Bucs' futility had occasional good move
It's easy to pile on the Pirates for their 17-year run of losing seasons, and we did our part last Sunday with a two-page spread that detailed the club's follies from 1993-2009.
Such criticism of the Pirates was justified. Over that span, there were poor drafts, questionable player development decisions, unwise spending habits and trades that stunk so much they would make a skunk blush.
Still, in the interest of fairness, it's worth pointing out that Pirates management teams did make some astute moves over the past 17 years. Not many, mind you, otherwise the Philadelphia Phillies would still hold the record for consecutive losing seasons.
Here are five that — be it through careful planning or blind luck — panned out in the Pirates' favor, ranked in chronological order:
1. Tony Womack becomes starting second baseman (1997)
Womack spent parts of the 1993-94 and '96 seasons on the Pirates' roster, but with Jay Bell and Carlos Garcia blocking his path, he couldn't find a full-time infield position and spent some time in center field. That changed in the '96 winter when the Bucs shipped Bell to the Royals and Garcia to the Blue Jays.
At 27, Womack finally was thrust into a starting job while playing on an equally inexperienced team with a $9 million payroll. He scored 85 runs, batted .278, led the National League with 60 stolen bases, played in the All-Star Game and brought some excitement to the top of the batting order.
Womack led the NL in steals again in 1998, but GM Cam Bonifay traded him to Arizona the following spring to make way for rookie Warren Morris.
2. Todd Ritchie signed as a minor-league free agent (1998)
In 1990, Ritchie went 15-1 and was one of the top high school pitchers in the country. But he never blossomed with the Twins and was 2-3 with a 4.83 ERA in 57 appearances as a reliever over the 1997-98 seasons. Paul Tinnell, the Pirates' farm director at the time, signed Ritchie to a minor-league deal that winter. Ritchie was used as a reliever in the '99 spring, then converted to a starter in the minors. After one start, Ritchie was promoted and went 15-9 with a 3.49 ERA. No Pirates pitcher has won 15 games in a season since.
Ritchie was traded to the White Sox after the 2001 season for Kip Wells, Josh Fogg and Sean Lowe.
3. Ricardo Rincon traded to Cleveland for Brian Giles (1998)
Giles was a nice complementary piece for the Indians, who had Manny Ramirez and Kenny Lofton in the outfield, Jim Thome at first, David Justice as the DH and Richie Sexson waiting for playing time. Bonifay traded his best left-handed reliever, Rincon, for Giles, and the deal went down as one of the best in Pirates history. In five years with the Bucs, Giles batted .308 with 165 homers, 506 RBI and two All-Star invitations.
4. Jason Christiansen traded to St. Louis for Jack Wilson (2000)
Wilson was a slick fielding shortstop at Double-A Arkansas whose path to the majors was blocked by Edgar Renteria. The Cardinals, who would win the NL Central and fall in the National League Championship Series, were looking for a left-handed reliever. Little did the Pirates know they had secured their shortstop for much of the next decade. In nine seasons with the Pirates, Wilson batted .269 with 60 homers and 389 RBI. He had a 201-hit season in 2004 when he made the NL All-Star team.
5. Six free agents signed for under $6 million (2002-03)
After the Pirates improved from 62 wins in 2001 to 72 wins in 2002, GM Dave Littlefield was looking to add some missing pieces at an affordable cost. Thanks to a market downturn and some patience, Littlefield was able to sign Matt Stairs in December, Jeff D'Amico, Julian Tavarez and Jeff Suppan in January, and Reggie Sanders and Kenny Lofton in March. The total expenditures were less than $6 million, making it the most productive free-agency foray for the Pirates in recent memory.
Sanders hit 31 homers and Stairs 20, D'Amico made 29 starts and Tavarez had a 3.66 ERA in 64 games. Suppan was leading the team with 10 wins when he was traded to the Red Sox, and Lofton was batting .277 with a team-high 18 steals when he was dealt to the Cubs.
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