On The Weird Season Of The Pittsburgh Pirates

PITTSBURGH, PA - Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates miss plays a ball in the ninth that allowed two runs to score against the Houston Astros during the game. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Complete the sentence:

On July 25 of ____, the Pittsburgh Pirates were tied for first place.

Okay, let's start with you in the back. 1992? Good guess, but they were in the NL East back then. How about that guy? Mm-hmmm, right. "Nineteen-eighty-never." Very clever. This isn't a trick question. Think, dammit. Think.

Turns out, the Pirates were tied for first place on July 25, 2011. Things were a lot different back then. The Smurfs had not yet been released. People weren't describing in great detail how their fantasy-football draft went. It was another world. And the Pirates were contenders way back then.

The sensible thing, back at the trade deadline, was for the front office to ignore the Pirates' surprising season. Pretend it wasn't happening, and stand pat.

The cynically practical thing to do would have been to sell, sell, sell, just like any other deadline. If someone wanted to give up a prospect for one of the overachieving starters, the Pirates should have jumped at the chance. And considering what the Rangers gave up for Mike Adams, the Pirates might have been wise to see what Joel Hanrahan could have fetched.

The only thing the Pirates could do, though, was at least have the appearance of a team willing to acquire players for the stretch run. The fans had waited almost two decades for a Pirates team to contend into August, and it would have been a PR disaster to do anything but make an effort to improve. The team acquired Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee without giving up B-level prospects, which was about right. It showed an honest effort, but it didn't hurt the organizational blueprint.

Now that the spell has worn off, though, the Pirates are the Pirates are the Pirates. The season started off as if it was going to be remembered as a plucky, underdog-does-good tale, no matter what the outcome. Now there's a chance that this season could be remembered as one of the worst seasons with regards to the Pirates' rebuilding efforts. Consider:

  • A decent season means only a decent draft pick. There's a chance that the Pirates will choose in the middle of the first round instead of near the top, which hurts the team's chances to get a superstar.

  • Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez were both regarded as players who could help lead the next good Pirates team, yet each had disappointing seasons. This probably lessens the dramatic effect of the previous bullet point, seeing as high draft picks aren't exactly magic salves in the hands of the Pirates. Alvarez had a horrific .196/.264/.284 line in the majors, and he also got hurt. The health might even be the bigger long-term problem.

    Sanchez hit .241/.340/.318 in AA as a 23-year-old. He's still young, but this kind of year makes it look like his ceiling is something like Yorvit Torrealba.

  • The team wasted the surprising (and likely unrepeatable) seasons from their low-strikeout starting pitchers. Unless the low strikeout rates were the flukes, this was likely to be the best value the Pirates were ever going to get out of the starters. It was unexpected, it was better than they were hoping, and it was good for another under-.500 season. In a truly dreadful season, there would have been a small chance that one of them could have been flipped for a prospect. Not so in an almost-contending season.

  • Another season passed with Andrew McCutchen having a fantastic year, but not being signed to the same kind of extension that his draft-mates Ryan Zimmerman, Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, and Troy Tulowitzki were signed to. The Pirates aren't exactly running out of time, but another season passed with McCutchen doing fantastic things, and it's another season closer to a decision the team will have to make.

It wasn't a disaster season for the Pirates. There were flashes of talent, some previously unknown hope, and a few moments where the fans actually believed in something for a little bit. The last two decades haven't had a lot of that. But one of the most dangerous places to be in for a rebuilding team to be is in the sorta-contending zone, especially early in the season. It screws up mid-season decisions, and it just gets confusing. 

Just over a month ago, the 2011 season had a chance to be something memorable. Now it's just another Pirates season, only without the default spoils that a last-place team can enjoy. It's a weird limbo. And it might be that not coming close to contending can sometimes be better than contending for a couple of months.

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