The five-year plan: The Neagle trade
I am looking back to 1996, the last time the Pirates attempted an all-or-nothing rebuilding project. You can find previous installments of this series here.
The Denny Neagle trade was probably the best move made by Cam Bonifay during his dismantling of the 1996 club. Unfortunately, the team fell victim to some bad luck. Neagle was 28, a year and a half from free agency, and was finishing up his third consecutive solid season anchoring the Pirates’ rotation. He was at his highest value, and it was tough to imagine what he might bring back in a trade. Neagle was very good with the Braves for two years after the trade, but was mostly ineffective for the remainder of his career.
Jason Schmidt highlighted the package coming to Pittsburgh. Schmidt, a 23-year-old hard-throwing right-hander with great stuff, had struggled in two stints in Atlanta. But he had good minor league numbers, including nearly a strikeout per inning, and there was much to like about his arm. Schmidt was slightly above average in his time with the Pirates, but his development was slow. He mostly treaded water and, after five years of limited progress and free agency looming, he was dealt to the Giants. Of course, he immediately figured things out upon moving west. He was excellent in his Giants debut, and was a top National League pitcher for several subsequent years.
Ron Wright was a 20-year-old power-hitting first baseman, who had just finished an excellent season with a combined 36 home runs in High-A and Double-A. Despite being just 21, he posted a .304/.348/.539 line at Triple-A Calgary in 1997. However, he only accumulated 336 at-bats due to a broken wrist. Poised to make his major league debut the next year, Wright’s career was essentially ruined.
The next spring, the Pirates considered putting Wright on their opening-day roster, but they had another infielder who was out of minor league options. So they sent Wright to Class AAA Nashville, promising him that he would be back in Pittsburgh soon.
In his first week in the minors, while stretching on the outfield grass in Tucson, Wright felt a pain in his back. For a moment, he froze. Then he collapsed.
“It was like I’d been shot,” he said.
An ambulance took him from the field to a hospital behind the left-field wall. Then he flew to Los Angeles to have a disk removed from his back. He missed the 1998 season, and by the beginning of 1999 he still had not fully recovered.
Wright returned to Los Angeles for another examination. Doctors told him that his back was fine. But during the operation, his sciatic nerve had been clipped. For the rest of his life, his right leg would feel numb.
“Everything changed then,” Wright said. “I went from hoping to be a star in the big leagues to just hoping to play a game in the big leagues.”
Wright never overcame the damaged nerve. He managed just 80 minor league at-bats in 1999, and left the Pirates via waivers after the season. After bouncing around various minor league teams for a few years, he finally made his major league debut for the Mariners in 2002. He played in one game and batted three times. Strikeout, triple play, double play. After one more year in the minors, Wright retired.
The results of this deal should serve as a powerful reminder that even the best trades can sour quickly. The Pirates should have received an ace starter and a legitimate middle-of-the-order bat. Schmidt eventually became that ace, but it was five years later and in another organization. Wright fizzled out in the minor leagues due to a fluke injury. In many ways, this trade resembles the Jason Bay deal from 2008. Both Neagle and Bay were a year and a half from free agency and the team’s most valuable trade chip at the time. Like the Neagle trade, the Pirates appeared to get a nice return for Bay. Similar to Schmidt, Andy LaRoche has been solid but somewhat disappointing. Like Wright, Craig Hansen has had his career threatened by an unusual nerve issue.
As we move forward in this series, be prepared for additional instances of disappointment and frustration.