An Honest Evaluation of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

Monday September 23, 2013 was the perfect microcosm of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates and my feelings about their season. The Pirates had ppjust defeated the Chicago Cubs and the talking heads on Root Sports seemed to be finishing up their coverage as usual when they made mention that they were going to remain on the air for awhile longer. I forget exactly what was said but there seemed to be some vibe of anticipation. I soon found out that if the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Washington Nationals the Pirates would clinch a wild card spot and play in the post-season for the first time in over two decades. But wait…I was confused. We are hoping that the Cardinals win?? Huh?? At the time the Pirates were only 2 games behind the Cards with five games remaining. A division title was still very much within reach. Tough yes…but more than doable. A Cardinals loss that night would have cut the lead down another half game, and yet here Pirate Nation was hoping for a Nationals loss so we could be assured atleast a 3rd place finish. After the Cards won and the wild card was clinched the Pirates’ players & coaches were shown in the locker room jumping & screaming and popping champagne bottles as if they’d just won The World Series, when in reality all they’d won was 3rd place. Not only was I left cold, I was viscerally angry. Champions don’t celebrate 3rd place.

As it turns out the Pirates ended up finishing second in the division and hosted the Cincinnati Reds in MLB’s new play-in game. I guess they officially classify it as the first round of the playoffs, but let’s be honest…it’s a play-in game and shouldn’t really be considered part of the playoffs. Even though the Pirates won that contest I have still decided that I am not a fan of this play-in game. I bet fans of the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians would agree. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig escapes being the biggest joke in professional sports only because that idiot Roger Goodell exists. I’ll be ecstatic when they both go away. The Pirates went on to lose a divisional playoff series to the Cardinals in 5 games. The two games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh saw boisterous sold-out crowds who had been starving for success on the baseball field for so long that they were deliriously happy to support their Buccos, but unfortunately the last of those sell-outs went to waste when the Pirates ran into a buzz saw named Michael Wacha, a rookie pitcher who threw a 1 hitter and pushed the series to a deciding 5th game in St. Louis. I knew then that the season was over. That Game 4 was the golden opportunity to move on and it didn’t happen. There was no way that the Cardinals were going to lose an elimination game at home with ace Adam Wainwright on the mound. Zero chance.

Pittsburgh-Pirates-ballpa-001So now the Pirates’ season is over and the question is…can it be defined as being successful?? There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball and only 1 of them is left standing holding the World Series trophy, so by definition 29 teams fall short of the goal. However, for many there are various levels of success. For the Pirates ending two decades of futility and playing post-season baseball for the first time since I was in college and Bill Clinton was in The White House should certainly qualify as a huge step in the right direction. The years of completely rebuilding over & over again look like they are done. A solid foundation is in place and now it is just a matter of doing some tweaking. I am reading a lot of things in the news and on social media about the Pirates great season and I cannot argue the point. But at the same time I do not think that they are yet on the level of really good teams like the Cardinals, Braves, Red Sox, Yankees, & Dodgers. I wouldn’t be shocked if the Pittsburgh Pirates get over the hump and win their division in 2014…but I’d be equally as unsurprised if they win 82 games and finish in 4th place, which a year ago would have been acceptable but a year from now just won’t be satisfactory. Now is the time for the front office, the players, the coaches, and the fans to decide…is this good enough?? Is it okay to have a winning record & secure a wild card but have no realistic opportunity to genuinely compete with the truly elite teams?? I mean sure, it beats finishing in the cellar, being the butt of jokes, and the season essentially being over by the All-Star break. But I guess I am a bit greedy. I want more. I sincerely believe this team can achieve more.

I think the Pirates can do better than having 36 year old AJ Burnett, with a 10-11 record and a 3.3 ERA, as the ace of their pitching staff. Gerritt Cole needs to seize that role and become the Pittsburgh equivalent of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, or Clayton Kershaw. I give the suits credit for pulling the trigger on trades that brought first baseman Justin Morneau and outfielder Marlon Byrd to Pittsburgh, but both are band-aids at best. Byrd has reached the end of a 1 year contract but I wouldn’t mind seeing him stick around another season as an extra bat. Morneau, on the other hand, seems far removed from the skill & talent he had when named the American League MVP in 2006 and I am not sure he is worth the price tag or a roster spot. I think the Pirates can do better than oft-injured 34 year old pitcher Wandy Rodriguez. I think the Pirates can do better than Jose Tabata’s .282 batting average & 6 home runs. I think they can do better than players like shortstop Clint Barmes and pitcher Charlie Morton. If my information is correct then Burnett, Morneau, & Rodriguez are the highest paid players on the team and all are expendable. That isn’t a bad thing.

mccThere is a solid nucleus in place for a good long run: outfielders Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Andrew Lambo, & gcGarret Jones, infielders Neil Walker, Gaby Sanchez, & Pedro Alvarez, catchers Russell Martin (the best free agent the Pirates have signed in many years) & Tony Sanchez, and pitchers Cole, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, & Jason Grilli. Jettisoning those three highest paid players that I mentioned would free up over $43 million, part of which I would use to sign a big time third baseman. Alvarez can hit the snot out of the ball but is a defensive liability so a move to first base might not be a bad idea. The jury is still out on 26 year old shortstop Jordy Mercer. He had his moments in 2013, hitting .285 with 8 home runs, but if the opportunity to upgrade presented itself I’d go for it. And of course another arm…or two…or three…would be helpful. 21 year old right hander Jameson Taillon is expected to be a stud and would be a welcome addition to the rotation in 2014.

clintAt the end of the day I realize that I am in the minority. I am glad that the losing streak is over and my favorite team is headed in a positive pedrodirection. I am happy for the players and the fans that there was playoff baseball in Pittsburgh this October. I really like Pirates manager Clint Hurdle. I realize there is good reason for much optimism. But part of me is holding back and there are two reasons. First, two decades of futility have beaten me up to the point that I need to see another year of this success to wrap my head around its validity. As mentioned, in my mind it is just as likely that the Pirates take a step backward as it is they improve in 2014. And secondly, I cannot get that September 23rd champagne celebration out of my head. I cannot overstate how much that bothered me. Is this a team that is satisfied with a wild card?? Do we really want to have to roll the dice on a one game all-or-nothing scenario again?? Or will this team add some pieces and develop the championship mentality of the best teams in sports wherein nothing but being in The World Series will do?? We’ll see.

America’s Pastime??

Barry Bonds in action.

Barry Bonds

I had every intention of doing a full blown 2009 baseball preview. That obviously didn’t happen. Opening Day has come and gone and so it seems a rather pointless exercise.

I remember not that long ago when Opening Day was an event. Everyone, even the most fair weather baseball fans, knew when it was approaching. I suppose it’s still a big deal for a significant amount of baseball aficionados, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have the cachet that it once did. I didn’t even realize it was occurring until I heard it mentioned on the radio in my car about an hour before the first pitch was to be tossed. There didn’t seem to be much coverage of spring training this year, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention.

There are probably a lot of reasons for the decline in popularity of baseball, atleast in relative terms when compared with our ever-increasing love affair with football. For me personally I’m a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, and they haven’t been anywhere close to competitive for about 17 years. We Pirates fans have no real reason for hope or anticipation and usually quit paying close attention before summer even officially begins. I’m sure this apathy spreads to fans of other teams like the Kansas City Royals, Washington Nationals, and Cleveland Indians, whose teams are rarely that good. This can be traced to the lack of a salary cap, something football has and baseball sorely needs. There are also the constant scandals that have rocked the sport for the last couple of decades. I don’t believe it’s out of bounds to hypothesize that the beginning of the end for baseball started with the downfall of Pete Rose about 20 years ago. Then in 1994 there was a players’ strike that cut the season in half and forced the cancellation of the playoffs and World Series. Baseball has never fully recovered from that season and the wrath it instilled in loyal fans. It came very very close to a much desired reconciliation with its public in 1998 due to the excitement involving Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s chase of Roger Maris’ vaunted home run record. But during the past 4 or 5 years even that progress has been unraveled as we’ve learned that all those home runs were likely a mirage, the numbers skewed by illegal substance abuse. One by one mighty heroes of the diamond have fallen from grace, from Barry Bonds to Jose Canseco to McGwire to Alex Rodriguez. Even pitchers, chief among them the legendary Roger Clemens, apparently aren’t above cheating.

We also cannot ignore the changing landscape of our nation. We prefer fast and frenetic these days, as opposed to slow and easy. Football appeals to our more modern, chaotic sensibilities, while baseball seems nostalgic and bucolic. Baseball is a relic, a living monument to a bygone era we recall with a certain sense of wistful wonder. It’s a nice place to visit occasionally, but it’s not something we can really sink our teeth into for the long haul. And with its 162 game season plus playoffs and then a World Series baseball definitely encompasses a long haul. Transversely, football season seems much shorter, even though it really isn’t. Close examination reveals that baseball opens in April and concludes in October…..7 months. Football, if one takes into consideration both college and the NFL season which basically overlap, begins in late August and climaxes in early February…..7 months. Of course there is a significant difference when one factors in that each team in football plays once per week, while in baseball your favorite team likely plays 4 or 5 times. Youngsters today consider baseball slow and boring. They have so many other choices…..video games, the internet, DVDs, Ipods. Our culture is on sensory overload, and baseball easily gets lost in the shuffle.

Football has better PR as well. Does anyone think football players don’t use performance enhancing drugs? If you do, you’re more than naïve. But no one seems to make nearly as big a deal out of it. Also, when was the last time you watched or attended a college baseball game? College baseball has an extremely limited following, while college football is HUGE. We are able to follow our beloved football players every step of the way from their recruitment to the university of their choice, through their entire college career, to speculating who’ll choose them in the NFL Draft (does anyone actually watch the MLB Draft? Ummm…no), through their (hopefully) long NFL career. We’re invested in football every step of the way. Baseball…..not so much.

This examination is not meant as an insult to baseball. I’m still a fan. I just find it unfortunate that circumstances have converged in such a way that prevents me, and legions of others, from being a passionate fan. Calling baseball America’s Pastime is nothing more than a marketing tool. It is more a reflection of America’s past.