It has been an odd season for the Pittsburgh Pirates and for fans of sustained misery; the long-benighted club is almost certain to break a losing-season streak that began in 1993, and if the season ended today they would even own one of the two National League wild card slots. Even if they don't hold on to make the October prom -- they have just a one-game lead over San Francisco and St. Louis and are only 5-9 in August -- there is no way to construe this season as anything but a huge success.
Yet, what if this season is a one-shot, and signifies a brief rising before another long night of darkness? Would it still be the same joyous occasion? Think of the 2003 Kansas City Royals, who broke a nine-season stretch of losing seasons by going 83-79. Sleeping Beauty awakens! Not so much. Three consecutive seasons of 100 losses followed, and the next winning season remains on the drawing board.
A more colorful, though not appropriately analogous example: the Philadelphia Phillies lost 90-100 games in 23 of 29 seasons from 1918-1947, but somehow went 78-76 in 1932. They lost 88 games the year before and 92 the year after, but fortune smiled on them for one brief summer. It meant nothing.
The Pirates have a roster that is not built to last. As ranked by Baseball Prospectus's Fair RA, their starting rotation has been only the tenth-most effective in the National League, while their bullpen has been the fourth-most effective. The starting rotation is old, with no member younger than 27, and that lone 27-year-old, James McDonald, has been pounded to the tune of an 8.71 ERA in his last six starts. As for the bullpen, Joel Hanrahan and pals have been great, but bullpens are such a fluid proposition that you can't count on them year to year; maybe next year's Pirates pen will be as good, but most likely a piece or two will fail.
The offense has been a strange bird. Andrew McCutchen is having what is probably the best season by a Pirates center fielder in the long history of the franchise. In April and May, the rest of the offense struggled to keep up with McCutchen, hitting just .218/.272/.346 and averaging only three runs per game. Thereafter, they rebounded hard, hitting. 267/.324/.453 and averaging five runs a game. Note that the average NL offense is hitting only .254/.318/.401 and scoring 4.3 runs per game. That has helped offset the pitching staff's decline, with the overall unit allowing only 3.5 runs per game during those offensively parched first 50 contests, but adding almost a full run in the games since. Will the real Pittsburgh Pirates please stand up?
The offense may well endure, built around still-young players like McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker, and perhaps the recently acquired Travis Snider and the rookie Starling Marte. The pitching staff, however, will need to be almost completely rewritten as soon as next year. A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez are under contract, but their reliability is suspect. McDonald will be arbitration-eligible, his reliability suspect as well. Jeff Karstens too will be eligible for arbitration and is a lock to go by the name Jeff Karstens again next year. Erik Bedard and Kevin Correia are free agents who will sail out of town on a golden parade float. Prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are coming, but perhaps not fast enough to fill in the gaps. As for the bullpen, well, you can sign, re-sign, decline, turpentine, Clementine, whatever you want, but there are no guarantees.
If the Pirates do make the postseason, it will be cause for celebration. It will be a huge step forward given the criminal neglect the organization suffered from for many years. Yet, there is likely no dynasty in the offing. Just more rebuilding. Consider this year of contention baseball's version of the premature orgasm: pleasant, sure, a kind of achievement that beats no release at all, but not the sustained pleasure that is the ideal. If you're the Pirates, you'll take it, but let's hope they also take the further steps necessary to seal the deal.