Two Pittsburgh Pirates trades and five former players born on this date.
On this date in 1987, the Pirates traded catcher Tony Pena to the St Louis Cardinals in exchange for pitcher Mike Dunne, catcher Mike LaValliere and outfielder Andy Van Slyke. Pena, at age 29, was a four-time All-Star and three-time Gold Glove winner during his seven seasons in Pittsburgh. He hit .286 with 340 RBIs and 307 runs scored in 801 games for the Pirates. In 1986, he hit .288 with ten homers and 52 RBIs. It was the first time since 1982 he didn’t win the Gold Glove award.
Dunne was a first round draft pick in 1984, who already pitched a full season at Triple-A in 1986, although his numbers were subpar at 9-12, 4.56 in 28 starts. LaValliere, at age 26, just played his first full season in the majors in 1986. He hit .234 with three homers and 30 RBIs in 110 games. Van Slyke was also 26 years old, but he had four full seasons in at the big league level already. He played all three outfield positions, as well as the two corner infielder positions with the Cardinals. In 1986 he hit .270 with 13 homers and 61 RBIs. All three were career high marks up to that point.
This trade worked extremely well for the Pirates. Dunne wasn’t around for the playoff years but he had a strong rookie season in 1987, going 13-6, 3.03 in 23 starts, finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He went 7-11, 3.92 in 1988, then was traded to the Mariners less than a month into the 1989 season. LaValliere ended up winning the Gold Glove award in his first season in Pittsburgh and he had a .300 average in 121 games. He spent five more full seasons in Pittsburgh, forming a strong catching duo with the righty-hitting Don Slaught during the Pirates three-year run of playoff appearances. LaValliere hit .278 in 609 games with the Pirates. Van Slyke was the best of the group, a three-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner with the Pirates. He batted .283 with 117 homers, 134 steals, 564 RBIs and 598 runs scored in 1,057 games over eight seasons with Pittsburgh.
Pena really struggled his first season with the Cardinals, hitting just .214 with 44 RBIs in 116 games. He also threw out just 28% of attempted base stealers, his lowest percentage up to that point. He had two more decent seasons with the Cardinals before they let him leave via free agency. After leaving St Louis, he ended up playing another eight seasons before retiring. The Pirates appeared to pick the perfect time to trade him. He had 22.4 WAR in seven seasons with the Pirates and 2.3 WAR total over his final 11 seasons in the majors. Mike Dunne was worth 2.5 WAR during the 1987 season and he was a clear third best player for the Pirates from this trade.
On this date in 1981, the Pirates traded catcher Ed Ott and lefty pitcher Mickey Mahler to the California Angels in exchange for first baseman Jason Thompson. Ott has been with the organization since being drafted in 1970. He played 492 games over six seasons in the majors and in 1980 he hit .260 with eight homers and 41 RBIs in 120 games. The Pirates had a rookie catcher named Tony Pena ready to step in and take his place. Mahler was 27 years old at the time, with parts of four seasons experience in the majors. He pitched just two games for the Pirates in 1980, allowing seven runs in one inning of work. He had a 14-8, 2.65 record in 173 innings at Triple-A. Thompson was 25 years old at the time, coming off a season in which he hit .288 with 21 homers a 90 RBIs, splitting the year between the Angels and Detroit Tigers.
The trade was a one-sided win for the Pirates. Thompson spent five seasons at first base for Pittsburgh. In 1982 he hit .284 with 31 homers, 101 RBIs and 101 walks. He also made the All-Star team that year for the third time in his career. Overall in his five seasons, he hit .259 with 93 homers, 354 RBIs and 430 walks. Mahler pitched 12 games in relief for the Angels over two seasons, then spent 1983-84 in the minors before playing parts of two more years in the majors with four different teams. Ott hit .217 with 22 RBIs in 77 games in 1981, then missed all of 1982 while on the disabled list. He played 16 games in the minors between 1983-84, but never made it back to the majors.
John Axford, pitcher for the 2014 Pirates. He was drafted twice, but didn’t sign either time. The Seattle Mariners took him in the seventh round in 2001 out of Assumption College School in Canada. Axford is the only player ever drafted out of that school. Four years later he was selected in the 42nd round out of Notre Dame by the Cincinnati Reds. However, he didn’t sign until August of 2006, when the New York Yankees came calling. He would pitch for four different affiliates during the 2007 season, posting a 3.29 ERA in 63 innings, before the Yankees released him in December of 2007. Three months later, he signed a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers and it took him just 18 months to make his big league debut. After pitching seven September games in relief for the 2009 Brewers, Axford had an impressive season as a 27-year-old in 2010. In 58 innings over 50 appearances, he went 8-2, 2.48 with 24 saves and 76 strikeouts. He was even better in 2011, going 2-2, 1.95 in 73.2 innings over 74 games, with a league-leading 46 saves. He finished ninth in the Cy Young voting and even received mild MVP support. The Brewers made the playoffs that year and he allowed one run over six postseason appearances. Things took a bad turn in 2012, though he still managed to compile 35 saves. Axford went 5-8, 4.67 in 69.1 innings over 75 games, picking up nine blown saves. He had an impressive rate of 12.1 strikeouts per nine innings. He was taken out of the closer role in 2013, but put up similar stats before a mid-season trade to the St Louis Cardinals. Axford had a 4.45 ERA in 62 games for the Brewers, then had a 1.74 ERA in 13 appearances with the Cardinals. In a repeat of his 2011 playoff performance, he allowed one run over six appearances again.
After the season, he signed with the Cleveland Indians as a free agent. Axford went 2-3, 3.92 in 43.2 innings over 49 appearances with the Indians, while collecting ten saves. He was acquired by the Pirates as a waiver pickup in August of 2014 to help with the playoff run. He made 13 appearances in Pittsburgh and allowed five runs over 11 innings. He became a free agent after the season and signed with the Colorado Rockies. Axford had a 4.20 ERA in 55.2 innings over 60 appearances, while picking up 25 saves. He moved on to the Oakland A’s for the 2016-17 seasons, where he had decent stats his first year (3.97 ERA in 65.2 innings), but he struggled in 2017, posting a 6.43 ERA in 21 innings before being released in late July. He split the 2018 season between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toronto Blue Jays, putting up a combined 5.27 ERA in 54.2 innings. Axford played ten seasons in the majors, last appearing in 2018, though he was injured for almost the entire 2019 season, making just one rehab appearance in the minors for the Blue Jays. In 543 appearances in the majors, he put up a 3.87 ERA in 525.1 innings, with 144 saves. He played for eight different big league teams.
Masumi Kuwata, pitcher for the 2007 Pirates. He was a long-time veteran player in Japan, with a career than spanned from 1986-2006, before he signed with the Pirates in December of 2006. He was signed to a minor league deal and reported to Triple-A in late May after recovering from a Spring Training ankle injury. He was recalled for his Major League debut in early June after making three scoreless appearances with Indianapolis. Kuwata made 19 appearances with the Pirates, pitching 21 total innings. He did not fare well during his time in Pittsburgh. He had a 9.43 ERA, while allowing 25 hits and 15 walks, for a 1.91 WHIP. He was put on waivers in August, then released by the Pirates after he decided to return home instead of accepting a minor league assignment. Kuwata came to Spring Training in 2008 for the Pirates and pitched well, but decided to retire after being informed he would not make the Major League team. He was a starting pitcher the entire time he played in Japan. He was a star by 19 years old for the Yomuiri Giants, going 15-6, 2.17 in 207.2 innings in his first full season playing in the Japan Central League, which is the top level of play there. He averaged 14 wins per season from 1987 through 1994, but an elbow injury limited him to just nine games in 1995, and then he missed the entire 1996 season. He went 10-7, 3.77 in his first season back, then compiled a 16-5 record in 1998, despite a 4.08 ERA. Kuwata saw a decline in his playing time and results over the next three seasons, then bounced back with a strong 2002 season at 34 years old. He went 12-6, 2.22 in 158.1 innings. It was a one-year return to his peak. His lowest ERA during the 2003-06 seasons was the 5.93 mark he put up over 71.1 innings in 2003, and he was limited to a total of 212 innings. His final season saw him get sent to the minors and also miss time due to an ankle injury. Yomuiri released him at the end of the year, ending their 21-year relationship with Kuwata. Over that time, he went 173-141, 3.55 in 2,761.2 innings, making 396 starts and 46 relief appearances. He completed 118 games and had 21 shutouts.
Willie Montanez, first baseman for the 1981-82 Pirates. He was already in his 13th season in the majors when the Pirates traded John Milner to the Montreal Expos to get him on August 20, 1981. Montanez had some strong seasons earlier in his career, including his rookie season in 1971 when he hit 30 homers and drove in 99 runs. He also had three straight seasons hitting over .300 from 1974-76. By 1981 however, he was nearing the end of his career, being used mostly off the bench with the Expos and not hitting well. MLB went on strike that season for two months starting in mid-June. When play resumed in early August, Montanez played just one game for the Expos before he was traded to the Pirates. In Pittsburgh in 1981, he had 38 at-bats in 29 games, hitting .263 with a solo homer that accounted for his only RBI. In 1982, Montanez was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter with the Pirates. When he was released in early June, he had played 36 games and only took the field four times, none as a starter. He signed with the Philadelphia Phillies a month later, where he finished his playing career at the end of the season. In 14 years, Montanez hit .275 with 139 homers and 802 RBIs in 1,632 games. Despite his big seasons and a long career, his poor defense led to a career 1.7 WAR mark. He had 1.9 WAR during his first full season in the majors, meaning that he put up -0.2 WAR in his other 13 seasons combined.
Montanez finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1971, losing out to Earl Williams of the Atlanta Braves, who received 18 of the 24 first place votes, which Montanez receiving the other six votes. While he dropped from 30 homers as a rookie down to 13 in his second full season in 1972, Montanez led the National League with 39 doubles. He then saw a drop in both stats in 1973, collecting just 16 doubles and 11 homers in 146 games. He reached the .300 mark for the first time in 1974, hitting .304 with 33 doubles and 79 RBIs. That was followed by a .302 average and 101 RBIs in 1975. The Phillies traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Garry Maddox early that season, then just over a year later, the Giants sent Montanez to the Atlanta Braves in a six-player deal. He ended up batting .317 while getting into 163 games, which led the league. He had 74 runs scored and 84 RBIs. The next year he would be part of an even bigger trade that involved the Pirates. Montanez batted .287 with 20 homers in 1977, leading to his only All-Star appearance. On December 8, 1977, four teams were involved in an 11-player deal. Montanez went to the New York Mets, while the Pirates acquired John Milner and Bert Blyleven, while giving up Al Oliver and Nelson Norman. Montanez hit .256 with 32 doubles, 17 homers and 96 RBIs in 1978. He then played for four different teams during the 1979-80 seasons, going from the Mets, to the Texas Rangers, to the San Diego Padres, to the Montreal Expos. He hit .256 with 13 homers and 71 RBIs in 1979, followed by a .272 average with 64 RBIs in 1980.
Jake Thies, pitcher for the 1954-55 Pirates. He served during WWII before his pro career started. Thies pitched three seasons for a Class-D team from Chanute, Kansas, to begin his minor league career. He had a 4.43 ERA in 63 innings as a rookie in pro ball in 1947 at 21 years old. In 1948, he went 13-12, 3.89 in 206 innings, before having a big season in 1949. That year he went 18-6, 2.57 in 217 innings. In 1950, he joined an affiliate of the Pirates, playing for York of the Interstate League, where he went 8-15, 3.51 in 172 innings. He remained in the Pirates farm system the next year, moving up to Charleston of the South Atlantic League, where he put together a 14-10, 3.30 record in 180 innings. The 1952 season was split between New Orleans of the Southern Association and Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League. He threw a total of 92 innings, seeing more time in relief. In 1953, Thies went 16-6, 2.43 in 196 innings for the Denver Bears of the Western League. His rights were still owned by New Orleans at that time, so when the Pirates purchased his contract on October 7, 1953, they were acquiring him from New Orleans. For Pittsburgh in 1954, he had a 3-9 record with a 3.87 ERA in 130.1 innings. He made 18 starts, 15 relief appearances, and all of his decisions came during his starts. On August 13, 1954, pitching the second game of a doubleheader against the Phillies, Thies threw his only big league shutout. Thies made the team out of Spring Training in 1955 and started the fourth game of the season on April 17th. He lost 10-3 to Johnny Podres and the Dodgers, giving up five runs in 3.2 innings, in what ended up being the last game of Thies’ big league career. He returned to the minors the next day, where he finished his playing career in 1956. He went 8-12, 4.08 in 172 innings for Columbus of the International League in 1955. On October 12, 1955, Thies was traded to New Orleans in exchange for pitcher Jackie Brown. Before he could pitch a game for them, he was traded to Hollywood. After just three relief appearances, Hollywood sent him back to Columbus, where he finished his career by going 4-10, 4.50 in 112 innings. Thies was a sidearm pitcher, whose real first name was Vernon, but he went by Jake.
Fred Mann, outfielder for the 1885-86 Pittsburgh Alleghenys. He made his pro debut in the majors at 24 years old, playing for the Worcester Ruby Legs of the National League in 1882. After just 19 games he was released and moved on to the Philadelphia Athletics of the newly formed American Association, a second Major League at the time. He hit .234 with 12 runs scored for Worcester, then batted .231 in 29 games for the Athletics. Mann next played two years for the Columbus Solons of the American Association before he was purchased by the Alleghenys in October of 1884. He was part of a deal where the Alleghenys purchased the entire Columbus roster, to the point that the 1885 Alleghenys were often referred to as the old Columbus team. Mann hit .249 in 96 games in 1883, scoring 61 runs. He batted .276 in 99 games in 1884, with 70 runs scored. He set career highs with 18 triples and seven homers (he hit just 12 career homers). That first season in Pittsburgh, he hit .253 with 41 RBIs and 60 runs scored in 99 games, spending almost all of his playing time in center field. There was talk in the off-season of trading Mann to the Cincinnati Red Stockings for veteran left fielder Charley Jones, with the local Pittsburgh papers noting that Mann was not a favorite of the Pittsburgh management, though the fans thought highly of him. In 1886, he hit .250 with 60 RBIs and 86 runs in 116 games, playing all but one of those games as a center fielder. He was second on the team in runs scored and third in RBIs, but when the Alleghenys moved to the National League for 1887, Mann stayed in the American Association, where he played just one more season. On January 14, Pittsburgh released him unconditionally after they failed to trade him. At the time, it was said that they were trying to sign Arlie Latham with the saved money, but that never happened. Splitting his time between the Cleveland Blues and the Philadelphia Athletics in 1887, he set career highs with a .293 average, 41 steals, 87 runs scored and 73 RBIs. He was traded to the St Louis (AA) in November of 1887, but he was released just prior to the 1888 season. Mann finished his playing career three years later in the minors. He played back in Columbus in 1888, for a team that was part of the Tri-State League. In 1889-90, he played for Hartford of the Atlantic Association.