On a slow day for Pittsburgh Pirates birthdays and transactions, we have just two players to talk about, one minor trade and one significant signing. The one transaction and the older player have a nice tie-in to each other though, so at least that worked out well.
Ildemaro Vargas, infielder for the 2021 Pirates. He was signed by the St Louis Cardinals out of Venezeula in 2008, shortly before his 17th birthday. He spent his first two seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League, where he hit .231 over 12 games during his first year, followed by a .264 average and 12 extra-base hits in 52 games in 2009. In 2010, he played his first of two straight seasons in the Gulf Coast League. He hit .239 with nine extra-base hits, 15 RBIs and a .680 OPS in 34 games in 2010. Vargas then batted .289 with 14 extra-base hits and a .786 OPS in 43 games in 2011. He started the 2012 season in High-A ball with Palm Beach of the Florida State League, but after hitting .364 in seven games, he dropped down three levels to Johnson City of the short-season Appalachian League. He hit .322 with 42 runs and 21 extra-base hits in 59 games, then moved up to Batavia of the New York-Penn League to finish the season. He played winter ball in Venezuela, batting .286 in limited at-bats over 20 games. Vargas played Low-A ball in 2013 with mediocre results, posting a .248 average and a .610 OPS in 115 games with Peoria of the Midwest League. That was followed by another winter in Venezuela, where he went 0-for-23 at the plate.
In 2014, Vargas spent the majority of the year back in Palm Beach, where he posted a .241 average and a .564 OPS in 120 games in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League. He also went 0-for-10 in eight games with Springfield of the Double-A Texas League. He split the 2015 season between independent ball and Low-A (Kane City of the Midwest League) for the Arizona Diamondbacks. He batted .321/.385/.438 in 86 games with Kane County, while posting a .634 OPS in 30 games for Bridgeport of the Atlantic League. Something clicked for Vargas over winter, as he hit .335 in 51 games while playing in Venezuela. More than half of the 2016 season was spent with Mobile of the Double-A Southern League, where he hit .276 in 83 games, with 41 runs, 21 extra-base hits, and he was 8-for-8 in steals. He would end up playing the rest of the 2016 season in the very hitter-friendly Reno of the Triple-A Pacific Coast League, where he hit .354/.418/.450 in 49 games. After batting .305 in 54 games in Venezuela over the 2016-17 winter, he was back in Reno in 2017, where he hit .312 in 113 games, with 87 runs, 35 doubles, ten homers and 65 RBIs. He made his big league debut that same year and went 4-for-13 in 12 games.
Vargas got another brief trial in the majors in 2018, playing 14 games for the Diamondbacks, in which he had a .618 OPS in 20 plate appearances. The rest of the year was spent in Reno, where he batted .311 in 124 games, with 78 runs, 48 extra-base hits and 54 RBIs. In 2019, he earned a big league bench job and hit .269 with 25 runs, nine doubles, six homers and 24 RBIs in 92 games, with 28 of his 35 starts coming at shortstop. He played 28 games at Reno that year, putting up a .403 average and a 1.025 OPS. During the shortened 2020 season, he saw time with the Diamondbacks, Minnesota Twins and Chicago Cubs, hitting .196 with one homer, three RBIs and a .536 OPS in 24 games. He began 2021 with the Cubs, before the Pirates selected him on waivers on May 17th. He spent 16 days with the Pirates before being sold to the Diamondbacks. In that brief time in Pittsburgh, he went 1-for-13 at the plate with a single and no walks. He made one start each at third base and left field. In 34 games spread over three teams in 2021, he hit .156/.217/.221 in 83 plate appearances. He became a free agent after the season and signed with the Cubs, where he split his brief time between Triple-A Iowa of the International League and ten games in the majors. He became a free agent in late May and signed with the Washington Nationals, where he has been playing for Triple-A Rochester of the International League. Through early July of 2022, he has a .227 big league average in 186 games, with 48 runs, 14 doubles, nine homers and 46 RBIs.
Howdy Caton, shortstop for the Pirates from 1917 until 1920. He played three years in the minor leagues before the Pirates called him up in September of 1917 to make his Major League debut. He debuted in pro ball at 20 years old, playing for Portsmouth of the Class-D Ohio State League. Caton hit .305 in 102 games, with 28 extra-base hits. The next year he played for Birmingham of the Southern Association, jumping up three levels of the minor league ladder. He struggled his first year in the better league, hitting .213 with 22 extra-base hits in 135 games. He remained in Birmingham during the 1917 season, where he hit .256 with 22 doubles, seven triples and three homers in 148 games as the team’s everyday shortstop. His contract was purchased by the Pirates on August 15, 1917, but he didn’t debut right away. When the season ended for Birmingham, Howdy (real name was James) and three of his teammates joined the Pirates. On September 17, 1917, the Pirates put Caton at shortstop, batting in the lead-off spot for his Major League debut. His teammates from the minors, Bill Webb and Red Smith also made their Major League debut that day. Caton didn’t do so well that first game, going 0-for-6 at the plate, while handling all three plays in the field hit his way. It was not an envious position for him to be in at that time, as he was trying to fill the hole at shortstop left by Honus Wagner moving to first base during his final season in the majors.
Caton played 14 games that first year for the Pirates, hitting .211 with a double, two triples, four RBIs and six runs scored. In 1918, he was the team’s everyday shortstop until the end of July. Caton hit .234 with 37 runs scored, 12 extra-base hits, 17 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 80 games. The Pirates acquired light-hitting minor league veteran shortstop Roy Ellam in the middle of July and he took over as the regular shortstop to finish the season, which was shortened due to the ongoing war. Howdy started the first four games of the season at shortstop in 1919, before becoming a bench player for the rest of the year. He saw very limited time, except for a stretch of 13 straight starts at third base in July. He hit .176 with 13 runs, five RBIs and a .489 OPS in 39 games that year. He actually left the club late in the season without permission. In 1920, he was the starting shortstop for most of the year and responded with his best season at the plate. However, at the end of the year, the Pirates tried out a new shortstop named Pie Traynor, who played everyday from mid-September on. Caton left the Pirates for a time in early September that year because he was upset with the fans for getting on him when he couldn’t handle some hot shots hit his way. On September 14th, he was released on waivers to the Cincinnati Reds, who sold him to the Brooklyn Dodgers in the off-season, though he never played pro ball again, instead taking up semi-pro ball in his hometown of Zanesville, Ohio. Caton played all 231 of his Major League games in a Pirates uniform, finishing with .226 average with 85 runs, 18 doubles, 16 troples, 56 RBIs and no home runs. While “Howdy” is the recognized nickname for him now, it was hardly how he was often referred, especially not in Pittsburgh. When he first joined the Pirates his nickname was given as “Kid”. After the local press got a look at his small stature, standing 5’6″, 165 pounds, he got the nickname “Midget”. He became known as Buster Caton and that was used more often than not in print during his time with the Pirates. The Howdy nickname was more of a hometown nickname.
On this date in 1918, the Pirates traded seldom-used third baseman Gus Getz to the minor leagues for shortstop Roy Ellam. Getz was a major league veteran of seven seasons and a native of Pittsburgh, who had played just seven games for the Pirates since coming over two months earlier in a waiver claim from the Cleveland Indians. Ellam was a minor league veteran, having played just ten Major League games up to that point, all with the 1909 Cincinnati Reds. At age 32, he had spent the last ten years playing in the Southern Association (seven years with Birmingham, three with Nashville) before moving on to Indianapolis to end the year. The minor league schedule was completed early that season due to the war, so when this deal was made, Getz never actually got a chance to play for Indianapolis. It not only marked the end of his season, it was also the end of his Major League career. Ellam took over shortstop in Pittsburgh from Howdy Caton and hit just .130 over 26 games. When the 1919 season started, Ellam was back in the minors, never returning to the big leagues.
On this date in 1969, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed 22-year-old pitcher Kent Tekulve as an amateur free agent out of Marietta College. As a senior he posted an 0.94 ERA, but still needed to compete at a tryout at Forbes Field to earn his first pro contract after everyone passed over him in the draft. It took Tekulve just under five years to make it to the majors. Despite debuting after his 27th birthday, he pitched 16 seasons in the majors and threw in 1,050 games. For the Pirates, he ended up with 70-61, 2.68 record in 722 appearances, picking up 158 saves, while throwing 1,017.1 innings.