This Date in Pittsburgh Pirates History: April 1st, the Thompson and Pena Trades

Two Pittsburgh Pirates trades and five former players born on this date.

The Trades

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 185.2 innings over 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 163.1 innings over 23 starts, which led to him finishing second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting. He went 7-11, 3.92 in 170 innings 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 alone, and he was clearly the 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 that year. 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. Thompson lowered his value some due to poor defense, so his overall WAR with the Pirates was just 9.8 in five years, with nearly half of that total coming in 1982. Ott and Mahler had 0.9 WAR combined with the Angels.

The Players

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 signed too late to debut in 2006. He would pitch for four different affiliates during the 2007 season, with most of his time split between Staten Island of the short-season New York-Penn League and Charleston of the South Atlantic League, though he did briefly appear in Triple-A as well. Axford posted a 3.29 ERA and 67 strikeouts in 63 innings that year, but 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. He spent the entire 2008 season with Brevard County of the High-A Florida State League, where he went 5-10, 4.55 in 95 innings, playing in a pitcher-friendly league. He made 14 starts and 12 relief appearances that year, then moved to the bullpen full-time and took off. Axford had a 1.63 ERA in 19 appearances with Brevard County in 2009, then moved up to Huntsville of the Double-A Southern League, where he lasted just four games. That was followed by heading to Nashville of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he had a 5-0, 3.55 record and 37 strikeouts in 33 innings over 22 appearances. That was good enough to get him his first big league shot.

Axford pitched seven September games in relief for the 2009 Brewers, putting up a 3.52 ERA and nine strikeouts in 7.2 innings. He had an impressive season with the Brewers as a 27-year-old in 2010, despite spending part of the year back in Nashville. 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 86 strikeouts and 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. Despite the poor results, 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 2014 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 in 2015, 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, which ended his season. 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 over 50 appearances. He did much better with the Blue Jays, where he spent a majority of the season. His time in Los Angeles that year amounted to 3.2 innings over five games, with eight runs allowed. Axford was injured for almost the entire 2019 season, making just one rehab appearance in the minors for the Blue Jays. He sat out the entire 2020 season, then signed with the Blue Jays in June of 2021, where he put in 11.2 innings in the minors. He was sold to the Milwaukee Brewers on August 2nd, where he returned to the majors for the first time in three years. While it was a nice story, it didn’t go well, with him allowing two runs while recording one out. He injured his elbow in that game and missed the rest of the season. In 544 appearances in the majors, he has a 3.90 ERA and 589 strikeouts in 525.2 innings, with 144 saves. He has 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 Indianapolis of the International League 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 totaling 4.1 innings with Indianapolis. Kuwata made 19 relief 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. There was actually a nice streak of success in there after giving up two runs in his debut. Over the next three weeks, he allowed one run in 8.2 innings, then gave up seven runs while recording just two outs. His final outing on August 13th saw him allow five runs in one inning. He was put on waivers a short time later, then got 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, which ended his pro career.

Kuwata was a starting pitcher the entire time he played in Japan. He debuted at 18 years old and 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. During the 1989-91 seasons, Kuwata had a combined 47-24 record. He pitched a career high 249 innings in 1989, while posting a 2.60 ERA. That next year he lowered his ERA to 2.51, but the 1991 season saw that ERA jump to 3.16 in 227.2 innings. That’s still a good mark obviously, but it looks like a trend down now in hindsight. That was followed by a rough 1992 season in which he went 10-14, 4.41 in 210.1 innings. Kuwata had an 8-15, 3.99 record in 1993, then got back on track with a 14-11, 2.52 record in 1994. That year he set a career high with 185 strikeouts, even though he had four other seasons with more innings pitched. Before his injury, he had a 2.48 ERA in 65.1 innings in 1995. He went 10-7, 3.77 in 26 starts during his first season back (1997), then compiled a 16-5 record in 1998, despite a 4.08 ERA in 181 innings.

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 began to split his time being starting and relief in 1999, posting a 4.07 ERA in 141.2 innings. He had a 4.50 ERA in 2000 and pitched just 86 innings, dropped to a 4.83 ERA in 50.1 innings in 2001. His bounce back season in 2002 saw him go 12-6, 2.22 in 158.1 innings over 23 starts. 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 during those four season. His final season in Japan in 2006 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, along with 1,980 strikeouts. He made eight All-Star appearances and won eight Gold Glove awards during his time in Japan.

Willie Montanez, first baseman for the 1981-82 Pirates. He was signed by the St Louis Cardinals out of Puerto Rico just after his 17th birthday in 1965. He played his first season in the Florida Rookie League, where he hit .235 with no extra-base hits in 32 games. Despite poor numbers at the lower level, the California Angels selected him in the Rule 5 draft after the season and he went 0-for-2 with two runs and a steal in eight games in 1966 before being returned to the Cardinals. In the rest of 1966, Montanez played 93 games for Rock Hill of the Class-A Western Carolinas League, hitting .281 with 18 doubles, seven triples and 11 homers. In 1967, he played for St Petersburg of the Class-A Florida State League, where he batted .269 with 15 doubles, 17 triples, five homers, 61 RBIs and 58 walks in 134 games. The next year saw him play in his third different Class-A league, spending the season with Modesto of the California League. That year he hit .299 with a .783 OPS for Tulsa of the Triple-A American Association, but he was limited to just 46 games due to multiple injuries. The next year was even worse, as a leg injury ended his season in May after just 14 games. The Cardinals sent him in a trade to the Philadelphia Phillies just as the 1970 season was starting.

Montanez was back healthy in 1970, and he hit .277 in 119 games for Eugene of the Pacific Coast League, with 65 runs, 24 doubles, nine triples, 16 homers, 80 RBIs and an .831 OPS. He joined the Phillies in September and hit .240 with no extra-base hits and one walk in 26 plate appearances over 18 games. He was still Rookie of the Year eligible in 1971 and he made a run at the award by hitting .255 in 158 games, with 78 runs, 27 doubles, 30 homers, 99 RBIs and 67 walks, leading to a .798 OPS. He set career highs in runs, homers, RBIs, walks and OPS that season. 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. In 147 games, he hit .247 with 60 runs, 64 RBIs and a .725 OPS. He then saw another drop in power/production in 1973, collecting just 16 doubles and 11 homers in 146 games. He improved to a .263 average, but he dropped to a .694 OPS. The homers continued to drop in 1974, but he saw a nice rise in his average that season. He reached the .300 mark for the first of three straight years in 1974, hitting .304 with 55 runs, 33 doubles, seven homers and 79 RBIs, while posting a .753 OPS.

Montanez put up a .302 average, with 64 runs, 34 doubles, ten homers and 101 RBIs in 1975, which was split between two clubs. The Phillies traded him to the San Francisco Giants for Garry Maddox on May 4th. At the time of the deal, Montanez was batting .286 with 16 RBIs and a .767 OPS. After the trade, he hit .305 in 135 games, with a .769 OPS. He received mild MVP support for the only times in his career during the 1975-76 seasons, finishing 24th in the voting both times. Just over a year after he was acquired, the Giants sent Montanez to the Atlanta Braves in a six-player deal on June 13, 1976. He ended up batting .317 that year while getting into 163 games, which led the league. He had 74 runs scored, 29 doubles, 11 homers and 84 RBIs.  He would soon be part of an even bigger trade that involved the Pirates. Montanez batted .287 with 70 runs, 31 doubles 20 homers and 68 RBIs 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, giving up Al Oliver and Nelson Norman in the deal.

Montanez hit .256 with 66 runs, 32 doubles, 17 homers, 96 RBIs and 60 walks in his first season with the Mets in 1978. He then played for four different teams during the 1979-80 seasons, going from the Mets, to the Texas Rangers in 1979, then to the San Diego Padres and the Montreal Expos in 1980. He hit .256 with 55 runs, 25 doubles, 13 homers and 71 RBIs in 1979, followed by a .272 average with 40 runs, 22 extra-base hits and 64 RBIs in 142 games in 1980. Montanez was already in his 13th season in the majors when the Pirates traded John Milner to the Expos to get him on August 20, 1981. 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. He was batting .177 in 26 games prior to the trade. 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 was hitting .281 with one RBI at the time. He signed with the Phillies a month later, where he finished his playing career at the end of the season. He had 17 plate appearances in 18 games for the Phillies, collecting just one hit. In 14 years, Montanez hit .275 with 645 runs, 279 doubles, 139 homers and 802 RBIs in 1,632 games. Despite his big rookie year and run of strong seasons in the mid-70s, plus having 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.

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 in the Kansas-Oklahoma-Missouri League from Chanute, Kansas, to begin his minor league career. He had a 4.43 ERA and a 48:49 BB/SO ratio 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, with 169 strikeouts. In 1950, he joined an affiliate of the Pirates, playing for York of the Class-B 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 Class-A South Atlantic League, where he put together a 14-10, 3.30 record in 180 innings. His 81 walks that year led to his lowest walk rate at the time, and he would improve on his control the next year. The 1952 season was split between New Orleans of the Double-A Southern Association and Hollywood of the Pacific Coast League, which was considered to be an “open” level of play in 1952, but the talent was similar to Triple-A. He threw a total of 92 innings that year, going 2-5, 4.79 in ten starts and 18 relief appearances. His 3.9 walks per nine innings rate was the best of his career to that point, but it improved each of the next three seasons as he took a roller coaster ride through pro ball.

In 1953, Thies went 16-6, 2.43 in 196 innings for the Denver Bears of the Class-A Western League, dropping down in competition, which worked out well for his career. 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 Philadelphia Phillies, Thies threw his only big league shutout. He 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 Triple-A 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. He was pitching semi-pro ball in his home state of Missouri in 1957, then he played in the semi-pro Southern Minnesota League in 1958. 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, with 18 doubles and 13 triples. He batted .276 in 99 games in 1884, with 70 runs scored, 12 doubles, and career highs with 18 triples and seven homers (he hit just 12 career homers). His .805 OPS was also a career high. During his first season in Pittsburgh, he hit .253 with 17 doubles, six triples, 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 16 doubles, 14 triples, 60 RBIs, 26 steals and 85 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

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, 1887, Pittsburgh released him unconditionally after they tried and failed to trade him. At the time, it was said that they were trying to sign star third baseman Arlie Latham with the saved money, but that never happened. Mann split his time in 1887 between the Cleveland Blues (64 games) and the Philadelphia Athletics (55 games), combining to set career highs with a .293 average, 29 doubles, 41 steals, 87 runs scored and 73 RBIs. He was traded to the St Louis Browns of the American Association 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, while also seeing time with Charleston of the Southern League. In 1889-90, he played for Hartford of the Atlantic Association. Mann hit .252 in 215 games with the Alleghenys, finishing with 145 runs, 33 doubles, 20 triples, two homers and 101 RBIs. He was a .262 hitter in 577 games, with 388 runs, 104 doubles and 68 triples. RBIs and stolen bases weren’t tracked every year for his career, but he had 67 steals over his final two seasons and 181 RBIs, which is missing American Association stats during the 1882-84 seasons.