For most of the Pirates’ winter, there’s been a question that’s been rattling around in my head. It started when the James Loney and Josh Johnson signings fell through around the winter meetings, it carried through the entire AJ Burnett Saga, and it popped up again with the First Base Fiasco playing out this week. That question is this:
What do I, as a fan, want from the Pirates in the next five* years?
It’s a tough question. Sports aren’t really calibrated to allow the dynasties of yore anymore. Baseball is more top-heavy than any other sport, and even in baseball you could argue that only the Red Sox (2004 and 2007) and the Giants (2010 and 2012) have won multiple championships with similar teams in the last decade or so (the 2006 and 2011 Cardinal teams are in the discussion, but there were a lot of differences between those two teams for all of their similarities).
The Capital-T Truth is that if the Pirates win one World Series in the next five years with McCutchen and Alvarez and Walker and Cole and Marte and whoever else, I’ll be happy beyond expression. I obviously reserve the right to change that statement if the Pirates win 115 games and a World Series this year, but as it stands on March 27, 2014, that’s the reality. What I want from the Pirates in the future (that is — both in the immediate Andrew McCutchen future and in the long-term future) is to play competitive baseball such that if everything breaks right they are capable of winning a World Series, and to do that with such regularity that eventually everything does break in their favor. Whether you think they played over their heads or not in 2013, the reality is that they were one swing away from beating a Cardinal team that took the eventual World Champion Red Sox into Game 6 of the World Series; if you get yourself into that position every year, you’ll find that eventually the outcome surpasses a division series loss.
Where this gets really cloudy, though, is trying to figure out exactly how to maximize the chances of the club over the next five years. The way the Pirates have navigated this off-season says to me that the front office doesn’t see 2014 as their best chance to make a significant move. If you remove the emotion of fanhood, it’s easy to see how you could come to this conclusion; Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, Starling Marte, and Gerrit Cole are the Pirates’ most talented non-Andrew-McCutchen players, and it’s relatively easy to argue that they’ll all be better in 2015 and 2016 than they will be in 2014. Why burn $14 million on AJ Burnett or swing a trade involving any assets for a first baseman in a year that isn’t your best shot at a championship run? Why not hold expendable assets back for a day when you think your window is open wider?
Honestly, that logic doesn’t sit all that well with me. That feels a lot like the pre-contention logic; why try to win 75 games when winning 57 will get you Gerrit Cole? Why waste money on free agents when you might as well throw Lastings Milledge and Andy LaRoche and Jose Tabata and Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf out there to see what you have in hopes that a little bit of it sticks on the wall as something useful? All of that was perfectly fine in 2010 and 2011 and even 2012; many of that era’s “why get an upgrade when this guy might be OK” flamed out, but you can still see a few remnants on this year’s club and the draft picks that the losses earned are a big part of the Pirates’ future.
It’s harder to play that game in 2014, though. Even though these Pirates are a flawed team with obvious holes at first base and in the rotation, almost every projection system predicts that they’re wild card contenders. It’s easy to look at the roster and understand how thin they are in some places (the rotation) and how much the offense will probably rely on Andrew McCutchen. What’s frustrating is the knowledge that they’re contenders without having done much, then putting that inactivity with the apparent fragility of the team’s pre-season hopes because of the thinness of the rotation and the holes on the field.
Trying to figure out how to contend in the present and in the future is a larger question and I won’t pretend to have answers here. Certainly I’d hate for the Pirates to blow everything they have out on the 2014 team only to leave a barren cupboard down the road. Nobody wants the Pirates to go from the 2011 Brewers on the cusp of a World Series to the current incarnation that can’t put even one prospect on a Top-100 list. It’s hard to swallow the idea that after last year’s playoff run it’s time to wait another year for more galvanization from the minors, though. I know that nobody on the Pirates is explicitly saying that right now and I know that this Pirate team certainly could repeat last year’s run as-is, but taking the field on Opening Day with Travis Ishikawa at first base and Edinson Volquez in the rotation sure feels like being asked to wait some more.
I think that’s what’s been so tough about this off-season. It’s not that the team has done anything stupid and (at least for me) it’s not so much about spending or not spending TV dollars now vs. somewhere down a hypothetical road; it’s the idea that the Pirates are coming off of a season in which they made the playoffs and very nearly knocked the eventual NL Champion out of the playoffs, and the front office is more or less acting like they’re still a year away from being a real contender.
I’ll end this with a caveat: I was awfully critical of the place the Pirates were in at this point last year, and I was well off-base about that. Obviously this front office has done some impressive things in the last few years, and I don’t mean to imply that this Pirate team isn’t a contender right now, because I think that they are. This off-season has been awfully dissatisfying for me, though, and I’ve got a general feeling of unease about where the team is right now vs. where they could be with a slightly different winter. The idea of a rebuild is that at some point, the front office flips the switch and starts valuing the present equally with concerns about the future (or even moreso, though again, the Pirates are a small market team and this is its own conversation; you get the point). The Pirates should’ve thrown that switch by now, and I’m not completely convinced that they have.
*Five years is not a randomly selected time frame; it’s the number of years Andrew McCutchen likely has left in black and gold. Please don’t freak out on me for saying this; if ‘Cutch has five years as a Pirate left, then we’re only halfway through is Pirate career.
Image credit: Flickr — Dan4th Nicholas