(Editor's note: Tim Vitullo is a friend of mine who's a singer, songwriter, and Pirates fan living in Pittsburgh and will occasionally be writing guest articles for Bucco's Cove. Check out the short bio at the end of the article (after reading the article, of course!) for more info about Tim's music and where you can acquire it.)
“I’m paying how much for a flight to Pittsburgh?!”
I get asked this question often.
Despite the numerous “Most Livable City” and “Best Food City” accolades in recent years, my inner-circle is having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that Pittsburgh is cool. They can be forgiven though. Located directly between New York City and Chicago and a quick drive from DC, there are plenty of budget flights and bus trips that make the Steel City easy to skip.
Currently knee-deep in their fourth consecutive season as a contending team, it seems that most national pundits have yet to receive the memo too: “Pittsburgh is good (again).” For example, Dave Schoenfield pronounced the team dead on arrival last Monday while less than a handful of games back of the second National League wild card…in the middle of June. Has everyone forgotten the Cardinals’ 2011 comeback from 10.5 games back in the wild card standings to win the World Series? Are not all David Freese (Freeses?) made equal?
It’s hard to blame them as they stand in the shadow of a Chicago Cubs team that has gone from the laughing-stock of the NL Central to a team that would give the 2001 Mariners fits. And what of those pesky Cardinals? The 2016 iteration seems positively mortal as compared to last year’s roster laced with #CardinalsDevilMagic. Was this not the year that the Pirates, after consecutive heartbreaking Wild Card play-in game losses, finally ascended to the top of the division?
But what about the front office? To lead this squad to victory in the 2016 World Series, Neal Huntington and crew acquired Jon Niese, Ryan Vogelsong, and Juan Nicasio to fill 60% of their new-look, lock-down rotation. Wait…what? Super bullpens are all the rage right now anyway! Instead of signing proven rotation pieces, they acquired Neftali Feliz, Kyle Lobstein, and Jorge Rondon to provide high-pressure (not “leverage,” Greg Brown!) holds as swingmen. Really? Are you sure the Phillies didn’t acquire these washed-up innings eaters? They’re the ones in a rebuild, you know!
Local sports writers and “backseat GM” fans point to the lackluster rotation additions this past year as “keeping the seats warm for Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow,” but this has always been naively optimistic at best and terribly misguided at worst. Young players need time to adjust to the rigors of The Show. As proof, take a look at rookie campaigns of McCutchen, Polanco, and Marte. Pedestrian compared their recent heights, right? Another difficult pill to swallow is the “hated-by-old-guys-but-embraced-by-GMs” innings limits placed on pitchers today. The Pirates are notoriously conservative with their pitchers (because this is the only shot for acquiring aces with their payroll budget), so it’s unlikely that you would see either as part of a 2016 playoff rotation; both pitchers have already exhausted more than half of their scheduled 2016 limits. Simply, this season has always required a trade or signing from outside of the organization to provide the pitching staff with the meaningful push needed to survive until and win in October.
So why did Huntington sign these guys? The answer is simple: “We’re a small market team.”
(Cue the collective groan.)
This is the specter that haunts Pirates baseball daily. It’s hard to go a week without hearing a discussion about whether the team can afford to retain its superstars because of its notoriously low payroll. It’s why Dave Dombrowski thinks it’s reasonable to ask the team to trade Gerrit Cole while three games back in mid-June. It’s why the winter meetings pass with little activity and why Pirate fans approach every signing with skepticism. “Who did they just sign?” We pray that Uncle Ray will fix them or that a change of scenery will help a hitter find his swing again. The Royals have given us hope, right? We’ve been contending with this core group of players for the last three seasons, right? Surely there’s a plan, RIGHT?
Tyler Glasnow, Chad Kuhl, and/or Steven Brault (now that he’s healthy again) will probably not push the team to a championship this year, but they can save fans from turning off their televisions and not coming through the turnstiles. We live in a time when major league baseball is prospect crazy. Baseball pundits, blogs, and podcasts have been drooling over the promotions of prospects like Julio Urias, Jose Berrios, Trea Turner, and Glasnow since the Hot Stove occurred last December. Pittsburghers have been conditioned this way too, yearning for Cole, Marte, and Polanco to reach The Show after years of being buried in the basement of the divisional standings. I personally recall nearly scalping tickets to Cole’s first start at PNC Park because I was so excited to finally see him pitch. (I had to settle for shouting and jumping around like a crazy person when he struck out Gregor Blanco in the leadoff at-bat.) Give fans something tangible to root for in this rough stretch.
The innings limits! They need to mature more! They don’t have the tools to find success at the major league level yet! I hear you and I see you, but the results can’t be much worse than they are now. Further, the Cubs have been aggressively promoting their minor league players to build the young, dynamic roster that is currently fueling them to historic heights. Hell, Kyle Schwarber came straight from Double-A last season to mash the Pirates chances of a postseason. Recently, the north-siders even began toying with a six-man rotation to manage the innings limits of their veteran pitchers. The results haven’t been bad. So where are the kids? Why are they still down on the farm? Chad Kuhl’s outdueling of Clayton Kershaw on Sunday was a promising step toward both more exciting Bucco baseball and playing baseball in October. Let’s not stop now.
The Pirates’ fate this season has yet to be decided, but to watch them fail because of negligence is how baseball diehards begin turning more attention and money toward fantasy leagues and summer vacations than the home team (like I’ve been doing). This only digs the hole that small market teams must work from within deeper. The Pirates set a record for regular season attendance in 2015 and did little to reward us for our support (unless you REALLY like that new deck by the scoreboard). My entertainment dollar needs to be earned, and generating some hype about the young pitchers would keep my interest even if the season resumes spiraling out of control after this Dodgers series. Pittsburgh is good again. It’s time to field a team that reflects that, even if they’ve got more potential than preparation.
The Bucs might not win this year, but there are a lot more fun ways to watch them lose.
Tim Vitullo is a singer/guitarist/songwriter and ASCAP artist based in Pittsburgh, PA. His debut LP, Josephine & Assorted Train Songs, is available via Spotify, iTunes, Bandcamp, and http://timvitullo.com. Follow him on Twitter @officialtvband and Instagram @officialtvb.