PITTSBURGH -- What would the Pirates’ dream lineup look like?
You’re probably thinking about an infield of Willie Stargell, Bill Mazeroski, Honus Wagner and Pie Traynor playing in front of an outfield of Ralph Kiner, Max Carey and Roberto Clemente. If you’ve got room for a designated hitter, maybe you can sneak Paul Waner into the outfield and let Kiner focus on bashing homers for this team of franchise icons. The team might have Manny Sanguillen squat behind the plate to catch Babe Adams, Bob Friend or Vern Law followed by Kent Tekulve and Roy Face in the late innings.
These are some of the most accomplished players in Pirates history, based on their long careers in Pittsburgh. But what if we put a slight twist on that concept? With this exercise, MLB.com is aiming to build each team’s all-time roster based on the best one-year performances.
So, you might see some more recent stars sprinkled in among the all-time greats. Some one-year wonders could sneak in, too. But you’re still going to have a lot of the obvious names, because any all-time Pirates lineup just wouldn’t feel right without them. Here are our picks for the Pirates’ all-time team, using some of the club’s best single-season performances at eight positions along with a starting pitcher and one reliever.
Catcher: Russell Martin, 2014
Probably not how you expected this to start, right? Not with Manny Sanguillen or Jason Kendall or even Tony Pena, but with the popular catcher from the Pirates’ 2013-14 playoff teams. Martin hit .290/.402/.430 with 11 homers, 67 RBIs and simply elite defense behind the plate in his second and final year with the Bucs, and his traditional counting stats -- along with his 5.7 WAR -- would have been higher if he’d played more than 111 games. They were chanting “RE-SIGN RUSS” during the 2014 National League Wild Card Game for a reason, but Martin parlayed his performance into a five-year, $82 million contract with the Blue Jays.
Backup candidates: 1971 or ’75 Sanguillen, 1984 Pena, ’98 Kendall
First base: Willie Stargell, 1972
We must admit: This was not actually the best season ever by a Pirates first baseman. In fact, this wasn’t even Stargell’s best season. He was superior in 1971 (48 homers, 125 RBIs) and ’73 (44 homers, 43 doubles, 119 RBIs), but he was exclusively a left fielder during those two years. But no matter what kind of team it is, an all-time Pirates lineup has to have “Pops” in it. So we chose Stargell’s top year playing more first base: the ’72 campaign, when he hit .293/.373/.558 with 33 homers, 28 doubles and 112 RBIs in 138 games. That'd be a career year for most, but not for Stargell.
Backup candidates: 1893 Jake Beckley, 1936 Gus Suhr, 1941 Elbie Fletcher, 1982 Jason Thompson
Second base: Bill Mazeroski, 1958
Seems like it makes sense to have the best defensive second baseman of all time in the infield. And this was Mazeroski’s best regular-season performance at the plate, as he hit .275 with a .747 OPS, 19 homers and 68 RBIs. He was an All-Star, a top-10 finisher in NL MVP voting and, of course, a Gold Glove Award winner.
Backup candidates: 1929-30 George Granthan, ’63 Mazeroski, ’75 Rennie Stennett, 1983-84 Johnny Ray
Shortstop: Honus Wagner, 1908
This was the best season ever by one of the greatest players ever. Need we explain any further? OK, fine. Wagner was unfathomably excellent in 1908, batting .354/.415/.542 with 39 doubles, 19 triples, 10 home runs, 109 RBIs and 53 steals. He led the Majors with 308 total bases. His adjusted OPS+ was 105 percent better than a league-average hitter that season. And he’s holding down a key spot on the infield.
Backup candidates: Just about any other season Wagner played, 1935 Arky Vaughan
Third base: Jimmy Williams, 1899
It’s typically simpler to only consider the Modern Era (1900 or later) for things like this, but we’ll make an exception for this absurd 220-hit season Williams put together before Honus Wagner became the club’s star player. The 22-year-old rookie third baseman hit .354/.416/.530 with an NL-leading 27 triples to go along with 28 doubles, 26 stolen bases and 116 RBIs. He doesn’t have a recognizable name or Hall of Fame résumé like Pie Traynor, but Williams was unstoppable that season.
Backup candidates: 1902 Tommy Leach, 1930 Traynor, 1960 Don Hoak, 1972 Richie Hebner, 1982 Bill Madlock
Left field: Barry Bonds, 1992
There’s certainly a good case for several of Ralph Kiner’s homer-filled seasons. You could even put Willie Stargell in the lineup twice, if you felt so inclined. But Bonds was an all-around superstar even before he became the home run king, and we’re picking the second of his NL MVP seasons in Pittsburgh. Bonds played more games and was more of a basestealing threat in 1990, but just look at these numbers from his ’92 campaign: a .311/.456/.624 slash line, a 204 OPS+, 34 homers, 36 doubles, 39 steals, 103 RBIs and 109 runs. He was an All-Star and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Backup candidates: 1947-49 Kiner, 1990-91 Bonds, ’71 and ’73 Stargell, 2002 Brian Giles
Center field: Andrew McCutchen, 2013
Max Carey might have been more accomplished over a longer period of time, but “Cutch” played center field as well as it’s ever been played in Pittsburgh during his NL MVP season in 2013. Leading the Pirates back to the postseason and ending their 20-year losing streak, the 26-year-old McCutchen hit .317/.404/.508 with 21 homers, 38 doubles, 84 RBIs and 27 steals in 157 games. The only center fielder’s season in Pirates history within a full point of McCutchen’s 7.8 WAR in 2013, according to Baseball-Reference, was his 2012 campaign.
Backup candidate: 1894-95 Jake Stenzel, 1916-17, ’22 and ’25 Carey, 1979 Omar Moreno, 1988 and ’92 Andy Van Slyke, 1999 Brian Giles, 2012 and ’14 McCutchen
Right field: Roberto Clemente, 1967
This team simply had to have Clemente on it, and fortunately his iconic career provides no shortage of options to choose from. We ultimately settled on the year after his 1966 NL MVP campaign, although it’s just one of many worthy candidates. In ’67, Clemente hit a Major League-best .357 on 209 hits with a .954 OPS, 23 homers, 26 doubles, 10 triples, 110 RBIs and 17 outfield assists to go along with one of his 12 Gold Glove Awards. This position is historically loaded for the Pirates, from Kiki Cuyler to Paul Waner to Clemente to Dave Parker.
Backup candidates: 1925 Cuyler, 1936 Waner, 1960-72 Clemente, 1977-79 Parker
Starting pitcher: John Candelaria, 1977
This is probably the toughest spot to pick, because how can you compare pitchers across eras? For so long, starters were expected to work complete games and sacrificed strikeouts to do so. Offense has spiked and subsided at different times. Run-scoring environments and competition levels have changed. Pitcher wins were considered far more important in the past than they are now, as we have better ways to evaluate starters’ performance. So we’ll pick a more modern candidate with excellent traditional and advanced numbers. In 1977, Candelaria went 20-5 with a 2.34 ERA while holding opponents to a .232/.274/.380 slash line in 230 2/3 innings over 33 starts, including six complete games and a shutout. He gave up a lot of homers, but he still posted the best adjusted ERA of any qualified Pirates starter since Babe Adams in the early 1900s. We’ll have some of Pittsburgh’s best and best-known starters ready behind him in the rotation, just in case.
Rotation candidates: 1903 Deacon Phillippe and Sam Leever; 1906 Vic Willis; 1909, ’13 and ’19 Adams; 1917 Wilbur Cooper; 1926-27 Ray Kremer; 1935 Cy Blanton; 1955-60 Bob Friend; 1959-60 Vern Law; 1990 Doug Drabek
Relief pitcher: Rich Gossage, 1977
You could certainly pick one of Roy Face’s best seasons, like 1960 or ’62. Kent Tekulve has some extremely deserving years, especially 1978, ’79 and ’83. You wouldn’t even be wrong to take some of the amazingly consistent performances Mark Melancon delivered from 2013-16, peaking with his 51-save ’15 season. But what "Goose" Gossage did in 1977 is incredible in both quality and quantity. He won 11 games, saved 26, pitched 133 innings, finished 55 of the 72 games he entered and struck out 151 batters while posting a 1.62 ERA and 0.96 WHIP. That’s nearly twice the workload of many modern relievers while being every bit as dominant on a per-inning basis, and it’s the kind of stuff you want to see closing out the game for your all-time team.
Bullpen candidates: 1956-60 and ’62 Face, 1964 Al McBean, ’76-83 Tekulve, 2013-15 Melancon