One of my very least aspects of being a Pirate fan is the sliding scale of expectations that comes with hopelessness. When a team enters a season with no real expectation to contend, win values are more or less meaningless. It sounds strange to say, wins and losses are meaningless distinctions once you separate out playoff teams from non-playoff teams; there are a million different ways to decide how well a team plays or how poorly they play and win/loss record is just one of them. It's much better to be an 85-win team that played like 90-win team and got unlucky than an 85-win team that played like an 80-win team with some good luck going forward, and we can make these sorts of judgments based on runs scored and allowed and pythagenpat and WAR and a host of other metrics.
That's to say that while about half of Major League Baseball teams enter every season with a binary set of expectations (make playoffs = success/miss the playoffs = failure), there's also a subset of teams that has to come in with goals that are much grayer. For most of my life, the Pirates have existed in this second set of teams and since 2005, it's been something that I've been acutely aware of. Every season starts like this for me (this is an approximation of what I wrote in March/April, not a direct quote from an old post):
Well, if James McDonald can find a third pitch to go with his fastball and his curve and throw strikes consistently, that's a big step forward for the Pirates. And if Andrew McCutchen can make The Leap that we've all been waiting for and Neil Walker and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez can become productive every day players and Charlie Morton can figure out how to pitch to lefties and maybe one of the Triple-A arms makes some progress and Starling Marte cuts down on his strikeouts in Triple-A and still brings the power that he showed in Altoona, well, this year will be a pretty good year for the Pirates even if they only win 75 games. I don't really think they'll win more than that, but if they win 75 this year and all of those good things happen, maybe we can talk about something better next year.
The problem with starting the year out with these sorts of expectations is that it's so easy to shift your goals once its clear that they won't be met, you barely even realize it's happening. Andy LaRoche becomes Pedro Alvarez. Lastings Milledge becomes Jose Tabata becomes Starling Marte. Kip Wells becomes Ian Snell becomes Charlie Morton. There's always another prospect and so there's always a way to make yourself hopeful that even if this year isn't the year, next year might be. That's not a critique of Pirate fans or anything more than a statement of reality. This is the way it is because it's the only way to be the fan of a baseball team pulling itself out of a long-term hole. Royal fans and Indian fans and Astro fans all do the same thing.
This is a lousy way to be a baseball fan. It's a spectral kind of half-existence. There are no real highs and there are no real lows; there are just baseball games and ever-shifting lists of goals that have to be met to get to baseball games that really mean something. It's a lousy way to be a baseball fan, but it's really the only way to be one at all if you're the fan of a team like the Pirates coming out of the Dave Littlefield era.
Beyond the obvious thrills of a playoff race, what was great about the Pirates' first 110 games this year was that it finally seemed to me like maybe the Pirates were going to ascend from that sliding scale of expectations rooted in the team having no chance to make the playoffs. That maybe this Pirate team would come back to Earth some over the final 50 games and maybe they'd miss the playoffs, but that the flag would be planted for everyone to see that the Pirates had finally arrived with a Capital A and that they don't need to sit back and wait on Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon to be a good baseball team, because these players that are in Pittsburgh will do just fine thankyouverymuch. That you, rhetorical Brewer/Cardinal/Red Fan, should be scared that Cole and Taillon are on their way because of the very fact that this young Pirate team with room to grow can win 85 games without them.
Instead, we Pirate fans have … this. A team that is going to plummet from 63-47 to somewhere between 75 and 80 total wins. These sorts of collapse lead to questions; why did the pitching staff evaporate into thin air two years in a row? Is what Andrew McCutchen's done this year repeatable? Is what Pedro Alvarez has done this year sustainable? Is there room for either of them to grow? Who, exactly, is filling out the lineup behind these guys long-term? Snider and Marte are promising, but what do the Pirates really have there? It's hard to tell from here. What about Neil Walker? Seriously, what's his deal? Good hitter for a second baseman or good hitter? How long, exactly, will it take for Cole and Taillon to be ready? Because the pitching staff sure needs them yesterday, and any measures that go to fix the rotation between now and when those guys become part of it are likely to be band aids and while some band aids work (AJ Burnett), others just never stick right and fall off right at the very worst time possible (Erik Bedard).
That all goes to say that the Pirates have had some things go right for them this season and they've had some things go wrong for them (spectacularly so in the last month), but the reality is that I'm not at all certain that I feel like they're any closer to contening in 2013 than I did in March. That it's a possibility but far from a probability. I don't really have any interest in debating whether it's worse to have a hopeless season or a collapse season; I feel like a man in the desert that's seen a mirage. It's not so much that the Pirates will miss the playoffs this year or come up short of an 82nd win that bugs me; it's the feeling that not only is this team still adrift in 2012, but that it's no sure thing that 2013 will be better.