There’s a lot worth forgetting about the Pittsburgh Pirates between 1993-2012, and for good reason. After all, those teams only averaged 68.7 wins per season over that time, and finished an average of 23.1 games back of first place.
There was a seemingly strange phenomenon that continually occurred over that time, however. It seemed like every other year, the Pirates would run out a starting pitcher that appeared to be the next cornerstone of the rotation; they were touted as ostensibly the pitcher to help pull Pittsburgh out of the basement. Sometimes they were to work in tandem, and sometimes they were to work alone. But let’s have a brief rundown of a few of those pitchers.
Oliver Perez (Pirate tenure: 2003-2006)
Perez began his career in San Diego when he signed as an amateur free agent. But in August 2003, he was on his way to Pittsburgh, along with Jason Bay, in a deal that sent Brian Giles to the Padres. By that point in his career, Perez had started 34 games at the major league level, and the results had been a mixed bag. He had an ERA+ of 86, but in his rookie campaign it had been 107 through his first 15 starts.
But the Pirates liked what they saw, and with the addition of Bay, felt like they were getting a deal that was worth it to move Giles. Perez ended up spending parts of four seasons in Pittsburgh, and many thought the lefty would become a prominent presence in the rotation, something that’s true for all of the pitchers on this list. Perez had the best year of his career during his first full season with the Pirates, which came in 2004.
Perez was 22, and made 30 starts for the Bucs. He had a 2.98 ERA and went 12-10, a winning record on a team that overall went 72-89. That year Perez also led all of baseball in SO/9, with an 11.0 mark. That was the final time Perez saw any real success as a starter. Over the next two years, Perez had a 5.85 and then a 6.63 ERA, which prompted his trade to New York. The trade to the Mets brought in Xavier Nady, who went on to be a fair offensive presence.
As a starter with the 2008 Mets, Perez led the National League in starts, with 34. He amassed a 4.22 ERA over that season, a fine year for a back-of-the-rotation type. Once he was moved to Seattle, he was also shifted to the bullpen. Over 33 games in 2012, he pitched to a 2.12 ERA and then saw similar success in Arizona. His best season as a reliever was in 2018 with the Cleveland Indians. He appeared in 51 games and recorded a 1.39 ERA with a 12.0 SO/9 tally.
It didn’t look likely Perez would see much more success in Major League Baseball when the Pirates were ready to let go of him, but he’s now spent 17 years in MLB. He is currently a free agent.
Ian Snell (Pirate tenure: 2004-2009)
Back in 2000, the Pirates selected a high school right-hander in the 26th round. He signed on June 21. That player was Snell. The 22-year-old made his first three appearances in the majors in 2004, but wouldn’t see more regular action until the following year, when he appeared in 15 games. But in 2006, Snell was placed in the starting rotation and would start at least 31 games over the next three years.
Snell was another pitcher that looked like he might have formidable stuff and could be a key piece in the Pirates’ future plans, with the greatest flash coming during the 2007 season. Pitching to a 3.76 ERA, Snell was the third highest performing player for Pittsburgh that year by bWAR (3.2). His 4.01 FIP was somewhat in line with his ERA, though it predicted moderately worse potential than the latter stat would suggest.
During the following year, he finished with a 5.42 ERA, and fell 44 innings shy of his previous year’s total, despite pitching in only one less game. Then, in 2009, after starting 15 games for the Pirates, the front office decided his 5.36 ERA wasn’t getting it done, and he was on his way out. On his way out with him to the Mariners was Jack Wilson, which meant the Pirates two out of their top three performers from two years back were both gone. They received a host of minor leaguers, most notably Ronny Cedeno, but none of whom ever panned out.
By the end of 2010, Snell was out of baseball, after having appeared in parts of seven seasons. He only led the league in anything once, which was during his 2007 season: wild pitches (12).
Zach Duke (Pirate tenure: 2005-2010)
Duke was drafted by the Pirates out of high school in 2001. The lefty from Waco didn’t take much time getting to Pittsburgh. In 2005 he started 14 games. But those 14 games were electrifying. It was during his brief 2005 campaign that it looked like the Pirates may have found the cornerstone of their rotation, a 6’2, 20th round pick.
That year he pitched to a 1.81 ERA, winning eight of his 10 decisions. He carried a 3.00 FIP with him, which would’ve suggested his success was a bit overstated, but the fans wouldn’t have been able to know that at the time. He seemed to be finding success and a lot of it; that year he finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting (Ryan Howard was the winner).
Despite becoming the lone Pirate representative in the 2009 All-Star game, Duke wouldn’t again be able to find the success he’d seen in 2005. Overall, he left Pittsburgh with a 4.54 ERA — fine, not great — a 4.33 FIP, and an ERA+ of 93.
In 2010, Duke was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for a player to be named later. That player ended up being Cesar Valdez. He never accomplished much in the major leagues.
Duke, however, just wrapped up his 15th season in MLB, appearing in 30 games for the Cincinnati Reds. Like Perez, the switch to the bullpen has helped. In 74 games for the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers, he commanded a 2.45 ERA. In 2016, he appeared in 81 games between the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals, and registered an overall 2.36 ERA. Even as recently as 2018, with the Minnesota Twins, over 45 games he had an ERA of 3.62.
The 37-year-old is now a free agent.
Paul Maholm (Pirate tenure: 2005-2011)
In 2003, the Pirates selected Maholm with the eighth overall pick out of Mississippi State. In 2005, he made his debut. Maholm was another young pitcher that looked like he could become a key part of the overall pitching scheme. But, as with everyone else on the list, it never really worked out.
Like Duke, Maholm’s first foray with the Pirates showed hope for the future. He started six games in his rookie campaign and took a 2.18 ERA into the off-season. In his first full season, he started 30 games, totaling a 4.76 ERA.
His best year with the Pirates came in 2008, when he threw to a 3.71 ERA over 31 starts with an ERA+ of 113. Other than that, Maholm found it hard to come by any sustained success. He ended up spending parts of seven seasons in Pittsburgh before being granted free agency. He signed with the Chicago Cubs and found some success there before moving on to the Atlanta Braves. In 2014, he spent his last MLB season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, where he appeared in 30 games with a 4.84 ERA.
In 2015, he spent February and March as a Red before being released.
If you look at the numbers, Perez and Duke went on to have the best careers overall, having played the longest amount of time and finding second lives as relievers. They benefited from moves to the bullpen. Despite that, by bWAR, Maholm actually saw the second most success (behind Duke). After all, he did spend a total of 10 years in the majors. Duke currently has 12.2 bWAR, followed by Maholm (11.9), then Perez (10.6), and finally Snell (3.0).
The Pirates cycled through potential top-of-the-staff starters in the mid-2000s, but none of them came to be standout successes in that role, or in Pittsburgh. Here’s to better results from potential aces moving forward.