April 23, 1979: An Off Day and a Quick Look at the Farm System

The Pirates got a break from their six-game losing streak as the moved on to Cincinnati.  Meanwhile, let’s take a quick look at the farm system.

The Pirates in 1979 had five affiliates.  One was the GCL Pirates, which we can look at later in the season.  The others were the Portland Beavers (AAA Pacific Coast League), Buffalo Bisons (AA Eastern League), Salem Pirates (A Carolina League), and Shelby Pirates (A Western Carolinas League).  I’m not sure whether the two class A leagues broke down quite as easily into high A and low A the way they do now, but it looks like the Carolina League served pretty much the same function as now.  The Western Carolinas League later got absorbed into the South Atlantic League.

By 1979, the Bucs’ farm system was declining from a long stretch of high productivity.*  From roughly the mid-1960s to the late-1970s, the system churned out talent like St. Louis has done in recent years.  But there were some interesting players still.  There was no BA then, so I don’t know what a Pirates’ top 30 prospects would have looked like.  I can, however, mention some of the players who ultimately reached the bigs.


The Beavers had a few notable hitters on the roster.  For part of the season, they had Dale Berra, although he opened the year with the Pirates.  Probably the most notable position player was infielder Vance Law, son of the Deacon.  Outfielder Alberto Lois had created some excitement a couple years earlier with a big season in AA, but things didn’t go well from there.  Infielder Tommy Sandt had gotten a little time in the majors and went on to become a manager in the minors.

The pitching staff was more interesting.  It included a young Dominican prospect, righty Pascual Perez, who’d skipped over AA.  The team also had two live-armed lefties, Rod Scurry and Al Holland, who were transitioning to relief.  Two other lefties, Rick Jones and Al Warthen, were the team’s top starters and ultimately saw some time in the majors.


The Pirates had a catching prospect in AA who made some noise eventually, name of Tony Pena.  The team’s two best hitters, apart from Pena, were outfielders Rick Lancellotti and Luis Salazar.  There were two pitchers of note.  One was righty Fred Breining, whose name will pop up again in a couple months.  Another was lefty Dave Dravecky, a late-round draftee from the previous year.


The most notable position player with the Carolina League affiliate was 19-year-old catcher Junior Ortiz, who’d signed out of Puerto Rico.  The most interesting pitcher was Steve Farr, who ultimately had a long big league career as a reliever.


The Shelby Pirates had an outfielder you may remember, Doug Frobel.  The team’s big power hitter was first baseman Eddie Vargas, another Puerto Rican signee.  The pitching staff was . . . well, not terribly interesting.

*The talent from the system didn’t just surface in Pittsburgh.  The Pirates were frequently able to use prospects as chips for productive trades.  One relevant example is the Phil Garner trade.  To get an idea of some others, you can look here.  What I found in writing that piece was that the Pirates made a lot of good trades back in the day, but they generally gave up talent for talent.  They didn’t win a bunch of division titles by hosing other teams, they just did a really good job.