On the Pirates: Best and worst amid the losing

Readers help select extreme performances from 1993 until now


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MILWAUKEE -- With the clinching of the Pirates' record 17th losing season on the horizon, perhaps it is worthy of reflection to look back on the best and worst of the many players who have participated, for better or worse.

The criteria were simple: A pitcher had to have at least 12 starts or 25 relief appearances with the Pirates, and a position player had to have at least 156 at-bats. That was the exact number Derek Bell had, and he simply had to make it.

Thanks to the many readers who emailed lists, commenters on the online PBC Blog and veteran observers of the streak for their invaluable input. It takes a truly special breed to concoct a list in which Omar Olivares makes honorable mention in any walk of life.

THE BEST

Right-handed starter: Francisco Cordova. He will be remembered for his combined no-hitter with Ricardo Rincon in 1997, of course, but he also was as close as the team came to an ace over any extended span. Honorable mentions: Todd Ritchie, Jason Schmidt.

Left-handed starter: Denny Neagle. His back-to-back seasons of 13-8 and 14-6 in 1995-96 was the best such run of any starter, and that performance got him what so many Pirates got in this span: A ticket out of town. Honorable mentions: Zach Duke, Paul Maholm.

Bullpen: Mike Gonzalez, Scott Sauerbeck, John Grabow. All lefties? Sure. Nobody was better than Gonzalez, whose 2.37 ERA was the best of any reliever in that span. Sauerbeck and Grabow were steady for several years. Honorable mentions: Mike Williams, Jose Mesa.

Catcher: Jason Kendall. The franchise leader in games caught, he was so solid he would even get Dave Kerwin's vote. Honorable mention: Ryan Doumit.

First baseman: Kevin Young. Toughest choice by far. One of three players in this span to wear the uniform for 1,000-plus games. Honorable mention: Adam LaRoche.

Second baseman: Freddy Sanchez. Three-time All-Star, National League batting champion, fine fielder. No one comes close. Honorable mention: Uh, Pokey Reese?

Shortstop: Jack Wilson. He ended his nine-year career with the highest fielding percentage in franchise history. Honorable mention: Jay Bell.

Third baseman: Aramis Ramirez. And he could have been so much more here, if not for ownership's salary dump in 2003. Honorable mention: Jeff King

Outfielders: Brian Giles, Jason Bay, Al Martin. The first two were easy. Martin made it for consistency and fire, especially in keeping that 1997 team -- the only one that mattered in all this time -- believing. Honorable mentions: Nate McLouth, Orlando Merced.

Off the bench: Craig Wilson. His eight pinch-hit home runs remain the franchise benchmark.

THE WORST

Right-handed starter: John Van Benschoten. An enduring symbol of all that has gone wrong for the Pirates -- poor drafting, inexplicable development and miserable play at the top level -- he was 2-13 with a 9.20 ERA. Honorable mentions: Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Morris.

Left-handed starter: Jimmy Anderson. Best remembered for his belly poking out from under his jersey, Anderson also had some weighty numbers: 24-42, 5.24 ERA and a home run every 10 innings. Honorable mentions: Mark Redman, Steve Cooke.

Bullpen: Franquelis Osoria, Jonah Bayliss, Dave Wainhouse. Amazingly, Osoria and Bayliss shared a pen with aging Masumi Kuwata and his 9.43 ERA. Bayliss' 7.22 ERA over 50 appearances was highest of any reliever. Honorable mentions: Omar Olivares, Jeff McCurry.

First baseman: Randall Simon. If only he could club baseballs -- .245 plus a walk per month -- as well as he clubbed racing sausages. Honorable mention: Brad Eldred.

Second baseman: Enrique Wilson. He maddeningly went from being a .300 hitter with Cleveland to .223 over two miserable seasons. Honorable mention: Jose Castillo

Shortstop: Pat Meares. He was inexplicably signed to a four-year, $15 million contract after hand surgery. Honorable mention: Lou Collier

Third baseman: Jose Hernandez. In two forgettable stints after coming in the Ramirez trade, he struck out 85 times in 313 at-bats. Honorable mention: Doug Strange

Outfielders: Derek Bell, Chad Hermansen, Midre Cummings. One declared "Operation Shutdown and sailed off in a yacht, the second could walk on water but could not hit a baseball, and the third was one of -- but hardly the only -- biggest prospect busts. Honorable mentions: Brant Brown, Wil Cordero

Off the bench: Jeromy Burnitz. As he told Dave Littlefield after being paid $6.7 million in 2006, "Dave, I can't thank you enough."

Buckley's grade: C-minus

The pending resignation of minor league pitching coordinator Troy Buckley leaves a plenty important hire for the Pirates in the coming offseason: With the many pitching prospects general manager Neal Huntington has acquired in recent months -- including Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Aaron Pribanic, Hunter Strickland, Nate Adcock and Brett Lorin all still at the Class A level -- development will be critical to the franchise's future.

Buckley's my-way-or-else style won him few friends in the system, and the Pirates, indeed, lost a few experienced baseball men in favor of pitching coaches who essentially were clipboard holders for Buckley, not permitted to offer individual instruction.

His results were decidedly mixed: Brad Lincoln had a breakout year, as did Rudy Owens in Class A, but that was about it. Daniel McCutchen and Danny Moskos showed improvement, as did others. But Morris was the key piece of the Jason Bay trade, Locke part of the Nate McLouth trade, and each took steps backward in several months under Buckley.

All pitching prospects need individualized instruction far more often than any roving coordinator -- who is responsible for all six North American affiliates -- can provide, and the Pirates have a chance to address that with their next hire.

Someone light a candle

Tomorrow marks the 12th anniversary in a landmark moment in the Pirates' recent history, the last time they made an in-season trade to upgrade the team that same season.

It was Aug. 31, 1997, and the team, in a pennant race with Houston, acquired shortstop Shawon Dunston from the Chicago Cubs for cash, two days after energetic journeyman Kevin Polcovich went down with a badly sprained ankle. And the payoff was instant: Dunston homered in his first at-bat Sept. 2 against Cleveland at Three Rivers Stadium, then another in the third inning, part of a four-RBI night and a 6-4 victory that enthralled the 43,380 on hand.

At the time, then-hitting coach Lloyd McClendon told the Post-Gazette's Paul Meyer about Dunston: "When he did what he did right out of the gate, I'm thinking, 'Oh, my gosh, this is really magical. We really have a chance to pull this thing off.' "

Dunston would appear in 18 games, bat .394 with five home runs and, alas, it was not enough for the Pirates, in their lone sniff of contention these 17 years, to catch the Astros.

Currently, Dunston is a roving infield instructor in San Francisco's system.


Catch more on the Pirates at the PG's PBC Blog . Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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