First Pitch: Pirates Have a History of Signing the Best Non-Drafted Free Agents

Baseball America recently published a list of the team that did the best when signing non-drafted free agents. That’s going to be an important process this year with the 2020 MLB amateur draft consisting of just five rounds. While the front office people making the signings aren’t the same now, the Pittsburgh Pirates have a history of success with signing non-drafted free agents.

According to Baseball America’s research, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been the best team in all of baseball when it comes to signing non-drafted free agents since the draft began in 1965.

The success story for the Pirates includes Bobby Bonilla, Kent Tekulve, Al Holland, Don Money and Esteban Loaiza. That’s five players who went on to make at least one All-Star appearance. They also had a group of three pitchers who each spent 11 seasons in the majors, Jason Johnson, Steve Farr and Rick Langford.

None of those names are recent signings, but it’s harder for a good player to sneak through undrafted now than it was back then…at least up until this year. The Pirates and 29 other teams are going to be trying to convince the best undrafted players to sign for the $20,000 bonus cap. That type of money will usually only get you college seniors and some JUCO players without a commitment to a major college.

The average bonus for sixth round picks last year (not including college seniors) was well over $200,000. You’re not going to be able to convince one of those players, either college juniors or high school players, to sign for 1/10th of what they would normally receive. So the JUCO route seems like your best bet to uncover hidden talent.

The Pirates got Jake Sweeney in the 36th round in 2019 for $25,000, as a 6’7″ projectable lefty with one year of JUCO ball. He also turned 19 years old after the draft, making him younger than some high school picks. If there was a cap of $20,000 in 2019, he likely wouldn’t have let $5,000 keep him from signing. A team would be smart to sign every Jake Sweeney-type of pitcher they could find, hoping at least one of them reaches their peak. How many of those pitchers will actually be available for $20,000? And how many of them could you actually get when 29 other teams are looking for the same type of player? That’s the big issue.

The Pirates do have a pair of interesting pitchers who were non-drafted free agents in Nick Mears and John O’Reilly. Both of them made it up to Altoona in 2019, which was their first full-season in pro ball. Mears looks like a future back-end bullpen piece, while O’Reilly really improved his stuff during his first full season, now hitting 96 MPH, while throwing two solid secondary pitches.

The Pirates are going to get some interesting college senior signs this year regardless of the bonus cap. Most college seniors sign four-figure bonus caps, so a $20,000 cap won’t have any affect on that group. If a college senior is really that good that a $20,000 cap isn’t close to enough for them, they’re probably going to be drafted.

The draft is going to be the fun part on June 10th, but the non-drafted signing frenzy that should follow will be very interesting as well.




Good day for Josh Bell


By John Dreker

Three former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, two were teammates on the 1927-28 teams and they both played the same position.

Tony Sanchez, catcher for the 2013-15 Pirates. He was a first round pick, who had some injury issues in the minors, as well as a case of Steve Blass disease behind the plate. Sanchez played parts of three seasons with the Pirates and they made the playoffs all three years. In 51 games, he hit .259 with four homers and 18 RBIs. He was let go after the 2015 season and has been with six other teams since then, though his only big league time was a single pinch-hitting appearance for the 2017 Atlanta Braves.

George Grantham, first baseman/second baseman for the 1925-31 Pirates. The Pirates acquired him in a big trade on October 27, 1924, one that sent Pittsburgh’s all-time wins leader, Wilbur Cooper, along with Charlie Grimm and future Hall of Famer Rabbit Maranville, to the Chicago Cubs in exchange for Grantham, Vic Aldridge and Al Niehaus. On name power alone, the Cubs got the three most famous players in the deal, but Grantham did a pretty good holding up his end of the deal all by himself.

When he came to the Pirates, he was coming off a season in which he hit .316 with 55 walks and 60 RBIs in 127 games. He also stole 64 bases over the two full seasons he spent in Chicago, but that total is a bit deceiving as he was caught stealing 49 times, including a league leading 28 times in 1923. He also led the NL in strikeouts in both 1923 and 1924. Grantham had also led all second baseman in errors each of the last two seasons. For the Pirates, he moved to first base in 1925, batting a career high of .326 his first season in Pittsburgh. That team went to the World Series and won in seven games. While Grantham helped them get there, in the series he all but disappeared. Going 2-for-15 at the plate, while sitting out two games. In 1926, he hit .318 with 70 RBIs and 60 walks, finishing sixth in the NL with an .890 OPS. He was moved back to his original position of second base, when Joe Harris (see below) joined the team in 1927. Grantham still occasionally played some first base that year after starting the first 19 games of the season there. He hit .305 with 66 RBIs and 74 walks, while scoring 96 runs. Pittsburgh was back in the World Series that year and he hit .364, although he didn’t score or drive in any runs.

Grantham moved back to first base in 1928 and had a big season at the plate, hitting .323 with 85 RBIs and 93 runs scored, but it wasn’t his best year in Pittsburgh. His shuffling around the field continued in 1929, getting most of his time at second base, while also seeing action in left field and first base. He posted a career high .987 OPS in 110 games, driving in 90 runs, scoring 85 times and drawing 93 walks. His best season at the bat may have been the 1930 season, which was a great year for offense in baseball. Grantham hit .324 with 81 walks and set career highs in RBIs (99), homers (18), triples (14) and runs scored with 120, which was the team high that season. He had a decent 1931 season, though he began to show a decline in his game. After hitting .305 with 91 runs scored in 127 games that year, Grantham was sold to the Cincinnati Reds. He still had one good season left in him, hitting .292 for the Reds in 1932.

He played two more seasons in the majors before finishing his career in the minors in 1935. Grantham was a .302 career hitter in 1,444 games. With the Pirates he hit .315 in 913 games with a .410 OBP and .901 OPS. His OBP ranks sixth in team history and only Arky Vaughan, among the players ahead of him, had more plate appearances. His OPS ranks fifth in team history and only Ralph Kiner, among players ahead of him, had more plate appearances. You can read more on Grantham in our first Obscure Pittsburgh Pirates article.

Joe Harris, first baseman for the 1927-28 Pirates. Although he lost years in the majors to WWI and a suspension from baseball, Harris had a pro career that lasted 24 years. He began in 1908 playing for McKeesport of the Ohio-Penn League where he was teammates with former Pirates player Jock Menefee, who was 40 years old. The team also had Dots Miller, Ray Miller and Gus Getz, all future Pirates players. After playing semi-pro ball, Harris came back to pro ball in 1912. He made the majors for the first time in 1914, getting into two games with the Yankees. Three years later, he made it back to the big leagues with the Indians as their regular first baseman. He hit .304 with 65 RBIs that first full season in the majors. Harris then missed the entire 1918 season due to the war, returning to the Indians at the end of June in 1919. His baseball skills obviously did not suffer from the time off. In the last 62 games of that 1919 season, Harris hit .375 with 33 walks and 46 RBIs.

In 1920, he decided to sign with a semi-pro team after they offered him a much better deal than the Indians. That prompted the commissioner of baseball, Kenesaw Landis, to give Harris a lifetime ban from baseball. The ban was lifted two years later by Landis, citing the service by Harris during WWI. Before he was reinstated, Harris was traded to the Red Sox. From 1922 until early in 1925, he manned either first base or a corner outfield spot for Boston, hitting .315 with 209 RBIs in 402 games. He was traded to the Washington Senators in late April of 1925 and helped them to the World Series, where they faced the Pirates. Harris hit .440 in that series, collecting 11 hits, three homers and six RBIs. After hitting .307 in 1926 at the age of 35, he was put on waivers. He made it through the entire AL, and the Pirates were able to pick him up. In 1927, Pittsburgh went back to the World Series for the second time in three years and Harris was a big part, hitting .326 with 73 RBIs. He had a much different post-season in Pittsburgh, going 3-for-15 with one RBI and no runs scored. In 1928, he saw limited action but hit well, batting .391 in 16 games through June. On June 8th, he was dealt to the Brooklyn Robins (Dodgers) along with catcher Johnny Gooch, in exchange for catcher Charles Hargreaves. Harris played outfield for Brooklyn and did not hit well, batting .236 in 55 games. He returned to the minors the next year, playing three more seasons before retiring. In 970 major league games, he had a .317 career average, with 517 RBIs and a .404 career on base percentage.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

Support Pirates Prospects

Related articles

join the discussion

Share article

Pirates Prospects Daily

Latest articles

Pirates Prospects Weekly

MONDAY: First Pitch

TUESDAY: Article Drop


THURSDAY: Roundtable

FRIDAY: Discussion

SATURDAY: Pirates Winter Report

SUNDAY: Pirates Business

Latest comments