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Where'd They Go?: 1997 Pittsburgh Pirates

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In a recent entry kkk talked about how excited Pirates' fans were in 1997 over the small glimmer of hope the team provided that year. Now I haven't really given any thought to the '97 Pirates before now and nor has anyone outside of Pittsburgh but I need excuses for an entry so by god I'm gonna talk about '97 Pirates.

 

The Pirates currently hold the longest active streak of losing seasons in baseball at 13 seasons (well on their way to 14) and 1997 was the closest they've come to sniffing .500 since the departure of that guy Pedro Gomez follows around 24/7. As a Golden State Warriors fan I know the Bucs fan's pain and what it is like to get excited about mediocrity. The high watermark for them in '97 was on August 25th they were 67-64 and just three games out of first place. Now a team being just three games over .500 being only three games out in late August tells you that the N.L. Central was pretty bad in 1997. They would lose their next four games and never be over .500 the rest of the year although they would not be mathematically eliminated until September 24th. The division was almost as bad as N.L. West was in 2005 as the Astros would take the division crown with just 84 wins. The Pirates would finish 79-83 with a second place finish, five games out of first.

 

One thing to keep in mind about this Pittsburgh team is that they had a pathetic $10.7 million payroll, by far the lowest in baseball in 1997 so any success they certainly had to be considered overachievers. The Reds had the highest payroll in the N.L. at $49.7 million but the Bucs finished ahead of them. Now I take a look back at the Little Bucs That Sorta Could and where they've went since.

 

C: Jason Kendall (.294/.391/.434, 40.9 VORP, 22 Win Shares) - Just his second year but he had already emerged as the team's best player. He was a rising star but as well know in 1999 he'd have a horrific leg injury although he'd comeback in 2000 and have one the best years of his career which he'd parlay into an obscene contract that the Pirates would spend a few years trying to unload. Finally after a very good 2004 season he was traded to Oakland where unfortunately for the A's, and me, he'd hit catcher career wall in 2005.

 

1B: Kevin Young (.300/.332/.535, 26.5 VORP, 12 Win Shares) - Mainly a 4-A player Young put up solid numbers in a platoon with Mark Johnson in '97. In 1999 he'd have himself a pretty good year but that would be bad news for Pirates fans as he'd get a four-year, $24 million contract after that and hit like crap for the duration of the contract. Young really signifies what is wrong with the Pirates organization as after slugging just .399 in 2001, just awful for a first baseman, they still managed to give him 525 plate appearances the following season. They finally cut him loose during the 2003 season.

 

2B: Tony Womack (.278/.326/.374, 32.5 VORP, 18 Win Shares) - Aww the stat geek punching bag. After cups of coffee the previous three seasons this would qualify as Womack's rookie season and it he wasn't half bad. But it was obvious from that year already that he wasn't a reliable option as a lead off hitter, although he'd fool teams for several years just because of his speed, as he had only 43 walks in 689 plate appearances. He was traded to the Diamondbacks for the 1999 season, where he'd pick up a ring in 2001. Had two very short stints after trades in 2003 with the Rockies and Cubs. Then in 2004 with the Cardinals he'd have his career year at age 34 and convince the Yankees that he could be their regular second baseman for 2005. Whoops! What was so great about the Yankees signing Womack was that everyone knew he would suck. So congratulations to everyone for being right for once. Now currently with the Reds.

 

3B: Joe Randa (.302/.366/.451, 32.2 VORP, 16 Win Shares) - Acquired from the Royals before the season in what would be the first of five trades he's been in, he had a decent season. He's really the type of guy that would be useful for a good team that had a big hole at third base for a cheap price. Problem is he ends up on bad teams all the time who count him to be a key hitter in their line up. Following the season he'd be taken in the expansion draft by Arizona who'd unload him the same day to Detroit for Travis Fryman. Just another one year stint there and he'd be traded to the Mets who'd trade him six days later to Kansas City where he'd find a home for six years. Spent 2005 between the Reds and Padres and has now comeback to Pittsburgh to recreate that '97 magic!

 

SS: Kevin Polcovich (.273/.350/.396, 14.6 VORP, 6 Win Shares) - Who? No really, I have no memory of this guy. This would be his rookie year at age 27 and he'd only spend one more year in the Majors. He was one of six guys to have more than 10 starts at shortstop for the Pirates in '97 including aging veterans Dale Sveum, Kevin Elster, and Shawon Dunston.

 

LF: Al Martin (.291/.359/.473, 33.1 VORP, 13 Win Shares) - You always have to feel sorry for a guy who has to replace a legend but that's what Martin had to do. The typical numbers he put up would have been very good if he was a great fielding, center fielder but he was a poor fielding, corner outfielder. He also was awful against left handers so he often had to be platooned. Traded to the Padres before the 2000 season he'd bounce around from there to Seattle, be out of baseball in 2002, and then finish his career in 2003 with the Devil Rays. Al Martin Fun Facts: Arrested in 2000 for bigamy and made up a story about playing football at USC. Yes because no one pays attention to USC football.

 

CF: Jermaine Allensworth (.255/.340/.339, 4.6 VORP, 7 Win Shares) - Simply a prospect who never panned out and no surprise with those numbers. Traded to the Royals during the 1998 season who'd flip him to the Mets less than two months later where he'd last appear in the Majors in 1999. Last seen in the independent Northern League.

 

RF: Jose Guillen (.267/.300/.412, 1.5 VORP, 7 Win Shares) - This was Guillen's rookie year at just 21 years old as the Pirates hot shotted him from High A ball and he was clearly not ready yet they kept him up all year playing him in 144 games. It was this incredibly stupid decision that contributed to Guillen having a very slow start to his career. Traded to the Devil Rays in 1999 he'd be released by four different teams until in 2003 he'd breakout with the Reds. He'd be traded in a deadline deal to Oakland and then sign with the Angels on a surprisingly cheap deal as there were rumors of attitude problems. This would come up in late September in a key series with the A's where the Angels would suspend him for the rest of the season for an unknown clubhouse altercation. You know when a team in the middle of the pennant chase essentially dumps it's starting left fielder, who was having a pretty good year, that's probably a sign that the guy might have some problems. Currently he's with the Nationals where he wants to beat up Pedro Martinez or something. Maybe he should beat up Jim Bowden.

 

Pitchers

 

Esteban Loaiza (104 ERA+, 25.0 VORP, 11 Win Shares) - Loaiza has made a career out of being very average and '97 was no different and is probably now the definition of a journeyman starter. Pirates traded him to Texas during 1998, who would trade him to Toronto during 2000. After a miserable 2002 season he signed on the cheap with the White Sox and out of no where had a Cy Young caliber season. Then traded to the Yankees for Jose Contreras in a deadline deal which would turn into an absolute nightmare for him and the Yankees. Signed with the Nationals in 2005 and then signed a three-year, $22 million deal with the A's that I'm absolutely hating.

 

Jon Lieber (96 ERA+, 17.0 VORP, 9 Win Shares) - Yet another pitcher who's put together an average career. Pirates traded him to the Cubs for Brant Brown after 1998 (that turned out well) where he'd have a 20 win season in 2001. Late in 2002 he'd have Tommy John surgery which would cause him to miss the entire 2003 season. The Yankees gambled on him before 2003 knowing he'd miss the season and he'd comeback for 2004 to be a moderately succesful pitcher who Yankee fans fell in love with. Now currently with the Phillies.

 

Jason Schmidt (93 ERA+, 12.6 VORP, 8 Win Shares) - Oh here's a painful one for Pirates fans. Acquired in a late season dump of Denny Neagle the year before, Schmidt was a hot shot prospect. Now typically leaving the Braves seems to be career suicide for a starting pitcher. After two decent seasons, shoulder problems with derail Schmidt as he would miss four months that season. He'd struggle at times in 2001 and it was uncertain if he'd ever regain form. So during that season, with him eligible for free agency following the year, the Pirates traded him to San Francisco for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. In 2003 Schmidt would emerge as one of the best pitchers in baseball and follow that up with a very good 2004. Injuries have again slowed him down since but safe to say the Pirates wish they had gotten a little more in return for him.

 

Steve Cooke (100 ERA+, 10.7 VORP, 7 Win Shares) - Another Pirates prospect that was probably rushed too soon. He had a pretty good rookie year in 1993 but shoulder problems would pop up the following season, probably due to throwing 210 innings at age 23, and he'd barely pitch at all the next two seasons before finally returning to full action in '97. But his shoulder and elbow were thrashed, he'd sign with the Reds but make only one apperance for them in 1998 and was out of baseball by 1999.

 

Francisco Cordova (118 ERA+, 32.9 VORP, 13 Win Shares) - Young, overused, Pirates pitcher with shoulder problems. See a theme? Cordova broke out in 1997 as a potential rising star pitcher and had a combined no hitter against the Astros in July. He'd follow it up with a very good 1998 season and Pirates fan's hearts were all a flutter. But those pesky shoulder problems would pop up in 1999, he'd only throw 95 innings in 2000, and that was it for his career. Really too bad as he looked like he might be the real deal.

 

Closer: Rich Loiselle (139 ERA+, 16.3 VORP, 11 Win Shares) - Pirates pitcher with injury problems, this is just getting depressing. Loiselle set a Pirates rookie record with 29 saves in '97 and then had a decent '98 season before elbow problems would effectively end his career. He'd have multiple surgeries and comebacks over the following few years but he'd never be effective again, his career over by 2001.

 

So there you have it. I just spent more time than anyone every will on the 1997 Pirates. What do I win?

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You win your sanity back.

 

Oh, memories. During this "magical" summer of '97, KDKA, the flagship station of the Pirates, did this promotion where they basically called the season a "Freak Show." Everytime you heard that "Freak out/La Freak" song, and if you were the 10th (or whatever number it was) caller you got Pirate tickets or something. Of course, if this was really a freak show, funky beat and all, they would have used an actual song that said "freak show", like, say, "Freak Show" by the Bar-Kays, but I digress.

 

We all knew around here that Jason Schmidt was a good pitcher, but the problem was, like many players that failed here but went on to success at other places, he was on a bad team. Surprise, when he went to a team that gave more than 2 runs worth of support per game he got better stats. And good god I still remember the Jermaine Allensworth hype. There were KDKA sports people in this town trying to say that it was worth it to go to a game just to watch him play. Uh, no thanks.

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Bonds was a free agent. Schmidt was traded for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong. Awful trade, but in fairness there was little indication that Schmidt would blossom into an all-star.

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