Let's spend one moment thinking back to April 1st. On April 1st, I was awfully concerned about the upcoming season. Simply put, I thought it was time for the Pirates to move to the proverbial "next level" of their long rebuilding process and I didn't think that the team, as assembled, was ready to make that jump. I was concerned that they were wasting years of Andrew McCutchen's prime and concerned that the minor league system wasn't good enough to support a sustained run of success in the immediate or near future.
I feel a little bit differently today. You probably know the vital statistics here, but let's run through them. The Pirates are 56-37 at the All-Star Break. That's slightly better than a 60% winning percentage. They have the second best record in the National League, just one game behind the Cardinals. That puts them in the first wild card spot, four games ahead of the the Cincinnati team that holds the second wild card spot. It also puts them nine games up on the Nationals, who are in third place in the wild card standings. Baseball Prospectus has translated that into a 92% chance of making the playoffs, at 58% chance of advancing into the division series, at 27% chance of winning the NL Central, and a non-trivial 5.3% chance of winning the World Series. The minor league system has come into focus, too, with Gerrit Cole looking promising in his big league debut, Jameson Taillon re-affirming his top prospect status in Double-A, Gregory Polanco joining the league's elite prospects, Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow forcing a re-evaluation of the Pirates' drafting methods, and so on. The Pirates don't have the best minor league system in baseball, I don't think, but if you're ranking the best farm systems they're moving awfully close to the top.
When the Pirates were on their fantastic run last summer, I said that I didn't think there was anything better in sports at the time than being a Pirate fan. I think that's true again this summer; Andrew McCutchen is one of the best and most likable players in baseball. Starling Marte is an incredible combination of raw physical tools, baseball talent, and fearlessness to become one of baseball's most exciting players to watch. Pedro Alvarez is obliterating baseballs at every opportunity. The pitching staff is a great combination of veterans re-discovering their stride and young pitchers learning how to use their talent. Somehow the words "Mark and Cheese" have become the most terrifying words an opposing baseball team can hear in the eighth inning. Seeing all this happen with the knowledge of Taillon and Polanco and Hanson on their way makes me, as a Pirate fan, just want to smile. Smiling is not a reaction that's been associated with the Pirates much in the past 20 years.
Recapping the wonders of the best pre-All Star Break Pirate team in recent memory is a double-edged sword, though. This is not a secret, but I've never been particularly interested in 82 wins. Teams that win 82 games almost always spend their Octobers the same way that teams with 79 or 67 wins or 55 wins spend their Octobers; they spend them at home, watching better teams keep playing. My biggest fear this April wasn't that the Pirates weren't going to have a winning season, it was that a winning season was the best that they could aspire to.
The Pirates are 56-37 at the All-Star Break now, and so that's obviously no longer true. We can spend hours debating what will happen from here on out. Can the bullpen keep holding on to leads and stranding runners at such a ridiculous rate? What will Jeff Locke's second half look like? Can Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole be consistent enough to really shore the rotation up? What will Neal Huntington do about right field? What will he do about Brandon Inge and Mike McKenry? Can Francisco Liriano keeping pitching like the Liriano of old? How long can Pedro Alvarez sustain success while he strikes out a third of the time that he bats? If some things regress back, will the offense doing better with runners in scoring position pick up enough of the slack? Can Andrew McCutchen stay healthy and productive for 162 games?
In some regards, though, the only thing that matters is that the Pirates have played like one of the three or four best teams in the National League through 93 games, but that seasons don't get judged on 93 games. My big concern before the season started was that the Pirates weren't quite talented enough to contend for a playoff spot this year or to be annual contenders going forward. I feel better about both of those concerns 4 1/2 months later. Now let's move on to this: contending for a playoff spot and actually earning one are not the same thing. When you're 56-37 at the All-Star Break with a nine game lead on the field, merely contending is not good enough. The 93 games that the Pirates played before the break were great, but they're in the past now. What matters going forward is turning a good 93 games into a good 94, then 94 into 95, all the way up until 162.
I hope the Pirates offense gets hot in about two months. If the Pirates offense had Marte, McCutchen, Alvarez, and all the remaing players who play their role (in particular Jones and Sanchez, Walker, and Tabata) all hitting on all cylinders at the same time, that would be impressive.
One of things I have found curious/maddening is how some Pirate fans have changed gears from "When are the Pirates going to trade for some front-line Major League talent?" to "How can we even think about moving Gregory Polanco?" The Pirates are, in the current MLB economic enivronment, going to have very, very few chances to go for the brass ring. Look at the Nats--I suspect one of the things that factored into their handling of Strasburg was the notion that they would be a lock for the postseason again this year. You know what? Stuff happens, and it could happen to the Bucs next year--Grilli could get old, Burnett could get old or retire, and so on and so on. Look, the Reds ain't going anywhere, and the Cards are very close to being absolute monsters. You have to know when the future is now, and for the Pirates, it is now. They need to be agressive, and go big. This is no time to mess with the Kendry Moraleses or Alex Rioses of the world.
@wkkortas The trading of Moises Alou still haunts me to this day. Trading a potential solid every day player or two to help you "win now" is fine but trading a potential superstar/All-Star is the surest road to utter ruin.
@Carnegie Chip @wkkortas But Moises Alou got the Pirates Zane Smith, who was a key piece in the '90-'92 teams. Again, as a general rule I would not argue with the notion that trading potential greatness for today competence is a bad, bad idea--espeically for clubs like the Pirates. That said, this season is turning into something of a perfect storm for the Bucs--there is a real chance to win the whole shebang this year, and if Polanco and/or Taillon can be turned into a Giancarlo Stanton...well, we've waited twenty years for a setup like this. You want to wait twenty more?
@nickjuneau24 First round's on you, my man.
"I know that, as Pirate fans, we've become creaturs of the future, because the present has been so bleak. We have to learn to embrace the now."
I think that is a true statement, and an accurate summary of at least some of my feelings. I guess b/c I don't disagree with what you wrote, but I also don't disagree with what I wrote, it means that I am just looking forward to whatever might happen.
Email threads like this make me wish I was out East to go to a baseball game and beer on a WHYGAVS night. It would be pretty fun I bet.
@Carnegie Chip @nickjuneau24 I'm with you on your first two points, Chip. But my answer to your last points is, the A's and Rays also don't win world series. I agree that I'd rather see the Pirates be competitive for years than raise their series odds a few percent, but there's also no evidence that you can win championships that way.
@nickjuneau24 Exactly my thoughts (except with less math). People always bring up Zane Smith being a "key" to the Pirates making the playoffs but to me that's a strawman. Alas MLBTradeRumors didn't exist back then so I have no idea who else was on the market but those 90s Pirates were so good, how could we know they wouldn't have accomplished the same amount with a different/cheaper deadline acquisition?
The lesson I think/hope Pirate fans would have learned from that fiasco is nothing is a sure thing. You're far better off planning for the long term than the short. Instead of going all in for one shot, it's better to maintain a strong farm and ensure you're competitive for as many years as possible because the odds of winning it all in one particular year just are never that great.
Or in simpler terms, the A's and Rays never trade away future All-Stars in the name of going "ALL IN." Neither should the Pirates.
@nickjuneau24 Your reasoning is very sound,and the arguments are good. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that obtaining someone on the level of a Stanton increases the chances of winning the World Series to, say, 15%. I, for one, take that risk; the set-up the Pirates have this year hasn't happened in our lifetime, and is far from a lock to happen again--if you don't push your chips to the center of the table in a scenario like this one, when do you?
Look, Taillon and Polanco are 2015--and we don't know who two or three members of that rotation will be, we don't know who the catcher is, who the first baseman is, who the shortstop is. Taillon and Polanco are potential studs, yes--but the Nats have Harper and Strasburg, who are who we'd like Taillon and Polanco to be, and they're scraping around at .500, even with a good supporting cast--who's to say the 2015 Pirates won't be as well? I know that, as Pirate fans, we've become creatures of the future, because the present has been so bleak. We have to learn to embrace the now.
I had a big comment I tried to make work the other day, but it didn't work. It was about whether a trade would increase the Pirate's percent chance of making the playoffs, winning in the playoffs, or winning the world series.
According to Pat, above, the Pirates already have a 92% chance of making the playoffs, so it seems like a trade is not needed just to make the playoffs. I had a paragraph about whether a trade was worth it to win the central vs. win a wild card berth. In the end, I think it isn't b/c trading away some of those players just to go from "must win one" to "must win three out of five" was not enough of a reason.
The Pirates also have a 58% chance of advancing in the playoffs - at least to the divisional series, and a 5% chance of winning the World Series. How much do you think Giancarlo Stanton would raise those percent chances? I guess I just don't think he would raise them enough to be worth a trade.
On the other hand, I think trading away Taillon and/or Polanco would decrease our percent chance of making the playoffs next year, and the next year, and the year after that by quite a bit.
Here's breaking news: Grilli IS old. Burnett IS old. And they're doing just fine. Is the future now? Yes...and no. Gregory Polanco is gold in the bank. Keep him or regret it next year when "the future is now".
@belfry @wkkortas I understand what you're saying, but the Pirates just are not going to be competitive year after year with the way MLB operates now. Yes, Grilli and Burnett are old now, and they ain't going to get younger or better come 2014. Neil Walker is a big middle infielder with a bad back--ask Robby Thompson how that worked out. Pedro Alvarez is either gone in 2016 or we won't want him around. Again, look at the Nationals; do you think they saw themselves where they are right now at this time last season. The Pirates simply cannot punt on opportunities to win championships.
@wkkortas @belfry And Kortas, I completely understand where you're coming from, too. I have major concerns over Walker's long term situation as well. My gut feeling is that he could be a wonderful super-utility infielder and an emergency right fielder (if he'd accept that role). But Hanson's on the way and Mercer is not too bad.
We don't truely know if Pedro will be gone after 2016 (I know he's a Boras client). But if we look around the the diamond in '14 & '15, things could be pretty good. And just envision an outfield of Marte, McCutchen, and Polanco !!!
First base? Well, I just don't know. If GFJ & Gabby catch fire, maybe this won't even be an issue...
I hear where you are coming from, but I end up disagreeing. I feel like the Pirates are on the cusp of two possible things – a playoff run this year, or a return to relevance for years to come. And I think the debates about the Bucs are centered around which of those two things the Pirates should be pursuing.I am more in favor of constructing the team for the second goal – a return to relevance for years to come, not for a playoff run this year.
But I get why some people want to see the Pirates building for a playoff run this year. My personal fear is not merely getting 82 wins, it is that the Pirates end with the second best record in baseball (to the Cardinals) and get a wild card game instead of a full-fledged playoff berth.(I think we exchanged posts about this fear of mine awhile back.)
@nickjuneau24 I understand what you're saying, and on one level I can't argue with it--the Pirates are always going to have to be a draft-and-development franchise, because they can't buy an A-Cutch on the open market. That said, for the Pirates to have an extended run of being in contention year after year, they have to both do exceptionally well in the draft and be lucky, and that is difficult if not impossible to do over a long period of time. Yes, you can point to the Rays, but I'd argue they are much more the exception than the rule. By and large, the Pirates' strategy has to be to hoard assets--but there will come times where they have to cash in those assets, and if Polanco is part of the puzzle to get a Stanton right now, so be it.
While it's better than nothing, I don't much fancy the notion of the one-game do-or-die much, either.