July 24, 2011 was a milestone for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Not only was it the latest the team had been in first place in well over a decade, but it also signified that the organization was laying the foundation of something that was sustainable. And although everything after the Jerry Meals incident was typical of the Pirates everyone had come to know, the future actually had something tangible to look forward to this time, rather than empty promises.
Pirate fans are some of the most loyal in the country, which isn’t really disputable when you consider the organization has gone through 19 consecutive losing seasons, the longest such streak in American professional sports history. Yet there are sellouts and respectable crowds at PNC Park, and you never see crowds as pathetic as those in Cleveland. The Indians, a first-place team, are last in the league in attendance and still can’t muster up the support to fill Progressive Field. When the Pirates were in first place last year — even for just several days at a time — PNC Park was filled and rocking, and the atmosphere was almost playoff-like. The baseball fans of Pittsburgh have been waiting for a winning, contending team for two decades, and this is the team with the core to do it.
The only problem with the current team is that the core was established almost entirely by previous management. The only offensive catalysts, centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and second basemen Neil Walker, were acquired by former general manager Dave Littlefield. McCutchen, arguably one of the best centerfielders in baseball, has lived up to his billing this season with a .338 average, 7 HRs and 24 RBIs. He is far and away the best hitter in the Pirates lineup, which is by far the worst in the league. Current general manager Neil Huntington has made several attempts at acquiring offensive talent but all have utterly failed. The latest attempts include shortstop Clint Barmes (.178 average), catcher Rod Barajas (.212), and outfielder Nate McLouth (.140).
The offense is so bad that five players on the current roster (McLouth, Yamaico Navarro, Barmes, Michael McKenry, and Casey McGehee) have batting averages that are below the Mendoza line. Eight players are batting less than their respective weights (all of the above plus Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones and Barajas). Not only is this lineup completely inept at making contact with the ball, but they are on pace to break the single season record for fewest walks since 1969. The team also strikes out more than any other team in the league. In fact, going into Friday’s game against the Cubs, the Pirates have 69 more strikeouts (376) than hits (307). Fangraphs perhaps put it best: “They walk like contact hitters (not at all), and they strikeout like power hitters (incessantly), but they are in fact neither power nor contact hitters. They never walk and they always strikeout.”
The Pirates are on pace for a 4:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, which would also set a modern record. To this point in the season, the Pirates have managed to amass more than three hits in an inning only three times. If you haven’t either fallen over laughing or have been completely awestruck at the ineptitude of this historically bad offense, here’s one more statistic to think about: when the Pirates score just two runs in a game this year (TWO runs!), they are 18-10. This lone figure highlights just how excellent the rotation and bullpen has been for the Pirates, to even have this team as close to .500 as it is.
One thing Huntington has done in his reign in Pittsburgh has been to acquire pitching. The rotation is spearheaded by one of the brightest up-and-coming pitchers in the game, James McDonald (3-2, 2.51 ERA, 58 Ks). As a whole, the staff holds the fourth-best ERA in the majors at 3.33, despite receiving some of the worst run support in the game. What makes this year different than last year is the sustainability. Last year’s staff didn’t have the look and feel that it was capable of maintaining that success for the entirety of the season. This year in almost every start, the team has a viable chance of winning the game if only there’s any form of offense to set the table.
Huntington was right not to mortgage the future last year on the basis that there really wasn’t much hope of a solid foundation for a potential prolonged run. This year, it’s different. If he can back up the solid, consistent pitching with some transactions that will enhance the offensive capabilities of the club and bring some livelihood to the clubhouse and the fan base, he will show that this organization is once again in the hunt. The onus falls entirely on the ownership and management of the organization, as they hold the fate of the team. They are the ones that have to get serious.
You can’t keep using the excuse that the team is building towards the “future,” because there comes a time when the future becomes now.
The bright spot about Huntington’s eye for pitching is that the Pirates’ organization is full of top pitching prospects, many of whom are coveted by other teams. The only problem is that Huntington is reluctant to give up these players. You can’t keep using the excuse that the team is building towards the “future,” because there comes a time when the future becomes now. Huntington doesn’t have to go out and actively seek trading first-round pick Gerrit Cole, but if the right deal comes along that includes a high-impact offensive player who is signed for several years, why not pull the trigger? Hell, even 2010 first-round pick Jameson Taillon should be in play just to see who could be had from other teams.
These players are several years off from making an impact in the starting lineup of the big leagues, especially with the starting rotation depth the Pirates have, so why would you ignore potential deals to improve your starting everyday lineup just to bolster the prospect depth of your organization? The Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates’ AAA affiliate, recently snapped a streak of 40-straight innings where the team failed to score a run. To say there isn’t any immediate help down on the farm would be an understatement.
In the NL Central, which features an injury-riddled St. Louis Cardinals team and a streaky Cincinnati Reds team, the division will likely be up for grabs for a large portion of the season. The addition of a second Wild Card team also brings an added motivation into the consideration. When you add it all up, this season will define if the ownership of the Pirates is really serious about fielding a winning team, or if it’s only concerned about pocketing a few extra dollars at the expense of some wins.
Fan Hub Action
Michael T Carr May 16th
Another good article, Craig Lowell.
Charlie Lobosco May 1st
This is a very compelling story because Mr. Collins is a very passionate, tough, intelligent, athelete taking on some additional responsibliity to help others as…
Scott Cohen May 1st
Charlie.. very well said.. he does have guts
Scott Cohen May 1st
but it shouldn’t require guts. .like you said it’s nobody’s business but his own
Hisham Zameeth April 30th
best player ever…..
Kareem Musa Mayowa April 29th
We don’t need to be hopeless about the situation bryant his. Because even david villa situation also up to the level of his own to…
Maritess Lim April 28th
I still believe in KOBE’s power…… He is still the best…… He will make it possible no matter what……
mimi_aragon84 April 28th
I feel no pity for him. First of all, it is EAGLE, COLORADO, not Eagleton, secondly he enjoyed success and adulation from fans from 2003…
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