The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the midst of a ground-breaking season. Twenty-two years ago, they were in the same spot – a young team that had all of a sudden become legitimate contenders in the span of half a season.
In the middle of a heated N.L. East Divisional race with the New York Mets. the Pirates felt they needed to make a move to shore up their pitching staff. General Manager Larry Doughty spent the last week of July checking in on all of the available players being shopped by selling teams. With very few prominent starting pitchers on the trading block, Doughty began to look at acquiring a solid veteran arm that could give the Pirates another strong starting pitcher down the stretch. The Pirates were led by SP Doug Drabek, who was on his way to a 22-win season and an N.L. Cy Young Award. Also in the rotation were the reliable John Smiley, the surprising All-Star Neal Heaton, and veteran Bob Walk. Rookie Randy Tomlin was about ready to make the jump to Pittsburgh after a fine season at AA-Harrisburg, but the Pirates still felt they needed another starter to stay in the hunt against the New York Mets, who had Frank Viola, Doc Gooden, David Cone, Sid Fernandez, and Ron Darling in the best rotation in baseball.
After making inquiries on St. Louis starter Bob Tewksbury and Bryn Smith, the Pirates began to center themselves around a deal for a veteran left-handed starter from the Montreal Expos. Zane Smith was a 30-year old bulldog starter who had made 21 starts for the contending Expos. As Montreal fell out of the division race, they moved into sellers mode and began looking to acquire young players for their future. The Pirates had some goods to peddle their way, including a Player to Be Named Later that would end up being OF Moises Alou.
A look at the trade that brought SP Zane Smith to Pittsburgh and the effect it had on the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates:
On August 8, 1990 the deal was completed. The Pirates sent Willie Greene and RP Scott Ruskin to the Montreal Expos for SP Zane Smith. They would send a PTBNL to Montreal on August 16. That player would be the key to the deal, top prospect OF Moises Alou. Alou was considered to have a bright future, but was blocked at the Major League level by a group of guys named Barry Bonds, Andy Van Slyke, and Bobby Bonilla.
Zane Smith would make his first appearance for the Pirates on August 10 against the last-place St. Louis Cardinals at Three Rivers Stadium. The crowd of 27,301 watched Smith come into the game in a mop-up role, down 6-3 in the top of the ninth inning. Smith would yield two earned runs to the Cardinals, finishing the game for the Bucs in a 8-3 loss. It was the only time Smith would pitch out of the bullpen that season.
As Zane Smith settled into the rotation, he went on to win his first three starts for the Pirates. On August 14, he faced the Atlanta Braves, pitching 7.1 innings and giving up three earned runs to notch his first Pirates W. On August 18, it was on to Cincinnati to start against the Reds. Smith would win his second straight decision, a 3-1 Pirates victory where he went 7.1 innings again. He gave up one earned run, and only needed 86 pitches to get through 7.1 IP. His third start for the Bucs would yield his third straight W, as he shut down the Redlegs once again, this time at Three Rivers. Since coming to the Pirates, Zane Smith had won all three of his starts, and in doing so had given the Pirates the shot in the arm they needed to take control of the N.L. East. A loss to the Houston Astros on August 31 despite giving up zero earned runs over 8.0 IP ended up as a No Decision for Zane.
Since coming to Pittsburgh, Zane Smith had given the Pirates exactly what they needed. He pitched deep into games, and did so effectively. His long starts saved the bullpen, which was on the verge of reaching a record for innings pitched by a Pirates relief staff.
It would be his next start, however, that endeared him to Pirates fans everywhere. With the Pirates just two games up on the hated New York Mets in the N.L. East, the team came home to a crazed Three Rivers Stadium to face those Mets in a doubleheader. A twin-killing by the Mets would bring them into a dead heat for first place, while two wins for the Pirates would open up a four game lead, their biggest of the season. Zane Smith took the hill in Game 1, opposed by Mets starter Frank Viola. Smith pitched an absolute masterpiece, a one-hit shut-out that would end up being the key moment for the Pirates during the 1990 season. He shut down the vaunted Mets offense – Gregg Jefferies, Darryl Strawberry, Kevin McReynolds, and Howard Johnson all went a combined 0-for-12 with four K’s in the game. Smith gave up his lone hit to CF Keith Miller in the first at-bat of the game, and did not surrender another baserunner until Miller walked with 2-out in the 3rd inning. From there, Smith shut down the Mets lock, stock and barrel. He struck out seven, and pitched the complete game one-hitter on just 92 pitches, and only went to a 3-ball count on TWO batters the entire game. With the score tied 0-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning, the Pirates got a base hit from Gary Redus to lead off the inning. Redus would reach second base on an error, then reach third on a perfect sacrifice bunt by CF Andy Van Slyke. Mets closer John Franco would then intentionally walk Bobby Bonilla to bring Barry Bonds to the plate with the bases loaded and one out and the game on the line.
Bonds blasted a ball into deep left field, over the outfielder who was playing in to facilitate a throw to the plate. The Pirates won the game 1-0, and the season had officially gone into hyperdrive. A rain-soaked crowd went bananas for their Buccos, and Zane Smith had become the most popular man in the city of Pittsburgh.
Zane Smith would go 6-2 down the stretch for the Pirates as they clinched their first N.L. East title in 11 years. His ERA of 1.30 and WHIP of 0.842 both led the league over the final month.
In the NLCS against the Cincinnati Reds, a series lost by the Pirates, Smith would go 0-2. Despite a bad postseason, the effect of the Zane Smith trade is credited as the key move that brought the Pittsburgh Pirates back into relevance. In 1991, the Pirates ran away with the N.L. East title, and Smith was a major reason why. His 16 wins would combine with the 20 wins of John Smiley and the 15 wins of Doug Drabek to give the Pirates a solid 1-2-3 rotation punch. In 1992, Smith battled injuries to a 8-8 record in 141.0 IP. He was unable to pitch in the postseason due to the injury, but as the Pirates fell to the Atlanta Braves for the second year in the row in the NLCS, Smith was in the dugout leading on his teammates.
Smith would remain in Pittsburgh for two more seasons, going 47-41 in his Pirates career. He returned to the Bucs to finish his career in 1996, before retiring as a Pittsburgh Pirate to end his career.
The guys traded for Smith in 1990 would have mixed levels of success in their careers. Willie Greene would spend nine years in the majors, mainly with the Cincinnati Reds. His best season was in 1997, when he hit .253/26/91 for a Reds team that finished 10 games under .500. By 2000, he had morphed into a utility role and played with Baltimore, the Chicago Cubs, and the Toronto Blue Jays to end his career.
RP Scott Ruskin would end up pitching out of the bullpen for Montreal and Cincinnati until injuries derailed his career in 1993. His career was average, and he finished his four-year run with a 3.95 ERA and eight saves. By 1994, he was out of baseball.
The last piece to the original trade was highly touted OF Moises Alou. Alou would become a key part of he Montreal Expos mid-90s teams, then go on to have a solid career with five other teams until retiring in 2008. Alou made six All Star games, and finished his career with a .303 lifetime batting average, 332 home runs, and 1287 RBI. He was considered one of the best players of his generation, and fully reached the potential tht made him the Pirates 1st round pick (2nd overall) in the 1986 draft.
Nobody knows what Moises Alou would have become had he stayed in Pittsburgh. He was a star who made $85 million over his 18-year career. If he had stayed in Pittsburgh, it is safe to assume that the financial climate of the team in the mid-1990′s would have made it impossible for him to stay in Pittsburgh. Regardless, the inclusion of Alou in the Zane Smith trade was what made that deal happen, and the Pirates rode Smith to three straight N.L. East titles. Zane Smith was a perfect trade pick-up for those Pirates, and he was a major piece to those teams. It is hard to imagine the early 1990′s Pirates without the mullet and snarl or Zane Smith on the rubber.
A look at the trade that brought SP Wandy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh and what could happen from here:
SP Wandy Rodriguez has been in the Pirates sights since 2010. His career with the Houston Astros has been exceptional, despite playing on many sub-par teams. He is a left-handed pitcher who is very similar to Zane Smith in that as his career has progressed, he has moved away from his power stuff and strikeout totals to become a most complete pitcher. Regardless, he has averaged a strikeout per inning throughout his eight-year career, and at only 33-years old, he has at least a few more solid years ahead of him. Signed through 2013, with a team option for the 2014 season, Rodriguez could very well be a Pirate through that entire time period.
Rodriguez will step in immediately as the Pirates #3 starting pitcher, making his first start for the team on Saturday night against his former team in Houston. Rodriguez is a reliable workhorse, averaging 200 IP in each of his eight seasons in Houston. He has a career ERA of 4.04, which has been effected by his home park – Minute Maid Park – a notorious hitters park that inflates the numbers of every pitcher that calls the stadium home. Coming over to PNC Park should immediately drop his ERA down into the 3.00-3.25 realm. His lifetime WHIP of 1.339 is a product of a higher than average 3.1 BB/9. As a #3 starter, he matches up well with the #3 starter for many of the N.L. contending teams in 2012. A change of scenery and the addition to a contending club should fire up the emotional Rodriguez, adding another level of competitiveness to a pitcher who wears his heart on his sleeve.
The Pirates gave up SP Rudy Owens, who is just about ready to step into a Major League rotation. Owens was considered the most ready of the three All-Star starting pitchers at AAA-Indianapolis (Jeff Locke/Justin Wilson/Owens) and probably would have been the next pitcher called up to Pittsburgh if a spot start was needed. He now goes to a franchise that is in full-on rebuilding mode, and Owens should be in the Houston rotation by August at the latest.
SP Colton Cain is a young pitcher who still has yet to find his niche in the lower levels of the Pirates system. A former 8th round pick by the Pirates in 2009, the Texas native will find himself in the organization that he cheered for growing up. He will head to AA and be worked into the rotation. The best bet for Cain is to be developed into a relief pitcher, with his power repertoire being tailor-made for a late inning role. He is still 2-3 years away from competing for a major league job.
OF Robbie Grossman was the key to this deal. His 2011 season was considered a big step for Grossman, as he was named the Florida State League player of the year after hitting .294/13/56 in 616 plate appearances. He has regressed since being promoted to AA-Altoona and there are conflicting reports on what his major league ceiling could be. Grossman probably projects as an Alex Presley-type player with a tad more power. He has good speed and is a very patient hitter, with a professional lifetime OBP of .380. The Astros will send Grossman to AA Corpus Christi to be evaluated for the remainder of the AA season, at which point he could be brought up to the Astros as a September call-up to grade his progress. The Pirates were hesitant to trade Grossman, but his path to Pittsburgh was blocked by many outfield prospects. He has a chance to be in the big leagues full-time by 2014,
The Pirates trade for Wandy Rodriguez has many parallels to their 1990 deal for Zane Smith. Grossman does not have the pedigree that Moises Alou had, but Rudy Owens could easily be the most valuable player the Astros received over the long haul. The Pirates are in a position were they have three levels of starting pitching depth, the current rotation, the AAA rotation with several major league ready starters, and the top prospect group of Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and Luis Heredia that should be ready to contribute by 2014 at the latest. Cole and Taillon could very well be in the Pirates rotation next season. There is another deal on the horizon for the Pirates, possibly for a right-handed power bat. The AAA starters left – Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson – along with AAA RP Bryan Morris are prime candidates to be moved should another deal be made.
Time will tell if the trade for Wandy Rodriguez will have the same effect that the trade for Zane Smith did in 1990, but the addition of a legitimate starter is exciting news for Pirates fans who have been on the sellers end of the rope for most of the past two decades. Wandy Rodriguez is not Zack Greinke or Josh Johnson, but he is a solid left-handed starter who should provide the Pittsburgh Pirates with the extra shot in the arm they need to stay in the N.L. Central race for the long run.
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