Welcome to Pirates Flashback, a weekly look back at some of the best players of the worst teams in Pirates’ history.
Today’s player is Mike Gonzalez, who pitched for the Pirates from 2003-2006.
BEFORE THE BUCS
Gonzalez was drafted in the 16th round of the 1996 draft by the Pirates. Though he cracked the majors with Pittsburgh, he was briefly traded out of the farm system. On July 22, 2003, he was traded with Scott Sauerbeck to the Red Sox for Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez. Nine days later, fearing the worst for Lyon’s elbow, the Pirates traded the duo back to Boston. They also included pitcher Jeff Suppon for Gonzalez, Freddy Sanchez and cash.
Gonzalez made his major league debut 12 days later: August 11, 2003.
TIME WITH THE PIRATES
Gonzalez pitched four seasons with the Pirates, recording a 2.37 ERA over 168 games with 183 strikeouts. While he had some trouble walking batters, he quickly established himself as one of the best lefty relievers in baseball.
He converted all 24 of his save attempts in 2006 before ending the year on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He racked up 28 saves as a Pirate.
Gonzalez’s rookie year in 2004 was his best, posting career bests in strikeout rate (11.42 K/9), walk rate (1.25 BB/9), ERA (1.25), FIP (1.60) and WAR (1.6 fWAR. His 2.0 bWAR was only topped by his 2.3 wins in 2006). He was named the Topps All-Star Rookie for left-handed pitchers.
Both Lillibridge and Romak bounced around the majors as utilitymen for a couple years, so this was effectively a Gonzalez for LaRoche swap. LaRoche was coming off a 32 home run season where he slugged .561, but he never came close to replicating that as a Pirate. He ended up being worth a combined 3.5 fWAR during his three seasons as a Pirate.
Gonzalez needed Tommy John surgery in 2007 and missed a good chunk of 2008 because of it too. He returned to form in 2009, recording a 2.42 ERA with 10 saves over 80 appearances with Atlanta.
He signed with Baltimore in the offseason on a two year, $12 million contract. His ERA crept over four, and he was dealt to the Texas Rangers in 2011. The Rangers went on to win the pennant that year, but lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, thanks mostly to series MVP and current Buc David Freese.
Gonzalez was promoted to the Nationals after signing a midseason minor league deal in 2012, and went on to have a good season. He parlayed that into a major league pact with the Brewers that offseason, but he struggled. He signed another minor league deal with the Nationals in 2014 and pitched in the Mexican league in 2016, but he has not reached the majors since. Today, he is not technically retired, but not pitching.
DID HE DESERVE BETTER?
Gonzalez did alright for himself. The $12 million he got from the Orioles is more than most relievers will sniff in their careers. He had a chance to close, and got to spend a good part of his career on winning teams. There are worse fates than that.
While the trade for LaRoche was a bust, it’s hard to blame Dave Littlefield that much. It’s hard to believe today, but there was some hope for the 2007 Pirates. Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez were coming off of All-Star seasons. the rotation was filled with young talent like Zach Duke and Ian Snell, and the bullpen had some good arms like Salomon Torres and Matt Capps. Getting either a first baseman or outfielder could have been what they needed to snap their losing season streak, and they elected to trade instead of pay big money in free agency. They didn’t have much to offer in the farm system, so they dealt what they had a little excess of: relief pitching. It was the wrong decision.
Gonzalez is a classic example of Littlefield dealing away one of his best commodities for major league ready prospects instead of high upside minor leaguers. That will be a common theme as this series progresses.