I've had a sense of dread about the 2013 season for the Pirates since the 2012 season ended. This is not because the Pirates are a hopeless mess, because they're not. Of all of the teams that the Pirates have fielded since 2005 when I started this blog, the 2013 edition of the Pirates is probably the least-Calvinistically-predestined for Baseball Doom. It's true that it's possible in February of pretty much any year to screw your eyes up and convince yourself that your favorite baseball team is a winner. It's true that this Pirate team is still flawed. It's true they won't (or at least they shouldn't) be anyone's pick to win the NL Central or one of the NL Lottery Ticket Wild Cards. All I'm saying is that this year, you don't have to hold the picture quite as far away from your face to convince yourself that something good could happen in PNC Park.
For five years under Neal Huntington, the Pirates have been wheeling and dealing and spending tons money on the draft and internationally. They've spent every spring with Francisco Lirianos (if he can just do this …) and Jonathan Sanchezes (there's a snowball's chance in hell but what's the harm …) in camp in hopes that throwing something at the wall will eventually make something stick. The implicit goal from Day 1 has always been this: the short term future of the Pirates is unimportant because we are working towards opening a window of contention in the future.
Talking about windows in baseball is misleading though, and the reason for that is that front offices can't really control when windows open. In the long and mostly great history of the Pittsburgh Pirates, a player has hit the 7.0 WAR mark exactly 27 times. Honus Wagner did it eight times from 1903-1912. Arky Vaughan and Ralph Kiner did it three times apiece. Roberto Clemente did it five times in the 1960s. Willie Stargell did it twice in the 1970s and Dave Parker did it once. Barry Bonds did it four years in a row from 1989 to 1992. Andrew McCutchen did it in 2012. That's it: those are the greatest individual seasons by position players in Pittsburgh Pirate history. It's easy to go from there and map the Pirates' World Series Champion teams to great players: the 1909 Pirates had Wagner, the 1960 Pirates had Clemente, the 1971 Pirates had Clemente and Stargell, the 1979 Pirates had Stargell and Parker. Only the 1925 Pirates won a World Series without a player that achieved the 7.0 WAR mark at some point in his career (on that team, Kiki Cuyler had the highest single-season WAR of anyone with his 6.6 in 1925).
I don't want to get bogged down in correlation/causation here. Honus Wagner didn't win the 1909 World Series by himself. Clemente didn't win the 1971 World Series by himself. Besides Wagner, the two best seasons in Pirate history came from Barry Bonds in 1990 and Arky Vaughan in 1935. Neither of those guys ever even played in the World Series as Pirates. The point is simply this: great teams often have great players, and Andrew McCutchen had a great season in 2012. Pittsburgh Pirate fans have been wandering around in the dark for two decades waiting for a team to lead them into the light and if Andrew McCutchen isn't one of the players on the team that does it, I have no idea when it's ever going to happen.
That means that so long as McCutchen is on the team and producing, the window is open. In the entire history of baseball, only 50 position players have had three or more seven-win seasons and only 35 more players have had two seven-win seasons. That means that of the 200 MLB players that have recorded at least one season of 7+ WAR, 115 of them didn't repeat it. I want nothing more than Andrew McCutchen's 2012 season to be a harbinger of doom for National League pitchers over the next half-decade, but the reality is that 2012 might have been a career year. That means that the Pirates wasted 2012 and it means that they're at risk of wasting 2013, too, because this club is certainly not a slam dunk for contention. It's not unreasonable to think that Starling Marte and Gerrit Cole could need another year of seasoning after 2013. Guess what that means? After years of waiting and preparing for "The Window," McCutchen yanked the window open last year and the Pirates weren't ready for it. They still aren't, and I'm not sure when they will be beyond a vague, "pretty soon."
Perhaps it's not quite a sense of dread that I have about the 2013. Perhaps it's much more a case of nerves. As a Pirate fan, I've been waiting for some sort of vague concept of the future for a very long time. It's here now, and it's not as comforting as I wanted it to be.