Picture yourself on the top of a mountain, looking at out sweeping vistas. Possibly you’re imagining the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies, or the razor sharp edges of Patagonia, or the forests of the Appalachians. Maybe you’re picturing New England in the fall, with its blazes of orange and red and burnt orange and mahogany and dark orange and yellow. Perhaps you live in Florida and have never been more than 100 feet above sea level (fun fact: Florida has the lowest high point of any of the fifty states at Britton Hill, a mere 345 feet above sea level), but you can still imagine what it’s like to be on top of a mountain. You know you’re standing at the top and have good enough footing to stand in a single spot because the top of a mountain isn’t some homogeneous ending to the sloping earth below.
Now picture yourself on top of a different mountain. Not a real mountain, but the kind you would draw on a piece of paper. The kind created when you simply scrawl two not-quite-straight lines coming to a point and then draw a third, squiggly line below that to represent the snow line. This mountain has those two lines come a distinct point, with slopes on either side that would send an intrepid stick-traveler tumbling down to the bottom. You can imagine that it’s possible to balance on the top of this mountain, but it would take great concentration and strength to maintain that position for any period of time; strength and concentration that no person possesses, leading to the inevitable forced descent down the snowy slopes, below the treeline, and back to whatever it is with which you decorated the bottom of your mountain drawing. This is the type of precipice that the Pirates’ season currently sits on, teetering and able to slip in either direction at a moment’s notice, with each and every game holding the future of both this season and the franchise in the balance.
The Pirates have no doubt been snakebit this year. Some things are out of the control of anybody in the organization; no one is to blame for Jameson Taillon’s cancer, but that bit a chunk out of his season at a time when he was an integral part of the rotation for the Bucs. Other things are the fault of individual players not achieving their potential, most notable of which was Andrew McCutchen’s continuation of last year’s 0.7 WAR season prior to May 26. And yet others are the fault of individual players for their choices off the field — Jung-Ho Kang drank that alcohol himself and Starling Marte, knowingly or unknowingly, took those heavy-duty anabolic steroids himself. Had none of these misfortunes manifested themselves in the Pirates locker room this season, we’d be looking not at a team teetering on the edge of a cartoon mountain, but one triumphantly looking down from the top of a real one at the struggling remains of the NL Central.
That is not the world in which we exist, however. The Brewers are the only team that showed up this season while the Cubs, Pirates, and Cardinals all kind of suck. Luckily for them, any of these squads has the ability to turn things around and pull close to the Brewers without much time elapsing. The Pirates could be that team.
However, the other thing working against them is the clock running up to the trade deadline, in which Neal Huntington will be the man on which all eyes at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rest. Many names have been floated as possible trade chips, including Josh Harrison, the Pirates’ lone All-Star; Juan Nicasio, the pseudo-closer who has found a new baseball life in the bullpen; and none other than Andrew McCutchen, the franchise star who’s had trade rumors swirling for some time now given the Pirates ineptitude last season and his impending free agency.
July 14 will start a two week stretch in which the Pirates determine the entire course of their franchise’s short-term future. Closing the gap over the Brewers to around four games will allow for the Pirates to justify retaining their good players and making a run at a weak division in a year in which they should have been contenders. Falling to a double-digit deficit in the same time frame will force Huntington’s hand to look to the future, as McCutchen’s recent hot streak should earn a more significant return than whatever haul they would have gotten this past winter or would get at any point in the future. (The necessity of trading McCutchen merits its own close look, which I’m not prepared to do at this point. Rather, I’ll simply say that I think he’s worth retaining next year no matter what, both from the logical perspective of him being a part of a playoff-caliber Pirates team next year and from the emotional perspective of wanting to seem him playing in PNC Park for both as long as possible and his entire career.) These two weeks are going to be significant and really determine whether the Pirates are playing to be contenders in 2017 or 2020.
Optimism isn’t without merit. Andrew McCutchen has been hot, Jordy Mercer has been hitting well over the past month, and the bullpen seems to be stronger in recent days (despite Felipe Rivero’s arm potentially falling off). The schedule is favorable as well, in that playing consecutive series against the Cardinals and Brewers should give the Pirates the opportunity they need to make a run at the division lead and stuff the Brewers. They’re also playing the Giants and Padres right before the deadline, which will hopefully pad their win total a bit and stave off any rash moves involving the trading of marquee players that will be useful to a contending Pirates squad for the remainder of 2017 as well as 2018.
All of this hyperole could be for nothing, though, as my best guess is the Pirates will make more Melancon-for-Rivero type trades at the deadline, although there’s no obvious candidate for who Melancon is this year. The core of the Pirates team is in place at least through the end of next season, leading me to believe that they’ll keep everyone together and make another run at it next year and hope their luck is a bit better and everyone who’s a key player can stay on the field. Neal Huntington recently confirmed this, saying “We think we can be serious contenders next year… There’s no reason we can’t be better with Cole and McCutchen going into next year. Our goal is to maintain a level of competitiveness every year and not to have to jump back and build all over again.” This will hopefully hold true despite the on-field outcomes in the coming weeks. Still, though, these games are important because even a little tilt in either direction could make a huge difference, since each season is a discrete entity and you either make the playoffs or don’t. If we’re primarily examining the Pirates as a team over the remainder of this season and next, the 2017 playoffs are 50% of the playoffs under the microscope; without hope for a berth in this year’s postseason, it would be much easier to restock the farm at the expense of a single season in 2018.
The future is coming, and it’s coming fast. Pay close attention for the next two weeks and watch the it unfold before your eyes.