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Optimism: The Unlikely Tale of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates

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It's about time PNC Park has something to get excited about. (USA Today Sports)

It’s about time PNC Park has something to get excited about. (USA Today Sports)

“Are you starting to get excited about the Pirates?”

That question started coming, from various friends, family and co-workers, in early June. I wasn’t surprised, because I’d heard it before.

At the 2011 All-Star break, the Pirates were 47-43, a game out of first place in the NL Central. Was I excited? Sure. When your team hasn’t been relevant since before the Internet was a thing, you tend to get fired up just by looking in a newspaper and seeing “Pittsburgh” in the standings agate anywhere above last place.

At the 2012 All-Star break, the Pirates were 48-37, a game ahead of Cincinnati atop the division. Was I excited? Sure. When your team has the worst second-half winning percentage in the National League the year before, collapsing in its attempt to be relevant for the first time since before the Internet was a thing, and then picks itself up off the mat the next year, you tend to get enthused.

So here we are, just days removed from the 2013 All-Star break. The Pirates are 57-39, two games back of St. Louis in the Central. But the Cardinals are the only team they’re trailing. They have the second-best record in the NL – and the third-best in baseball – despite having a pitching staff that’s used 11 starters and a lineup that has more terrifying hazards than your average Links golf course.

But this whole second-half swoon wasn’t exclusive to 2011. The 2012 Bucs’ high-water mark was 63-47, on August 8. From there? 16-36, the worst record in the National League, and one that prevented them from the club’s first .500 finish since 1992.

So as we sit here, on July 22, with the Pirates three games into a critical 15-game stretch that includes 12 against Cincinnati, Washington and St. Louis – the very clubs they’re chasing or trying to run from. Am I still optimistic?

You’re damn right I am.

The Pedro Alvarez mantra: See ball. Hit ball far. Or strike out. (AP)

The Pedro Alvarez mantra: See ball. Hit ball far. Or strike out. (AP)

That’s a far cry from how I would have described my general mindset about this team as recently as 365 days ago. For years, it was all too easy to climb all over every aspect of the organization, from the ownership (downtrodden under Kevin McClatchy) to the general managers (Dave Littlefield’s incompetence deserves its own museum) to the leaders on the field (was John Russell a real person?) to the players (J.J. Furmaniak, Chance Sanford, Steve Bieser, John Raynor and Dusty Brown aren’t insurance salesmen. They all had at least a venti double latte with the Pirates, though they were probably selling insurance within 48 hours of their last miserable at-bats in Pittsburgh.).

That’s not to say this current bunch isn’t without its offensive warts. There’s a .310 on-base percentage that’s 23rd in baseball, a 25.0 percent swing-and-miss rate that’s only better than two teams, and a .225 average with runners in scoring position that’s dead last. And oh, by the way, have you met Brandon Inge, Clint Barmes, Josh Harrison and Michael McKenry? That’s essentially 80 percent of the team’s bench, and they each have an OPS about the size of a slightly overweight NFL offensive lineman.

I’ve been hesitant to write a column about this team, impressive as it’s played, but even if there’s a third straight collapse in the Pirates’ future, it’s hard NOT to be positive at this point about the organization’s future. Andrew McCutchen is under team control through 2018 at less than $10 million a year over the life of the deal, which was completed prior to his MVP-caliber 2012 season. Imagine if a movie studio had been able to lock up Jennifer Lawrence for the next half-decade prior to The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook being released. That’s essentially what the Pirates have in McCutchen.

McCutchen is the star, but the major league cast around him – barren as recently as the beginning of last season – is on a serious upswing. Pedro Alvarez still strikes out a ton, but he’s homering once every 13 or so at-bats. That’s better than everyone but Chris Davis, Raul Ibanez and Miguel Cabrera, and by Pirates standards, puts him in Ralph Kiner/Willie Stargell territory. He’s still under team control through 2016. Gerrit Cole, the top pick in the 2011 draft, is seven starts into his career, and while there’s much to work on, he possesses a 100 mph fastball – something few, if any, Pirates pitchers ever have. Get that secondary stuff working and he’s a No. 1 starter. Starling Marte, thought of by plenty of high-profile baseball people as someone whose plate discipline would prevent him from ever being more than a modest contributor, has 38 extra-base hits, has stolen 28 bases and is one of the better defensive outfielders in baseball.

The Pirates are spending money on right fielders only to keep the seat warm for Gregory Polanco. (Pittsburgh Sports Report)

The Pirates are spending money on right fielders only to keep the seat warm for Gregory Polanco. (Pittsburgh Sports Report)

More help is on the way. The Pirates’ farm system, ranked 21st by ESPN’s Keith Law as recently as 2011, was called the best in the majors in early June by a longtime scout speaking with Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan. Depending on whose rankings you go by these days, Pittsburgh now has as many as four of baseball’s top 50 prospects – with its two top-15 picks in the first round of this year’s draft (Austin Meadows and Reese McGuire) yet to be factored in. The two best, right-hander Jameson Taillon and right fielder Gregory Polanco, are top-20 prospects in the entire minor leagues and could be calling PNC Park home by next summer.

“It’s the Pirates,” a longtime scout told Yahoo!’s Jeff Passan of baseball’s best farm system. “And I’m not sure it’s close.”

Barring some massive mismanagement and/or horrendous luck – both of which are unfortunately second-nature to this organization – the Pirates should be well-positioned to contend for the rest of this decade.

But a lot that’s supposed to go right tends to go wrong in baseball. Contention, even in the days of two wild-card teams, isn’t guaranteed – even if you build what on paper looks like the best team the Miami Marlins don’t want to pay for or feature Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton on the marquee.

So why can’t 2013 be the year the Pirates not only wipe out their streak of losing seasons but also make the playoffs? Here are four reasons why they will.

1.) They can essentially get away with being the Colorado Rockies

But the Rockies are nothing more than an afterthought in the NL playoff race, you’re saying. They’re 48-51, basically the definition of mediocrity. The Rockies have a winning percentage of .485. Let’s say the Pirates, clearly a better team than Colorado, win at a .485 clip the rest of the way even after playing essentially .600 baseball through nearly 100 games. That still puts them at 89 wins. In seven of the last eight seasons – 2010 is the exception – 89 wins would have been enough to earn the Pirates a playoff spot in the NL, assuming we were operating under a two wild-card format.

2.) Their schedule is quite manageable

The Pirates have 66 games left. Forty of those are against teams below .500. The Reds have 35 left against losing clubs, the Cardinals 31. If Pittsburgh wants to have a shot at catching (presumably) St. Louis for the division, though, it will almost certainly need to have a lead by the time the teams’ season series ends Sept. 8. The Cardinals’ last NINETEEN GAMES are against teams currently sporting losing records. Their slate for the next six weeks is brutal.

But really, if the Pirates are going to have a shot at the division, it’ll be because they beat St. Louis head to head. Starting Monday, 14 of the Bucs’ next 39 games are against the Cardinals.

Jeff Locke's season has been a bit hard to explain. (USA Today Sports)

Jeff Locke’s season has been a bit hard to explain. (USA Today Sports)

3.) Regression? How about progression?

Anytime you hear most folks talk about the Pirates’ stunning first half, you’re reminded how ripe they are for regression. Example No. 1: “Jeff Locke cannot possibly continue to pitch this well.” Absolutely true. His .226 opponents’ batting average on balls in play is on pace to be the NL’s lowest since Tom Browning and Pascual Perez – in 1988. Example No. 2: “The bullpen can’t keep up their good fortune when it comes to stranding runners.” Almost certainly true as well. Pirates pitchers are allowing only 19.6 of inherited runners to score, a figure that would be baseball’s third-best since that data started being collected in 1974. Locke is not Clayton Kershaw, and the Pirates’ bullpen is not the infallible group it’s almost always been through 96 games.

But Locke also doesn’t suck, despite some opinions to the contrary. What if he’s Ted Lilly, who had similar SO/9, BB/9 and swing-and-miss percentages during some of his prime years – which, by the way, were pretty good? I’ll take that as the presumed third starter on a potential playoff team.

The bullpen’s BABIP is .255, easily the best in the league, but why can’t this team be the 2012 A’s, who led the league with a .253 BABIP? Oakland rode a talented but journeyman closer (Grant Balfour, not unlike Jason Grilli) and a stud setup guy (Ryan Cook, not unlike Mark Melancon) to a 94-68 record and a division title.

What did the A’s hit last year? .238, behind the Pirates’ .243 average so far in 2013. That bunch did hit .265 with runners in scoring position, which has a lot more to do with luck than being clutch when you’re talking about teams that are virtually the same otherwise. I’m 99% sure the Pirates are going to finish the year hitting better than .225 with runners in scoring position, but if they don’t? The 2011 Rays hit .224 with men on second and third, and they made the playoffs.

And this is as good of a reason as any as to why the Pirates might even have a decent shot to catch the Cardinals. St. Louis is hitting .338 (!!!) with runners in scoring position. Baseball’s previous best team in such situations hit .311. It’s a full FIFTY points higher than the next-best team in 2013. What are the Cardinals hitting when there’s either a man on first or the bases are empty? .256!

If you’re not fully satisfied with “clutch” being little more than a fluke, maybe a little late-game info will help. There’s a close-and-late stat that’s defined as at-bats that occur in the seventh inning or later in a game tied, within one run or with the tying run on base, at bat or on deck. The Pirates’ .260 close-and-late average is baseball’s sixth-best. The Cards’ .230 average is 21st. St. Louis is a better offensive team than Pittsburgh – no argument here. But the extent to which the Cardinals’ ability to come through in key situations is being vastly overblown, and that gap figures to be considerably closer 10 weeks from now. Possibly thanks, in some part to ….

4.) A move or moves that could be made

We’re just over a week away from the trading deadline, and Neal Huntington almost certainly figures to upgrade the Pirates’ offense in some way. Right field is the biggest need, as the Pirates’ .656 OPS from that position is worse than anyone’s but Houston. (St. Louis leads the majors with a .914 OPS from right.)

Brandon Inge in spring training, perfecting the look Pirate fans would share during every Inge plate appearance. (USA Today Sports)

Brandon Inge in spring training, perfecting the look Pirate fans would share during every Inge plate appearance. (USA Today Sports)

Huntington probably isn’t going to make a big splash – he isn’t getting Giancarlo Stanton, and potential best-case-scenario Alex Rios likely is only a modest upgrade –

but the trickle-down effect could be significant. This team, as constructed on July 22, has a bench that features Inge, Harrison, McKenry, Travis Snider and whichever part of the Garrett Jones/Gaby Sanchez/Jose Tabata 1B/RF platoon isn’t playing.

A month from now, there’s a possibility only Jones/Sanchez/Tabata are even on the roster. Tony Sanchez could replace McKenry as the backup catcher. Inge and Harrison will be long gone. Snider might be dead weight once a trade is made. Clint Barmes will be back there. Strengthening the bench, for a team that plans on being involved in quite a few one-run games, is of paramount importance.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Will this fist pump be happening in October? (AP)

Will this fist pump be happening in October? (AP)

Now, a one-tiered rebuttal for why this team will not make the playoffs.

1.) OHMYGODTHELASTTWENTYYEARSTHISTEAMISCURSED!&*!&#

There’s a long, long LONG way to go. Maybe the regression will outweigh the progression. Maybe Alvarez goes in a two-month slump. Maybe McCutchen’s second-half tear never quite materializes. Maybe people will be reflecting on the season in October, thinking “Grilli and Melancon were All-Stars?!?” Maybe Huntington fails to provide an upgrade at the deadline, or god forbid, ships out Taillon or Polanco for a two-month rental.

That’s a lot of maybes. But there are 66 games to go. That’s a number that’s usually meant good things for this city.

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