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Are The Pirates on The Right Path? The 1960’s Tell Us, “Yes!”

by David Finoli

I’ve mentioned many times when talking about the Pittsburgh Pirate farm system that it is the deepest system they’ve had in over 50 years. The important part of this is they have quality prospects at each level with potential to contribute at the major league level. On the short season list is Yordany De Los Santos, Axiel Plaz and Jun-Seok Shim. In Bradenton, Termarr Johnson and Thomas Harrington are at the top of the list while Anthony Solometo, Bubba Chandler and Braxton Ashcroft combine for an outstanding rotation in Greensboro.

Altoona has Henry Davis showing his amazing potential while Jared Jones has had an impressive start before heading to the 7-day IL with lower back muscle spasms. One step from the majors in Indy is top prospect Endy Rodriguez, Luis Ortiz (who has consistently showed he belongs in Pittsburgh), and top ten hurler, Quinn Priester, who has struggled with the Indians so far in 2023 but has the potential to be a top-of-the-rotation hurler.

It shows that GM Ben Cherington has potentially put the franchise in position to succeed in the future, but is a strong farm system enough to make them compete for post-season positions? Looking at the last time the Bucs had such a deep system, the answer is, "Yes!”

After finishing in third place in 1966, general manager, Joe L. Brown, felt the team was only a player away from winning the pennant. Following the season, he sent young players like Bob Bailey and Gene Michael to the Dodgers for Maury Wills. Instead of competing, they went backwards, finishing 81-81. When that didn’t work, he sent more young players headed by Don Money and Woody Fryman to the Phillies for future hall of famer Jim Bunning. The result was a sub-par 80-82 mark in 1968. It was apparent at this point that he wasn’t a player away. Certainly not two aging veterans at the expense of young talent. No, the answer wasn’t this.

As it turned out, it was his thriving, deep farm system that would truly be the answer to his troubles. Looking at their AAA team, the Columbus Jets, between 1967-1970, it shows having depth at all levels can truly lead to competing for playoff spots and winning championships. The following shows those who graduated from AAA during those seasons were the difference between a .500 record and winning the World Series in 1971. What it also shows is that scouts and experts aren’t always right about these players. Every so often, a Jack Suwinski sprouts up when least expected.

In 1967, the Jets had a stellar pitching staff led by Dock Ellis, 19-year-old Bob Moose, Luke Walker and Dave Roberts, who wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh in 1971, but became a contributor in the bullpen for the 1979 Bucs. Offensively, young players like Bob Robertson, Manny Sanguillén and Freddie Patek, who ended up traded to Kansas City in 1970. He was a fine shortstop for the Royals during their successful run in the late 70’s and came to prominence in the minors.

For the majority of the first half of its more than 50 years of existence, Baseball Digest ran rookie scouting reports in its March issue. In 1967, the scouts weren’t as impressed with Ellis as major league hitters would soon be. While they liked his slider and control, they said he had “not much of a curve”. In a future issue they also went on to question his endurance before he made his Pirate debut.

They were impressed with the young hurler, Moose, talking about his great arm, control and work ethic, but said he would be best in short relief. A year later, he’d have a quality rookie season as a starter, and in 1969, he’d toss a no-hitter against the soon-to-be-world champion, New York Mets. He eventually went to the bullpen in 1975.

The Scouts were spot on with Sangy, feeling he was their top prospect. They said he was a complete player, could hit and do a great job handling a pitching staff.

Robertson was lauded for his power, although they initially said he had only an outside chance to make the majors and missed the 1968 campaign with a kidney obstruction. By 1969, he was back and proving to be a power hitter that some were comparing to Mickey Mantle. Injuries would keep him far from being the next Mantle, but he still was a very important member of the Bucs in 1971.

In 1968, Richie Hebner and Al Oliver came to Columbus. They were impressed with Hebner’s swing, claiming he could hit for power in the majors. As for Oliver, they exclaimed in 1968 that he was “just an average AA player. Not too much of a hitter.” While they were correct on Hebner, they were far off on Oliver who is a player worthy of discussion to be included in the Hall of Fame. Sanguillén was also back with the Jets and solidified his Bucco chances by hitting .316.

Dave Cash, who they said, “has possibilities” and Robertson, who was at his full potential hitting 34 homers, graduated from Columbus in 1969. In 1970, Rennie Stennett, who surprisingly hit .353 for the Bucs in 1971 with the scouts raving about his batting eye. Milt May played with the Jets before making their Pirate debut and a year later, Bruce Kison made his AAA debut before being an important part of the world champions bullpen in 1971.

Bottom line: Wills and Bunning weren’t the answer to take the Pirates to a championship level, but it was their deep farm system that brought them Ellis, Moose, Walker, Sanguillén, Robertson, Hebner, Oliver, Cash, Stennett, May and Kison that put them over the top with a division title in 1970 and a world championship a year later. It was also that deep farm system that fed them the likes of Richie Zisk and Dave Parker, which helped them win six division crowns and their last two fall classics in the 70’s.

General manager, Harding Petersen, emptied the farm system in the late 70’s. While it helped them win the title in 1979, it also made the franchise ineffective through most of the past 43 seasons as they weren’t able to build a successful system Oneil Cruz, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Mitch Keller, Rodolfo Castro, Roansy Contreras and Suwinski are here with many other pieces not far away from the majors. The team appears to be vastly improved in 2023, even if they fall back as the year goes on. Hopefully, the current farm system will have a similar effect to the one of the late 1960’s. It certainly seems to be the strategy that will allow this franchise to finally compete on a consistent level.

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