The Pittsburgh Pirates are really, really hard to watch right now. They have been since the middle of May. We all know the story of how this season has gone up to this point. A hot start followed by whatever it is that we have been watching for the past two months.
The Pirates are currently 40-46 after getting swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers. They sit 11 games back of first place in the NL Central and eight games back of the second wild card spot. The memory of three straight playoff berths from 2013-15 has been clouded by the three straight lost seasons that followed. Don’t fool yourself. 2018 has been and will end up being a lost season.
How have the Pirates gotten to this point?
The Pirates are a small market club with an extremely cheap owner, a true double whammy for bad luck fandom. To be relevant, they must rely on players with less than six years of MLB service to shoulder the bulk of production. You know, because those players don’t make money. At most, we’ve seen that Pirates are willing to buyout two years of a player’s impending free agency. Think Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, and Felipe Vazquez.
From there, the Pirates can sprinkle in non-expensive veterans to help guide the younger players while also contributing. This has been the model for team construction since Neal Huntington took over.
In theory, this model would allow the Pirates to pump out prospects ready to produce at a high level upon their big league call up. When their six to eight years are up, the Pirates let them walk in free agency. By then, the next group of prospects are ready to continue the process. This is why the Pirates hold onto prospects. This is why they never “went for it”.
It has been the same model since Huntington took over. If I had a nickel for every time Huntington said he wants to compete every year, I’d have as much money as Bob Nutting. Well, almost.
When the Pirates won 94 games in 2013, their core of team controlled players contained guys like McCutchen, Marte, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, and Gerrit Cole. Some of the sprinkled veterans included Russell Martin, AJ Burnett, Francisco Liriano, and Clint Barmes.
Man I miss that team.
Fast forward to now.
The Pirates have multiple years of team control over players like Austin Meadows, Colin Moran, Josh Bell, and almost all of the pitching staff. The vets include Francisco Cervelli, Corey Dickerson, Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, and Ivan Nova. Marte and Gregory Polanco are in the rare camp of being vets that are locked up long term.
This new crop of talent is not as good. The current veterans are not as good. On top of that, the league as a whole has gotten much smarter over the past few years. The Pirates used to find market inefficiencies like nobody’s business. Now they are struggling to keep up.
This model is flawed. Inexperienced major league players aren’t meant to carry a club. In 2013, the Pirates were lucky to have an elite talent in McCutchen. They were lucky that the reclamation project veterans brought in produced as much as they possibly could. 2013-15 was the outlier. It provided false hope that the Pirates’ model for consistent winning actually made sense.
In 2018, the Pirates rely on the services of the players listed above to take them to the promised land. Don’t get me wrong, these players have talent. I still think Taillon and Glasnow have ace potential. Meadows looks like he could be a 5-win player in the future. Marte is still really good and Polanco still shows flashes. That said, these players are not at the stages in their respective careers to carry a contender.
Sure, the Bell’s and Moran’s of the world are comparable to the Walker’s and Alvarez’s. But Marte isn’t what McCutchen was. Nova isn’t what Burnett or Liriano was. There just isn’t enough.
Right now, the Pirates have the talent of an average to below-average club. Quite honestly, this team is so boring it hurts.
Huntington did a great job from 2013-15. He made me a believer that his model for winning was foolproof. It’s not. Factor in underachieving prospects and reclamation projects gone wrong and you have yourself a mess of a team. Trying to replicate the success from those three winning seasons is proving to be a difficult task for Huntington and the Pirates.
Attempting to replicate that success consistently is borderline crazy.