Pirates really begin dismantling

By Jim Callis

July 22, 2003

The Pirates already had made two deals in two days, shipping out relievers Mike Williams and Scott Sauerbeck and getting little in return. They left little doubt Tuesday night that they’re tearing apart their roster with the sole intention of reducing salary, as they made a bigger and even more lopsided deal. Pittsburgh plugged the Cubs’ gaping holes at third base (with Aramis Ramirez) and center field (with Kenny Lofton) for the low, low price of Jose Hernandez, Triple-A righthander Matt Bruback and a player to be named later. The Pirates also gave up a small amount of cash.

Pittsburgh no longer is responsible for the remainder of Ramirez’ $3 million salary in 2003 or the $6 million due him in 2004. The contracts of Lofton ($1.025 million with a possible $475,000 in incentives) and Hernandez ($1 million), who both signed one-year free-agent deals after last season, pretty much negate each other. The Pirates likely won’t attempt to re-sign Hernandez this fall, and Bruback is a so-so prospect.

Ramirez, 25, broke through as one of the game’s top young third basemen when he hit .300-34-112 in 2001. He hasn’t approached those numbers since, however, batting .234-18-71 in 2002 and .280-12-67 in 96 games this year. He has power to all fields and makes reasonable contact, though he could draw more walks. He doesn’t move especially well on the bases or at third base, but he does have soft hands and a strong arm. In 559 big league games, Ramirez has hit .263-76-316 with a .312 on-base percentage and .435 slugging percentage. He’ll slam the door shut on the Cubs’ revolving door at third base, where Mark Bellhorn, Lenny Harris, Hernandez and Ramon Martinez were unable to seal a starting job this year. Chicago also had pursued Florida’s Mike Lowell without success.

Lofton, 36, is reunited with Cubs manager Dusty Baker after both went to the World Series with the Giants last year. He’ll take over in center field for Corey Patterson, who was emerging as a star before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and requiring season-ending surgery. The Cubs’ alternatives had been Tom Goodwin, Hernandez and Trenidad Hubbard before they got Lofton. He has a glittery resume that includes six All-Star Game selections, five stolen-base crowns and four Gold Gloves. Serving as Pittsburgh’s leadoff man, he has batted .277-9-26 in 84 games, with a .333 on-base percentage and 18 steals in 23 attempts. He’s not the blazer he used to be, so he’s not as dangerous on the basepaths or as flashy in center field, though he’s still an effective defender. Lofton is a career .297-112-628 hitter with 526 steals in 1,589 games.

Hernandez, 34, changes teams for the second time in 2003 after the Rockies traded him to the Cubs on June 19. He was a National League all-star in 2002, when he led NL shortstops with 24 homers but also sat out the final weekend of the season so he wouldn’t break Bobby Bonds’ single-season strikeout record. Hernandez finished one short at 188 but is making another run at the mark with 121 whiffs in 92 games this year. He’s batting just .227-10-36 and swinging at everything as usual. He’s not a plus defender, though he has a strong arm and is versatile enough to have played everywhere but pitcher and catcher during his 12-year major league career. Hernandez has .254-143-503 totals with a .312 OBP and .423 slugging percentage in 1,265 games.

The Cubs are loaded with pitching at the major and minor league levels, so they won’t miss Bruback much. A 1997 47th-round pick out of a Texas high school, he signed the following May as a draft-and-follow after pitching in the mid-90s at Manatee (Fla.) CC. Since refining his mechanics, he doesn’t throw nearly as hard, usually working in the low 90s. His changeup and slider are decent pitches and have improved in recent years. Bruback, 24, is 6-foot-7 and led the Double-A Southern League with 158 strikeouts in 174 innings in 2002. This year at Iowa, he has gone 6-8, 3.96 in 20 games (19 starts). He has a 90-33 strikeout-walk ratio in 125 innings, while opponents have hit .253 with 10 homers against him.

Aug. 15 update: The Pirates got a significant player in the trade when they chose Bobby Hill from a list offered by the Cubs. Hill, 25, signed for $1.25 million as a 2000 second-round pick off the Newark club in the independent Atlantic League. He went to indy ball after he was unable to come to terms with the White Sox as a 1999 second-rounder out of the University of Miami. Hill was considered Chicago’s leadoff man and second baseman of the future until he hit .182 in his first shot at big league playing time in May 2002. After that, the Cubs and other teams seemed to sour on him. He didn’t help himself with a poor performance offensively and defensively in spring training this year. All that said, Hill still can be an offensive second baseman who can hit at the top of the order. In 92 games at Triple-A Iowa this year, he hit .288-6-40 with a .365 on-base percentage and eight steals. He’s steady defensively as well. Hill has hit .253-4-20 with a .329 OBP and six steals in 64 big league games, including going 1-for-4 in five contests this year.

There are two interesting aspects to the Pirates’ acquistion of Hill. To make room for him on the 40-man roster, the Pirates removed Bruback and designated him for assignment, so they could lose him on waivers a month after acquiring him. Also, the only other prospect of note acquired by Pittsburgh during its salary purge is Freddy Sanchez—whose best position also happens to be second base.