After the disastrous final years of the Dave Littlefield era, I didn’t think I could be shocked by another baseball trade. Littlefield’s drive to acquire veterans that would somehow add up to an 82-win Pirate team was so monomaniacal that it went from surprising to a little bit funny to outright sad. When Neal Huntington took over in 2007, it became immediately clear that no Pirate was safe. The plan was to rip out the rotting foundation of the Pittsburgh Pirates and rebuild the entire franchise on something much more structurally sound. It was a good plan, and in 2009, the Pirates were still in the early phases of it.
And yet, I was still completely shocked on June 3, 2009 when I got home from lab, opened up my computer, and found out that Nate McLouth had been dealt to the Braves. McLouth had seemed like a legitimately interesting you player for a while, he’d been an All-Star in 2008, and the Pirates had signed him to a deal covering his arbitration years just a few months earlier. The Pirates were on a two-game winning streak and their record sat at 24-28. Contention felt like a long-shot, but shouldn’t they at least be taking that long shot? It seemed like Nate McLouth was supposed to be part of that new foundation. Instead, he was gone.
The move was couple with another one: Andrew McCutchen was promoted to the big leagues that very day and he made his Pirate debut one night later. In retrospect, this all seems like Neal Huntington’s version of the Joker’s, “This town deserves a better class of criminal” speech in “The Dark Knight.” Huntington didn’t care what the Pirates’ record was or what McLouth was doing on the field. That Pirate team as assembled was not a contender and Nate McLouth had maximized his value. You don’t build around Nate McLouth, Huntington told us that day. You build around Andrew McCutchen.
Five years later, the Pirates have built around Andrew McCutchen. After three solid years to start his career, McCutchen turned into a perennial MVP candidate in 2012. If the first 63 games of 2014 are any indication, it’s possible that his streak of getting at least little bit better every year isn’t ready to be broken quite yet. In 2012, his ridiculous hot streak in June and July made the Pirates contenders for a big part of the season. In 2013, he lead them to the playoffs and won (his first?) MVP award.
It’s easy to say that the McLouth trade and McCutchen promotion became the Pirates’ version of the crossing of the Rubicon. They still had a ways to go, but everything that happened after that point felt like it was building upwards. Even the awful 2010 season came with the knowledge that the first pick in the draft would be waiting for the Pirates the next June, and that that pick was more valuable than ten meaningless wins during an already-lost season. Each big prospect debut after brought a little bit more hype to it. First came Pedro Alvarez, to shine a little bit of light on the second part of that lost season of 2010. Then came Starling Marte, to try and give a shot in the arm to a 2012 team that needed it badly. Finally, Gerrit Cole came as one of the final pieces of the puzzle for a 2013 club that had already established itself as a contender by his early-June debut.
Now, it’s 2014 and this year’s edition of the Pirates find themselves in a place that looks superficially similar to the place the 2009 Pirates were in: they’re three games under .500 and they’re on the outskirts of the NL Central race. They’re calling up a five-tool outfield prospect today, one that they hope can be a cornerstone in their outfield for years to come.
The similarities end there, though. I was honestly surprised when I looked back at the standings in 2009 and saw that the Pirates were so close to .500 at the time of the McLouth trade; I remember them being better than I expected to that point in the year, but being surprised when people were upset by the trade because the Pirates had a chance to contend. This year’s club, though, they feel like they’re on the verge of something. They’re 20-17 after a bad March/April and over the past two weeks they’ve been thisclose to just a couple extra wins that could’ve changed the tenor of the season. Polanco isn’t some beacon of a promised hope, Polanco represents a great baseball talent that could alter the path of the 2014 season for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates have come a long way in five years.
This isn’t to try and hold Polanco up to some incredible standard that he can’t reach. I thought Baseball Prospectus’s scouting report on him today was spot-on; his physical tools and his swing are incredible, but no young player is immune to struggles at the big league level and he’s going to have to adjust as the league adjusts to him. Even Mike Trout’s first call-up was relatively disappointing, after all.
The way he’s torn through the minors in the last 2+ years has been impressive, though, and so it’s really hard to be anything other than excited tonight. He’s as impressive a talent at this point in his career as the Pirates have had recently, and he’s joining a talented team with playoff aspirations that could use a real offensive catalyst to join their MVP candidate in the lineup on a nightly basis. This is exciting, precisely because it’s different than the call that McCutchen got. Maybe Polanco will be a difference maker for the Pirates in 2014 and maybe he won’t, but what’s important about this is just the fact that he can be.