Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe made his living for years beating the “curse” drum about the Boston Red Sox’ 86-year World Series drought. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ 20-year absence from the playoffs, during the division era and introduction of the Wild Card, hadn’t reached that level of frustration, but it was linked to the departure of their Babe Ruth-quality superstar: Barry Bonds. That the Pirates lost to the Red Sox in the first World Series gives the teams another connection unique to the long-surviving and long-suffering (You’re next Cubs fans, don’t worry). But those dark days end in Boston in 2004 and in Pittsburgh in 2013. Like Stella, the Pirates got their groove back.
“We’re going to give you and the Pirates a licking you’ll never forget,” yelled one [Red Sox] fan.
“Who with? With that old man Cy Young?” answered star shortstop Honus Wagner.
–Autumn Glory: Baseball’s First World Series, Louis P. Masur
Reaching the playoffs in back-to-back years, the Pirates enter 2015 with hard-earned respectability across the country. General manager Neal Huntington, who took over the club in the fall of 2007, survived several bumps in the rebuilding process to finally see his home-grown talent reach the majors and succeed. Jim Tracy and John Russell, who oversaw 488 losses over the course of their five seasons, had given way to Clint Hurdle, eight-year veteran manager of the Colorado Rockies. Hurdle lost his job in Colorado in part because Troy Tulowitzki can’t play 162 games a year or field multiple positions at the same time. Also because, as with many managers, his luster had faded to that of a cobblestone. He was old school and the Pirates were trending new school. It would never work, right?
Under Hurdle, the Pirates have won 72, 79, 94, and 88 games, finishing in second place in the NL Central two years running, with ambitions for division crowns. Being just three games out in 2013 and two games back last year, the rehabilitation of the Pirates from worst to first is almost within their reach.
Great perfection appears defective,
but its usefulness is not diminished.
Great fullness appears empty,
but its usefulness is not impaired.
-Tao Te Ching (8), Lao Tzu
In 2014 the Pirates were 10th in runs scored and 15th in runs allowed. They were sixth in home runs without a single 30-homer guy. In fact, no one on the team hit more than Andrew McCutchen’s 25. The Bucs were also third in team OBP with a .330 mark, led by Russell Martin’s .402. The team with the 28th highest payroll in baseball made it all the way to the Wild Card play-in game.
The 2015 offense may not turn out so bright, although it has the potential to put on quite a show for Pirates fans.
At catcher, the downgrade from career-year Martin — .290/.402/.430 — to Francisco Cervelli, a career .278/.348/.381 hitter in limited time as a backup, may not be a big a dropoff as it may seem. Cervelli possesses some pitch framing skills and Martin hit just .234/.332/.370 from 2009-2013. The risk that his age-31 renaissance looms large for the Toronto Blue Jays instead. Combined with losing Ike Davis (.343) and Travis Snider (.338) though, the Pirates on-base veterans have departed, leaving young players and those with limited on-base potential.
The young guys: Josh Harrison at third, Gregory Polanco in right, and Starling Marte in left.
Harrison, a 5’8” infielder with a history of trouble getting to first base in the majors blossomed into a .347 OBP guy who hit .316. Thanks, perhaps, to a .353 BABIP, he put together enough of an offensive show to move Pedro Alvarez across the diamond to first base where his glove and arm will be more at home.
Polanco started his promotion to the big leagues with a bang: an 11-game hitting streak, and looking like the perfect compliment to McCutchen. A .302/.392/.435 line of 21 games was followed by some rookie regression with a .219/.276/.337 July and August performance. But don’t be fooled, the 23-year-old could easily ascend back to the lofty realms he showed early talent for and help make up for some of the offense now playing elsewhere.
Marte makes three in the Pirates’ young outfield. A strong rookie campaign followed by a sophomore step forward gives Pittsburgh an embarrassment of riches roaming the grass. If he builds again on his success so far — .291/.356/.453 in 2014 — the Pirates could be the envy of every team in baseball for their flyball squad.
Jordy Mercer and Pedro Alvarez didn’t reach base much (.305 and .312 respectively), but Mercer’s solid fielding at shortstop and Alvarez’s history of 30-homer seasons — and now a home at first base — puts each in a position to succeed.
BE VIGILANT IN PIRATE AREAS warned the poster that hung outside the galley.
-The Ridiculous Race, Steve Hely & Vali Chandrasekaran
Andrew McCutchen is everything any team could ask for. He’s topped the Pirates in Baseball Reference WAR every year since 2010 and hit .314/.410/.542 last season in that wonderful .300/.400/.500 back-of-the-baseball-card kind of way. The center fielder, face of the franchise, and 2013 NL MVP, has hit at least 21 home runs and stolen at least 18 bases each of the last four years. Any team would be glad to build around McCutchen.
ROS: Shouldn’t we be doing something-constructive?
GUIL: What did you have in mind? … A short, blunt human pyramid…?
-Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard
Outside of Gerrit Cole, the starting rotation is not eye-popping. Cole is a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter but still on the outside of the handful of guys (Kershaw, Fernandez, Sale) who can carry a rotation. But that’s not to say he can’t take a step in that direction after a solid, though limited, MLB run.
A.J. Burnett is back after taking less money to return to the Pirates, from the disaster that is the Philadelphia Phillies. He’ll toss 200 quality innings and probably strike out close to that number as well, even as a 38-year-old.
Francisco Liriano has turned in a few good seasons since his magical 2006. With the Pirates he seems to have found a home for a few years as he strikes out more guys than innings but doesn’t turn in too many long outings. Joe Nathan is reaching the end of the line and Boof Bonser has not appeared in the majors since 2010, so he should be the last player in the A.J. Pierzynski trade showing up at the ballpark to play before long.
Charlie Morton, Vance Worley, and Jeff Locke are back end guys who stand in the way of, well, Radhames Liz. In other words, not very much. At least for right now. Tommy John surgery kept Jameson Taillon out for all of 2014, and Tyler Glasnow is still in the low minors.
Mark Melancon, who has been a fantastic reliever aside from a couple bad appearance for the Red Sox, will continue to hold down the ninth inning. Assisting him once more will be Tony Watson, a southpaw who struck out 26.6% of batters he faced last year. Not a bad pair to lead a bullpen.
What does it matter to ya
When you got a job to do
You gotta do it well
You gotta give the other fellow hell
-Live and Let Die, Paul McCartney
The Pirates are well on their way to the promised land — a championship — but are not a star-studded team. Not yet anyway. 2015 could see Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco providing a punch from the outfield while Pedro Alvarez hits dingers and Francisco Cervelli uses his defensive prowess to coax a bit extra out of the pitching staff.
An unconventional signing, Jung Ho Kang, gives the Pirates another potential bit of upside, if the Korean Baseball Organization star can capture enough of his success overseas to be a perfect bench player and maybe a little more.
The Pirates are also young — their entire starting lineup is under 30, many scattered right around that magical age 27 season.
Live and Let Die was the first Bond movie to star Roger Moore as the iconic spy. He was the second longest-running Bond actor in the franchise. The title song of the same name was written and performed by Paul McCartney, himself on the second act of his career. This is the second act season for the Pirates: can they build on the run started by the last two incarnations of the team? Win the division? Reach the NLCS or even the World Series? It’s all possible, but it will take a lot of work. Luckily, the team a a pretty good Q branch putting the pieces together.Next post: What Will the Cardinals Do with Jaime Garcia?
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