A Post-Mortem on the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates

While fans in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and a few other cities eagerly engulf themselves in the revelry of the playoffs and the baseball world is still abuzz about the spectacular crash & burns of the Red Sox & Braves, it is time once again for Pirate Nation to lower the Jolly Roger, spew a few meaningless “we’ll get ‘em next years”, and throw our passion full throttle into football season because the Steelers very rarely let us down.

 

It’s quite true that after 19 straight losing seasons long time Pittsburgh Pirates fans should be used to it. But this year was a bit different. As jaded as folks like me have become over the past two decades the Pirates did something in 2011 that they hadn’t in years: they gave us a brief glimmer of hope & anticipation. Alas it was all a mirage, like when a beautiful woman talks to you only because she is so drunk she can barely see or it’s a poorly conceived effort to make her cooler, better looking, wealthier boyfriend jealous.

 

After 100 games the Pirates were 6 games above .500 and…shockingly…in 1st place in the NL Central. Then umpire Jerry Meals came along.

 

At 1:50 a.m. on Wednesday July 27, home plate umpire Meals made quite possibly the worst call in the history of American sports. He called an Atlanta Braves player safe at the plate at the end of a grueling 19 inning classic, a player that was 100% clearly, undeniably, indisputably, unmistakably out, giving the Braves an unearned, tainted, hollow victory over the Pirates. Honest to God…Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Helen Keller, Ronnie Milsap, and Jeff Healey all would have called the player out. But not Jerry Meals. I am and will always be convinced that Meals was/is involved with gambling & organized crime and should have been fired by MLB on the spot. Unfortunately Commissioner Bud Selig is an insufferable tool so Meals is not amongst the 10% of Americans currently unemployed, which is a damn shame. Am I bitter?? Just a little bit.

 

At any rate the Pirates went 19-42 the remainder of the season, finishing in 4th place 24 games out and 18 games below .500.

Look, I am not a fool. I never for one second expected the Pittsburgh Pirates to win their division this season. I knew at some point that there would be a second half swoon. I even wrote as much here in this space. But before Meals and his blatant, dirty cheating came along I thought that meant the team would finish in 3rd place about 10 games back. Call me irrational, but the complete collapse that followed was both disappointing and somewhat surprising to this Humble Potentate of Profundity.

 

The good news is that the Pirates do seem to have a core in place to build around for the foreseeable future. 2B Neil Walker and outfielders Andrew McCutchen & Garrett Jones are budding stars. I like the potential of 3B Josh Harrison and outfielders Xavier Paul & Alex Presley, insomuch as having solid depth is important. The jury is still out on 3B Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata, both of whom must go into 2012 with the outlook that it is a make or break year. Their success will bring the Pirates one step closer to the goal. Their failure would be a significant setback.

 

I am not sold on one single pitcher on the staff. Not even All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan. This has been a major issue with the Pirates for many years. They just can’t seem to produce pitchers that would be any better than a 4th or 5th starter or middle reliever on most other major league ball clubs. The Pirates almost always have very high draft picks and have used a plethora of them on pitchers, with results ranging from unimpressive to disastrous. Starting with Kris Benson in 1996 and going down the line through Sean Burnett, John VanBenschoten, Bryan Bullington, and Daniel Moskos (currently a dime-a-dozen middle reliever), the track record is appalling. Youngsters James Taillon and Gerritt Cole are still in the farm system, but pardon my cynicism if I don’t put my money on either of them becoming the next Cliff Lee or Justin Verlander, which is exactly what the Pirates need. If they are to ever get over the hump they must…MUST…produce a top flight pitcher that would be in the conversation with names like Lincecum, Greinke, and Sabathia when speaking of the best in the business. They need Taillon and/or Cole to be that type of player, but history indicates that the odds of it happening are slim. I desperately want to be wrong about that.

 

The powers-that-be must go out and get atleast a few players with some pop in their bat. A power hitting 1B has been a glaring weakness for way too long. Catching prospect Tony Sanchez is another player that needs to come through at a position of need. A .244 team batting average ain’t gonna get it done, especially with the lack of quality pitching to balance things out. Some of these issues are best addressed through the draft and bringing up home grown players through the ranks, but it is also high time the Pirates become buyers in the free agent market. The self-loathing defeatist attitude that the Pittsburgh Pirates cannot attract big time free agents must change. In my opinion pitching must come from the draft & the system, while signing a couple of free agent .300 hitters capable of jacking 30+ home runs is a realistic goal and needs to be a priority.

 

So is there hope?? Of course. There is always hope. I might even go so far as to say there is reason for optimism. But I am also a realist, and two decades of futility have robbed me (and many others) of any notion that the Pittsburgh brass has the capability to get the job done right. Prove me wrong suits…prove me wrong.

 

 

 

 

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