The authors of the book When the Bucs Won it All state that the Pirates plunge into last place in the 1980s was due to the poor trades that were made to acquire the players on the 1979 club. I disagree.
In part 1 of this series, I looked at how the World Series roster was put together – which players were acquire via trade, draft, and free agency. In the next several posts, I’ll analyze the trades that brought the members of the team to Pittsburgh. Going alphabetically, the first player on the 1979 post-season roster acquired in a trade was Bert Blyleven.
After a season and a half pitching for the Rangers, Blyleven was involved in a mammoth four team trade on 12/8/77. Blyleven was dealt to the Pirates. The Braves sent Willie Montanez to the Mets. Adrian Devine, Tommy Boggs, and Eddie Miller went to Atlanta from Texas. The Rangers sent Ken Henderson and Tom Grieve to the Mets. The Bucs dealt Al Oliver and Nelson Norman to Texas. The Mets sent Jon Matlack to the Rangers. John Milner went from the Mets to the Pirates.
From the Pirates perspective, this boils down to Oliver for Blyleven and Milner. Norman’s career was inconsequential as he amassed just a single win share in the Show.
Oliver was a star, an outstanding hitter and a player capable of playing multiple positions. His career totals fall a touch short of serious Hall of Fame consideration, in my opinion. He hit .308 with 19 homers and 82 RBI in 1977. However, in that season, Willie Stargell was injured, leaving Bill Robinson as the Pirates primary first baseman. Robinson, finally living up to the billing given to him as a prospect, hit .304 with 26 taters and 104 RBI. A couple of things made Oliver expendable. Stargell was presumably healthy and the Pirates were most likely looking to keep the slightly more potent (and slightly more aged) bat of Robinson in the lineup. Stargell was only capable of playing first at this point in his career, which meant Robinson would go to the outfield. Fleet footed Omar Moreno manned center field. Though not as skilled a hitter as Oliver, his speed gave him range in center matched only by Garry Maddox in Philly. Moreno led all NL outfielders in put outs both in 1979 and in 1980. Dave Parker, a budding superstar, had a justifiable stranglehold on right field. Additionally, the rotation was a bit suspect. The pitching staff posted the third best ERA in the NL in 1977, but two of the four starters (Jerry Reuss and Bruce Kison) posted an ERA+ of less than 100. The fifth starting spot was manned most often by Odell Jones who posted an ERA above 5.00 in 34 appearances (15 starts).
For Oliver the Pirates acquired a pitcher with a track record for being a workhorse (no fewer than 230 IP in every season since he was a 20 year old rookie in 1970) and for being hard to score on (his career worst ERA+ was 117 in his rookie season). They also got Milner, a capable home run hitter who could (and would) spell Stargell at first and Robinson in left.
The following table has win share data for the primary players involved for 1978 to the end of their careers. I’ve included Robinson’s numbers here for comparison’s sake since he became the primary left fielder in Oliver’s absence.
In the short term, this was a good trade for the Pirates. Blyleven continued his solid pitching and Milner and Robinson proved to be capable players for the immediate future. However, Blyleven bristled at the frequency in which he pitched (he preferred a 4 man rotation) and the quick hook delivered by skipper Chuck Tanner. The Dutch Master felt that he pitched better when his arm was a little tired. The Pirates felt compelled to trade him following the 1980 campaign and got little in return. Robinson and Milner (and Stargell) declined quickly after 1979, while Oliver had perhaps his best season in 1982 when Milner and Robinson were bit players in the Show.
Overall, this was a good trade. Blyleven helped the Pirates win the 1979 World Series. He pitched the clinching game in the 1979 NLCS. Robinson and Milner played big roles that season, as well. The combination of Blyleven and Milner provided more win shares in both 1978 and 1979 than Oliver did. The trade went sour after 1980 when Blyleven was unloaded for a package of players that didn’t pan out. But that is the subject of a future post.