It's going on 15 years without a winning season for the Pirates and there are people who believe the team won't top .500 in the foreseeable future. They're probably right.
But it didn't have to be this way. As barren as the Pirates' minor-league system has been, the opportunity was there to produce a winner. It hasn't happened for many reasons, with foremost among them being the poor to unfathomable player personnel decisions during the Kevin McClatchy-Bob Nutting-Dave Littlefield era. Small-market teams cannot afford the kind of mistakes the Pirates have made. No one expects Littlefield, the general manager, to make all the right moves. But there have been too many of the wrong ones since Littlefield took over in July of 2001.
A look at the lineup that could have been:
1. Gary Matthews Jr.
2. Freddy Sanchez
3. Jason Bay
4. Aramis Ramirez
5. Adam LaRoche
6. Xavier Nady
7. Ryan Doumit
8. Jack Wilson
The Pirates, as once constituted, were capable of a .500 season. If certain player-evaluation decisions had been made differently, the Pirates might be above .500 today; might, in fact, be chasing the Milwaukee Brewers.
Here are five days that should live in Pirates infamy: Dec. 28, 2001; Dec. 20, 2002; Feb. 4, 2003; July 23, 2003; Dec. 8, 2005. These dates stand out not only because the Pirates lost potentially outstanding players on them but also because they lost those players and got virtually nothing in return.
Let's go back:
Dec. 28, 2001: Outfielder Gary Matthews is sold to the New York Mets.
Who needed Matthews? He had shown some positives while with the Pirates. He was pretty good in the field, was a switch-hitter, had some pop in his bat and in 2001 had an on-base percentage that was 96 points higher than his batting average. But the Pirates had Adrian Brown, Tike Redman and Chad Hermansen. With that supposed array of talent, Matthews was deemed expendable.
The Pirates weren't the only team that missed on Matthews. He subsequently couldn't stick with the Mets, Baltimore and San Diego. But today he's the starting center fielder on what is considered the best team in baseball, the Los Angeles Angels. In an unusual display of versatility, he mostly bats first or fourth. He was hitting .288 with 10 homers and 42 RBIs through Friday.
What a difference in the Pirates if Matthews was in center.
Dec. 20, 2002: Minor-league pitcher Chris Young is traded to Montreal for reliever Matt Herges.
This is a move that to this day remains inexplicable. The Pirates had paid a bonus of more than $1 million to Young when he was their third pick in the 2000 draft. Young has come on to be one of the best right-handed pitchers in baseball. Now with San Diego, he is 8-3 with a 2.14 earned run average, second best in the National League, going into the weekend. He was 11-5 last season with the sixth-best ERA in the National League. The fact the Pirates cut Herges before the end of spring training, makes the deal all the harder to comprehend.
Feb. 4, 2003: Bronson Arroyo is placed on waivers and claimed by the Boston Red Sox.
Arroyo had chances with the Pirates, who liked his potential but couldn't mine it. He went on to have two good seasons in the Red Sox's starting rotation, going a combined 24-19 in 2004 and 2005. He was 14-11 with Cincinnati last season. He is not doing as well this season -- 2-9 with a 5.14 ERA.
Some of the pitchers kept on the 40-man roster over Arroyo were Bobby Bradley, Mike Lincoln, Brian Meadows, Ryan Vogelsong and Dave Williams. None has begun to approach Arroyo's level of accomplishment.
July 23, 2003: Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton are traded to the Chicago Cubs for three throwaway players.
Financial reasons, which have never been fully explained, forced Littlefield to make this move. Ramirez was the best hitter developed by the Pirates since Barry Bonds. He was a building block of the future. He is the middle-of-the-lineup hitter the team so badly needed. They gave him away.
Dec. 8, 2005: Third baseman Ty Wigginton is released.
Wigginton had shown some promise as a power hitter with the Mets, but was uninspiring in his time with the Pirates. Still, he had a bit of a pedigree. Instead, the Pirates kept on their 40-man roster infielders Yurendell DeCaster, Craig Stansberry and Javier Guzman. None is remotely the player that Wigginton is. None is even in the majors or likely to be.
Wigginton is here to stay. He was picked up by Tampa Bay where he hit 24 home runs last year and has 13 this season. On the offensively deficient Pirates, Wigginton, who can also play second base and first base, would have been a nice guy to have around.
The batting order could have been: Matthews, CF; Freddy Sanchez, 2B; Jason Bay, LF; Ramirez, 3B; Adam LaRoche 1B; Xavier Nady RF; Ryan Doumit, C; Jack Wilson, SS. Wigginton could fill in at several places.
The rotation would be Young, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Arroyo and Paul Maholm.
Is that a championship team? Probably not. But it's a far sight better than the one currently representing the Pirates.
It is not impossible to win in Pittsburgh. It is, though, when you make the kinds of decisions the Pirates have.