By Ted Keith
August 05, 2009

It may be the most beautiful sight in baseball, and yet, it is somehow sad. The Roberto Clemente Bridge, already painted gold in the color that defines the sports teams of the city, basking in an evening summer sun, while the most dedicated fans in baseball trudge across it and into an equally gorgeous ballpark that hosts an annually ugly team. It must be the ballpark, and the view and the misplaced hope of success that is drawing those fans each night, because it sure isn't the baseball.

Since winning their third straight NL East title in 1992, the Pirates have become baseball's version of the bridge to nowhere, headed toward a 17th consecutive losing season that would mark the longest stretch of continued ineptitude in the history of American team sports. Since entering PNC Park, they've lost more games than any team in the league. They are caught in a never-ending cycle of rebuilding that continues again this season with a dizzying array of trades that have pushed back their timetable for being genuinely competitive even further into an ever uncertain future.

The rebuilding first began in the winter of 1992, when the Pirates released veterans such as Bob Patterson and Cecil Espy, traded slick-fielding second baseman Jose Lind and, most famously, allowed former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek and two-time MVP Barry Bonds to leave as free agents. Catcher Mike LaValliere responded to the moves by calling the Pirates a "joke" and "a major league farm club."

LaValliere's biting words have gone from haunting prediction to mocking fact. The Pirates are one of just two NL teams, along with the Expos/Nationals, to have not reached the playoffs since '92. They've been through six managers, four general managers and three ownership groups, all with one constant: losing.

The Pirates have indeed become a joke, but for the loyal fans of Pittsburgh, this is no laughing matter. Over the past two months the Pirates have made seven trades that have reaffirmed what LaValliere first predicted all those years ago: They are now a major league farm club. For evidence, one need only look at their Opening Day lineup from 2008, less than two full seasons ago:

Nate McLouth, CFFreddy Sanchez, 2BJason Bay, LFAdam LaRoche, 1BXavier Nady, RFRyan Doumit, CJose Bautista, 3BJack Wilson, SSIan Snell, P

Eight of those nine players have since been traded. Only Doumit, who might have been an attractive trading chip had he he not missed three months with a broken wrist this year, remains. The other eight players have been a part of eight different trades that have returned 25 players, the majority of whom are still years away from reaching the majors.

Pirates fans, bless them, have expressed cautious optimism that their new brass, president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, have a plan in place that will finally end their misery and produce a winning team, which is why some are willing to take a wait-and-see approach before judging whether the litany of trades pans out. They shouldn't hold their breath. No team in baseball has dealt away as much talent in recent years as the Pirates have, and gotten so little in return. Below is a breakdown of 10 such trades the Pirates have made since their streak of losing seasons began that illustrate their financial difficulties as well as their organizational failures in drafting, scouting, player development and fan relations. Just as they have on the field for each of the past 17 seasons, in each of these trades, the Pirates came out on the losing end every time.

Traded: Aug. 28, 1996, to Braves for Corey Pointer and Ron Wright. Braves later sent Jason Schmidt to complete the trade.

The Pirates were going nowhere, en route to their fourth straight losing season, but they had a valuable commodity. A young left-handed starter coveted by several contending teams. Ultimately, Neagle, a 27-year-old who was 13-8 with a 3.43 ERA, was dealt to the Braves. He helped Atlanta win the NL East, then pitched well, albeit without a decision, in the playoffs and World Series. The next year he won 20 games and finished third in the NL Cy Young voting. He followed it up by winning 16 in 1998 and 15 in 2000. His career petered out after that, but Pointer and Wright turned out to be non-factors. Pointer never made the majors and Wright got three at-bats with the Mariners in 2002. (See below on Schmidt.)

Words to live by (all quotes here come from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette): "Ron Wright's going to hit a lot of home runs."--Pirates GM Cam Bonifay, who was very wrong about Wright, who had hit 68 home runs in his first two pro seasons but hit just 18 in three-plus years in the Pirates system before being waived after the '99 season.

Traded: Dec. 13, 1996, to Royals for Jeff Martin, Jeff Granger, Joe Randa and Jeff Wallace.

After the '96 season, the Pirates dealt the only two stars remaining from their glory years to the equally cash-strapped Royals. King, coming off a 30-homer, 111-RBI season for the Bucs, averaged 26 home runs and 102 RBIs the next two seasons but retired after the 1999 season. Bell had been a steady hitter with moderate pop, but he set career highs with 21 homers and 92 RBIs for the Royals, and in 1999 with the Diamondbacks he batted .289 with 38 home runs and 112 RBIs and made the All-Star team. Martin pitched just 17 games above A-ball for the Pirates and never reached the majors, Granger pitched in nine games for Pittsburgh in 1997 and never made it back to the bigs, and Wallace was a mostly anonymous middle reliever who was released in 2000. Randa batted .302 in one season in Pittsburgh, then was taken by the Diamondbacks in the expansion draft and quickly dealt to the Tigers.

Words to live by: "He's the one guy we wanted pretty badly."--manager Gene Lamont on Granger

Traded: July 17, 1998 to Rangers for Warren Morris and Todd Van Poppel.

Loaiza was nothing special at the time of the deal, posting a losing career record of 27-28. He didn't do much for the Rangers, or the Blue Jays for that matter when he was dealt there in 2000. But in 2003 he won 21 games for the White Sox and finished second in the AL Cy Young voting. He made the All-Star Game again the next season before being traded to the Yankees, beginning a vagabond tour of the majors that saw him pitch for five teams in the next five years. But Van Poppel and Morris were both huge busts. Van Poppel, whom the Pirates weren't that high on even when they made the trade, pitched in only 18 games in '98 and spent all of '99 in the minors before being allowed to leave as a free agent. Morris had a solid rookie year in 1999 -- .288 with a .360 OBP, 15 homers and 73 RBIs -- but he tailed off dramatically the next year, was gone from the team after the 2001 season and out of baseball by the end of 2003.

Words to live by: "Morris is the key element for us in the trade for what he can be for us in the future."--Bonifay

Traded: Dec. 14, 1998 to Cubs for Brant Brown.

Like Loaiza, Lieber was not particularly impressive at the time he was dealt, owning a 38-47 record and making $2 million a year when he was dealt. But he went on to become a solid starter aided by stellar control, winning 20 games for the Cubs in 2001 and making the NL All-Star team, then going 14-8 for the Yankees in 2004 and 17-13 for the Phillies in '05. Brown batted .232 in one season in Pittsburgh, then was traded to the Marlins for the equally forgettable Bruce Aven.

Words to live by: "That's who I'm counting on." --LaMont, on Brown

Traded: July 30, 2001 (with Jon Vander Wal) to Giants for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong.

Schmidt had come to the Pirates in the Denny Neagle trade, and by the time it was his turn to land on the trading block, he was one of the game's most sought-after commodities. In the summer of 2001, he was 28 years old and had strung together three decent seasons in a row for Pittsburgh from 1997 through '99. After the deal Schmidt went 7-1 with a 3.39 ERA for the Giants down the stretch, then made three All-Star teams and won 71 games over the next five years, third in the NL behind only Roy Oswalt and Greg Maddux. Rios hit just one home run in Pittsburgh before being released after the 2002 season, and Vogelsong posted an ERA of 6.00 in five years before retiring after the 2006 season.

Words to live by: "We think it's going to benefit the team both now and in the future."--GM Dave Littlefield on the trade

Traded: July 31, 2001 to Astros for Tony McKnight.

Traded: July 21, 2003 to Phillies for Frank Brooks.

Even by the Pirates' jaw-dropping standards, this was uniquely bad. Williams had been a serviceable closer for three years, saving 23, 24 and 22 games from '99 through '01 when he was shipped to Houston for McKnight, a tall righty who had experienced arm trouble before the deal. McKnight pitched 12 games that year for the Pirates, his last 12 in a big league uniform. Williams returned to the Pirates in the offseason, signing a two-year contract, and made the All-Star Game in both 2002 and '03. He ranked third in the NL in saves in his return stint in Pittsburgh, but he was traded again near the deadline, this time to the Phillies for minor league lefty Brooks, who made 11 appearances for the Pirates after reaching the majors in 2004, racking up a 4.67 ERA and then getting picked up in the Rule 5 Draft that winter by the Mets. Brooks pitched one more game in the majors, with the Braves in 2005, and then bounced around the minors through the 2008 season. Williams finished out '03 in Philly, his last year in the bigs.

Words to live by: "It's a chance to win. That's not happening this year. And from the looks of it, it's not going to happen anytime soon there."--Williams after being dealt the first time.

Traded: July 23, 2003, with Kenny Lofton to Cubs for Matt Bruback, Jose Hernandez, player to be named (Bobby Hill).

Ramirez broke out by batting .300 with 34 home runs and 112 RBIs as a 23-year-old in 2001, all but assuring that he would become expensive, and thereby expendable. He helped the Cubs win the NL Central in 2003 and developed into one of the game's premier hitters. He's now a two-time All-Star who has three 30-HR seasons and four 100-RBI seasons in his first five full years with the Cubs, while batting .302. Bruback never made the majors, Hernandez batted .223 the rest of that year before being released in the offseason and Hill played just 185 games in Pittsburgh. His big-league career ended after the 2005 season.

Words to live by: "Although you might not understand it, we do have a plan in place."--McClendon

Traded: July 31, 2003, with Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez to Red Sox for Mike Gonzalez, Freddy Sanchez and cash.

Another uniquely botched deal in which the Pirates first acquired Lyon less than two weeks earlier, only to discover that he was damaged goods, forcing them to scramble for a way to undo the trade. Originally, Lyon and Martinez were sent from Boston for Gonzalez and Scott Sauerbeck just 10 days before, but Lyon turned out to have elbow problems, so that part of the trade was undone, with Sauerbeck staying in Boston. Gonzalez was surprisingly effective in Pittsburgh, notching a 2.37 ERA before being sent to Atlanta in the trade that brought the Pirates Adam LaRoche. Sanchez, of course, became an All-Star and a batting champion, but it didn't do much good in the end; he was dealt to the Giants at this year's deadline. Suppan didn't do much for the Red Sox, but after signing with the Cardinals as a free agent he won 16 games in both 2004 and 2005 and was named NLCS MVP in 2006.

Words to live by: "We think he can have an impact offensively and defensively."--Littlefield on Sanchez

Traded: Aug. 26, 2003, to Padres for Jason Bay, Oliver Perez and a player to be named (Corey Stewart).

Unquestionably the best deal the Pirates have made in recent years, and it still didn't result in a winning season, while at the same time further angering and alienating their fan base. And while the jury is out on the subsequent Bay and Perez trades, it's not looking good for the Bucs. Giles was a two-time All-Star but he was already 32 years old and making more than $8 million a season. Perez was stellar in 2004 but quickly faded and was dealt in 2006 to the Mets, for whom he has been one of the game's most inconsistent pitchers. Bay, meanwhile, replaced Giles in left field and as the team's best and most popular player, winning Rookie of the Year honors and making two All-Star teams before he too was dealt in a three-team trade that landed Pittsburgh four prospects. Of the four, Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss are both with the Pirates now, though neither has shown All-Star level ability. In exchange for sending Perez to the Mets, the Bucs got Xavier Nady, who was sent to the Yankees one year later for a package of four players. Among that group, two players remain in the minors while Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens have combined for a 12-12 record as starters with the Pirates.

Words to live by: "The goal is not to be a .500 team. The goal is to be a championship team. The most important piece of that is to acquire more talent."--Littlefield

Traded: July 30, 2004, with Tyler Keppinger to Mets for Matt Peterson, Jose Bautista and Ty Wigginton.

A deal that highlights the Pirates' poor drafting and development as much as their poor deal-making. Benson was a former No. 1 overall pick who had never lived up to his promise. He was headed for free agency and an almost sure ticket out of town when the Pirates sent him to the Mets at the trade deadline. He went 10-8 for the Mets in 2005 before he left as a free agent. Peterson has still never reached the majors, Bautista -- who had been in their system but lost in the Rule 5 draft the winter before -- eventually hit for pop (43 homers in five years with the Pirates) but not much else (.241/.329/.403) and was traded in 2008. Wigginton was released after the 2005 season.

Words to live by: "We needed Bautista in the deal."--Littlefield

Traded: Nov. 27, 2004, to A's for Arthur Rhodes, Mark Redman and cash.

Kendall, 30, was a three-time All-Star who would soon start going downhill, but Littlefield promised the deal would also add financial flexibility and the chance to flip Rhodes and Redman for more talent down the road. It didn't happen. Redman went 5-15 in 2005, his only year with the Pirates, then was traded to the Royals for Chad Blackwell and Jonah Bayliss. Blackwell never reached the majors and Bayliss hasn't been back since notching a 8.36 ERA with the Bucs in 2007. He's now at Triple-A in the Blue Jays system. Rhodes, meanwhile, was traded again two weeks later, this time to the Indians in exchange for Matt Lawton, who was then himself sent packing at the deadline for Jody Gerut. Gerut played a total of four games for the Pirates in 2005, then missed all of the '06 and '07 seasons while recovering from knee injuries. He is now with the Padres.

Words to live by: "We really feel that this trade is going to make us better."--Littlefield

Honorable mention:Jose Guillen (and Jeff Sparks) to Tampa Bay for Humberto Cota and Joe Oliver. This trade gets a pass both because of Guillen's controversial behavior and for the fact that it took Guillen several years to truly make the Pirates look bad. Guillen has been a dangerous bat for several teams, and posted five 20-home run seasons and four 80-RBI years since 2003. Cota was a non-factor as a backup catcher with Pittsburgh for several years and Oliver finished out the '99 season before leaving for Seattle.

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