Craig Wilson: A Tribute

Craig Wilson was my favorite Pirate. Now that's he's gone to a better place, I'd like to give him back some of the respect he deserved with the Pirates. All hail Craig!

December, 1996: The Bucs traded Orlando Merced, Carlos Garcia and Dan Plesac to the Blue Jays for Abe Nunez, Jose Silva, three career minor leaguers, and Wilson. The Jays had picked Wilson in the second round of the 1995 draft, and he'd hit reasonably well in Class A as a 19-year-old in the Jays' system.

1997: Wilson had an excellent year for a 20-year-old at Class A+ Lynchburg, hitting .264/.350/.476 with 19 homers. In spite of this, he spent part of 1998 at the same level, where he predictably killed the ball.

1999: Wilson killed the ball some more at Class AA, hitting .268/.367/.508. Still, he wasn't given the starting catching job at Class AAA Nashville in 2000 - the Bucs preferred Tim Laker. Luckily, Wilson wound up hitting a couple of pinch-hit homers early in the season. To the Pirates' credit, they made Wilson a starter, and he hit .283/.383/.604 as a 23-year-old.

2001: Despite his ridiculous season at Class AAA in 2000 - no Pirate prospect has hit nearly that well in Class AAA since then - the Bucs wouldn't give Wilson a shot at a job in Spring Training. Thanks to injuries, he ended up on the team anyway. Wilson quickly reeled off a string of pinch-hit homers, prompting an earnest young fan to ask Rob Neyer what the Bucs were thinking playing Kevin Young ahead of Wilson. Neyer replied:

So the question is, as I see it, "Does Craig Wilson deserve to play ahead of Kevin Young?" This season, Wilson has a 915 OPS and Young has a 733 OPS. Big plus for Wilson. However, Wilson's problem has always been the strike zone. He doesn't walk often, and in the high minors he struck out roughly once per game. This season the strikeouts are out of control -- 118 at-bats, 46 strikeouts; if Wilson played 150 games he'd set a new record -- and managers absolutely despise strikeouts. But the real problem here is that Wilson and Kevin Young both bat right-handed, so there's no obvious way to use them effectively. All of which is to say that while I've not been at all impressed with McClendon as a manager, he's doing about as well as he can with the first basemen that are available to him. The real villain here is the now-departed Cam Bonifay, who stuck the Pirates with Young's ridiculous contract.

This confused the young fan, who thought he had served up a fat one for Neyer to hit out of the park. Wilson should have been starting - there can never be an excuse for a 24-year-old on a horrible team tying the major league record for pinch hit home runs in a season, as Wilson did that year. Anyway, Wilson hit .310/.390/.589, which would've placed him among the best hitters in the National League if he hadn't been limited to 158 at bats.

2002: In spite of his performance in 2001, the Bucs didn't give Wilson a starting job in 2002 - they preferred Kevin Young, Armando Rios - just about anyone else, really. The Bucs scored a pathetic 641 runs, and Young and Rios were huge parts of the problem. Wilson was far better than either of them.

2003: Still no starting job for Wilson, as the Bucs loaded up on cheap free agents, including Randall Simon, Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs. Sanders and Stairs legitimately outplayed Wilson, but Simon was a complete waste of time, and Wilson hit a stellar .262/.360/.511. Wilson also served as the Bucs' backup catcher to Jason Kendall. The Pirates had been wasting a roster spot on Keith Osik in 2001 and 2002. Given that Kendall rarely needed a day off and that Wilson could easily fill in at catcher, they would have been well-served to let Wilson be the backup catcher and use the bench spot they'd saved on someone who could hit.

2004: Despite Wilson's strong season and a much less favorable free agent market, the Pirates still wouldn't open up a starting job for Wilson. They penciled the newly-acquired Jason Bay in as the starter in left field, and free agents Raul Mondesi and Randall freaking Simon in right and at first, respectively. Wilson didn't complain. Bay started the year hurt, Mondesi ended up quitting the team and Wilson started the season on a tear. This began a bizarre sequence of events in which the Pirates aggressively promoted Wilson as an All-Star candidate, even though they themselves had thought him unworthy of a starting job only a few months before. Anyway, Wilson cooled down but still ended up hitting 29 homers and keeping the offense respectable while Mondesi, Simon and Chris Stynes all imploded.

2005: For the only time in his major league career, Wilson began the season with a starting job. He had a disappointing season, missing substantial amounts of time with injuries to his hand and not hitting for much power when he did play. However, he was still an asset at the plate - thanks in part to his willingness to get hit by pitches and to an excellent walk rate, his .387 OBP was solid.

2006: In the off-season, the Bucs thought it'd be a good idea to trade for Sean Casey and sign what was left of Jeromy Burnitz. Pirates GM Dave Littlefield talked about the need for depth when he acquired Burnitz, but that acquisition had nothing to do with depth. A team need not pay $6.7 million for depth. Instead, the Burnitz acquisition was about blocking Wilson, even though there was absolutely no reason to think that Burnitz would outplay Wilson. In spite of this, Wilson started the year on a positive note, reporting to camp early and "on his own" to catch for the huge number of pitchers in spring training.

After the season began, Burnitz predictably tanked and Wilson filled in capably when Casey went down with an injury. In spite of this, Wilson went back to the bench when Casey returned. In April, it came out that the Pirates hated Wilson in part because he has a sense of humor and drinks a lot of Pepsi. I wish I were kidding about this. Wilson finally expressed muted frustration about not receiving more playing time. As the season went on he received less and less, until!

July 31, 2006: Wilson was finally traded, to the Yankees. Appropriately, the deal was lopsided - the Pirates didn't receive nearly enough in return for Wilson. Wilson had two hits in his first game with the Yankees.

Craig Wilson, Bucs Dugout salutes you. You almost make me want to root for the Yankees. It's hard to feel much sympathy for a millionaire baseball player, but the Pirates have screwed you over in just about every way they could. They've said they didn't like you because you strike out too much, but then they acquired Burnitz and Jose Hernandez. They've said they didn't like you because your defense wasn't great, but then they acquired Xavier Nady on the same day they traded you away. Whatever the case may be, I am sorry, and I wish you the best, and I hope you hit the crap out of the ball for the rest of the season and make the Pirates' management look as stupid as they are. Stay happy, Craig.

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