One of my absolute favorite late-season online toys is the MLB.com Playoff Probability graph. I love looking at where teams started and what sort of runs are paradigm shifting and how teams fell out of the race. Look at the Pirates' season: their nine-game winning streak changed them from fringe contenders to real contenders, and no stretch of bad play that they've had since then has knocked them off of that perch. The whole season shifted with that winning streak, really.
There is another thing that I find fascinating today, and that's the initial odds from Opening Day. No team had better playoff odds in all of baseball on Opening Day than the Reds, who have had a 79% chance of making the playoffs from the word go. The Reds probably will make the playoffs, but they probably won't win the NL Central. Odds are decent that they'll make the playoffs and be immediately rewarded with a one-game set in a packed-full, manic PNC Park against a Francisco Liriano pitching for his one big payday after the 2014 season. Hardly a just reward for a 79% shot at making the playoffs on Day 1. The Reds are better off than the pre-season NL East favorites, though, because the Nats have disappeared from contention entirely. So too have the pre-season AL East favorite Yankees and the AL West favorite Angels. Of the six forecast division leaders from prior to the 2013 season, only three of them are going to make the playoffs and only two of them are going to win their division. What that means is this: if you're forecast to win your division before the season begins, your chances to make the playoffs are better than everyone else's, but they're still not much better than a coin flip.
When the Pirates traded Dilson Herrera and an unknown player to be named (who was characterized by Neal Huntington as a "good young player," but who I'm guessing is not on or even that close to the same type of prospect Herrera is) to the Mets for Marlon Byrd, a whole bunch of the Pirate fans reacted with some form of this statement: "Dilson Herrera is a good prospect and Marlon Byrd is hardly that great and there aren't many games left. This Pirate team is falling apart and kind of sucks anyway. Why trade a good young player to play for this year at this point?"
I get that reaction. I like Dilson Herrera a whole lot. I'm sure that at some point when Alen Hanson got pulled from a game and people wondered if he'd been traded, I posted or tweeted something along the lines of, "Well, depending on what you think of Hanson's defense and what you think of Dilson Herrera, you could argue that Hanson is a viable trade piece." Hanson is a heck of a prospect, and a much better prospect than Herrera is for a couple of reasons, but the idea that Herrera could allow Hanson to be dealt isn't really a crazy one. The thing is, much of the Pirates' focus right now should go from this very moment through about 2018, which is when guys like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole will at or really close to free agency. Dilson Herrera will be 24 years old in 2018, which means that in all likelihood, he'll be just hitting his prime. The Pirates have Hanson in the future and they have Neil Walker for now and they have Jordy Mercer, who might be the only one out of the whole group that can capably play short at a big league level. Dilson Herrera looks like he'll be a nice Major League second baseman someday, but that day isn't particularly close at hand and it's not at a position that the Pirates necessarily need help at in the near-to-immediate future.
That's a dangerous bargain to make, but it's one that the Pirates have to make at this point. The reason that they have to make it is this: they're 76-55 on August 28th. The future of the Pirates looks amazing right now. If you are a Pirate fan and you're not drooling over the prospect of adding Jameson Taillon, Gregory Polanco, and Alen Hanson to the group that's already in Pittsburgh in the next year, I don't think you can possibly have a pulse.
There's something else that you should realize as a Pirate fan, though: the future carries absolutely nothing in the way of guarantees. You can and you should say what you want about the Pirates' last 20-odd games. They've been pretty lousy and they're not coming at the best time of year. But when you say those things, you should remember that the Pirates are still very much in the NL Central race at 76-55 because a 1 1/2 game deficit is nothing over 31 games when you play the team you're chasing six times. You should mention that the Pirates have lost by one run five times in their last 21 games and they haven't won by one run at all. You should mention that they've played three long extra inning games and lost all of them. You should mention that four out of the five rotation members are pitching as well as they've pitched ths year, and that they're four really talented guys. You should mention that Jason Grilli seems to be on his way back and that that could substantially improve the makeup of the bullpen. You should mention that Andrew McCutchen is ON FIRE right now, and that Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker aren't doing too shabbily either. You should think about all of the times that McCutchen and Alvarez have been pitched around in the last month, all of the times Russell Martin has failed to capitalize, and wonder how batting Marlon Byrd fifth in the spot that Martin has occupied will change the late-game LOOGY-matching calculus that has confounded the Pirates so regularly of late.
The Pirates are playing poorly right now, but they are very seriously in this race. For the 2013 Pirates to win their division, what they have to dobasically boils down to this: play well for 31 games. They are capable of doing this, though that's obviously no guarantee that they will. The 2014 or 2015 Pirates, though? Well, they'll have to stay healthy in ways that can't be guaranteed from here and they'll have to compete with a Reds team that will still be in its prime and a Cardinals' team that has a stacked farm system bubbling underneath an already good team and a Cubs' team that is very much moving in the right direction. I certainly think that there are going to be some good Pirate teams between 2014 and 2018. If I had to make a prediction today, I'd say that this 2013 club certainly won't be the last Pirate team to contend for a playoff spot with Andrew McCutchen on the roster.
That only goes so far, though. This Pirate team that's in front of us right now is contending, and it needed help. Marlon Byrd and John Buck sure look like help. Given the way the last two Pirate seasons have ended, I understand it's easy to write them off and start looking ahead. I'm just not sure it's quite time to do that yet.