This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: March 14th, Kenny Lofton Signs with the Pirates

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 of a 2002 season in which he put up 3.9 WAR, while hitting .261 with 72 walks and 29 stolen bases, splitting the year between the Chicago White Sox and San Francisco Giants. Despite the strong season, 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. His time in Pittsburgh was valued at 1.7 WAR.

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 of the Midwest League and put up nearly identical stats, finishing with a .692 OPS in 78 games in 1999 and a .694 OPS in 133 games in 2000. Kata hit .261 in 1999, with 40 runs scored, 22 extra-base hits and 33 RBIs. In 2000, he batted .255 with 82 runs, 22 doubles, nine triples, six homers, 59 RBIs and 52 walks. He had an interesting time running the bases in South Bend, going 5-for-11 in steals during his rookie year, followed by 38 steals in 50 attempts in 2000. He had his breakout in 2001, albeit playing in a very hitter-friendly park/league. Kata batted .296 in 119 games, with 80 runs, 19 doubles, ten homers, 54 RBIs and 30 steals in High-A Lancaster of the California League. That earned him a late promotion to Double-A El Paso of the Texas League, where he reached base nine times in four games. All of 2002 was spent at El Paso, where he hit .298 in 136 games, with 95 runs scored, 33 doubles and 11 homers. He stole just 12 bases (in 19 attempts) and back-to-back 30+ steals seasons. Kata put up a .775 OPS in 48 games with Tuscon of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League in 2003 before getting promoted to the majors in mid-June. That OPS was slightly above average in the hitter-friendly league.

Kata played 78 games during his rookie season with the Diamondbacks, hitting .257 with 16 doubles, five triples, seven homers and 27 RBIs, while scoring 42 runs. He played shortstop full-time during his first two seasons of pro ball, before switching to second base as his primary position in 2001, though he still occasionally played shortstop and third base. He was the starting second baseman for Arizona through the end of May in 2004, before dislocating his shoulder, which ended his season. At the time of the injury, he was batting .247 in 42 games, with 17 runs, 13 extra-base hits, 13 RBIs and 13 walks. Kata started the 2005 season in the majors as a bench player, starting just three of Arizona’s first 53 games of the season. He got sent to Triple-A in early June, then was recalled in late June, before getting traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. He played games in July/August and September with the Phillies, but he got into just ten games total, spending the rest of his time in Triple-A. Between both big league 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. With Louisville of the International League that year, he hit .263 in 113 games, with a .747 OPS. 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 with Indianapolis of the International League, they called him up to Pittsburgh. He played 47 games over the rest of 2007, getting 90 plate appearances with a .250 average, nine extra-base hits and ten RBIs, although he didn’t draw a single walk, resulting in a .645 OPS. He saw starts at second base, third base, shortstop and left field, while also making one appearance late in a game in right field. Despite getting starts at four different spots, he only started 12 games total.

The Pirates allowed Kata 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 Indianapolis, where he spent the entire 2008. In 118 games that year, he hit .245 with 50 runs, 32 extra-base hits, 45 RBIs and 18 steals. Kata signed with the Houston Astros in 2009, and split the season between the majors and Triple-A Round Rock of the Pacific Coast League. In Houston that year, he hit .200 in 40 games (52 plate appearances), with one extra-base hit (a double) and no walks, resulting in a .432 OPS. He then spent three seasons (2010-12) in Round Rock before retiring. He was still in the Astros system in 2010, but Round Rock switched affiliate and his final two years were spent back with the Texas Rangers. He was a .239 career hitter in 278 Major League games, with 89 runs, 37 doubles, 12 homers and 63 RBIs. Despite multiple 30+ stolen base seasons in the minors, he had just nine steals (in 13 attempts) in the majors.

Earl Smith, center fielder for the 1955 Pirates. He signed with the Pirates as an amateur free agent in early 1949 at 21 years old. That year in Class-C ball with Keokuk of the Central Association, he hit .324 in 69 games, with 19 extra-base hits and 32 walks (he’s credited with just four strikeouts, though that could be wrong because he never approached that kind of contact skill any other season). He was used as a pitcher for a brief time, allowing 17 runs in 15 innings and three appearances, 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 with Modesto of the California League, this time playing 139 games. He quite the impressive year, finishing with 118 runs, 30 doubles, 19 homers, 100 RBIs, 47 steals and 101 walks. He got a nice promotion in 1951, splitting the year between Class-B with Waco of the Big State League, and Double-A with New Orleans of the Southern Association. He combined to hit .259 in 70 games, with 12 doubles and 14 homers. In 1952-53, Smith spent two full seasons with Charleston of the Class-A South Atlantic League. He batted .243 with 22 doubles, seven triples and five homers in 140 games in 1952, then batted .244 with 13 extra-base hits, 21 RBIs and 40 walks in 69 games in 1953.

After three straight seasons in which his batting average hovered around the .250 mark, Smith was sent back to Class-C ball in 1954, where he hit .387 with 35 doubles, 11 triples, 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 also had a strong Spring Training, winning a roster slot with a .391 average through the middle of spring action. The local Pittsburgh papers noted that he had a .919 fielding percentage in the outfield in 1954 and he was coming from Class-C ball, so they weren’t quite sold on his spring performance.  He would start five games in center field for the Pirates over the first two weeks of the season before being returned to the minors. Smith was named a platoon starter right before the season started, splitting his time with Tom Saffell, who would get all of the at-bats against right-handed pitchers, while the right-handed batting Smith would get the lefty pitchers. Smith ended up collecting 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 had a decent OBP comparatively, drawing four walks and a hit-by-pitch in his five games.

Smith was sent to New Orleans on May 4th, ending his big league career. On June 13, 1955, the Pirates sold him to Lincoln of the Class-A 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. He debuted in pro ball as a teenager in 1888, splitting his first season between Binghamton and Jersey City of the Central League. He had previous pitching experience in semi-pro ball for a team called the Ridgways, playing in the Mountain League (he was from Ridgway, Pa.). He won 13 of his 14 starts in the league. He also played college ball at Bucknell. He has no minor league pitching stats available, but he was reportedly so good that Jersey City paid $800 to acquire him mid-season from Binghamton, a high price at the time for a minor league team. Rhines then did great work with Davenport of the Central Interstate League in 1889, which got the notice of the Cincinnati Reds, who signed him and his catcher from Davenport, Jerry Harrington. After two seasons of minor league ball, Rhines started his Major League career in 1890 at 21 years old with a bang, winning 28 games and leading the National League with a 1.95 ERA in 401.1 innings. He also tossed six shutouts that season, nearly half of his career big league total. In an interesting note from that era, it was said that mid-season he complained of a sore arm and manager Tom Loftus used him anyway, saying that sore arm pitchers always do better. He had 182 strikeouts as a rookie, a career high and the sixth most in the league. Rhines posted a solid 2.87 ERA in 372.1 innings the following season, but the Reds finished 56-81 that year and his record finished at 17-24. It was said that he pitched in a lot of bad luck during his first two seasons, with the team committing more errors behind him and they always came back to bite the team. He had a much better ERA than pitching great Old Hoss Radbourn, but the Hall of Famer finished with a slightly better record. That pitching staff also had Tony Mullane, a pitcher who should be in the Hall of Fame. Mullane also had a better winning percentage with a higher ERA.

The overwork in his first two seasons at a young age got to Rhines and his 1892 stats suffered. He 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 back 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). That peak for offense trickled into the 1895 season before pitchers fully adjusted. His ERA was just 0.04 above league average at the time. Rhines did the best at adjusting, leading the National League again in ERA in 1896, with a 2.45 mark in 143 innings. He went 8-6 that year in 17 starts and two relief outings. In 1897, he had a 21-15, 4.08 record 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. He started 222 of his 248 games, ending up with 187 complete games and 13 shutouts.

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. At 21 years old in 1871, 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, though he still scored 48 runs. He mostly played first base during his first three seasons, but in 1874 it was his only position. He did not play during the final season of the National Association. When the National League started in 1876, Mack played for the St Louis Brown Stockings, where he hit .217 in 48 games, with 32 runs scored, five doubles and his first career homer. He then spent the next three seasons in the minors before resurfacing in 1880 with the Buffalo Bisons of the National League. Almost no starts are available from the 1877-79 seasons, though we know that he moved around a lot, playing for Indianapolis of the League Alliance in 1877, Syracuse and Buffalo of the International Association in 1878, and then Utica, Springfield and Washington of the National Alliance in 1879.

After joining Buffalo in 1880, Mack batted .203 in 17 games, with five walks and no extra-base hits. 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 Association came along in 1882, it doubled the available big league jobs. Mack returned to pro ball in 1882 with the Louisville Eclipse oif the American Association as a player-manager, where he hit .182 in 72 games. Both his walk and power totals were low, resulting in a .429 OPS. In his lone season with the Alleghenys, Mack played shortstop, first base and some second base, hitting .196 in 60 games, with 13 walks, five doubles and three triples. 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, 309 runs scored and a .544 OPS. 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.