If there really is something to "America’s fascination with the underdog," the Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals must be the most fascinating teams in baseball. They’re the underdogs every season, which must make them more interesting than all twelve "Fast and the Furious" movies combined. They’ve surely been fascinating people for a couple of decades now -- an American entertainment tradition.
Or not. Maybe the phrase should be changed to "America’s fascination with the underdog, provided that the underdog is at least somewhat competitive." Fair enough, but now the Royals and Pirates are hinting that they could possibly perhaps maybe almost sort of become somewhat competitive. It’s early. We’ve been burned before.
The Royals actually finished above .500 in 2003. Sure, it came in the middle of a misery sandwich, with eight sub-.500 seasons before and seven sub-.500 seasons since, but it hasn’t been that long since they were relatively successful. Just a little under a decade.
The Pirates on the other hand, haven’t finished above .500 since 1992, with a 27-year-old Barry Bonds leading the way in his last season in Pittsburgh. There is still an active major leaguer from that team, though: Tim Wakefield. This reminds me of an old adage:
"Tim Wakefield is old."
Both teams are pushing the .500 barrier now, though, taking the NL and AL Central by ... well, not "storm." The two teams are taking the NL and AL Central by partly cloudy with a chance of thundershowers later in the evening. And we’ll take it. It’s been so long that either of them have been relevant, it’s hard to imagine both teams doing something that resembled anything. And it would be so danged exciting if it happened.
The standard note of caution, though: It’s early. Really, really early. The last time the Pirates were at .500 this late in the season, they finished with 95 losses. The last time the Royals were at .500 this late in the season, they finished with 97 losses. So it’s probably not a good idea to book a pair of World Series package deals at the Pittsburgh and Kansas City Marriotts just yet.
But if you had to pick one of the two teams to finish close to .500, which would it be?
Arguments for the Pirates
The core. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are hitting. Ryan Doumit is a plus-hitting catcher, and there’s no way Pedro Alvarez can be this bad all season. Well, he could -- the Pirates do seem to have talent-leeching tsetse flies in the clubhouse -- but it’s fairly unlikely. It’s not too far-fetched for all of those guys to start hitting at the same time, with solid role players like Garrett Jones and Jose Tabata also doing well. If you squint, you can see an average lineup hidden somewhere. It’s like a Magic Eye picture. Give it time.
The pitching has actually been the Pirates' strength so far -- everyone in the rotation except James McDonald has an ERA+ over 100, and McDonald has been pitching better as of late -- but it’s hard to be as good as they’ve been without striking anyone out, which they aren’t. Still, the pitching has been good, and if the hitting can improve, the Pirates might not be that far away from .500.
Arguments for the Royals
Dat farm system. Mmm. Eric Hosmer is already up, and he will surely save us all. Alex Gordon is having a breakout year, and Jeff Francoeur is having the All-Star kind of season that everyone was predicting when the Royals signed him. But any larger success will come from minor-league reinforcements. Danny Duffy is having a great year in Triple-A, just in case the Royals somehow conclude that Kyle Davies might not belong in a major-league rotation. Mike Moustakas might not be ready right now, but he’s close enough to think a couple of hot months would be enough to overtake Mike Aviles (or Wilson Betemit) on the depth chart.
There’s a lot of talent in the organization, and it’s been a long, long time since that could be said with such conviction.
So which one is more likely to finish at .500 or better?
Alright, which one of you snarky jerks just answered "No"?
Look, you’re probably right. Hovering around .500 on May 12th doesn’t really mean much. But it’s fun to dream. And if I had to pick one, I’d go with the Royals, if only because Eric Hosmer is going to hit .380. He’s due. And so are the Pirates and Royals.
Imagine what’s even better than a season in which these two teams have decent seasons: a World Series featuring the Pirates and the Royals. Oh, to be in the Fox boardroom when they plan the coverage for that one. That’s something to root for, no matter your favorite team. If it happens this year, all the better. Just, uh, don't expect it.