The Pittsburgh Pirates have a working agreement with the Gigantes de Carolina of the Puerto Rican Winter League. That seems like a natural match-up for the Pirates, whose most famous player is from Puerto Rico, and the actual name of the league is Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente, which translates to the Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League. The Gigantes play at Roberto Clemente Stadium.
The Pirates sent several players to Puerto Rico last year in the first winter of their agreement, including Gage Hinsz and Rodolfo Castro. This year they are already sending outfielder Chris Sharpe, pitcher Ike Schlabach and third baseman Dylan Busby. The season there opens up on Friday. More prospects will likely be added during the winter season, which runs into January, and possibly early February if the Gigantes win their league and move on to the Caribbean Series.
I wanted to take a look at the history of the Pirates in Puerto Rico. Having Roberto Clemente made the Pirates popular in the country, and they are still to this day due to that connection. That could have given them an advantage to sign players from the country, but any advantage would have been taken away when Major League Baseball added Puerto Rico to the amateur draft back in 1989. In recent years (the Neal Huntington era), the Pirates have only drafted three players from the country, Edwin Roman, Bengi Gonzalez and Nelson Jorge. None of them made the majors, Roman didn’t get out of the GCL, and Jorge made almost zero progress in five years, never making it above Bristol.
Here’s a list and brief summary of the MLB players from Puerto Rico who have played with the Pirates. This includes all of the players to put on a Pittsburgh uniform, but I noted which ones were actually signed by the Pirates, which is obviously a much smaller list.
Clemente is far and away the best player from the country according to Baseball-Reference WAR. His 94.4 career WAR is 24.9 points higher than Carlos Beltran, who has the second best WAR from the country. That doesn’t mean that they didn’t have other great players though. Hall of Famers Roberto Alomar, Ivan Rodriguez and Orlando Cepeda were all from the PR.
To find the second best player by WAR from Puerto Rico who played on the Pirates, you have to go down to 15th overall with outfielder Sixto Lezcano, who played the final 72 games of his career with the 1985 Pirates. One spot lower is Benito Santiago, who spent his last six games with the 2005 Pirates after an ill-advised trade. Two good players, but neither really did much for the Pirates.
The first player to see somewhat significant time after Clemente was pitcher Juan Pizarro, who was teammates with the Great One in 1967-68, then returned to end his career in 1974. He made 11 starts and 58 relief appearances for the Pirates, picking up nine saves and ten wins. Even though Pizarro ranks 22nd in WAR on this list, he’s actually the second highest pitcher, trailing only Javier Vazquez. It has clearly been an offense-first island for baseball.
Next for the Pirates is reliever Roberto Hernandez, who celebrated a birthday yesterday and got me thinking about this article. His time in Pittsburgh was brief, with 46 relief appearances in 2006 before he was traded to the New York Mets. He picked up 326 career saves.
Finally, down in the 32nd spot with 16.2 WAR, we get to 1B/OF Orlando Merced. He’s the highest ranked player for the Pirates, who was actually signed by the Pirates. Just in case anyone doesn’t know, Clemente was originally signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Merced signed with the Pirates in February of 1985 as an amateur free agent and spent seven seasons with the team, including the 1990-92 playoff run.
After Merced, you have another vet in the Lezcano/Santiago mold, who finished off his career with the Pirates and didn’t play up to his standards. Omar Olivares ended his 12-year career with a 6.55 ERA in 110 innings for the 2001 Pirates.
I apologize for mentioning the next player. Jose Hernandez was with the 2003 and 2006 Pirates, playing 125 games total. No need to bring up how he got to Pittsburgh.
Next up is outfielder Carmelo Martinez, who played briefly for the 1990-91 Pirates near the end of his nine-year career. He ranks 47th all-time for the country in WAR at 11.0, though his time in Pittsburgh just dragged that down a little with an -0.2.
Pitcher Ramon Hernandez was signed by the Pirates and played six seasons for them (1971-76), but he played for four different MLB teams, mostly in the minors, before the Pirates acquired him from a Mexican League team in 1971. He was signed originally by them in 1959 and was sold to the Los Angeles Angels two years later.
Wil Cordero played part of the 2000 season for the Pirates in the middle of his 14-year career. His 6.0 WAR is just ahead of the 5.7 put up by Jose Pagan, who was with the Pirates from 1965 until 1972 after being acquired in an even up trade with the San Francisco Giants for Dick Schofield. Pagan played 15 years in the majors, with nearly half of his 1,326 games coming with the Pirates.
Down in 84th place in WAR is the second player who was signed by the Pirates, then worked his way through their system to the majors. Jose Lind was a member of the 1990-92 playoff run along with fellow countryman Orlando Merced. Lind was signed as an amateur free agent in 1982 and played 779 games with the Pirates from 1987 until 1992. He won a Gold Glove in 1992.
Pitcher Luis Arroyo played for the 1956-57 Pirates after he was acquired in a trade with the St Louis Cardinals. Another unfortunate trade piece in Armando Rios played for the 2001-02 Pirates. He was born in Puerto Rico, but went to college at LSU and North Carolina Charlotte to get drafted. Pitcher Jonathan Sanchez wrapped up his eight-year career with a brief appearance on the 2013 Pirates.
The third player mentioned here to go from the PR to minors to Pirates lasted a very short time in Pittsburgh. Angel Mangual was signed in 1966 and played four games for the 1969 Pirates. He would have some value for the team as part of a trade with the Oakland A’s for pitcher Mudcat Grant.
First baseman Willie Montanez turned being a replacement level player into a 14-year career, with a stop in Pittsburgh late in 1981 and early in 1982 for 65 total games. He had a career 1.7 WAR. Infielder Ramon Vazquez signed a two-year deal prior to 2009 with the Pirates, then was finished in the majors after 101 games that season. Julio Gotay was an infielder who played seven games total for the 1963-64 Pirates. He’s slightly known for being part of the Dick Groat trade with the St Louis Cardinals.
First baseman Eddie Vargas signed with the Pirates in 1977 and played briefly for them in 1982 and 1984. He spent nine years in their farm system. The Pirates went 11 years after Mangual without signing a player from the PR who played for them, but then they got two in one year (see the second one below).
The final game in the career of shortstop Onix Concepcion was also his only game for the Pirates. He contributed a pinch-hit single for the 1987 Pirates. First baseman Ivan Cruz played 41 MLB games spread out over four seasons, with 13 of those games coming with the 1999-2000 Pirates.
Carlos Bernier was an outfielder for the 1953 Pirates and the first player from Puerto Rico to play for the team. He wasn’t signed by the Pirates out of the country though. He was drafted from a minor league team in 1951. He hit .213 over 105 games in his only season of pro ball.
Luis Figueroa was signed by the Pirates in 1997, went through their system and lasted four game and two at-bats with them in 2001 before being lost on waivers. He was draft eligible, but went undrafted and was signed as a free agent.
Danny Ortiz (pictured above) played nine games for the 2017 Pirates after he was signed as a minor league free agent. That ended up being his entire big league career, though he’s still an active player, spending 2019 in Mexico.
One of the more well-known players lower on this list is catcher Junior Ortiz, who is the sixth player mentioned here who was signed/trained/played for the Pirates. He was signed in 1977 along with Eddie Vargas and debuted in 1982. He was then traded to the Mets before being a Rule 5 pick from the Mets, coming back for five more seasons in Pittsburgh. Ortiz was a nice backup, but it only earned him a -0.3 WAR during his career.
Luis Marquez was a 1954 trade acquisition, who played 14 games with the Pirates that season, making him the second player from Puerto Rico to play for the Pirates.
Javier Martinez pitched 37 games for the 1997 Pirates at age 21, which ended up being his entire big league career. He was drafted by the Cubs and also spent time with the A’s, before joining Pittsburgh.
You need to get all the way down to -0.9 WAR to get to the first draft pick out of Puerto Rico for the Pirates to make it to the majors with them. First baseman Carlos Rivera was a tenth round pick in 1996, who played 85 games for the 2003-04 Pirates. He was the second draft pick from the PR by the Pirates to make it to Pittsburgh after 1995 fourth round pick/first baseman Alex Hernandez, who put up a -1.0 WAR in 27 games for the 2000-01 Pirates.
Infielder Fernando Gonzalez wasn’t originally signed by the Pirates, but he did debut in the majors with them in 1972, spending parts of four seasons with them. He hit .257 over 129 games with the Pirates. Pittsburgh was one of four teams that he posted a negative WAR with, on his way to a -3.0 career mark, which ranks last among the players on this list.
Puerto Rico has produced 268 players so far in Major League history. They had two players before Jackie Robinson made the majors, and numerous players throughout the 1950’s. The island didn’t start mass producing MLB players until 1969 when things really took off. There were some light years in the early 2000s, and that brought some backlash against the draft in the country.
There has been a resurgence of sorts as of late, with 28 players from Puerto Rico in the majors this season. That includes the last player on our list of 33 Pirates, pitcher Yacksel Rios, who was a waiver pickup from the Phillies in August. He will be playing this winter in Puerto Rico as well, though as a native of the country, he had to go through the league’s winter draft, so he won’t be on the same team as the other players from the Pirates.
It’s not great results over the years from the country. Only two draft picks made it through the system to the Pirates in 31 drafts, and a third player signed undrafted out of the PR during that time. There’s no one in the farm system right now, so that won’t change any time soon. Combined those three players had a -1.9 WAR with the Pirates and played just 116 games. There were some good results prior to the draft with Jose Lind, Orlando Merced and Junior Ortiz, plus Angel Mangual being a nice trade piece, but other than Eddie Vargas, they were the only players who were signed, trained by, and played with the Pirates over the years.
At least for now, the Pirates will look to get some value out of the country by partnering with their winter league to help improve their minor league players. It’s a strong competition level down there, so it’s a good experience for a group of players who spent most or all of 2019 in High-A ball.