New year, new expectations

One of the big problems of the non-stop news cycle that we tend to allow to consume ourselves is that it becomes literally impossible to give ourselves enough distance to allow for some context. The wild card game bleeds into the early off-season and that bleeds into the winter meetings and suddenly we’re in January, comparing the pre-Spring Training Pirates to a Pirate team that lost to the Giants without any sort of thought to how the Pirates ended up in a Wild Card Game with the Giants and not somewhere else.

It is a completely true statement to say something along the lines of, “This Pirate team looks like pretty much the same team that lost to the Giants in the Wild Card Game, only with AJ Burnett swapped in for Edinson Volquez and Russell Martin swapped out for Francisco Cervelli. I’m not sure that’s an upgrade.” Put in that light, it feels like this off-season had either a neutral quality to it or that it was a negative one, depending on how full your glass of orange juice looks this morning. It really is fine to wonder if the Pirates are spending enough money or if they did enough this winter or how on earth they’re going to keep pace with the perpetual Cardinals and the infinitely resourced Cubs.

Here’s the thing, though: the Pirate team that lost to the Giants in the Wild Card Game might have been the National League’s best team over the season’s last 5-6 weeks. On August 19th, Andrew McCutchen came back from his Diamondback-aided DL stint and the Pirates lost their seventh straight game, falling to 64-62 and seventh place in the National League (fourth place in the wild card race). Gerrit Cole returned from the DL the next day and the Pirates went 24-12 over the rest of the season. That was virtually the same as the Nationals team that finished with the NL’s best record (they were 25-13), a half-game better than the vaunted Dodgers (23-12) that probably ended the season as the NL favorites, and 2 1/2 games better than the Cardinals and the Giant team (22-15) that set the world on fire starting October 1.

The Pirate team that went 64-62, meanwhile, suffered a ton of setbacks. Gerrit Cole missed most of June and July and half of August with scary-sounding shoulder and lat injuries. Francisco Liriano dealt with a ton of tiny issues that left him awfully ineffective for much of the first part of the season and eventually put him on the disabled list. Charlie Morton had a hernia and the second serious hip issue of his career. Andrew McCutchen got nailed in the spine with a pitch that probably broke his rib in a pointless act of vegenance, which happened because Ernesto Frieri was on the Pirates, which happened because Jason Grilli spent more time during the first half of the season comparing himself to Jesus than he did pitching effectively (he should’ve taken the hint after what happened against the Brewers on Easter weekend). The Pirates overhauled Pedro Alvarez’s plate approach, which sapped his power for much of the season’s first half. When it finally looked like he was coming around, he completely lost the ability to throw a baseball to first base, and so he was moved from third to first. After a decent start to his career as a first baseman, he injured his foot and barely played after Labor Day. Wandy Rodriguez combusted, Gregory Polanco fizzled, Justin Wilson never really got on track, Jeff Locke did his Jeff Locke roller coaster, and on and on and on. For 20 years, it felt like the Pirates could only be good if everything went right. Last year, they made the playoffs in a year when many things went wrong.

That’s not to imply that everything went wrong last year, since we have Josh Harrison and Travis Snider and Vance Worley and Neil Walker and Russell Martin and Edinson Volquez and Starling Marte’s last two months and Andrew McCutchen’s continued incredible performance to look back on. It’s simply to point out that the Pirates overcame a lot of obstacles on their way to last year’s Wild Card Game and that last year’s Pirates at their best were probably at least a little bit better than 88-74 and that, all things considered, if the Pirates just had maybe one or two more weeks of decent fortune, they could’ve won the NL Central and then who knows what would’ve happened from there.

None of this excuses a payroll that’s still at least a little lower than it should be, mind you, and it doesn’t put the Pirates’ approach to the off-season beyond reproach. It is simply to point out that saying that the Pirates are pretty similar to the Pirates that ended last season (and I guess this is the place to point out that, yes, they lost Russell Martin, but also that pretty much any catcher available to them in 2015 would be a decent-sized downgrade on 2014 Russell Martin, including 2015 Russell Martin) is much more of a compliment to the 2015 Pirates than it is generally made out to be. The current FanGraphs projections like the Pirates’ roster quite a bit, projecting them to finish in a cluster with the Nationals and Cardinals at 86-88 wins, behind the Dodgers, but pretty well clear of other National League contenders (they have the Giants and Cubs at 83 wins at the moment). This is obviously a rough measure since the ZiPS projections aren’t done for every team and since Max Scherzer and James Shields are still free agents and since Cole Hamels might still be traded (and since the Cardinals are trying to nose in on those fronts), but it pretty clearly puts the Pirates in the top third or so of the National League for 2015.

What that means is this: for the first time since I was in elementary school, a calendar year is starting with no reason to think that the Pittsburgh Pirates won’t be contenders over the course of said year. This is exciting. Expectations come with another price tag, though: there are no longer any excuses. Anything short of a division title for the Pirates this year will be disappointing. Anything short of a wild card will be massively disappointing.

I suppose that the “the future is now” line of thinking is what creates the off-season neuroses. The Pirates’ most talented recent prospects (Cole and Polanco) are in Pittsburgh and while there’s obviously still talent in the minors, it’s of a more uncertain variety (depending on how Jameson Taillon returns from Tommy John surgery, at least). The clock is ticking towards Andrew McCutchen’s free agency and Neil Walker’s 30th birthday and a whole host of other unpleasant things. This is precisely why the Wild Card loss last year was so frustrating: the Pirates made apparent what they were capable of down the stretch, then promptly flamed out of the playoffs in four innings. Instead of the whole experience feeling like the beginning of something, like 2013 did, it suddenly felt like a lost opportunity. Now, with a good team heading into the 2015 season, the small issues feel huge and larger issues feel like chasms. Can Josh Harrison and Gregory Polanco and Pedro Alvarez contribute in 2015? How can a rotation that didn’t have anyone crack 200 innings last year and only managed to get older be an improvement over the team’s biggest 2014 weak spot? Can Gerrit Cole making the leap be enough to bridge that gap? Wait, hold on. Can Gerrit Cole make the leap? How long will Andrew McCutchen’s superhuman peak last? What happens when it’s over? And so on.

This is exhilarating and terrifying. For the first January in reasonable memory, the only Pittsburgh Pirate team I care about is the one that will take the field on Opening Day; all future versions of the club beyond that can wait until the future. I know this Pirate team will be good. I don’t know if they’ll be good enough, and I’m going to spend the next three months worried about it.

Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.