Let’s open up an old wound.
Last week, the Pirates added four of their most exciting prospects to the 40 man roster to protect them from the Rule V draft that will be held this December. There may still be a few players who are in danger of being poached (most notably lefty Brandon Waddell), but even if they lose a couple guys, one thing is for certain: it can’t possibly be as bad as it was in 2003.
15 years ago, the Pirates had the most embarrassing Rule V draft in history. GM David Littlefield did not add some of his top prospects to the 40 man roster even though he had spots open, and the league took five Pirate minor leaguers in the first six spots in the draft. To add insult to injury, the Pirates didn’t take a player with their pick. There were reports that other teams were literally laughing at them.
But do you know who those five players were? Let’s revisit that fateful draft and see how much those departures hurt the Bucs over the next few years.
Pick 1: Detroit Tigers select C/1B Chris Shelton
Shelton was picked by the Pirates in the 33rd round in the 2001 draft and immediately took off offensively, recording an OPS over 1.000 in 2002 and 2003. He barely cracked AA at that point, so the club thought they could sneak him through the Rule V draft one more year, but the Tigers felt confident enough that he could stick in the major leagues. He scarcely played in 2004, but he had a strong 2005 campaign, racking up an .870 OPS and 2.5 fWAR.
Shelton’s biggest career accomplishment came in April of 2006 when he hit nine home runs in the first 13 games of the season. He cooled off significantly from there and eventually lost his starting job when the Tigers acquired Sean Casey from the Pirates at the trade deadline. He lost his major league gig in spring training the next season and only played 50 more games in the bigs before calling it a career.
Had the Tigers struggled in 2006, they may have given Shelton more time to try to work through his problems. Ironically, their pennant-winning season may have ended his career prematurely.
Pick 2: San Diego Padres select OF Rich Thompson
Thompson was a stereotypical speedy outfielder, so it’s not real surprise that teams took notice in him in the draft. The Padres selected him, but they quickly sent him to the Royals. He didn’t last long in Kansas City though, logging only one at-bat before being sent back to the Pirates.
Thompson never looked like a real potential major league starter or even a consistent reserve, but it is surprising to this author that he only had two cups of coffee stints in the majors in his career. He was one of the best base stealers in the minor leagues in his day. In 2005, he swiped 58 bags against just eight caught stealings. From 2007-2011, he went 162/178 on steal attempts (91%). If I may editorialize, if I was the GM of a competing team and I had an open spot on my 40-man, he seems like a good September call-up to be a designated pinch-runner/defensive replacement.
He earned his second major league promotion in 2012 and suffered a career ending foot injury in 2013. At least he got that second trip.
Pick 3: Tampa Bay Rays select a non-Pirate
A brief reprieve.
Pick 4: New York Mets select LHP Frank Brooks
The 2003 trade deadline was one of the worst in Pirates history, but one of the least controversial moves they made was sending struggling closer Mike Williams to the Philadelphia Phillies. Brooks was the return for the Pirates’ All-Star. Losing him proved yet again that the Pirates were more concerned with dumping salary rather than trying to acquire a future contributor.
Fortunately for the Bucs, they got Brooks back, but only after he had been passed around the league. The Mets sold Brooks to the Athletics the day of the draft, and Oakland placed him on waivers in the middle of spring training. The Red Sox claimed him, but ultimately returned him to Pittsburgh on Mar. 31, 2004.
Brooks made his major league debut on Aug. 27 and pitched well out of the bullpen, recording a 2.76 ERA with 17 strikeouts in 16.1 innings as a reliever. He was rocked in one emergency start, skewing his season stats for what appeared to be an encouraging first campaign.
But apparently the Pirates and the rest of the league had seen enough. They designated him for assignment in November of that year, and he faced only two more major league batters in his career.
Pick 5: Milwaukee Brewers select RHP Jeff Bennett
Bennett had the second best career out of the players the Pirates lost on this December afternoon 15 years ago. He struggled in his rookie year with the Brewers and only pitched in the minors in 2005. A 2006 Tommy John surgery could have ended his career, but he recovered nicely and landed with the Braves.
He had two quality seasons out of Atlanta’s bullpen and was piecing together another strong campaign in 2009, but he was suspended by the team in late June for pulling an Andy Bernard and punching a clubhouse wall. The suspension could have been a stern finger wag and nothing more since he couldn’t pitch with his newly fractured hand, but the Braves took it one step further and docked his pay. Bennett and the MLBPA challenged Atlanta’s decision and won, forcing the Braves to either pay him the money he was owed or grant him free agency. The club chose to let him go and Bennett signed with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Bennett struggled in Tampa and was non-tendered at the end of the 2009 season. He tore his labrum pitching in the minors in 2010 and never truly recovered. He probably could have gone a few more years had he stayed healthy or not gone full ‘Nard Dog.
Pick 6: Baltimore Orioles select INF Jose Bautista
The one you’ve all been waiting for.
Bautista was the Pirates’ seventh best prospect at the time according to Baseball America. If you want a laugh, the top six were, in order: John Van Benschoten, Sean Burnett, Bryan Bullington, Jose Castillo, Duaner Sanchez and Tony Alvarez. So many missed prospects.
Bautista was re-acquired at the 2004 trade deadline in the Kris Benson deal. but he never clicked in Pittsburgh. He was eventually traded to the Blue Jays and, well, you know the rest.
So with hindsight being 20/20, the 2003 Rule V draft was more humiliating than detrimental for the Pirates. They got three of the five players they lost back by July 2004, and they really only missed out on a couple of good, not great seasons from role players. Still, this is one of the darkest days from those two decades of losing.
Steven Brault is one of the subjects in David Laurila’s Sunday Notes for FanGraphs.
I wrote some words over at The Point of Pittsburgh about why Derek Dietrich would be a good fit for the Buccos.