Bob Friend was what his surname suggested to the Pirates from 1951-1965 despite a 197-230 career record that might suggest otherwise. He may have seemed more fiend than friend when he led the NL in losses with 19 twice, but he also led the league in ERA (2.83 in 1955), wins (22 in 1958), starts for three straight years (topped by 42 in 1956), innings pitched twice (314.1 in ’56) and strikeout/walk ratio (4.07 in 1960). Friend wasn’t the Pirates’ ace in 1960 — Vernon Law won 20 — but he was 18-12 with a 3.00 ERA in 275.2 innings. That didn’t impress the Yankees in the Series — Friend gave up three runs in four innings in a 16-3 Game 2 loss, and five runs in two innings in a 12-0 Game 6 loss. He also had a chance to save Game 7 but he started the ninth inning and gave up two more hits and two more runs. Those were Friend’s only postseason appearances, and he’s saddled with an 0-2 record and 13.50 ERA. Friend was remarkably durable — he pitched at least 200 innings every season from 1955-1965 and in six of them he topped 260. Friend won 191 games for the Pirates before finishing his career in 1966 with the Yankees and Mets. His final stats: a 3.58 ERA, 3,611 innings pitched, a 46.8 WAR.
I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: Gerrit Cole was the fourth player the Pirates have taken with the first pick of the MLB draft, and he’s almost certain to be the best of them. Of course, that’s not saying much:
Jeff King (1986) did hit 30 homers in his final Pirate season, but only 99 in eight years with them, just one with an OPS of more than .800. He hit 154 homers in all in his 11 seasons, or 224 less than Matt Williams, who went to to the Giants at No. 3, or 355 less than Gary Sheffield, who went to the Padres at No. 6. Kevin Brown, who won 211 games and was drafted No. 4, might have been a better idea, too.
Kris Benson (1996) won 43 games for the Pirates and 70 in all, but was more famous for his relationship with wife Anna. They finally filed for divorce last summer, according to Anna because of Kris’ infidelity, but only after Anna threatened to sleep with all his teammates if he was adulterous (Deadspin.com: “Somewhere Cliff Floyd wonders what the statute of limitations on that promise was”). Anna once said she wanted to have sex with Kris outside every ballpark in the majors. Pirates fans would have been happy if Kris had won at every park in the majors. Truth is, that draft wasn’t much, and Benson perhaps should have been No. 1 on entertainment value. But third baseman Eric Chavez went to the A’s at No. 10, and R.A. Dickey (Rangers, No. 18) and Jake Westbrook (Rockies, No. 21) are still active, if long gone from the teams that drafted them.
Bryan Bullington (2002) finally had success as a professional pitcher in 2011. Too bad he had to go to Japan to achieve it. Bullington is to the MLB draft what LaRue Martin (1972, Portland) is to the NBA draft — perhaps the worst first pick ever. Bullington pitched in six games and 18.1 innings for the Pirates. He won only one major-league game, for the Royals, and lost nine of the 26 he pitched in. His 5.62 ERA only seemed like it should have been higher. Bullington won 13 games with a 2.42 ERA for Hiroshima in 2011, long after Pirates fans thought he should have fallen on his resin bag. The Pirates might have been able to do better: B.J. Upton went No. 2 to Tampa Bay, Zack Grienke No. 6 to Kansas City, Prince Fielder No. 7 to Milwaukee, Nick Swisher No. 16 to Oakland and Cole Hamels No. 17 to Philadelphia. Of course, if they had, who would remember LaRue Martin (in his 271-game NBA career, Martin averaged 5.3 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, or 18.9 and 3.9 less than Julius Erving who was selected No. 12 and went to the ABA).
As for Cole, 2011’s No. 1, he looks like he won’t belong on this list. In his only minor-league season in 2012, he fanned 136 in 132 innings and allowed only 113 hits; his ERA was 2.80. Cole will start in AAA on Saturday and he should be a Pirate before the Penguins are gone from the NHL playoffs.
What is this man doing here? Brandon Inge is out with a fractured shoulder blade, and according to rotoworld.com, “the injury does not restrict Inge when he hits or throws.” We assume not. Brandon Inge restricts Brandon Inge when he hits. The Pirates shouldn’t be in any hurry to activate Inge: he hit .218 last year and .197 the year before, his career on-base percentage is .303, he’ll soon be 36 and now has a bad shoulder. We’re not seeing much upside.
What he said: Pirates manager Clint Hurdle: “The more guys you have who can play every day, the better team you’re going to have.” What he meant: “You can play Gaby Sanchez every day, and bat him cleanup every day. That’s not going to make him Willie Stargell. Or Sid Bream.”
Outlook: It was a weird offseason. The Pirates had eight-and-a-half million dollars to spend on a .211-hitting catcher, the Yankees didn’t. The Yankees started this season like the Pirates finished the last one.
But so did the Pirates. They were 23rd in runs scored in MLB in 2012, and if Gabby Sanchez is hitting cleanup, they’re not likely to improve in 2013.
Still, they’re getting closer. If only the playoffs were expanded, the Pirates just might make them.
The Pirates have been absent for 20 consecutive seasons, but last year was as close as they’ve come. Their 79 wins were the most since 1997 and a seven-game improvement over 2011, which was a 15-game improvement over 2010. Your pace slows the higher you climb.
Now it gets interesting for the Pirates. And promising. They have two top starters to integrate into the rotation — Cole first and Jameson Taillon later. Starling Marte may not be a leadoff hitter, but he has power, speed and defense. Andrew McCutchen was third in the 2012 MVP voting; he’s 26 and signed at a reasonable price — reasonable meaning cheap — for this year and four more.
It gets better. The farm system is ranked fifth by minorleagueball.com’s John Sickels and eighth by Baseball America’s Jim Callis. And that’s without a first-round pick from 2012 because the Pirates failed to sign Mark Appel. But the Pirates get a mulligan; the ninth pick of this year’s draft is a compensation pick for failing to sign Appel, and the Pirates will have two of the first 14 picks in June.
The 2013 Pirates will be a lot like the 2012 Pirates: more pitching than hitting and close enough to the fray to maintain interest. They probably won’t make the playoffs and won’t improve their record much — perhaps Marte and Cole will push them over .500.
But it’s a franchise going in the right direction. Finally. After 20 seasons without a playoff spot, what’s one more.
Team song: George Harrison: Pirate Song