A rock and a hard place (Or, Strasburg, Harper, Rendon, the Pirates, and the minor existential crises fans of bad baseball teams must deal with)

Every summer, I struggle with wanting the Pirates to be as good as possible, but also wanting them to have the best draft pick that they can. The last two years, it’s been hard to sit by on draft day while the Nationals take Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the first pick, knowing that the Pirates were bad but not bad enough to take what amounts to franchise-altering talent. That’s no knock on Tony Sanchez or Jameson Taillon, who are good young prospects that certainly seem to have bright futures in the Major Leagues. But the questions about Sanchez’s bat are likely to persist until he reaches the upper levels of the minor leagues and he won’t do that until 2011 now. Taillon is a high school pitcher who’s not signed and even if he was he’d be a million miles away from the big leagues. The Pirates’ system is certainly improving, but I don’t think anyone would argue that it’d be more improved if they managed to snag the first pick in the last two drafts instead of picking fourth and second. That’s just the reality of the situation.

Now, we’re here again in 2010. The Pirates have been awful and awful to watch for a huge chunk of the season. They’re 30-53, which is a 103-loss pace. That would be their worst season since 1985 and the only the second time since the ’50s in which they lost more than 100 games. And yet they’re still full five games better than the Orioles, who are on pace for a nearly unfathomable 113 losses.

That makes the Orioles the early leaders in what’s shaping up to be the Anthony Rendon sweepstakes. Rendon, for the unaware, is a third baseman at Rice who hit .394/.530/.801 with 26 homers in 63 games for the Owls in his sophomore season. He walked 65 times and struck out just 22 in around 300 plate appearances. He’s being very favorably compared to guys like Ryan Zimmerman and Evan Longoria. Put this guy at third base, move Pedro Alvarez to first, mix in Andrew McCutchen, get some growth from Jose Tabata and Neil Walker, hope Garrett Jones leans more towards a 30-homer guy than a 20-homer guy, and suddenly there’s a nice little lineup shaping up on the North Shore of Pittsburgh, maybe as soon as 2012.

The problem is, the Pirates will have to be awful to get there. I don’t know if the Orioles are a 113-loss team, but they might be in this year’s AL East and it’ll probably take, say, 106 or so losses to do worse than them. I want the Pirates to get the first pick. I want them to pick Rendon. I want the Pirates to do exactly what the Rays did; be awful when you’re bad to acquire as much talent as possible, then immediately be great rather than good1. All of that being said, the thought of losing 108 games this year gives me the screaming meemies, the heebie jeebies, the howling fantods. Maybe all three at once.

Why? Let’s consider a few things. First off, the Pirates’ run differential has them playing like a 114-loss team right now. That’s awful, but it comes with a huge dose of Andy LaRoche, a huge dose of Aki Iwamura, a huge dose of Jeff Clement, Pedro Alvarez’s terrible start, a terrible week in May when they allowed 72 runs and only scored 10, and a more recent run that’s arguably still going in which they can’t score more than two or three runs a night. But Alvarez’s bat is coming around and that’s pushed LaRoche out of the lineup, Walker has pushed Iwamura out, and Tabata has pushed Clement out. For the Pirates to lose 108 games, these young players have to offer almost no upgrade on the historically bad players they’re replacing. Even if Tabata, Walker, and Alvarez are just a little better than replacement level, that’s quite a bit better than the guys they’re replacing. And the pitching almost certainly won’t go through any stretch like the one they had in May and if they do, that means that Brad Lincoln absolutely flamed out and Ross Ohlendorf never irons out his problems. All of these things are really bad for the immediate future of the Pirates. I want to watch the young Bucs progress. I want to see Pedro Alvarez bash balls into the stands, to see the Tabata/Walker/McCutchen trio to start to grow into something, to see Brad Lincoln pitch more games like he did in Wrigley last week. But if those things happen, the Pirates will probably end up with the third or fourth worst record in the league again instead of the worst.

Also remember that for the Pirates to finish with a worse record than the Orioles, they’ll probably have to be significantly worse than the O’s because of the difference between the divisions and leagues. How many games would the Pirates lose with 50 games against the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays? With two full passes through the AL West and AL Central divisions that just mopped the floor with them? With the way they’ve played in the first half, the Pirates might be one of the worst teams in history if the played in the AL East this year. But they’re not in that division or that league and the Orioles are, which means that the Orioles might be bad enough that the Pirates will have to continue being all-time worst run differential bad to “catch” them in the standings.

And none of this even considers the Bob Smiziks and Ron Cooks and Gene Colliers of the world and the way they’ll stoke the angry Yinzer fires if the Pirates lose than many games. From there, fans will organize boycotts that will be breathlessly covered by the local media and things could get ugly quickly. And hey, maybe that will make Bob Nutting sell the team and maybe that will be a good thing, but one of those things does not necessarily lead directly to the other, despite what you may have heard. More likely, though, any reaction to extreme bad press will probably be to get rid of a lot of people in the front office2, Neal Huntington included, to pacify angry fans.. And hey, maybe that will be a good thing and someone can come in Ray Shero-style and take the foundation that Huntington’s laid out and tweak it towards success. I like what Huntington’s done, but I’ll also admit that he hasn’t been perfect and I have more questions about the future of this team than I’d like to at this point (but I also know that all of those questions aren’t directly Huntington’s fault). But it’s also possible that the message that ownership takes from the fans is that the most important thing is 82 wins and so therefore 82 wins in 2012 and 82 wins in 2013 are better than 75 wins in 2012 and 95 wins with a playoff berth in 2013. We’ve all been there before and if we go back to that, I’ll be 40 before this team really contends again and I don’t even want to think about that.

Of course, I’m not saying all this will happen if the Pirates end up with the worst record. But they will have to be awfully bad to catch the Orioles and if they are, this is the sort of scenario that might play out. Which is why as much as it sucks to know that the Pirates have been bad but not bad enough to draft guys like Strasburg and Harper and as much as I’d love to see them in position to draft Anthony Rendon, rooting for them to actually be bad enough to draft him makes me feel both traitorous for rooting against players that I know have to be the future of the franchise if this franchise is going to have a real future and uneasy to the nth degree.

Someday, the Pirates will be good again and this will all be much less complicated.

1- I admire the job the Rays’ front office has done with the Rays the way some people admire the Mona Lisa or the statue of David or great works of literature. Well, I admire all of those things, too, but the Rays are like the baseball version of that to me.

2- Don’t tell me the Pirates don’t react quickly to bad press. They re-hired the fired Pierogi and I don’t believe for one second that that was anything except a reaction to bad press. And I still think that the massively ugly public backlash that resorted from DK’s reporting about the Latin American mess that Littlefield created plus Matt Wieters debacle and the Matt Morris trade is what finally got Nutting to pull the trigger on firing Littlefield.

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.