This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 14th, Pirates Sign Kenny Lofton

Four former Pittsburgh Pirates born on this date, plus one transaction of note.

The Transaction

On this date in 2003, the Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to a one-year contract with 35-year-old center fielder Kenny Lofton. He was coming off a season in which he hit .261 with 72 walks and 29 stolen bases while splitting the year between the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants,, but the Pirates were able to sign the six-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner late in the off-season for just over one million dollars. Four days earlier, Pittsburgh also signed outfielder Reggie Sanders to a free agent contract. Lofton played 84 games for the Pirates, hitting .277 with 58 runs scored and 18 stolen bases before he was traded to the Chicago Cubs in the Aramis Ramirez deal. After the deal, Lofton batted .327 in 56 games for Chicago, then signed with the New York Yankees for the 2004 season.

The Players

Matt Kata, infielder for the 2007 Pirates. He was a 1999 draft pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks, taken in the ninth round out of Vanderbilt. Three years earlier, the Minnesota Twins took him in the 20th round out of high school. Kata began his Major League career with Arizona four years after getting drafted. He played his first two seasons of pro ball at Low-A South Bend and put up nearly identical stats, finishing with a .692 OPS in 1999 and a .694 OPS in 2000. Kata had 38 steals in his second season. He had his breakout in 2001, batting .296 with ten homers and 30 steals in High-A Lancaster of the California League. That earned him a late promotion to Double-A, where he reached base nine times in four games. All of 2002 was spent at Double-A in the Texas League. Kata hit .298 in 136 games, with 95 runs scored, 33 doubles and 11 homers, though he saw his stolen bases drop to 12 (in 19 attempts). He put up a .775 OPS in 48 games of Triple-A in 2003 before getting promoted to the majors in mid-June. Kata played 78 games during his rookie season, hitting .257 with 16 doubles, five triples, seven homers and 27 RBIs, while scoring 42 runs. He was the starting second baseman for Arizona through the end of May in 2004, before dislocating his shoulder, which ended his season. Kata started the 2005 season in the majors, got sent to Triple-A, then was recalled in late June, before getting traded to the Philadelphia Phillies, where he saw big league and Triple-A time. Between both stops, he hit .189 in 40 games, with no homers or RBIs. Kata played 160 big league games over his first three seasons before spending all of 2006 in the minors playing for the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Texas Rangers signed Kata as a free agent for the 2007 season, but released him on June 13th after playing 31 games with a .186 batting average. The Pirates signed him two days later, and after a brief stint at Triple-A, they called him up to Pittsburgh. He played 47 games, getting 90 plate appearances with a .250 average and ten RBIs, although he didn’t draw a single walk. He saw starts at second base, third base, shortstop and left field, with one appearance late in a game in right field, though he only started 12 games total. The Pirates allowed him to leave via free agency at the end of the season and he signed with the Colorado Rockies. Just prior to the start of the regular season, Pittsburgh reacquired him, sending him to Triple-A where he spent the entire 2008. Kata played 40 games with the Houston Astros in 2009, then spent three seasons at Triple-A before retiring. He was in the Astros system in 2010, followed by his final two years back with the Rangers. He was a .239 career hitter in 278 Major League games, with 12 homers and 63 RBIs. Despite multiple 30+ stolen base seasons in the minors, he had just nine steals in the majors.

Earl Smith, center fielder for the 1955 Pirates. He signed with the Pirates as an amateur free agent in early 1949. That year in Class-C ball, he hit .324 in 69 games. He was used as a pitcher for a brief time, allowing 17 runs in 15 innings, then pitched just two times after that over the rest of his pro career. Smith would hit .324 the following season at the same level, this time playing 139 games. After three straight seasons in which his batting average hovered around the .250 mark at higher levels, he was sent back to Class-C ball in 1954, where he hit .387 with 32 homers, 195 RBIs, 183 runs scored, 42 steals and 119 walks in 141 games while playing for Phoenix of the Texas-Arizona League. While those are obviously huge numbers for any level (195 RBIs would be a big league record), he was old for the level and it was a huge league for offense, with Phoenix averaging nine runs per game. For reference, the top five home run hitters in the league that year never made the majors. In fact, Smith was the only player in the top 17 home run hitters to make the majors, and his time at the big league level was brief. That 1954 season helped earn him a spot on the Opening Day roster for 1955, though he was making a team that went 53-101 in the previous season. He would start five games in center field over the first two weeks of the season before being returned to the minors. Smith collected just one hit in his 16 career at-bats, a lead-off single in his next to last game, coming off of Don Liddle of the Giants. He was sent to New Orleans of the Southern Association on May 4th, ending his big league career. On June 13, 1955, the Pirates sold Smith to Lincoln of the Western League, officially ending his time with the club. He was hitting just .164 in 20 games with New Orleans at the time. He was back with Phoenix by the end of the season, then played for three different minor league teams in 1956, his final season in pro ball. Smith wore the #21 with the Pirates, which would go to a rookie named Roberto Clemente later that season. The Pirates had a catcher named Earl Smith, who played on the 1925 and 1927 World Series Pirates teams. There was also an outfielder in the majors from 1916-22 with the same name.

Billy Rhines, pitcher for the 1898-99 Pirates. After two seasons of minor league ball, Rhines started his Major League career in 1890 at 21 years old, winning 28 games and leading the National League with a 1.95 ERA in 401.1 innings. He posted a 2.87 ERA in 372.1 innings the following season, but the overwork got to him and his 1892 stats suffered. Rhines pitched poorly in limited work in 1892, with a 5.42 ERA in 74.2 innings. He was with the Louisville Colonels for a short time in 1893, putting up an 8.71 ERA in five starts. He then spent all of 1894 in the minors, where did well during that season, winning 25 games and posting a 2.43 ERA in 406.2 innings for Grand Rapids of the Western League. That earned him a spot in the majors with the Reds in 1895. He won 19 games in that first year back, though it came with a 4.81 ERA in 267.2 innings. The caveat there is that offense in baseball was at a peak in 1894 due to the rule changes for pitchers (longer distance and they had to pitch from the pitching rubber for the first time), and that peak for offense trickled into the 1895 season before pitchers fully adjusted. Rhines did the best at adjusting, leading the NL again in ERA in 1896, with a 2.45 mark in 143 innings. The season prior to joining the Pirates, he was 21-15, 4.08 in 288 innings over 32 starts and nine relief appearances. The Pirates acquired Rhines from the Reds in a seven-player trade on November 10, 1897. In that deal they gave up 30-game winner Pink Hawley and star outfielder Mike Smith, who has the sixth highest overall batting average in team history. Rhines was the only pitcher among the five players sent to the Pirates, so he had big shoes to fill with Hawley gone. For Pittsburgh in 1898, Rhines went 12-16, 3.52 in 288.2 innings. He went the entire season without allowing a home run, though he managed to record just 48 strikeouts. Rhines made nine starts in 1899 before his time with the Pirates (and his Major League career) ended. His final game with the Pirates was on June 22nd and he did so poorly that he was released that same day. He finished the year with a 6.00 ERA in 54 innings. He pitched briefly in the minors in 1901 before retiring from baseball, finishing his big league career with a 113-103, 3.48 record in 1,891 innings.

Denny Mack, infielder for the 1883 Alleghenys. Over a 13-year stretch from 1871 until 1883, Mack spent eight seasons in the majors. He debuted in the National Association, which was the first Major League and lasted from 1871 until 1875, when it then gave way to the National League. He spent four seasons in the National Association, two years in the National League, then two years in the American Association, finishing his MLB career with the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1883 during their second season in franchise history. Mack played for the Rockford Forest Citys during the first season of Major League ball, hitting .246 in 25 games, with 34 runs scored. He moved on to the Philadelphia Athletics in 1872, where he hit .288 in 47 games and led the league with 23 walks. He scored 68 runs and picked up 34 RBIs. The National Association added a second team in Philadelphia in 1873 and Mack moved to the new club, referred to as the Whites, back when teams were often named after their uniform color or just a part of their uniform. The league also had teams named the Red Stockings and Blue Legs that year. Mack hit a career high .293 in 1873 and once again he managed to score more runs (55) than games played (48). That streak ended the next year with the Whites when he posted a .207 average in 56 games. When the National League started in 1876, Mack played for the St Louis Brown Stockings, where he hit .217 in 48 games. He then spent the next three seasons in the minors before resurfacing in 1880 with the Buffalo Bisons of the NL. He batted .203 and lasted just 17 games. With only eight big league teams at that time and each of them holding limited rosters (some as low as 12 players at a time), the quality of competition was high during that time. When the American Assocation came along in 1882, it doubled the available big league jobs. Mack returned with the Louisville Eclipse as a player-manager, where he hit .182 in 72 games. In his lone season with the Alleghenys, Mack played shortstop, first base and some second base, hitting .196 in 60 games. The Alleghenys were off to an 0-4 start to the season when they signed Mack. He debuted on May 11th at first base in a 7-6 win over Baltimore. On July 24th, he was knocked out cold when he was hit by a pitch and had to be carried from the field. After his stint with the Alleghenys, he served two years as a player-manager in the minors, then two more years as a minor league manager, before retiring. He was a .228 hitter over 373 games in the majors, with one home run and 309 runs scored. Modern metrics rate him as an above average shortstop defensively and a below average first baseman. Until recent research, Mack had an unknown birth date. He was born in 1850 in a town called Mauch Chunk, PA, which is current day Jim Thorpe, PA. Local papers occasionally said that he was named Dennis McGee, but he played baseball under the name Denny Mack.