It’s been an interesting three years for Pirates fans, who’ve watched the team go from collapsed contenders two years ago to legit contenders last year to whatever the hell you think they are now.
For those who hung in there for two-plus decades, last year was incredibly cathartic—not only for the club’s authoritative smashing of the worst losing streak in sports history, but as a sign that the organization was headed in the right direction. A well-built though slightly shallow mix of homegrown players and veterans brought in on the cheap got the job done, and gave the fan base a reason to hope for, if not expect, ongoing success.
And there’s the rub, right in that six-lettered-four-letter word: expect. You’d hope that after one indisputably successful year with so much promise visible in the club’s foreseeable future, people wouldn’t get greedy. A fan base coming off such a long run of abject humiliation should have at least a little humility—a sense of appreciation for the club’s transformation from nothing into something; a recognition that the process of creating something from nothing takes patience, time, leadership and sound decision-making.
But as the Pirates stood pat at the deadline, local outrage festered. It’s one thing to hear that outrage from fans, who, if we’re being honest, can be form some of society’s most aggressively ignorant mobs. The outrage from the local media is what proved the most distressing.
In print, Ron Cook brought his A-game and newly-crowned Trib sports lead columnist Rob Rossi showed signs of brain activity before drivinghis argument off a cliff. On the radio, The Fan’s Joe Starkey turned into a short-sighted, pitchfork-wielding crazyperson. Even online, where the entirely sensible Dejan Kovacevic, who just left the Trib to start his own subscription-onlywebsite dedicated exclusively to his coverage of Pittsburgh sports, misfired badly.
Here’s how this played out: in the hours leading up to Thursday afternoon’s non-waiver trading deadline, the Pirates were reported to be in the mix for stud lefties Jon Lester and David Price. Earlier reports said they’d talked to the Phillies about acquiring A.J. Burnett, Marlon Byrd and Antonio Bastardo. Some reports said Seattle was interested in Starling Marte, though the potential return was unclear. All reports of the Pirates interested in acquiring established, Major League talent said the asking prices were outrageous.
Price went to Detroit in a three-team deal, the framework of which had been in place for weeks. Lester went to Oakland with A’s general manager Billy Beane, who’d already dealt away most of his organization’s top prospects, making it very clearly known that he had every intention to take advantage of a weak year in the AL, the Red Sox and Rays well out of contention and the Yankees teetering on the brink of relevance.
By all accounts, the Pirates were prepared to dip into their substantial quiver of high-value prospects to make a deal, and likely offered to do so on at least two occasions. And through Price went for surprisingly little, it took a three-team deal to get Tampa the bare minimum to where it felt comfortable parting with Price.
After letting go of the underperforming Garrett Jones and letting Marlon Byrd and A.J. Burnett walk in the offseason—both signed absurd contracts with the Phillies—the Pirates were already facing an uphill battle going into this season. Burnett effectively ate a ton of innings for the club the last two years. He was a staff workhorse and team leader, and the Pirates probably erred in not calling his bluff and tendering him a qualifying offer in the face of his threats to retire. Francisco Liriano was so good last year that it was almost impossible to imagine him replicating the production—and staying healthy—this year. And Jason Grilli, whose peripheral numbers might as well have stood on a soap box in London’s Speakers’ Corner and proclaimed the end to be near, came back and was worse than anyone could have imagined (author’s note: I believe I had this)
This left the Pirates with more than a lot of production to make up in order to keep pace with last year’s team, and they replaced none of it in the offseason. Crunch any of the numbers that really matter and there was simply no way the Pirates could possibly match their 94-win total from last year, barring huge impact from call-ups, a few savvy trades and some wild over-performance from every pitcher in their employ.
The FTC Pirates season preview, written and published in April, had this year’s Pirates clocking in at 84 wins—enough to continue the winningness, but likely not enough to warrant a playoff spot coming out of the NL Central. They lost too much and didn’t do enough to replace what they lost.
After digging themselves into an early hole this season—their 18-26 record on May 20 came with a -25 run differential—the team played its way back to respectability, and were one of baseball’s hottest in June and July. Some argue that this rebound shows the team’s true quality, and that it should have been rewarded with trade deadline acquisitions. But in baseball, you are, for the most part, what the numbers say you are—neither the offense nor the pitching were really as bad as they looked the first two months, and the team made up that difference with a hot two months.
As of the writing of this post, the Pirates have a run differential of zero. They’ve scored the exact same number of runs they've allowed, which means they’re ostensibly a .500 team. And that’s what they are.
But some breaks have fallen their way lately and they’re actually six games over that mark. Whether it was this, the positive expectations after last season or, as I fear the most, a sense of entitlement following last season, there’s a widespread feeling of “what the fuck?” after the Pirates didn't make any moves in advance of the non-waiver trading deadline.
“Shame on you if you expected the Pirates to make a major move Thursday before the non-waiver trade deadline. That’s just not their way,” wrote Cook, the PG’s resident crank.
“Pittsburgh still needs something more from its Pirates. It needs a show of faith. It needs a statement. Landing Lester would have provided that faith. Paying for Price would have made a statement,” he wrote.
He’s not wildly off-base here. Getting one of those guys would have told the fans and the media that the team is serious for real. But to land Lester or Price and surrender high-value youngsters at a point when the team isn’t primed to make a serious run would be to try and change a light bulb while standing on the top part of the ladder which always comes clearly labeled, “THIS IS NOT A STEP.”
The Pirates were correct to stand their ground on deadline day. They have more talent from top to bottom than they have in more than 20 years, they have stars and potential stars locked in for the long term, and there’s more help on the way. There will come a time when it will be right to sacrifice prospects in the name of acquiring pieces to make a serious run, but now is not that time.
After the current management team brought the Pirates out of obscurity and into the limelight last year, these same writers lauded the management, praised their formula and preached retrospectively about the virtues of patience. Now, they’d do well to remember that the July deadline is never the end, that the organization is in shape to succeed like it hasn’t been in more than 30 years and perhaps most importantly, that they were the same ones whom last year wrote that the Pirates management, if anything, deserved a longer leash and some much-due trust. The writers and fans alike would do well to adhere to those notions
No Lester? No Price? No right-handed bat? No bullpen help?
The Pirates won’t get to the mountaintop this year, but they’re by no means going away.
*I have nothing but respect for Joe Starkey. When I was just a lowly student writer covering sports for The Pitt News, he was one of two pros who went out of his way to talk to and, in a way, mentor the student writers. He did this because he's a genuinely good guy. We sling a lot of mud on this blog and I want to make sure it's clear that Joe's not the target of any of it.
**The day Dejan's new website went online, I bought a year's subscription. There's nobody who's more consistently or thoughtfully on-point. I love Dejan's work ethic, his reporting, his writing and how much he "gets" the Internet. He's the best in the business.