PITTSBURGH -- Roberto Clemente is inextricably linked to the Pirates, the only Major League team he ever played for, yet it was another club that gave him his first shot.
The Dodgers signed Clemente out of Puerto Rico in 1954 for a $10,000 bonus, but that signing bonus made him eligible for the winter Rule 5 Draft. The Dodgers tried to hide Clemente in Triple-A, but Pittsburgh saw through the act, selected Clemente and watched him grow into a Hall of Fame player and humanitarian.
The Pirates may not have originally signed Clemente, but they have long been active in the international market, from the early days led by legendary scout Howie Haak to the recent class signed under international scouting director Junior Vizcaino. They expect to be busy this year, too.
These are the Pirates’ top five international signings of all time, ranked by career Wins Above Replacement -- and not just the WAR they accumulated in Pittsburgh.
1) 3B Aramis Ramirez (32.4 WAR)
His best years came in Chicago, where he was a stabilizing force for the Cubs at third base, but Ramirez began his professional career with the Pirates.
Pittsburgh signed Ramirez out of the Dominican Republic in 1994, and he was in the Majors by '98, at age 19. He had one standout year for the Pirates, batting .300 with 34 homers and 112 RBIs in 2001, then he was traded in '03.
With a mandate to cut payroll, the Bucs sent Ramirez and Kenny Lofton to the Cubs for Matt Bruback, Jose Hernandez and Bobby Hill. Ramirez went on to be a two-time All-Star for Chicago and hit .283/.341/.492 with 386 homers during an excellent 18-year career that took him to Milwaukee before, oddly enough, ending with Pittsburgh in 2015.
2) OF Starling Marte (28.4 WAR)
When former director of Latin American scouting Rene Gayo first saw an 18-year-old Marte, he uttered one of his signature phrases: “Welcome to Love Town.” He knew Marte could be something special.
"There's no way he was leaving without being a Pirate,” Gayo told MLB.com in 2016, before Marte appeared in the All-Star Game. "I saw him. He made it happen."
Gayo signed Marte, who was old for a Dominican prospect, for $85,000. He developed into a two-time National League Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder and the Pirates’ second-best player in the 2010s behind Andrew McCutchen. He homered on the first Major League pitch he saw in '12, and he went on to slash .287/.341/.452 with 108 homers, 420 RBIs and 239 steals in eight years with the Pirates.
The Pirates dealt Marte to the D-backs on Jan. 27, 2020, for low-level/high-ceiling prospects Brennan Malone and Liover Peguero along with international spending capacity, which they used to sign Australian outfielder Solomon Maguire. He went on to have another solid season with Arizona and Miami, batting .281/.340/.430 with six homers, 27 RBIs, 10 steals and 1.5 WAR in 61 games.
3) C Manny Sanguillen (27.6 WAR)
If we were ordering this list by meaning to the organization, there’s no doubt Sanguillen would be No. 1. The beloved catcher, three-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion remains a welcome presence around the club in Spring Training and during the season with his barbecue stand out in center field.
A close friend of Clemente during their time together, Sanguillen was originally signed by Haak out of Panama in 1964. Haak is credited with signing some of Pittsburgh’s most notable international players, including fellow Panamanians -- and World Series champions -- Omar Moreno and Rennie Stennett. Haak also had a hand in signing Tony Peña, Jose DeLeon, Al McBean and Roman Mejias, among dozens of others.
''He's opened the door for us,” Sanguillen once said of Haak, according to the New York Times.
The bad-ball-hitting Sanguillen hit .299 with 59 homers and 527 RBIs in 12 years with the Pirates. He was a first-time All-Star in 1971, when Pittsburgh won the World Series, and a veteran presence for the '79 “We Are Family” World Series-champion Pirates.
4) C Tony Peña (24.7 WAR)
Another player signed by Haak out of the Dominican Republic, Peña reached the Majors with the Pirates in 1980, and he enjoyed a solid seven-year run with Pittsburgh. Known for his defense and unorthodox squat behind the plate, Peña was named to four All-Star teams and won three consecutive Gold Glove Awards as a Pirate.
Peña went on to enjoy an 18-year career in the Majors before moving into coaching. He was perhaps even more valuable to the Bucs when they traded him to the Cardinals on April 1, 1987. In return, the Pirates received Mike Dunne, Mike LaValliere and Andy Van Slyke.
5) RHP Pascual Perez (19.1 WAR)
The late Perez isn’t remembered as one of the best pitchers of his era, but he was a highly memorable character who put together some strong years after leaving the Pirates. Pittsburgh scout Neftali Cruz signed Perez, who was born in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, in 1976. He reached the Majors with the Pirates in '80 and made 17 appearances for Pittsburgh in ’81 before he was traded to the Braves, along with Carlos Rios, for Larry McWilliams in '82.
With the Braves, Perez famously missed a start because he was driving on the interstate looking for Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. He put together a 3.50 ERA in 79 games, including 74 starts, for Atlanta from 1982-84 and made the All-Star team in ’83. Three of his best years came in Montreal from '87-89, and he finished his career with the Yankees from '90-91.