What lies ahead

 

I am in no way shape or form interested in reviewing the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirate season. It goes like this: it sucked, it was awesome, it sucked a lot more. I will remember a lot of individual moments from 2012 as being fantastic in a vacuum; Andrew McCutchen's incredible mid-season hot streak, Pedro Alvarez's brobdingnagian feats of strength (particularly against Cleveland and St. Louis), AJ Burnett's near no-hitter, DREW SUTTON (not just for his walkoff home run, but for his incredibly over-sensitive twitter feed and teary-eyed interviews that helped remind me that really, athletes are just human beings trying to find a place for themselves in this world), Starling Marte's career-opening homer, the way that PNC seemed to jump off of the TV screen in June and July, the way that every somewhat neutral baseball fan everywhere wanted something to go right for the Pirates for once when it seemed like maybe it could happen, and more. I will remember 2012 itself as a miserable failure of unmet possibilities. 

Back in 2008, I spent much of the playoffs running FanHouse's live chats where me and the other writers and bloggers would discuss the games and take questions from FanHouse's readers. When the Rays lost the World Series, a few Rays fans seemed despondent; that they'd spent their entire existence as Rays fans waiting for something good to happen and they got SOCLOSE to it in 2008, only to have it collapse in front of them. Our response to them was that this is what being a sports fan is like. That the euphoria of seeing your team win a championship is validated and defined by all of the years that you don't win one, and that you can't truly feel what that absence is like until you've gotten close to it and fallen short. My sincere hope for all of us Pirate fans is that this is how we remember 2012. That this is the season that we all finally remembered what it was like to want something from our baseball team, only to see them fall short. That the future successes of the Pirates will only be sweetened by the bitter taste that 2012 has left in our mouths. 

The Pirates are not there yet. The 2012 season made two things abundantly clear to me. The first is that the Pirates have a framework around which they can build a contender and the second is that just a framework is not nearly enough. The Pirates obviously have pitching issues. As it stands right now, they're headed into 2012 with a rotation of AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, and Locke/McPherson/Charlie Morton (if healthy). There are age issues with Burnett and consistency and durability issues with McDonald and health issues with Karstens and it's not at all apparent if Locke and McPherson can start at a big league level and Charlie Morton is a huge wild card when he's not recovering from Tommy John surgery. That rotation might be fine, but counting on it to be fine is unwise. 

Similarly, it's easy enough to look at the offense and say that McCutchen and Alvarez and Jones and Walker form a nice enough core that if Marte and Snider step things up that they can be above-average in 2013 even without upgrading Clint Barmes or finding a real solution behind the plate beyond, "Uh, McKenry gets hot again and … **shrug**" McCutchen and Alvarez and Jones and arguably Walker all had career years in 2012 and while three of those four are young enough to reasonably hope that they can do something to replicate these numbers, you also have to consider that one of the biggest things that changed for McCutchen in 2012 was BABIP and that while I think his power surge is real, it's also a real possibility that he hits .280 in 2013 and that doing that will ding his all-around numbers considerably. You can't ignore that Pedro Alvarez is still striking out at a 30+% rate and that that means that there's a real chance that his career takes the shape of Mark Reynolds' career, where his results vary wildly from year to year because you just can't count on a guy that strikes out 30% of the time to do anything consistently except strike out. 

The point is that yes, it's possible that the Pirates could do literally nothing this winter and if McCutchen and Jones and Alvarez and Walker replicate their 2012 seasons and Marte and Snider become real contributors and McDonald can go end-to-end and Cole comes up in May and blossoms into the ace that his arm tells us he can be, that yeah, the 2013 Pirates could absolutely win 92 or 93 games and win the NL Central. It's not insane. That reality is much more possible today than it has been post-game-162 in any Pirate season in recent memory. But you can't mention that possibility without also mentioning that the Pirates are at least as or maybe even slightly more likely to see their young players give back some of the gains they've made this year and that things will go wrong with Snider and/or Marte and/or Cole and that giving a paper-thin pitching staff a year to age does not make it less paper-thin when it's not particularly young and that instead of jumping 12-15 wins forward, this same group of players could drop 12-15 wins backwards in 2013. That can happen with these players, too. That means that the most likely outcome is probably that the Pirates cruise right into a win total right around 80 or 85 wins, probably in a slightly less manic fashion than in 2012, and that we get one year closer to this team having to break apart without anything to show for it. 

I said when I wrote about Neal Huntington and his team getting a vote of confidence from Frank Coonelly that I was OK with it insofar as it's every bit as easy to make a case for Huntington as it is to make a case against him. What Huntington has to do to deserve that vote of confidence is to understand that it's time for him to stop sitting on his hands and saying, "Well, this group of guys isn't so bad. Let's see how this plays out." That approach was fine in 2011 and 2012 while the front office got a read on their McCutchens and Alvarezes and Walkers and Tabatas, but the time for that is past. 

For Huntington, the die is cast. If he's going to be the Pirates' GM for a long time, he's going to make the playoffs with Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole and probably Starling Marte and Neil Walker. So what do the Pirates really have in that? And what else do the Pirates need to take those guys over the top? The Pirates turned over a huge portion of their roster last winter and most of it amounted to treading water at best; I'm not arguing that's what they need to do this winter. Instead, they need to identify what works, what doesn't, and do something about it. If that means trading Garrett Jones at his peak value, so be it. If that means trading Joel Hanrahan, do it. Determine the weaknesses, determine the strengths, figure out what can be best addressed, and do it. It's time to stop swapping Ronny Cedeno for Clint Barmes every winter and hoping that that somehow makes the Pirates better. 

If you sit around waiting for a block of marble to turn itself into a statue, you'll never have anything other than a block of marble. The statue must exist inside of Neal Huntington's head; it's time to start chipping. 

Pat Lackey

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.

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