The Ten Moves That Made The Pittsburgh Pirates Contenders


Sep 27, 2014; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates fans hold up a sign of center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates traded for impact players, signed free agents, grew their own talent from the amateur and international ranks, hit on reclamation projects and kept their superstar. It’s a complex formula that produces contenders in Major League Baseball.  It was also a formula that alluded the Pittsburgh Pirates and left their fans frustrated for decades.

But frustrating days are mostly history for fans of the Pirates.

The 2015 Pittsburgh Pirates will be a contender in a deep National League.  The Bucs roster is filled with impact talent.  Depth options are available in case of injuries.  The team has young talent on the way.

Add it all up and, at least on paper, the club is the deepest of the Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington era.  The razor thin margin for error in rebuilding a MLB franchise is captivating.  Trades take years to develop, free agents fizzle, young players rarely reach the bigs, and perhaps most importantly, rosters are nearly impossible to sustain as superstars leave for monster paydays in the revenue oozing world of Major League Baseball.

With the odds heavily stacked against a small market team, let alone one with a microscopic payroll year after year, the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club is back.  We capsulize the ten moves that made Pittsburgh Pirates contenders below.

Nate McLouth Traded Headline from 2009. Post Gazette. Dejan Kovacevic

The Nate McLouth trade stunned most Pittsburgh Pirates fans and cleared the way for a superstar.  June 3, 2009

Nate McLouth was traded for Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton and Gorkys Hernandez from the Atlanta Braves.  With the outcry at a fever pitch, Neal Huntington told Dejan Kovacevic his feelings on the move.

"“Believe me, it was the most difficult move I’ve made,” said Neal Huntington, “but we believe it was the right baseball move, and we believe it firmly.”"

It was a genius baseball move.

McLouth was traded at peak value to make room for a young outfielder named Andrew McCutchen.  Not many fans realized the immediate impact McCutchen would make on an awful team.  By September, most had entirely forgot about the McBlondeBombshell and were enamored with the new Mc.  This Mc wore dreads, walked softly and carried a monster stick.  In a couple of years, McCutchen would become the NL MVP.

At the time of the deal, Charlie Morton was a mess.  Locke was stuck in the low minors for the pitching rich Braves. Initially, Morton struggled mightily which put even more question marks in the minds of Pirates fans before he was re-defined by pitching guru Jim Benedict.

Morton has teased Pirates fans with his electric stuff for years, battled injuries, and also can’t seem to shake the bad luck Chuck moniker.  Despite all the noise, Morton has thrown 672 innings with a 3.99FIP.  While most of the move has been focused on Morton, Locke actually made an All-Star team with a solid first half in 2013.

The two back of the rotation starters have given the Pirates innings, most of them quality innings. And perhaps most importantly, McCutchen had been given the center field job without having to look over his shoulder.

Sanchez and Wilson Traded. Post Gazette

The ‘stars’ Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez are traded.  Venom flies.  A new era is officially set to begin.  July 29, 2009

Freddy Sanchez was traded to the San Francisco Giants for over-hyped pitcher Tim Alderson.  Jack Wilson and Ian Snell were traded to the Seattle Mariners for well, not much.  Ronny Cedeno and Jeff Clement provided some short term depth to the ballclub and the pitching prospects Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin and Nathan Adcock never made it in Pittsburgh.

The return for Sanchez and Wilson can be an interesting topic over a few craft beers, but my take was always that these trades were to free up some money, and more importantly to change the ignominious culture.  After 2009, Wilson never played in more than 62 games in a season.  The shortstop that provided highlights during such a low point in Pirates history was out of baseball after 2012.  Sanchez hung it up after his 2011 season.

Keeping Wilson and Sanchez would have been a very poor financial decision for the bottom line focused Bucs.  Cedeno out performed Wilson in the 2009 season, and then frustrated Bucco fans for a few seasons, but still, a straight up Wilson for Cedeno trade was a win for the Bucs.

Sanchez and Wilson had injuries that were bigger than their personalities.  And let’s face it, their personalities and lack of production weren’t selling tickets to PNC Park any longer.  Speaking of personalities, Snell sent himself to the minors, and he hated bloggers, so he had to go.

John Grabow traded for pitching and Josh Harrison. Post Gazette. Dejan Kovacevic

The Neal Huntington deadline deal landed Josh Harrison and ended the selloff of 2009.  July 30, 2009.

John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny were traded to the Chicago Cubs for Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio and Josh Harrison.  The Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club had officially been gutted.  Dejan was with the Post Gazette at the time and was all over the details behind Huntington’s trades designed in our opinion to remove the word ignominy from the multitude of adjectives being used to describe the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Of course, the centerpiece of the trade turned out to be the player nobody expected.  The 5’8″ Harrison barely made it into the trade, but has made a monster impact during limited time as a starter.  The Cincinnati alum earned his way into the Pirates lineup and never let Clint Hurdle take him out of it.  Harrison was named to the All-Star team and finished ninth in NL MVP voting during his break out 2014 season.  JHay is the Bucs starting third baseman heading into the 2015 season and will be under team control until 2018.

The trades of 2009 were a message to Pirates fans.  Baseball as once constructed in Pittsburgh was over.  A new era had begun.   It was an era filled with more venom than a Texas rattlesnake hunt and it was directed at Bob Nutting and indirectly at Neal Huntingon and Frank Coonelly.  Little did they know that just a few years later, an all-out love fest would break out when the Bucs made it to the 2013 MLB postseason.

The Pirates land A.J. Burnett in trade with Yankees

The Pirates land A.J. Burnett.  Feb 19, 2012

The Pirates were involved in another salary dump, but this time they were the dumpee, not the dumper.  And what a dump it was as the Bucs sent RHP Diego Moreno and OF Exicardo Cayones for A.J. Burnett.  Almost immediately after this trade, the Pirates chances to end years of losing improved.  We

After the Pirates one-year offers to a pair of free agents, Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt were turned down, the Pirates and Yankees hammered out a deal.  The deal was finalized when the Pirates agreed to pay $13 million dollars of the remaining $31.9 million that remained on an $82.5 million dollar contract between the Yankees and Burnett.

We loved the Burnett trade at the time and  sure enough, Arkansas’ favorite son came out firing and had ten wins by July 8.  Burnett cemented his standing among his teammates by doing what other veterans had failed to do in the past for the Pirates-actually produce on the field of play.  Pirates veterans in the past have worn weird cat-like contacts in their eyes, rollerbladed in the locker room while wearing Penguins jerseys, and welcomed young players to hell.  Burnett raised hell on the field, perhaps most famously was the STFD explative fired at an opposing player.

The success that Burnett had in Pittsburgh helped to make the team legitimate once again.  It was a move that Pirates fans will remember for a long time, probably because when it happened—at the end of decades of losing.  And how it ended–with the Pirates in the postseason.

The success of AJ Burnett after a year in Philadelphia is yet to be told.  Usually the sequel is never as good as the original, especially when the sequel is a 38-year old fireballer that has seen his fastball velocity dip and is coming off a season in which he pitched 200 plus innings with a hernia injury.  But the Pirates don’t need Burnett to be better than his 35-and-36-year old seasons in 2012 and 2013, they just need him to be a back of the rotation starter that makes the rest of a relatively young pitching staff better.

Andrew McCutchen signs extension with Pirates. ESPN

The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Andrew McCutchen to a $51.5 million dollar extension.  March 4, 2012.

The naysayers said the Pirates would never pay Andrew McCutchen.  But the Pittsburgh Pirates proved the haters wrong and reached a deal with McCutchen.  It was the second largest contract in franchise history.  It was a defining moment in Pirates history.  Of course as you know, a few months later McCutchen would start to become a superstar.  Cutch put together an NL MVP-like season finishing third in 2012.  Then in 2013, McCutchen was named NL MVP while earning $4.5 million.  Last season, Cutch finished third while earning $7.25 million.

The remaining years on his contract will pay him $10 million in 2015, $13 million in 2016, and $14 million in 2017.  During his age 31 season in 2018, McCutchen is contracted to make $14.75 million or there is a $1 million dollar buyout.

It can be argued it’s the most team friendly contract in Major League Baseball history.  The Pirates center fielder has earned every nickel of his contract while being a model athlete off the field.

Andrew McCutchen celebrates after proposing on the Ellen Show

Perhaps the only odd thing McCutchen did off the field was his wedding proposal speech on Ellen.  Even if it did make the ladies cry, did he really think that saying his voice was “as loud as a lions roar….times a billion” would not sound hilarious?

Sep 19, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin (55) reacts after being hit with a cream pie after defeated the Milwaukee Brewers 3-2 at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates signed Russell Martin to the richest free agent contract in team history.  December 1, 2012.

Coming off a historic collapse in the 2012 season that saw their string of losing seasons peak, the Pirates knew that the catching position was a huge black hole.  The ball club went from riding high at 16 wins over .500 with a 64-48 record to finish with a disappointing 79 wins as they dropped 35 of their last 50 games.  The team needed a big move and signing Russell Martin was the move the organization decided upon.

Martin possessed strong pitch framing, game calling and intangibles that were compared to a unicorn in a tweet Dejan Kovacevic.  It was probably reasonable to speculate that it was another botched free agent signing, especially when reviewing the resume of the Coonelly/Huntington regime.  Their resume included some horrific free agent signings including Ramon Vasquez, Ryan ChurchBobby CrosbyJoe BeimelLyle Overbay, Matt Diaz and Rod Barajas.

The Pittsburgh Pirates best free agent signing ever was Russell Martin.

But Martin was different, receiving a big payday when compared to the small contracts paid out to those before him.  The Martin deal paid big dividends as Martin became a star for the Bucs.  The Pirates struggles at the catching position were a constant during the losing years, and with one giant, league-perceived, over payment to Martin, the catching position became a strength.  Martin helped push the Pirates into the postseason during both seasons of his contract.

Martin was a leader with a work ethic as strong as a winter Pennsylvania wind.  With the hot-bat and solid glove of Martin, the Bucs defeated the Reds in the NL wild-card game.  Martin’s staff pitched well and took the St. Louis Cardinals to the brink in the NLCS.  Last season, Martin played like a demon before the Pirates were thumped by the Madison Bumgarner led Giants in the NL wild-card game.

Not a bad ride.  But of course, the Pirates couldn’t come close to the millions of dollars the Toronto Blue Jays paid him this off season.  The impact Martin made on the 2013 and 2014 Pirates team is hard to completely quantify, but like unicorns, it was still magical.

Sep 20, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Neil Walker (18) turns a double play over Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Lyle Overbay (24) during the seventh inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Position Flexibility

The Pirates have several successful examples of players learning new positions.  Neil Walker is the longest success story for the Buccos and it happened due to the failure of another move by the team.

In November of 2009, the Pirates sent Jesse Chavez to the Tampa Bay Rays for second baseman Aki Iwamura.   (In a twisted way, the Pirates First Pitch magazine with Iwamura on the cover is one of my favorite pieces of Pirates history.)  After just 54 games, the Pirates pulled the plug on the chain-smoking 31 year old.  Aki Time was benched and John Russell announced that Neil Walker would get most of the playing time at second base.

Walker was drafted as a catcher and spent three years behind the plate in the minors before being moved to third base in 2007.  Fast forward to 2010 and the Pittsburgh Kid took every glove imaginable to spring training in order to earn a roster spot with the Bucs.  It paid off when Iwamura couldn’t hit above the Mendoza line.  With only a small bit of experience playing the position, Walker had his opportunity.

The pride of Pine-Richland didn’t disappoint.  Walker has been consistent and after battling injuries early in his pro career broke out to win the Silver Slugger after a monster 2014 season.

Sep 20, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison (5) fields a ground ball against the Milwaukee Brewers during the first inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most popular players in Pittsburgh is Josh Harrison.  Like Walker, Harrison played a number of positions after being acquired from the Chicago Cubs where he played a lot of outfield.   With the Pirates system, Harrison played more infield, but an area of strength for the 2014 Pirates was the super utility abilities of Harrison.  Harrison had several web gems and hit the cover off the ball eventually taking over at third base when Pedro Alvarez was moved to first.

Alvarez will be the latest Pirates starter to be moving to a new position.  The slugging Vanderbilt alum played a handful of games at first during 2014 before suffering a foot injury that ended his season before he could help the club in the postseason.

Aug 18, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez (24) fields a ground ball against the Atlanta Braves during the third inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates also have examples in the farm system of position flexibility with the highlight being Josh Bell.  The Pirates surprised many teams when they selected the switch-hitting Bell with the second round pick in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft.

The Pirates analytics department gained another massive IQ this week.

Being Ahead of the Curve.

The Pirates knew that MLB would be changing the drafting rules in the CBA of 2011.  They spent $17 million dollars because of it.   The team offered $5 million dollars to Josh Bell in the 2011 MLB Amateur Draft.  In the very near future will reap the rewards of that investment should Bell continue his development which seems very likely.  The team also spent big in later rounds and were able to sign a pitcher like Tyler Glasnow who appears to be a front of the rotation starter once he trusts all of his arsenal.

The Pirates put Dan Fox in charge and a bear hug was placed around advanced metrics, analytics and video when most other teams were simply putting their toe in the water.  Did you happen to notice how many times the Bucs have employed infield and even outfield shifts over the past few years?  The Pirates analytics department outworked other teams for years, the key to success in the future will be continuing to stay ahead of the curve.  Maybe the Pirates geeks will figure out a baseball version of how the Golden State Warriors get more with less?  Easier said than done, but if anyone can do it Dan and the guys can.

The team has invested in baseball in the region.  It started with the Altoona Curve and then the State College Spikes and now the West Virginia Black Bears.  Bob Nutting has helped countless baseball focused charities.

The team has invested in things that fans don’t see routinely.  The club has hired better scouts, exploited a draft system so badly that changes were made, the club improved minor league facilities and acquired tools and talent to expand their analytics team.  Smart stuff.

Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage has made a dramatic impact on the pitching staff.

Making Others Pitching Junk Into Pirates Treasure Since 2009.

The promotion of Ray Searage and retaining Jim Benedict might be two of the more under the radar transactions that fans outside of Pittsburgh could miss.  Without question, Searage and Benedict have made a quantifiable impact on the pitching staff for the Pirates.  We could bore you with all of the specifics, instead let’s just list a few of the notable arms that the witch doctor team of Searage and Benedict have fixed over the past few years.

Charlie Morton.  Much has been written about Morton.  Another chapter begins in a few days.

Joel Hanrahan was a mess when acquired from the Washington Nationals.  Hanrahan became a dominant closer with the Pirates.

Hanrahan was then traded to the Boston Red Sox and Mark Melancon was one of the players the Pirates received in the trade.  The Sox had given up on the reliever who gave up some big innings in limited action.  Since coming to Pittsburgh, Melancon has performed as one of the better relievers in the game.

Jeff Locke learned to command his fastball under Benedict.   While he was mired in the Braves system, Locke excelled while working with the Bucs pitching staff and parlayed his performance into an All-Star berth in 2013.

May 27, 2014; New York, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage (54) talks with Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Edinson Volquez (36) during the third inning of a game against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

A.J. Burnett was awful with the New York Yankees.  Because he was willing to make hanges, he excelled in Pittsburgh.

Francisco Liriano.  See above. Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez.  See above. Vance Worley.  See above.  Edinson Volquez.  See above.  But also note that in 2013, Edinson Volquez was one of the worst pitchers in Major League Baseball.  In 2014, Eddie became the Pirates best all-around starter.  If only he didn’t hang that breaking ball to Brandon Crawford in the Wild Card game.

John Holdzkom was picked up out of Independent Baseball and skyrocketed to the Pirates bullpen.  An amazing story with an ending still to be written.  The Pirates have developed their own bullpen weapons in Jared Hughes and Tony Watson, two pitchers who matured and improved their arsenal when they reached the big league level.

Aug 18, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates left fielder Starling Marte (6) rounds the bases after hitting his second solo home run of the game against the Atlanta Braves during the fourth inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Rene Gayo and the International Market

Two players say it all.  Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.  Talk about big wins in the International market.  Polanco and Marte appear to have the corner outfield positions locked up for years to come.  Credit should be heaped upon Rene Gayo for doing what others didn’t do.

Everyone else had Polanco pegged as a pitcher.  Gayo saw an outfielder.

Jun 12, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Gregory Polanco (25) swings the bat against the Chicago Cubs during the third inning at PNC Park. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Polanco signed with the Pirates for $150,000.  The lanky five-tool prospect broke out in 2012 and then tore up pitching staffs until the Pirates couldn’t ignore his abilities any longer and promoted him last season.  Heading into the 2015 campaign, Polanco will  have right field all to himself after the Bucs shipped Travis Snider to Baltimore for two pitching prospects.

Starling Marte was playing shortstop.  Gayo saw a smart athlete.  Now the Pirates cannon armed left fielder is  putting up big numbers at the plate and covering the vast PNC Park left field like a center fielder.

Gayo landed Marte, Polanco, and top ranked second base prospect Alen Hanson for a combined $325,000.  It’s insane.  And a big reason for the Pirates return to contender status.

Hoka Hey! The controversial. for some at least, Pirates battle cry

Down on the Farm

The Pirates have been almost bullish in their approach with a farm system that has been flooded with talent.  Of course it’s a pitching heavy system, a large number of the pitchers being paid rather handsomely to avoid college and focus on a career as a big leaguer.  The Pirates unique approach has paid dividends and also drawn plenty of skeptics.

They have preached fast ball command.  They taught pitchers to ignore baserunners.  They developed battle cries like Hoka Hey.  Navy Seals style training techniques were used with young prospects.  It’s a farm system that has been scrutinized while churning prospect after prospect into players that could help the Pirates win games at the big league level.

What’s your favorite beverage after the Bucs win Jeff? PHOTO:

The team took Jeff Banister from his best role as a minor league roving instructor to the big leagues.  With hard work and some assistance from Clint Hurdle, Banister is now a big league skipper.  While Hurdle helped, the Pirates deserve a ton of credit in Banister’s quest to becoming a big league manager.

The Pirates have fired successful minor league managers without providing detailed specifics.  But face it, it’s not hard to read between the lines and fathom that these managers put their personal beliefs before the Pirates strict, process-based development system.

The Pirates challenge their prospects in manners that have raised eyebrows around baseball.  There has been the Hoka Hey battle cry that came to light.  The Pirates Navy Seal Training/Dream Like a Hippie/Prepare Like a Boy Scout/Trust Like a Hell’s Angel email that seemed a bit odd to some people.

One great example is when then AAA skipper Frank Kremblas and Kyle Stark, the Pirates current AGM, asked tough questions to Neil Walker.  It worked and two weeks later Walker was in the big leagues.

All in all, the fact is the Pirates player development staff is unique.  I wonder what that American League scout who said the Pirates development methods were ‘the laughingstock of baseball,’ thinks today?

It would be easy to develop players like most other organizations.  The Pirates decided that wouldn’t work and after years of having one of the worst systems in baseball, the club now is consistently ranked among the best farm systems.

Sep 23, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates general manager Neal Huntington shown in the locker room after clinching a playoff spot by defeating the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field. The Pirates defeated the Braves 3-2. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

In conclusion, the Pirates have done it their way.  But it wasn’t easy, the team of Coonelly and Huntington appeared to be on the brink of losing their jobs after epic collapses, but they prevailed.  The GM could have stabbed his staff in the back, but instead Huntington sold out on his staff.

Coonelly  backed him up  and Bob Nutting got the hell out of the way long enough for the team to do their job.

The result is the Pirates are winning more than they are losing.  Teams around baseball are taking notice, but the Pirates won’t rest until they win the last game of the season.

The Pirates are a contender.  A contender that won’t be losing that label for quite some time.

Next: 2015 is the Pittsburgh Pirates' year