She looked at him, seeing him again, and the future be damned, since all possible futures ever envisaged are — rusty sinks, two-week vacations and bombs or collective fraternity or harps and houris– endlessly, sordidly dreary, all delight being in the present and its past, all truth, too, and all fidelity in the word, the flesh, the present moment: for the future, however you look at it, contains only one sure thing and that is death. But the moment is unpredictable. There is simply no telling what will happen. -- Ursula K. LeGuin, "A Week in the Country"
For much of Sunday, I sat in a chair staring at an empty editing box, unsure of how this season preview needed to begin. The Pirates are at a new crossroads in their eternal rebuilding process. The team itself is probably a year or so away from really being a contending team, but the Andrew McCutchen clock has been ticking and the front office has been in place for five years now. This is probably the most talented Pirate team to take the field on Opening Day since 1992 (the only other team that you could make a case for is the 1999 team that probably would've finished better than .500 if not for Jason Kendall's horrifying ankle injury), but this is also a flawed team that seems just not quite ready for the big stage yet.
This is a pretty dangerous place for a baseball team to be. The Pirates really are closer to something good than they've been since the Bonds era, but they're also far enough away from it and deep enough into the Neal Huntington era that it doesn't seem like it's the wrong conclusion to think that someone else should be running the team if things go badly this year. Actually, that didn't seem like the wrong conclusion to make after things went badly last year. Huntington has mostly stuck to his guns by not trading prospects and keeping his eyes focused on the future, even last year in the heat of a playoff race. Still, Huntington faces the same question that all of us fans face: how do you know when it's time to stop looking to the future and start hoping for right now?
I've said this before, but I think that the answer is in center field. Andrew McCutchen is like no one the Pirates have had since Bonds. I've never, ever seen anything like McCutchen's run from June 16th to July 17th last year. He went into the second game of the Pirates' series against Cleveland hitting .321/.382/.543, which put him firmly in the middle of a breakout season. Over the next 26 games, McCutchen hit 11 home runs, seven doubles, two triples, drove in 28 runs, and put up a .481/.521/.889 line. The Pirates went 18-8. The list of players that are capable of doing that for a full month can probably counted on one hand. McCutchen took an undermanned, 33-31 team and dragged it kicking and screaming into first place in that month. They couldn't stay there, but the fuse was lit. Even players like McCutchen only get so many seasons like last year; when you have a player like him in his prime, you have to stop looking off into the distance and start looking at what's right in front of you. If the Pirates can't win right now with McCutchen, when can they ever win?
This is mixed news. All of us Pirate fans have spent a lot of time in recent weeks dwelling on the wave of crap that this spring training season has heaped up on the North Shore of the Allegheny. It's true that it seems like a team that's supposed to be peaking in Year Five of its rebuild shouldn't be taking the field that with Jonathan Sanchez and John McDonald and Brandon Inge and it's hard to swallow that after years of trades and big draft spending that this is what the Pirates have to deal with. It's also true that those guys only make up the back end of a roster that, as mentioned, is probably the strongest roster the Pirates have opened a season with in 20 years. It's easy to moan and gnash teeth when you see McDonald and Sanchez and Inge on the roster and to wonder what the Pirates did all winter and how it came to this, but the honest reality is that the Pirates' best hope to improve this winter was set in stone the second the final pitch was thrown in 2012, before one free agent was signed or one non-roster invitation was sent out.
The Pirates' best hope this season and next season and the season after that is that the young talent base built up by Neal Huntington drives the team forward in the same way that McCutchen did last year. This year, those hopes fall most squarely on Starling Marte, Pedro Alvarez, James McDonald, and probably Gerrit Cole. Alvarez had a breakout year last year in that even the most optimistic among us was starting to wonder if the ship had sailed by late April, before he picked himself up by his bootstraps and became a 30 homer guy. The Pirates need Alvarez to be a 30 homer guy again, but they need him to be a 35 homer guy with a .340 OBP and a .520 slugging percentage. They need the strikeouts to go down and the walks to go up. Alvarez's season last year was a breakout, but it was the bare minimum of what's really expected of Pedro as a rock in the middle of the lineup. If he can be better, the Pirates will be better. The same holds true of McDonald. For at least a month and quite possibly longer, the Pirates' rotation is going to give 40% of its starts to Jeff Locke and Jonathan Sanchez. It's possible that those starts will go better than the worst case scenario I've got in my head, but in the event that they don't, McDonald is the rotation's tipping point. We know that he can be dominant, mixing a fastball, curveball, slider, and sometimes a changeup to look a lot like a younger version of AJ Burnett. We know that he can lose the strike zone and wear down and be the most frustrating pitcher on the staff. The Pirates need good James McDonald this year; good James McDonald makes a huge difference while the Pirates wait on Francisco Liriano and Jeff Karstens and Gerrit Cole and he can continue to make a huge difference even after the Pirates have those guys, because I'm not sure that any of that trio will be better than First Half 2012 James McDonald in 2013.
Starling Marte is his own category. I really have no idea what to expect from Marte, really, but I'm hugely excited to watch him play every day. He's unlike anything the Pirates have or have had in a while with his blinding speed, gap power, great arm, and great instincts in the field. If Marte can hit for the Pirates the way he's hit in the minors or the way he hit in winter ball, the Pirates have another dynamic middle-of-the-lineup hitter and MVP candidate to go with McCutchen. His talent means he's just capable of bringing more to the plate than a one-dimensional masher like Alvarez or a solid-but-unspectacular hitter like Neil Walker. The problem is that he's just so raw, it's impossible to know what to expect out of him this early in his career and it's really hard to count on anything more than spectacular defense and flashes of brilliance at the plate peppered by stretches of frustration.
Cole represents the future. Since early on in the Huntington era, the Pirates have cast their lot with pitching. As a result, the Pirates have a collection of minor league arms that rivals anything in baseball. Just about none of those arms have been able to help the Pirates, though, and the club is starting the season with Jonathan Sanchez in the rotation and Jeanmar Gomez in the bullpen. Cole can change that. He needs the work he'll get in the early season with Indianapolis, but if he breaks through, he'll get his shot with the Pirates this year. His talent level is unlike anything else the Pirates have in their rotation; at his ceiling, he's capable of dominating every night the way that Burnett and McDonald do on their best nights. He probably won't hit that ceiling this year, but he's the wild card in a rotation that's lacking right now. AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jonathan Sanchez, and Jeff Locke are decent and uninspiring at best, as rotations go. Gerrit Cole, AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Francisco Liriano is a different animal entirely; one that could shut down opposing lineups for a week straight if all five guys are clicking at once. It's a rotation that could be very good, even if McDonald and Liriano are only performing inconsistently.
Therein lies the difficulty in predicting what this Pirate team will do. On this Opening Day, it's easier than it's been in a long time to close your eyes and dream of PNC Park laced with bunting on a cold October night, to see your breath in front of your face and the Pirates in the playoffs behind it. This could happen in 2013. Most of the projection systems peg the Pirates as just about a .500 team right now. I've always said in the past that it's not all that hard for a team with 75-win talent to win 82 games. It's not impossible for a team with 80-win talent to win 87 games, either.
If that's what I want for this Pirate team in my heart, that's not what I see in my head or I feel in the pit of my stomach, though. There are still too many what-ifs. It'd be one thing for Alvarez to continue his progression forward or McDonald to finally put together a full season or Marte to just blow the doors off of the National League or Cole to come up in June and go straight into Verlander mode. It's not really unreasonable to expect any of those things to happen in isolation. It feels like a stretch, though, to hope for all of them to happen at once without anyone else going backwards. It could happen, but since when has everything going right for the Pirates all at once? And if everything doesn't go right, well, that's where the depth issues become a concern. What bugs me about John McDonald and Inge and Sanchez and Gomez isn't so much that they're on the roster, but that the Pirates have fallen apart two years in a row because they had no depth to cover for a long season. They had no contingency plans for when things stopped going perfectly in August and September. They still don't, and that's worrisome. Baseball seasons are inherently unpredictable, despite all of the work that goes into figuring out what will happen. I just don't think this Pirate team has a Plan B for when things go wrong, and it's foolish to think that something won't go wrong over the course of a baseball season.
Could this be the year that things are different for the Pirates? It could be. Will it? I don't see it yet. I see another 75 win season, and I see a re-evaluation of the direction the club is headed when the season ends. We don't live in the future, though. We live in the moment and inside of the moment everything is possible.
Prove me wrong, Pirates. Please, prove me wrong.