When the Pirates punted almost every big decision of the off-season, leaving what one could reasonably assume to be a decent amount of cash unspent (you can look at their offers to Josh Johnson, James Loney, and AJ Burnett and guess that they had at least another $12 million to spend this winter, maybe a little bit more), my immediate thought was this: They’re not sure that 2014 is the best year to contend, and they’ve decided not to spend money on the team because of that.
I thought that was a dubious strategy for a few reasons. The team obviously does have talent in the present, and so picking and choosing contention based on future projections feels dangerous. That’s especially true because, while no one wants to hear it, Andrew McCutchen Clock only ticks in one direction. And finally, I still don’t know the answer to the question of what the best way for the Pirates to win a World Series between now and 2018: Should they double down on years that seem like they could be the best years, or should they try to contend in as many years as possible and hope that everything breaks right once?
Those were all issues in March. Now, the All-Star Break is ending and the Pirates are in what looks to me like a deceivingly strong position. They’re 49-46, 3 1/2 back in the NL Central and 3 back in the wild card, but they’re also in last place among the eight teams that are currently contending for a playoff spot. I think it’s hard to say exactly how many wins it’s going to take for a playoff spot from here; the NL is much closer right now than it’s been in the past and there are quite a few good teams in the league this year, but the Giants, who are currently the second wild card, are only on pace for 88-wins, which would match the lowest number of wins for a second wild card in the short history of the two wild card era. That means that the question is this: Will so many good teams keep the records from exploding and keep the number of wins required to make the playoffs relatively low, or will a handful of these teams separate themselves (the NL has it’s share of pushover teams and that gap will widen at the trade deadline, so it’s possible that the schedule will drive this more than anything else) and drive the number up to the 92 or 93 wins it’s taken in the American League in the last two years? It’s an important question because last year, seven MLB teams won 40 games after the break (that would get the Pirates to 89 wins), while only one won more than 44 (the number to get them to 93). We’re talking the difference between a ~.600 winning percentage and a .657 winning percentage. That’s a big difference.
The question, “Did the Pirates have a good first half?” is such a loaded one that I don’t know how to really even begin to answer it. They’re in contention with Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano missing big chunks of time, with Jason Grilli pitching poorly enough to be dumped on another team, with Starling Marte going through a loooong early-season slump, with Neil Walker having his appendix out, and with Pedro Alvarez’s power having dried up for almost a month. A bunch of the questions that everyone assumed would drive the success of this team in March: “Can Jordy Mercer be an every day shortstop?” and “Will Pedro Alvarez ever make the leap?” and “Is Gerrit Cole the next Justin Verlander?” and “Can anything stop the Gregory Polanco Train?” and “So is Starling Marte kinda good or pretty good or really good?” have all been more or less deferred to the second half and the Pirates are still in contention. Some of the reasons they’ve been deferred are good. Andrew McCutchen continues to be better than even my considerable imagination is capable of projecting him to be. Josh Harrison is a really useful big league player. Jeff Locke and Edinson Volquez have taken nice steps forward this year. Pedro Alvarez has been productive without every really going bananas, which is a nice departure from what he’s offered in the past. Brandon Cumpton and Vance Worley have offered better-than-replacement-value in a spot where most clubs would be stuck with replacement players. Russell Martin is a force to be reckoned with, both at the plate and behind it this year. So by some measures, yes, this has been a pretty good half for the Pirates.
On the other hand, the Pirates have played terribly against the teams that matter. They have a 13-26 record against the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds. Their current record is inflated by their recent 16-game stretch against the Cubs, Rays, Mets, Diamondbacks, and Phillies, which came immediately before an awful week against the Cardinals and Reds. Their rotation is mostly good enough and their bullpen has Watson and Melancon, who are about as nasty as a 1-2 bullpen punch comes these days, but against better teams the back end of the rotation wears down, the bullpen gets exposed, and even Watson and Melancon have had their problems. It is, on one hand, easy to go through all of the bad late-inning losses to the Brewers, Cardinals, and Reds and say, Hey, these losses are all kind of flukey in their own right and there are literally eight of these games now and if you just flip four of those eight the entire National League looks different. It is, on the other, also kind of hard not to say, Wait, eight of those games? Like, no hyperbole, eight? Out of 33? And you want to say it’s a fluke that will self-correct?
Rather than being good or bad, this first half was kind of insidious for the Pirates. If you accept that the off-season inactivity was driven by a “Well, let’s see what we have and then we can spend money more efficiently as the season goes on if it’s worth it,” (which, granted, is a very generous-to-the-front-office interpretation) stance, then, well, it’s clear that this team is talented, that this team is capable of being a very serious contender in the National League, and that they need a reliable starter and a capable reliever to really transform themselves into that serious contender. The problem is that the way that the standings are stacked, the Pirates could make some trades, rip off 41 or 42 wins in the second half and find themselves out of the playoffs because the Cardinals, Reds, Giants, and Dodgers all played well enough in the second half to keep the Pirates behind them in the standings. This is not at all out of the question.
Really, the Pirates’ first half was just good enough to keep them in contention, and just bad enough to put their status as contenders not completely in their own hands. Obviously, things could be worse and we all expected the Pirates to be in a much worse condition at this point just three weeks ago, but it I’m not sure they’re in good shape yet, either.