(I started writing this when the Pirates were tied with the Giants 0-0 today. By the time I finished, it was 10-0 and the game was about as winnable as that carnival game where you throw the baseball at the milk jugs. So it goes.)
Despite the feeling of the last few weeks, the Pirates are very much alive in the “playoff” race. Only 3.0 games back from the second Wild Card, this laggard crew could still find themselves in a playoff game, albeit one against Clayton Kershaw or Noah Syndergaard or Jose Fernandez. If last night’s contest is any indication, however, that single game is worth pursuing as a goal; anyone can win on any night if Jeff Locke can beat Madison Bumgarner in a pitcher’s duel in which Eric Kratz’s weak solo homer was the only scoring play of the game. Just when we thought we were finally going to be rid of Jeff Locke, he comes crawling back with a start that stays his execution from the rotation for another two weeks.
This may seem like a meaningless, overused baseball/sports platitude, but the only game that matters is the next one. In the next game after their 1-0 triumph over a guy who sells clothes for a living, the Pirates are getting thumped by the Giants, but there are still 91 games after this one and all of them matter if the Pirates want to grab a playoff spot for the fourth straight year.
I’ve really been oscillating between being positive about the poor situation the Pirates have placed themselves in and being completely despondent about how the situation is being handled on several levels. My day-to-day mood is far too intertwined with a baseball team’s success, which leads me to dwell on every win, home run, pitching disaster, and chased ball in the dirt from McCutchen. I remember this old (terrible) Applebee’s commercial where the guy is having some problems deciding on what he wants his mediocre dinner food to be. In the end, he realizes he can get both entrees he wants, then pedantically claims to the voiceover that “Technically, choosing two entrees is still a choice.” That’s kind of how I feel about the Pirates right now: choosing to both be optimistic about their chances of at least making the playoffs and simultaneously feeling terrible about where they are in the season given the high hopes I had for them sometime in mid-May.
Now that I’ve included more positivity than most of you are willing to stomach, I’ll say that I am seriously disappointed in how the Pirates as an organization have been handling this situation, stemming back to the offseason. We’d become complacent as fans with the Pirates middling-to-weak moves to bolster their pitching staff, both in the rotation and the bullpen, during several successive offseasons due to the on-field success those moves proved to yield. We never once stopped to consider if they were simply lucky moves that happened to pan out and make the front office look smart. Ray Searage got plenty of the credit for being a pitching whisperer, but as the guys on Effectively Wild pointed out recently, perhaps pitching coaches rarely deserve the credit and he just happened to get lucky with a few pitchers in a row (don’t forget, not all of Searage’s projects worked out in the glory years, such as James McDonald and Jonathan Sanchez and Wandy Rodriguez). Or perhaps the defector Jim Benedict was the real pitching whisperer and he’s now working his magic in Miami, leaving the Pirates’ pitching staff in his proverbial dust as he rides off to the next town on a dusty road in a nondescript desert in the western United States, like in the movies.
(Sidebar: It’s only the bottom of the fifth inning in this game and the conversation in the Root Sports booth has devolved into discussions of food. Currently 8-0 Giants.)
The Pirates front office would likely claim that their long-term plans always revolved around the extremely strong farm system that they’ve built over the Huntington years. We’re at the point now, though, in which windows of opportunity are discussed and should be seriously considered as one of the primary driving forces behind many decisions. The “McCutchen window” is closing and perhaps more rapidly than we thought it would given his performance recently. Don’t be crazy, though; this isn’t the end of McCutchen being a good player and he has plenty of years left in the tank. The question is whether or not those years are spent in Pittsburgh or another city. The idea of Cutch leaving the ‘Burgh without having won, or at least made a serious run at, a World Series is sad; I want him to be on the Pirates’ Mount Rushmore someday alongside Roberto Clemente, Honus Wagner, and someone else that everyone would argue a lot about.
The point of all this is that the Pirates make decisions with the future of their organization in mind. Most of these decisions, especially regarding what current Major League talent to acquire, are made with the future ways in which the farm system will help the Major League club. However, the future is now and it’s about time for the front office to act on our collective impulse to win a World Series. The farm system being full of prospects is great, but no one cares if Indianapolis or Altoona or even Bradenton wins a minor league title. Furthermore, given the struggles of the Pirates, it can’t hurt much to promote some of these guys to the Majors.
Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow should be in the Major League rotation now. If we’re already looking to next year, the Major League experience that these guys get between now and October 2 would do wonders for having them prepared to be legitimate starters in the rotation come 2017 and 2018. Even Clayton Kershaw didn’t show up in the Majors as the fully-formed god he is today; the more experience at the highest level you get, the more prepared you’ll be later in your career. You can worry about guys flying too close to the sun and burning out quickly, but the Pirates’ rotation’s struggles coupled with the relative readiness of these guys (despite Glasnow’s walk rate issues and Kuhl’s relative anonymity until recently) makes this an easy decision. They can’t possibly pitch worse than whatever combination of Jeff Locke, Francisco Liriano, Jon Niese, and Juan Nicasio that get bumped from the rotation to make room for the young arms. The experience might not get the Pirates over the hump this year, but it sure as hell will benefit them next year and the year after that and the year after that.
An alternate or perhaps even concurrent strategy to attempt is to trade prospects to get guys who are Major League ready. This is obvious; teams do it every year at the deadline. I’m not saying trade Glasnow, but do something. The Pirates seem loath to part with their prospects in general, seemingly opting for minor trades each year involving minor leaguers who aren’t considered prospects. Making a larger deal at some point to put these guys over the top seems like something that needs to happen. I’m not saying that it has to happen right now, or even this season, but at some point, the Pirates are going to need to decide to try to win the division rather than get a Wild Card and pull the trigger on some trades that are beneficial in the short term and not always looking to next year.
To prevent rambling further, I’m going to cut this off and speculate that the Pirates are going to be sellers at the deadline this year because the complete and utter lack of pitching (despite having the fourth best offense by WAR) has put them in a deep, deep hole. Hopefully the return for some of these guys they could move is looking at keeping the Pirates good in the short term, with players who can help them in the years 2017-2019. I wouldn’t be surprised to see John Jaso get moved at the deadline as well, given the extra year of control he offers and impending callup of Josh Bell (which is going to piss me off if it isn’t until Super Two Day 2017).
It’s frustrating as a Pirates fan to watch the team flounder into obscurity despite having such a great core in place to make a serious run at a great season. All’s not lost yet, but something needs to change very soon if the Pirates want to remain in the Wild Card hunt. That something is obviously improving the pitching staff in any way possible, be it through AAA promotions or trades. The front office has done such a great job in recent years to climb out of a deep gorge of ineptitude and put a fantastic product on the field. Pushing the team the final 10% requires a different approach each season; last year, turning J.A. Happ into a good pitcher for two months was a big reason the Pirates finished the way they did. The same magic can be recaptured this year, but it has to be through AAA promotions or some willingness to put the farm system to use. I’m confident that the front office will make the right move here.