“The ending is nearer than you think, and it is already written. All that we have left to choose is the correct moment to begin.” –Alan Moore, V for Vendetta
The upcoming season will mark the sixth year of this chapter of the Pirates’ story. I say sixth year because 2011 was when the Pirates found a pulse. They didn’t actually come close to making the playoffs, but there was a moment in midsummer where they were in contention and had a budding star in Andrew McCutchen and there were whisperings and rumblings around about how the Pirates were doing something that wasn’t just lose sight of the top of the standings by the end of May. The follow-up 2012 season brought with it actual hope, not just hope based on general weakness in the division, but the Pirates again fell flat at the end of the season. We all remember the 2013 season for how it broke the streak, for the Wild Card game, and for the actual legitimate playoff series against the Cardinals. And we remember the heartache of the past two seasons, playing brilliantly and making the Wild Card game, only to be thwarted by superior pitching performances.
Why dredge up the past in a season preview for the 2016 Pirates? Context. The context of the 2016 season is of the utmost importance if we’re to understand our expectations for the Pirates and how to interpret the coming results. This team is really at a crossroads; they could ramp up to the next level using the advantages they’ve so desperately sought, from pitch framing to positional versatility to avoiding injuries, and blossom into the truly top-tier team that Neal Huntington thinks about before he goes to sleep at night. They could also stagnate, wasting the prime years of Andrew McCutchen’s career, wasting the painstaking work Ray Searage has put in to assemble a rotation and bullpen with the scraps given to him from the bottom of the barrel, and wasting the momentum and goodwill they’ve built with the fans. It isn’t enough to simply win 82 games or make the playoffs; everyone involved with the Pirates, from Bob Nutting down to the degenerate yinzer drinking an I.C. Light at a bar where your shoes stick to the floor, desperately wants something more than a Wild Card game loss. There’s only one way to go for this club, and that’s to raise a permanent jolly roger, one emblazoned with the phrase “World Series Champions.”
I don’t mean to claim that the entire future of the organization hinges on this season. Obviously, the farm system is well-stocked and a strong core is in place at the Major League level with McCutchen, Harrison, Marte, Polanco, Kang, and Cole together for at least two more seasons after this one. What I do mean is that this season is a signpost for what the club will become. Will those young prospects come up in the next 2-3 years to try to be the final push the Pirates need to make it to the World Series? Or will they come up to a good-but-not-great club bearing the weight of the world on their shoulders? 2016 is the year we find this out and either grumble about the management not doing enough to push the Pirates over the top or lavish praise on Ray Searage and Clint Hurdle and erect a 40 foot tall statue of Neal Huntington in the middle of the Allegheny River.
So much offseason talk has been about other clubs in larger markets, with ESPN pandering to the Cubs fans and the “Cubs fans.” But none of that matters, because the Pirates will go out and take care of business this season. One of the biggest hurdles they had the past two seasons were slow starts as a team; such starts stem from individual slow starts from players. However, Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte seem good to go based on how they looked in Spring Training, which wasn’t exactly the case at the beginning of last season. There are no real defensive holes anywhere on the field, which is a wonderful sign and should really help bolster the seemingly weaker pitching staff that has been assembled (although who the hell knows how they’re actually going to do).
Storylines abound this season for the Pirates. Kang’s return, John Jaso’s emergence (he'll already be doing better than his predecessor if his glove doesn’t fall apart any time Gerrit Cole makes a pickoff attempt), and whether the patchwork rotation and bullpen will hack it against the stacked Cubs lineup. How the bench having legitimate hitters to pinch hit with, rather than Sean Rodriguez, will be another important thing as the season wears on and the bullpen is called on a little more. That isn’t to mention the possible debut of prospects Tyler Glasnow and Alen Hanson midway through the season (and maybe Jameson Taillon later?) and the stratospheric levels that the outfield could reach if everyone puts it together for one glorious summer. Staying healthy is going to be key, too; the Pirates have done a great job of locking guys down for cheap, but if those guys get injured, there isn’t always the depth to replace them effectively. Each player has their own question marks surrounding the impending season, and the collective answers to these questions will be what determines whether the Pirates sail triumphantly into the sunset at the end of the season or sink by the beginning of the fiscal year.
So where do we go from here? We sit and wait and twiddle our thumbs until tomorrow morning, that’s what we do. And when the churchgoers get home from church, and the drunks wake up and roll over and take some advil, and when the parents get home from their kids’ morning soccer matches, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to be on TV and a new baseball season will have risen from the ashes of last season’s Wild Card game. And, as with the proverbial phoenix, the Pirates will have been given new life and a fresh chance at making the hopes and dreams of millions of fans around Pennsylvania, the country, and the world come true. A lot rides on the shoulders of some guys playing a game, but when it comes to baseball, it’s a lot more than that. It’s about the revitalization of life after the cold winter; spring has sprung, the speculation of Spring Training is over, and we start to get the answers we want about the 2016 vintage of the Pittsburgh Pirates come Sunday. So grab a beer or three, do your best Bob Walk impression, and hold on to your butts, it’s going to a wild ride. Go Bucs!