The last installment of the 25 Best Pirates I’ve Ever Seen featured some legitimately great ballplayers. Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame. If Andrew McCutchen can get back on track, he too will eventually warrant Hall of Fame consideration. With a couple of exceptions, each of those players carried Pirates lineups at some point in their careers.
This next list is not quite as inspiring. But the 1989-2016 Super Bucs can’t field a team without a pitching staff, can they? No, of course they can’t. So here goes nothing…
SP Denny Neagle ’96 – 6.1 bWAR
Tell me if there’s a clearer representation of the shallowness of the list of starting pitchers in the past 27 years: Denny Neagle, who began as a full-time Pirates starter in 1994, is number one on this list, even though he spent the final third of the season pitching for the Atlanta Braves. That was obviously the best-case scenario for Neagle, whose 3.05 ERA over 182.2 IP earned him legitimate Cy Young consideration. Neagle would go on to start Game Four of the ’96 World Series with the Braves and have a few more productive years at the bottom of one of the best rotations in the history of baseball.
The bright side of that deal was that the Pirates received a young Jason Schmidt in return. Of course, the Bucs would eventually deal Schmidt just in time for him to become a star with the San Francisco Giants.
SP Oliver Perez ’04 – 5.8 bWAR
Even during the darkest of the Pirates’ dark days there was occasionally reason for excitement. Flash-in-the-pan performances by guys like Zach Duke and Paul Maholm occasionally sparked enthusiasm in what was at that point a beaten and disillusioned fan base.
No glimmer of hope shone brighter than that of Oliver Perez. When the lefty was acquired, along with Jason Bay, from the Padres in the Brian Giles deal, the Pirates overhauled his mechanics to try to work out some of the hitches in his awkward delivery. It worked initially: Perez’s 10.97 K/9 ratio was the best in the major leagues and his 2.98 ERA was the same as Roger Clemens’s in ’04. His starts became must-see events, even though the Pirates only managed 72 wins that season.
Perez’s inconsistent delivery caught up to him and the rest of his tenure with the Pirates was lackluster. Eventually Perez, like many hard-throwing lefthanders who are given infinite shots in the major leagues, reinvented himself as a reliever and is still floating around. But he never really approached the success he had as a 22-year old in 2004.
SP Francisco Cordova ’98 – 5.5 bWAR
Francisco Cordova had an interesting career because of how quickly that career ended. Cordova had five seasons from 1996-2000, all with the Pirates, which ranged from league average to All-Star caliber, before arm troubles abruptly halted what could have been a long and prosperous major league run.
But in those five years, Cordova provided some memorable moments. He pitched nine innings of a ten-inning no-hitter during the 1997 “Freak Show” season, but his peak didn’t happen until 1998. His 3.38 ERA and 3.99 FIP in baseball’s most exaggerated offensive era were elite-level, even if his 13-14 record was not. After retiring in ’00, Cordova finished out his baseball career in Mexico.
SP Doug Drabek ’92 – 5.2 bWAR
In five of his six seasons in Pittsburgh, Doug Drabek threw 200+ innings and was an excellent pitcher on some good Pirates teams. Even though Drabek won the National League Cy Young Award in 1990, bWAR indicates that Drabek’s most valuable performance actually occurred in 1992. The mustachioed Texan, from the same hometown as Stone Cold Steve Austin, posted a 2.77 ERA with a 3.28 FIP as the ’92 Bucs opened up a can of Whoop Ass on the N.L. East.
Like most of the best players in the ’92 team, Drabek signed elsewhere prior to the 1993 season. The righty signed with the Houston Astros and, although he made the All-Star team in the lockout shortened 1994 season, was never quite as good as he was in the prime years that he spent with the Pirates.
SP Kris Benson ’00 – 5.1 bWAR
Kris Benson is famous for breaking an MLB record by successfully performing four sacrifice bunts in a game. Oh, and he married a former stripper who once escaped from a murder scene in a stolen car. Yeah, I can’t wait for Kris and Anna Benson’s 30 for 30.
While the Bensons have spent large parts of their marriage actively trying to kill one another, the former first overall pick is not known for his being a particularly exciting major league pitcher. But the generally disappointing hurler did manage to produce a handful of productive seasons in the major leagues, the best of which occurred with the Pirates in 2000.
Benson posted a 3.85 ERA over 217.2 IP and struck out 184 batters in ’00, which easily made him the most effective starter in a rotation that featured injury-plagued seasons by Cordova and Schmidt. But Benson himself suffered an elbow injury in ’00 that required Tommy John surgery. The righty would post a few more decent seasons with the New York Mets and Baltimore Orioles, but would never quite live up to his top prospect status.
CL Matt Capps ’07 – 2.6 bWAR
From the moment Matt Capps debuted in September 2005 his career resembled an upward-moving escalator. Capps began the 2006 season as a low-leverage bullpen option. By the end of the season, he was Salomon Torres’s setup man. By the summer of 2007, Capps was the team’s closer and looked to be on his way to elite status.
Of course, Capps didn’t quite reach that next level. Manager Jim Tracy seemed content to work Capps until his arm fell off and, in 2008, it essentially did. Capps recovered and had a bounce back season with the Washington Nationals in 2010 after the Pirates had DFA’d him a year earlier. He was able to parlay that success into a nice contract with the Minnesota Twins before fading from the major league ranks in 2012.
RP Tony Watson ’14 – 2.5 bWAR
Speaking of well-used relievers, here’s Tony Watson. The lefty has been an integral part of the Pirates’ bullpen in each of the past four seasons, serving as a late-inning option until assuming the closer role when the team traded Mark Melancon halfway through 2016. Watson has notably struggled since becoming the closer, but has done some really great work in his six seasons with the Bucs.
Watson had his best season to date in 2014. In 77.1 IP, Watson posted an excellent 1.63 ERA with a FIP that wasn’t too much higher. He struck out 9.43 batters per nine innings and was an important cog in one of the league’s best bullpens.
RP Joel Hanrahan ’11 – 2.5 bWAR
Joel Hanrahan was considered an ancillary piece when Neal Huntington traded outfielder Nyjer Morgan to the Nationals for Lastings Milledge in 2009, but the right-handed reliever ended up being the most valuable player involved in that deal. “The Hammer” was solid in 2010, but was absolutely dominant as the Pirates closer in 2011. Hanrahan posted a 1.83 ERA (and a 2.18 FIP) to go along with 40 saves in his ’11 All-Star campaign.
Hanrahan added another quality season in 2012 before he was traded to the Boston Red Sox. Hanrahan only appeared in nine games for the Red Sox before succumbing to injury. Their loss was the Pirates gain because, in the trade, Boston sent this guy to Pittsburgh:
RP Mark Melancon ’14 – 2.4 bWAR
The inspiration for the Pirates’ bullpen’s “Shark Tank” moniker, Mark Melancon is one of the most reliable closers in baseball. Need proof? These are the top five relievers with at least 100 saves in the past four seasons ranked by their ERA+. Guess which reliever corresponds with each line.
The order goes:
- Zach Britton
- Mark Melancon
- Greg Holland
- Aroldis Chapman
- Craig Kimbrel
That’s pretty good company for Mr. Melancon. It’s always easy to predict doom for Melancon, whose fastball now tops out in the low 90’s, but he keeps finding a way to get the job done. Melancon just signed a 4-year, $62M contract with the Giants, but is somehow still undervalued compared to the record-breaking contracts signed by fellow relievers Chapman and Kenley Jansen.
RP Evan Meek ’10 – 2.4 bWAR
Trivia question: Who was the only Pirates representative on the 2010 All-Star team? Well, if you thought to look directly above this question, you could probably glean that the answer is reliever Evan Meek.
To date, Meek has had exactly one good year in the major leagues. But that one year was one of the best seasons a Pirates reliever has had in the past 27 years, so he gets to be on this list. He wasn’t even the closer for the Pirates in ’10, but had a miniscule 1.11 ERA heading into the All-Star Break and Huntington’s gutting of the roster was already well underway. That All-Star spot probably should’ve gone to the Pirates’ spry young outfielder Andrew McCutchen, but that guy has had more than his share of accolades. Let’s give it up one time for the Meekster!
RP Salomon Torres ’04 – 2.3 bWAR
Salomon Torres was a failed major league starter who retired after an especially bad 1997 season. In 2001, Torres resurfaced in the Korean league and in 2002, at age 30, signed a minor league deal with the Pirates.
The deal was a huge success for Pittsburgh. Torres carried a hefty workload for the Pirates, logging at least 90 innings every year from 2004 to 2006. Although he wouldn’t assume the closer role until ’06, Torres’s most valuable season came in ’04 when he appeared in 84 games and posted a 2.64 ERA.
By 2007, Torres experienced elbow problems and blew six saves early in the season. When Matt Capps replaced him, Torres caused a fuss and claimed that he agreed to a below-market contract because the Pirates promised to invest in a baseball academy he built in the Dominican Republic (the academy was eventually rented by the Texas Rangers). The Pirates resolved the issue by shipping Torres to the Milwaukee Brewers for a pair of fringe prospects.
Total Pitchers bWAR: 42.4
Total Team bWAR: 120.7
That’s more than the 1932 New York Yankees and 2016 Chicago Cubs combined! Although it’s probably much less than if you were to play this game with a team that did not lose for 20 years in a row. Oh well.