One of the smartest and most cuttingly accurate things I’ve read about the Pirates’ recent struggles is this passage from Bucs Dugout after last night’s inevitable thrashing at the hands of the Cubs:
The Pirates are still the team of Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang and Gregory Polanco and Mark Melancon. Good baseball players. But increasingly, these games feel like exhibits of Triple-A players who I really should know, but don’t. And I say that as someone who’s actually watched a lot of these guys play in Triple-A, and who wrote up their acquisitions and promotions. Oh — A.J. Schugel is pitching. Some part of me had forgotten that A.J. Schugel was on the team, but here he is! And there goes a home run. Look, it’s Curtis Partch! Let’s admire all those 95-MPH fastballs as they fly vaguely in the direction of home plate. Now here’s Jorge Rondon! He’s a little like Partch, but worse. Hey, Jacob Stallings got a start today! And there’s his famous dad in the stands.
The problem from where I’m sitting is this: the plan all along (to re-state it for the millionth time these last two weeks) was for the Pirates to get as much as they could out of a few bit pieces like Nicasio and Locke and Vogelsong, and then slowly begin to replace them with the hugely talented reserve of minor leaguers they have in Triple-A. That plan immolated three weeks ago, and the Pirates have since responded by using one caulk gun on the massive hole rendered across five of their sixteen watertight compartments. Meanwhile everything is filling up with water and half-full lifeboats are bailing to watch basketball or Game of Thrones or maybe a particularly enthralling patch of drying paint instead of the nightly scheduled ritual execution of a bad baseball team.
Anyway, now that my tortured Titantic-metaphor-that-doesn’t-involve-deck-chairs metaphor is out of the way, what I mean is this: pretty much everything that’s being written about the Pirates right now sort of hand-wavingly assmes that hey if they bring up Tyler Glasnow the pitching staff is fine, and they’ll roll on from there. This only might be true. The Pirates have, for a year now, steadfastly insisted that Tyler Glasnow is not ready for the big leagues because he only has two pitches and his control isn’t great and everyone who’s seen him has also observed an inability to hold runners on base, but we all also sort of hold Glasnow in our minds as “he HAS TO BE BETTER than what they have right now.” Except that here’s the thing: the eminently more polished Jameson Taillon is up right now, struggling with his command, throwing a fastball/breaking ball combo, and two of his three starts have not gone very well. Glasnow is not an automatic solution to the Pirates’ problems; he’s only a hypothesized one.
And yet, at least that hypothesis exists with him! The frustrating part right now is this: we all know who the Pirates’ eight starting position players will be in 2017. We know who the first two starters in the rotation will be. None of that is changing (or, in the Josh Bell/John Jaso dynamic, it’s only changing slightly and in an obvious way) from this 2016 club. We don’t know is how the rotation or bullpen will be filled out, though we are very much aware of how important it is for those spots to be filled correctly. We also know who might fill those spots, and we know that the Pirates will (and should) be giving opportunities to those so-often-aforementioned Triple-A guys before giving them to anyone else.
And yet, we’re sitting here in week three of this mess, facing down another Jeff Locke start and a bullpen full of Partches and Rodons and whoever-the-hell-elses and, as Charlie says above, we’re watching a team Polanco and Marte and Kang and Harrison having good offensive years be defined by these other guys. And I know I’m being impatient, and I know Gerrit Cole’s injury complicates things, and I know the Pirates aren’t that far back in the Wild Card and that there’s time and that a lot of the things I wrote just ten days ago about this team’s ceiling are still not quite yet untrue. What I’m starting to worry about now, though, is that 2016’s problems are big enough and the team’s direction is set enough that every Jeff Locke start moves us one day closer to 2016’s problems becoming 2017’s problems.