PITTSBURGH - APRIL 05: Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits a eighth inning double while playing the Los Angeles Dodgers during the Home Opener for the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 5, 2010 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pittsburgh won the game 11-5. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
I don't think it's too arrogant or presumptuous to think that I speak for all non-Pirates fans out there when it comes to the 2011 Pirates. By which I mean, ho man, we were all rooting for them. Even Brewers and Cardinals fans, partisan as they might be, had to think something like, "Well, if we don't win this thing, it would be pretty cool if the Pirates won it." We were all rooting for the Pirates so danged hard.
It didn't work out. And we can all remember exactly when things went south.
Wait, no. Just after that.
There we go. The Pittsburgh Pirates were tied for the NL Central lead when that game started. If Jerry Meals makes the right call, do the Pirates win the division? Ha ha ha, no, but it's at least a nice, clean demarcation line between the Pirates we weren't expecting and the Pirates we were expecting. Before the game in question, the Pirates were 53-47. It looked like all sorts of things were finally, finally, finally going right for them. After that game, the Pirates went 19-43, which is bad by Washington Generals standards.
This will likely be the 20th consecutive year that the Pirates finish under .500, extending a record in professional sports. Think of all the feckless franchises in sports history -- the pre-war Phillies, the Arizona Cardinals, the Golden State Warriors -- and then note that not a single one of them went 20 straight years without winning more than they lost. Every team backs into a season every 10 or 20 years where everything goes right. Every team but the Pirates.
Which means this is the 20th consecutive year where it's more useful to separate the Pirates into "will be good in three years" and "probably won't be good in three years" than do a season preview. Want a season preview? The Pittsburgh Pirates might finish fourth, but anything more than that is a big, big stretch. Copy, paste. Copy, paste. Copy, paste.
But I firmly believe in the Fable of the 2003 Tigers, which taught us that even the worst teams in history can turn it around in three seasons. And the Pirates aren't one of the worst teams in history. They're just the Pirates, which is to say that they're a mix of interesting building blocks for the future, tweener players who might be more useful to stronger teams, and veterans who will probably be shuffling on soon. This has been true for a couple of decades.
Here's how the 2012 Pirates are a little different, though: They're doing an alright job of avoiding the completely awful players in major-league baseball. I can construct a 25-man roster for the Pirates and make an argument that all 25 belong in the major leagues, holding the exact position they are expected to hold for the Pirates. That is, James McDonald should be a starting pitcher somewhere. Alex Presley should be given a left-field job to prove his 2011 numbers weren't a mirage. It seems like it's been a while since you could say that about the Pirates. It used to be that there was always a Jose Castillo or Chris Duffy sneaking on the roster.
But it's still a season for the Pirates to figure out what they have. They know what they have in Andrew McCutchen. They think they know what they'll have in Jose Tabata and Neil Walker. They hope they'll have something in Pedro Alvarez, and they're going to give him several seasons to find out. That leaves the goal of the 2012 team to figure out what they should expect from players like Presley, Josh Harrison, and Chase d'Arnaud, or James McDonald, Brad Lincoln, and Jeff Locke.
There will be other players around for this year, ostensibly to make the team better in the short term, like A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard, and that's fine. There's no shame in putting the most respectable team together you can manage, and both Burnett and Bedard offer better immediate returns than if the Pirates were going to rush Kyle McPherson to the majors. The same applies to Rod Barajas and Tony Sanchez.
But there should be a long list of players that the Pirates are willing to ditch at the first inclination that there's a better option who might be around in three years. If McPherson or Sanchez start showing that they belong in the majors, the Pirates need to figure out a shelter where they can drop off Bedard or Barajas. Same goes with Brad Lincoln vs. Kevin Correia. Some of the different contracts might make that tricky, but the Pirates should continue figuring out who has a future in Pittsburgh.
Again. They should do this again. They've been doing some variation of this strategy for a while. It hasn't worked for 20 years.
I don't believe in curses, though, and as much as I like using tautologies like "Pirates gonna Pirates" in place of actual analysis, I don't really believe that the Pirates are doomed to act in some sort of preordained Pirates-sort of way. The McCutchen contract seems like it could be an easy demarcation line, just like the Jerry Meals game. You know that it can't be wholly responsible for everything that follows, but it makes sense to use it as the basis of a clean before/after timeline.
The Pirates will have a fan-favorite star to build around for the next few years. That's their window. He wants to be there. There's talent coming up from the organization. The Pirates aren't in a great spot, but there are more than a couple of teams in worse spots.
Woulda Shoulda Coulda (Move they didn't make)
There's still time to do it, but it might have been a good idea for the Pirates to let teams like the Royals or Red Sox sniff around the back end of their rotation, offering up Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, or Charlie Morton for a fair price. Not because other teams should be clamoring for that sort of help, but because the Pirates could probably stand to free up a rotation slot for a project like Lincoln or McPherson. The Burnett and Bedard moves make a lot more sense if they're paired with someone from the bottom of the rotation leaving.
Pedro Alvarez is … the thing about Pedro Alvarez … you have to figure that Pedro Alvarez … hell, I don't know. He was pretty good in 2010. He was a sensibly priced Adam Dunn last year. It's not overly dramatic to think that he's the canary in the coal mine for the Pirates' chances to succeed with this bunch in the next three years. If Alvarez really does go the way of Brandon Wood, the Pirates will probably keep losing. If he turns into what he was projected to be, though, there's a great chance he'll be a part of the first good Pirates team since Jameson Taillon learned to walk.
Under .500. You read it here first. But they shouldn't be under .500 by that much. I also think this is the year that Brad Lincoln is good, if only because I say so. I like his combination of command and stuff too much.