Breathless from Bob Nutting's latest demonstration of his limitless commitment to winning, in which John Nogowski has just been acquired to handle first base (indicative that even the Pirates have their limits when it comes to Will Craig), and bringing in Justin Miller -- Justin Miller? Isn't Justin Miller dead? Did the Pirates just emulate the 1994 Ottawa Rough Riders and draft a dead guy? Apparently not. It appears there are two Justin Millers. In this case, the "P" is silent, as in Pirates. At any rate, I doubt it matters which Justin Miller pitches at PNC Park. But before I have a lie-down to contemplate next year's division title, let us return to pleasanter times, when the Pirates were not bottom feeders and played to win, come what may.
Recently, in discussing the Dock Ellis trade, the subject of its indirect ramifications arose, and it's worth a deeper look. As events played out, it didn't so much involve Ellis as Willie Randolph, and two players not included in the deal, Richie Hebner and Rennie Stennett. Coming into his eighth full season, and 29 years of age, the Pirates cut Hebner's salary after his average dipped from his customary .290 range to .246, although his power numbers were unaffected. Hebner spent 1976 angry, and made up his mind to leave as a free agent. (Despite being in his walk year, Hebner's average barely budged, and his power numbers were down by half.) The Pirates offered to match any number on the open market, but Hebner wanted out, and signed with the new division champion Phillies to take over at first. He put up two strong years, averaging .284/18/67, but signing Pete Rose made Hebner surplus to requirements, and he was traded to the Mets. (The Phillies were going to move Hebner to second and trade Manny Trillo, but throughout camp, Hebner wouldn't stop complaining about Rose, to the press as well as in the rooms, and so it was decided they could get along better without him; ironically, that had been the thought about Trillo.)
Danny Murtaugh tried Bill Robinson at third base in 1976 just to get his bat in the lineup (which obviously didn't please Hebner either), and the plan was for Robinson to take over in 1977, but as a converted outfielder, his defense was bound to be shaky, and with Frank Taveras at shortstop, the Pirates would have been in strife on the left side of the infield. As noted previously, they traded six players to Oakland to get Phil Garner, Tommy Helms, and minor league pitcher Chris Batton. Helms, who had just left the Pirates, was added to make it look like Pittsburgh received more in exchange, but in reality, it was six for one; Helms was released a month into the season. So the Pirates paid a steep price for Garner, a second baseman by trade, and he took over at third, with Robinson splitting time between first base and left field.
With Rennie Stennett bound for Cooperstown, the Pirates had no position for their top prospect in 1975, Willie Randolph, and included him in the Ellis trade. While Randolph starred for the Yankees, Stennett suffered a career-altering ankle injury in 1977; he was never the same player afterward. His average dropped nearly 100 points (.336 to .243), his footspeed was gone, and his pairing with Taveras in the middle of the infield was dire, so much so that Stennett saw some action at third with Garner at second. After trading Taveras (more to follow), Harding Peterson, by now aware that Stennett would never improve, had to make a move. Ed Whitson, along with prospects Al Holland and Fred Breining, both of whom went on to good big league careers, went to San Francisco for Bill Madlock, who was playing out of position with the Giants at second base. The trade allowed him to return to third and Garner to go to second full-time, and put Stennett on the bench. Dave Roberts, who did a good job for the Pirates in long relief, was also part of the trade, as was the veteran infielder Lenny Randle, who did not see big league action with Pittsburgh.
Rejuvenated, Madlock raised his average 70 points and doubled his stolen base total above what he had done with the Giants. If the Pirates had expected him to return to form so quickly, the batting order might have changed with his arrival. Rather than batting Madlock sixth, he might have gone to the third spot, with Dave Parker moving to cleanup. Willie Stargell was already batting fifth much of the time, and the platoon of Robinson and John Milner would have fit in nicely in the sixth spot. As it was, the Pirates were winning, and Chuck Tanner left well enough alone.
Without question, Madlock and Garner were major contributors to the Pirates' success, and it can be said that they don't win the World Series without them. But as a result of cutting Richie Hebner's pay, they lost Rick Langford, Tony Armas, Doug Bair, Mitchell Page, Dave Giusti and Doc Medich, and trading Randolph before Stennett's injury cost them Whitson, Holland and Breining. Since the Pirates won it all in 1979, it was worth it, but the 80s would have been very different in Pittsburgh if the team had been built around the talent they were developing.