The Olympic Games are underway and baseball is back in them. But what players have been part of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization?
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are holding baseball as an Olympic Sport for the first time since 2008. This includes plenty of former Pittsburgh Pirates players participating. Six total countries are sending representatives to Japan to participate in Olympic Baseball this year. Those countries, are Japan, the United States, Dominican Republic, South Korea, Mexico, and Israel. The games are also underway as Japan won over the Dominican Republic, 4-3 on Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.
Among those six teams, there are 17 former Pittsburgh Pirates. Notably, none of the players from these 17 come from either Asian country. Both South Korea and Japan have professional leagues in the KBO and NPB where most pro-players from both countries play their entire careers at without appearing for an MLB team or MILB affiliate, and most players in that are participating from both Asian countries have not played in the states in their careers. But who are these 17 players participating in the Olympics that formerly were part of the Pirate organization?
We’ll first start with the most notable names. Among them, Jose Bautista probably stands out as the biggest former Pirate in the Olympics this year. Bautista was a late bloomer in the MLB. His battle started uphill when the Pirates drafted him in the 20th round back in 2000. From 2000-2004, Bautista bounced around with 6 teams, including the Pirates. He eventually made his way back to the Pittsburgh Pirates where he became their primary third baseman in 2006 and up until being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008.
We all know Bautista went on to flourish into one of MLB’s most feared power hitters of the past decade in Toronto and after moving to right field. Through his prime of 2010 up through 2016, Bautista blasted 249 home runs while batting .267/.387/.542 with a .397 wOBA, and 152 wRC+. He earned MVP votes in 4 separate seasons, collcted 3 Silver Sluggers, went to 6 All-Star Games, and had one of the most memorable moments in post-season history with his walk-off home run and bat flip vs the Texas Rangers in the do-or-die Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS.
His 285 total home runs in the decade was only surpassed by Nelson Cruz, Edwin Encarnacion, Albert Pujols, and Mike Trout. Currently, it looks like Bautista will be Team Dominican Republic’s first baseman.
Another recognizable name in the Olympics that played the Pittsburgh Pirates is Melky Cabrera. Cabrera was one of the Pirate outfielders in 2019, his final MLB season. Cabrera’s career span across 15 MLB seasons from 2005 to 2019. He also made the 2012 All-Star Game with the San Francisco Giants, but that was also the season he was suspended for performance-enhancing substances.
Still, Cabrera put up a very solid career. He hit .285/.334/.417 with a .326 wOBA, and 101 wRC+. Cabrera played a total of 1887 MLB games. He never reached the peak Bautista did but was a consistently solid hitter in the second half of his career. Aside from the Pirates, the switch hitter played with the New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, Kansas City Royals, Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, Chicago White Sox, and Cleveland Indians.
Former All-Star slugger and 2015 Home Run Derby champion Todd Frazier will be participating for Team USA. Fans should be more than familiar with Frazier as he actually appeared in games for the Pirates this year. Though he didn’t do all that great having just 3 hits in 40 plate appearances.
Frazier’s best years were with the Pirate division rival, the Cincinnati Reds. From 2012 up through 2015, he hit .258/.322/.465 with 102 home runs, a .341 wOBA, and 114 wRC+. He also put up 14.3 fWAR. Frazier was a top-of-the-line slugger from 2014 through 2016. This included 29 home runs in 2014, 35 in 2015, and 40 with the Chicago White Sox in 2016. Frazier also played with both New York teams and the Texas Rangers.
Oliver Perez is another player who appeared in the MLB this season. He played in 5 games and pitched 3.2 scoreless innings of relief with the Cleveland Indians. But he was surprisingly released on May 2nd.
It’s been quite a while since Perez put on a Pirate uniform. Perez joined the Pittsburgh Pirates as part of the Jason Bay/Brian Giles trade from the San Diego Padres way back in 2003 (he’s the only relic from that trade to still be playing pro ball). He pitched 398 innings for the Bucs, putting up a 4.59 ERA, 4.66 FIP, and 1.445 WHIP. Though his overall numbers aren’t great, he did have a good season for the Pirates in 2004 as he put up a 4.5 fWAR.
After some middling years with the New York Mets from mid-2006 up through 2010, Perez missed all of 2011 but returned in 2012 with the Seattle Mariners, primarily as a lefty specialist. He’s served a relief role ever since and has put up a very solid 3.42 ERA, 3.26 FIP, and 1.263 WHIP in his last 350 innings.
The last worthwhile player might sting some. That’s right-handed pitcher Shane Baz. Baz was the Pirates’ first-round pick in 2017 and was part of the infamous Chris Archer trade. Baz, 22, has since developed into a consensus top 100 prospect, even topping out at 22 on Baseball America’s list. He’s had a great season so far with the Tampa Bay Rays’ Double-A and Triple-A affiliates, putting up a 2.26 ERA, 0.84 WHIP, and 2.42 FIP in 55.2 innings. He’s given up more home runs than you’d like with 6 but has a 38.7% strikeout rate. Walks and his control were always a question mark, but if his 4.7% walk rate is an indicator of anything, he’s at the very least improved his control.
Now that’s all the notable players that have either appeared in the majors with the Pirates, or have at least played a game in their organization, but there are a ton that has played very little in the Majors in a Pirate uniform. Most of these players are very obscure names. Relievers Radhames Liz and Enny Romero were once top prospects who appeared in very few Major League seasons and even fewer games with the Pirates. Ryan Lavarnway was a catcher who played 6 games with the Pirates in 2018. Another catcher, Ali Solis, appeared in 13 major league games, and 29 with the Pirates Double-A and Triple-A teams in 2013. Jhan Marinez and Williams Jerez are two more obscure names. Patrick Kivlehan was a Cincinnati Red utility man in 2017 and spent part of the 2019 season with the Pittsburgh Pirates Triple-A team.
Lisalverto Bonilla may have had the shortest tenure with the Pittsburgh Pirates, having never played a game with any of their minor league affiliates, but still being part of the organization from November 29th, 2016 up to February 13th, 2017.
Among the obscure names who only played very little in the majors, Jumbo Diaz may be the most recognizable. The hard-throwing right-hander pitched with the Pirate Triple-A affiliate in 2012. He pitched in 4 different MLB seasons, all with the division rival Cincinnati Reds, tossing 168 total innings.
Finally, there are the players who never appeared in the majors with the Pirates or any other team for that matter. This includes Jared Lakind, Diego Goris, and Jairo Asencio. Surprisingly, all three have appeared in professional baseball in 2021. Though with foreign clubs or in independent leagues.
Among the 17 players who played for the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, very few have found long, sustained big league success. Though I’m sure going to Tokyo and participating in the Olympic Games is not only one of the biggest highlights of their career, but their entire life.