich kid’s Playstation 3.  

    I think that sums up how Pirate fans feel about “star” players that they’ve traded away.  They don’t actually know what a star player looks like.  Therefore the Nate McLouths and Freddy Sanchezes of the world become stars to them.  

    Andrew McCutchen is truly a star player.  They locked him up as they should have.  “Big deal” most people say. They need to see a pattern of the team doing that over time before they will be impressed.  The problem is that you need to have a pattern of star players coming through the system before that can happen.  

    I think this article shows the root of the true problem.  Drafting and developing poorly.  And using the word “poorly” is extremely generous.  I think they’ve corrected the drafting poorly issue (or at least the drafting cheaply issue).  Time will tell on the development…    

  • Giraffe Monsoon

    This is kind of off the topic, but you guys are all too young to remember when the whole town threw a crying tantrum to get the Pirates to lock up Dave Parker for multiple years, and then two years into the five year deal he became a bloated beached whale who struck out constantly, and also became heavily addicted to cocaine.
    So I hope you’ll understand that us older folks arent so quick to jump on the bandwagon when people are all so gung-ho about locking up every half decent player on the team to multiple year contracts.
    McCutchen I agree with, but lets not get too crazy and lock anyone else up at least until they are more proven. Yeah, I’m talking about Neil Walker and anybody else on the current team.

  • Henduck

    Bravo! That needed to be said.