The Pittsburgh Pirates are my spirit animal. The Giants are the team I grew up with, but the Pirates are a team that's always in the corner of my eye. My therapist tells me this is because of latent guilt that comes with the Giants signing Barry Bonds away, foisting the Matt Morris contract on them, taking Freddy Sanchez and using him to win the World Series, taking Jason Schmidt, and giving them the bad Ryan Vogelsong and using the good Ryan Vogelsong a decade later to win a different World Series. But I think that's kind of a stretch.
Because of this quiet fascination, I spent a lot of 2011 and 2012 writing about the Pirates. I couldn't stop. Even after they broke my heart -- in a not-that-serious-of-a-fan kind of way, mind you -- I kept coming back. I broke up with them. I came back. And when they grabbed Ozzie Virgil by the hand and took a trip through the pits of baseball hell in the second half, I slowly backed away. I didn't want to write about it. Too depressing.
It's safe to write about them again now, I think. They would have to go 16-38 over the last two months not to finish .500 for the first time since Barry Bonds left. I know Pirates fans don't give a rip about the .500 thing when there's a playoff berth is in sight, but I do. That's the demarcation line between dirigible fire and solid season. I think for the first time in decades, there will not be a dirigible fire in Pittsburgh. Don't pop the cork yet, but figure out a way to keep that stuff cold. The Pirates just beat the Cardinals four times in a rare five-game series. The Cardinals are a really, really good team.
But so are the first-place Pirates. Crazy.
Which means it's about time to see how they got here. For 20 years, the Pirates thought they were building a respectable team, but they were spectacularly wrong. Let's see how they got it right:
The #11 pick is a historic anomaly. Every pick before it does well traditionally. Most of the picks after it do much better. But at #11, there was Greg Luzinski, Walt Weiss and not much else.
So for the Pirates, who were a team that could have screwed up 37 consecutive first-round picks just a couple of years ago, to get value from the #11 pick is something of a coup. They drafted Andrew McCutchen #11 in what is almost certainly going to be remembered as the best amateur draft in history. That was a good choice.
There are four first-round picks up there. The Rays aren't the Rays if they miss with David Price and Evan Longoria, so it doesn't matter how smart you are if you keep biffing first-rounders. The Pirates kept finding a way. Jason Kendall was their biggest success, but after that was Kris Benson. After that was Paul Maholm. That's hard to do when you had as many picks in the first half of the draft.
McCutchen is the franchise player. Walker is the complementary piece. Alvarez is rewarding the team's patience. And Gerrit Cole is the first pitcher to not get weird on the Pirates since … heck, John Candelaria. The bullpen pieces are a nice touch, too. Most good teams get a couple of those with their drafts.
International free agents
This is a surprisingly sparse list. Just Marte. But Marte is a hacker's hacker with a full toolbox, and the Pirates have somehow turned that into Raul Mondesi in his prime. That would have never happened in 2001. They would have screwed him into the ground, and he would have emerged a decade later to be productive for another franchise.
They started the season with Jonathan Sanchez in the rotation, you know. My favorite thing this season from the Pirates' perspective has been Francisco Liriano. He was a left-handed Matt Harvey or Jose Fernandez at one point, remember -- the most electric young pitcher in the game. For the Pirates to take the risk and have it pay off? Unheard of. But beautiful.
Russell Martin is the most expensive free agent in Pirates history. That is still amazing to me. Even more amazing: He's one of the very best free agents in Pirates history. Barmes is a dud, but the Pirates made up for that tenfold with Martin and Liriano.
Minor-league free agents
Another sparse list, but an important one. Here were Grilli's stats when he was released by the Philiies:
Huh. I … huh. Can't have someone like that screwing up your plans, Phillies. Good work.
The Pirates were smart and jumped on him. Garrett Jones, on the other hand, was a complete fluke. Look at his minor-league stats and tell me where the Pirates should have seen that coming. With every good team, there's a little serendipity. The Pirates never had that.
Goodness, that's a long list. Nate McLouth is responsible for two of those players. And some of the other ones haven't worked out just yet. But that's a healthy return from win-now and win-later trades. The Wandy and Snider trades were especially inspired, as they were both win-now and win-later trades. The Snider trade hasn't worked out just yet, but it was still a good gamble.
Everything that's working for the 2013 Pirates would have been screwed up if the 2001 Pirates tried it. Marte would have stalled in Double-A. McCutchen would have been traded for Brandon Wood. Burnett would have been Matt Morris, and Liriano would have been Rich Harden. And there would have been Ronny Cedenos, literal and metaphorical, everywhere.
The real surprise is that there hasn't been one of these teams snuck in there all along. But it's happening now. Didn't see that coming. Here's to a Pirates/Orioles World Series, everyone.