Recently on Twitter, Baseball Prospectus contributor Russell Carleton posited an interesting thought exercise:
Pick one franchise. One guy from each of the last 25 years. No repeated players. Must form a coherent 25-man. Don’t cheat on positions. Go.
— Russell A. Carleton (@pizzacutter4) January 27, 2017
I’m going to take that premise and alter it a little bit. I was born on June 2nd, 1989, which means that my infantile vision likely improved enough that I could have conceivably witnessed the Pirates strong finish to an otherwise uninspiring season. There is video evidence of a 1-year old Kurt Hackimer wearing a plastic baseball helmet and smacking a whiffle ball across the living room, which would probably make for a more accurate starting point for my baseball fandom, but for the sake of argument let’s just mark the cutoff at ’89.
I, like assumedly everybody who writes about baseball, subscribe to Baseball Reference’s indispensable Play Index and will be using their measure of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR) to measure the best players. Every position player on this list had to log at least 100 innings at their listed position. The 25-man roster will consist of eight starting position players, a five-man bench, five starting pitchers, and a seven-man bullpen. Only a player’s best season will be used. Today I’ll deal with the position players and will review the pitching staff next Monday.
So, without further ado, I give you the 1989-2016 Super Bucs position players.
C Jason Kendall ’98 – 5.6 bWAR
Despite being the face of the franchise for several years, many Pirates fans don’t remember Jason Kendall fondly. Some of that criticism, like the backlash he received when the Pirates signed him to a 6-year, $60 million contract extension in 2000, is beyond his control. Some of it, like him welcoming new Pirates to the clubhouse by saying, “Welcome to hell,” is self-inflicted. But if one looks at Kendall’s career objectively, not only was he the Pirates’ best catcher in the past 27 years but he was the most successful catcher in the history of the franchise.
Tony Pena’s 1984 season (5.9bWAR) is the best that a Pirates catcher has ever had according to Baseball Reference’s metric. But Kendall’s 1998 season clocks in at a close second. Kendall slashed .327/.411/.473 in ’98 and collected 12 HR, 75 RBI, and a league-leading 31 hit-by-pitches to boot. All of these stats trump Russell Martin’s virtuosic 2014 campaign, although it’s tough to compare the two defensively due to lack of pitch framing data in the ‘90s. And that’s not even considering the rest of Kendall’s Pirates career. Five of the ten best seasons by a Pirates catcher according to bWAR belong to Kendall. His knack for getting on base by any means necessary makes him an ideal candidate to lead off for the Super Bucs.
1B Kevin Young ’99 – 5.6 bWAR
Another former Pirates player whose body of work might have been marred by the fact that the Pirates, as a whole, just weren’t very good is Kevin Young. And part of that is legitimate. When I compiled this list and saw that Young posted the best season of any Pirates first baseman in the past 27 years, I took it as a sign that the position has been pretty shallow for a long time. And I was right. When such stalwarts as Gary Redus, Mark Johnson, and Josh Phelps rank among the top ten, it’s clearly not a historical position of strength.
But that doesn’t take away from the fact that Kevin Young had a few good years with the Buccos, the best of which happened in 1999. Young batted .298/.387/.522 with 26 HR and 106 RBI. Sure he had an Alvarezian 23 errors at first base, but who has ever signed a first baseman for his glove? Like many players, Young made a lot more money in his age 31-34 seasons to put up far more limited production. But Young has set the bar for Josh Bell or whomever else mans the not-so-hot corner in the future.
2B Josh Harrison ’14 – 5.3 bWAR
Yea, Josh Harrison’s breakout performance in 2014 was probably a fluke. Yea, he probably shouldn’t be making $30 million. But can we please take a minute to appreciate how incredible this 5’6” utilityman’s season was? In a year when the Pirates were slow out of the gates, Harrison, who played five positions in ’14, usurped third base from Pedro Alvarez and took the whole team on his back while the team was struggling maintain its winning record in August. And, to top it off, he did it with flare. Josh Harrison became the King of the Pickle in 2014. Remember this rundown? Or how about this one? And this home run, for good measure. Yea, he was on fire.
Harrison finished the ’14 campaign with a .315/.347/.490 line that drew comparisons to Bill Madlock and was instrumental in what was then Pittsburgh’s second consecutive trip to the playoffs. Harrison only logged 105 innings at second base in ’14, but he’s played all over the diamond and his versatility should help the Super Bucs greatly.
3B Bobby Bonilla ‘89 – 4.8 bWAR
If there were a manager of this fictitious baseball team, it’d undoubtedly be Jim Leyland. He somehow managed to downplay the egos of Bobby Bonilla and Barry Bonds to present some truly great Pirates teams in the early 1990s. Of course, maybe that’s just proof that talent rises to the top and that team chemistry is overrated. Who knows?
Whatever the case, Bonilla was such a troublemaker that the New York Mets are still paying $1.19 million per year to not play for them. But most of Bonilla’s most valuable years came while he was splitting time at third base and the outfield in Pittsburgh. And, at his best, Bonilla was very good. His best season came in 1988 (5.1 bWAR), just before the cutoff, but his ’89 season was nearly as good. Bonilla spent 156 games at the hot corner and posted good offensive numbers (.281/.358/.490). Oddly, Bonilla only drove in 86 runs in ’89 whereas he eclipsed the 100 RBI mark in three other seasons with the Pirates.
SS Jay Bell ’93 – 6.2 bWAR
Jay Bell is every little league baseball coach’s favorite ball player. A fixture at shortstop and in the second slot of the batting order for the majority of his career (although he’d probably bat eighth for the Super Bucs), Bell’s job was to act as a bridge from the leadoff hitter to the meat of the lineup. In 1990 and ’91, Bell led the major leagues in sacrifice hits and was, according to my dad, one of the best bunters of all time.
Of course, all of that makes modern baseball thinkers’s heads spin. Giving up outs rarely makes any sense, especially because when Bell was allowed to swing the bat, he was often very good. Bell’s 1993 season was one of the ten best by a Pirates player in the past 27 years and the best by a shortstop. His sacrifice hits dropped precipitously from 39 in ’90 to 13 in ’13 and the rest of his stats skyrocketed. The shortstop slashed .310/.392/.437 for a Pirates team that had recently been gutted by the losses of Bonds and Bonilla.
LF Barry Bonds ’90 – 9.7 bWAR
Before he became a swollen, steroid abusing, baseball crushing, superhuman, Barry Bonds was, well, still an incredibly good ballplayer. The only other Pirates seasons that really come close to Bonds’s MVP season in 1990, where he posted 9.7 bWAR, are other seasons by Barry Bonds. If the rules of this exercise were different, Bonds would occupy left field, center field, and two of the bench spots. And, of course, this season doesn’t even represent Bonds at his peak. Bonds would go on to post higher bWARs in 1993 (9.9 bWAR), 2001 (11.9), 2002 (11.8), and 2004 (10.6).
The Pirates left fielder actually hit a little bit better in his 1992 MVP season when he led the league with a 1.080 OPS and earned 9.0 bWAR, but his 52 steals in ’90 to go along with 33 HR and 114 RBI makes slotting Bonds into the number two spot of the Super Bucs batting order an easy decision.
CF Andrew McCutchen ’13 – 8.1 bWAR
Everybody knows the Pirates’ sob story. When Bonds left in ’92, the team fell apart and didn’t post another winning season until 21 years later. And, of course, the player most responsible for ending these two decades of woe is Andrew McCutchen. Obviously, Cutch has been talked about ad nauseum over the past year as he seemingly slipped from superstar status overnight. But there are only two MVP seasons on this list: Bonds’s 1990 campaign and McCutchen’s glorious 2013 season.
While it’s easy to be coldhearted when gazing at McCutchen’s lackluster 2016 statistics, one cannot ignore how fantastic the Pirates’ franchise center fielder has been throughout his eight-year MLB career. McCutchen won the 2013 MVP with a .317/.404/.508 slash line to go along with 21 HR and 84 RBI. Cutch arguably posted better offensive numbers in 2012 and 2014, but defensive metrics liked him a little better in ’13. Here’s hoping that the best version of Cutch can lead the Super Bucs, who will likely still be underdogs against similar super teams, to success.
RF Brian Giles ’99 – 6.6 bWAR
Brian Giles was and probably still is a jerk. He routinely sped past autograph-seeking fans in his gigantic Hummer. He was a toxic teammate. He lost his sponsorship from Nair for Men because his girlfriend sued him for $10 million in damages stemming from seven years of physical and verbal abuse (one such incident was caught on video).
Of course, much like Bonds, off-field incidents don’t change that he was the Pirates’ best player for several years. The Pirates traded Ricardo Rincon to the Cleveland Indians for Giles in 1999 and the left-handed outfielder immediately made an impact. Giles posted four monster seasons in Pittsburgh from ’99 to ’02 and may have earned serious MVP consideration if he played for a decent team. According to bWAR, no season was better than his first season with the Bucs. Giles slugged 39 homers and drove in 115 runs to go with a .315 AVG and a staggering 1.032 OPS. He also spent most of the season patrolling center field, but the 23 games he started in right are more than enough to qualify him for a spot batting cleanup for the Super Bucs.
OF Andy Van Slyke ’92 – 6.0 bWAR
Perhaps known mostly as the consolation prize when Bonds and Bonilla departed, Andy Van Slyke was a very good player in his own right. In 1992, he led the N.L. in hits (199) and doubles (45) and finished fourth in MVP voting. Van Slyke posted 30.8 bWAR in his seven years as a Pirates outfielder. He’s the first lefty off of the bench for the Super Bucs and can play first or third base in emergencies.
OF Jason Bay ’05 – 5.7 bWAR
Often the brightest spot on some truly dismal Pirates teams, Jason Bay followed up his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2004 by posting what would end up as the highest bWAR of his 12-year MLB career. Bay posted a career-best .961 OPS and a 150 OPS+. The only other ’05 Pirates player with an above average OPS+ was Matt Lawton with 114.
C Russell Martin ’14 – 5.5 bWAR
I don’t know if there’s another Pirates player in history who has made as big of an impact in a short period of time as Russell Martin did. He was the Pirates backstop for only two years, but his strong defensive acumen helped bolster the Pittsburgh’s patchwork rotation and turn them into a legitimate contender. Martin coupled his defensive skills with some fine offensive work in 2014 and received a standing ovation when he took his final Pirates at-bat during the ’14 Wild Card Game.
SS Jack Wilson ’04 – 4.8 bWAR
Jack Wilson was known mostly for his fine glove at shortstop, but he posted his best offensive season in 2004 when he slashed .308/.335/.459 and led the league with 12 triples. Though never a superstar, Wilson’s .265/.306/.366 career line compares favorably to fellow glove-first middle infielder and Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski’s, .260/.299/.367.
3B Freddy Sanchez ’06 – 4.4 bWAR
Ideally, I’d like to give this final bench spot to 2015 Starling Marte (5.4 bWAR), but the Super Bucs already have five outfielders on the roster. We need infield help and to find it, we’ll turn to the 2006 batting champion Freddy Sanchez. Sure, the batting title doesn’t mean as much as it used to. I mean, nobody is mistaking a 33-year old Justin Morneau or 2016 N.L. batting champion D.J. Lemahieu for Hall of Famers. But when Sanchez collected 200 hits in ’06 and led the league with a .344 average, this was all that Pittsburgh baseball fans had to cling to. He’ll give the Super Bucs another versatile option off of the bench.
Total Position Players bWAR: 78.3