Defining Success For The 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates right fielder Garrett Jones in the on-deck circle against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park. The Chicago Cubs won 4-2. Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

The Pittsburgh Pirates were swept at home by the Chicago Cubs. Should we prepare for the eventual collapse?

If it seems like I've written about the Pirates every week, that's probably because I have. Everyone loves an underdog story, and the Pirates are the underdoggiest. Even though I loudly proclaimed that I wasn't going to get sucked into another surprise Pirates season, of course I got sucked in. The Pirates are in a playoff chase. C'mon. That doesn't get old.

And that playoff chase is still present tense, for now. There's nothing insurmountable about a 2½-game deficit with 23 to play. That's a weekend sweep away from a share of first, and the Pirates still have 11 games left against the Astros, Cubs, and Mets. Burying the Pirates might feel like putting on a pair of comfortable slippers, but it's still too early.

That part up there about the Astros and Cubs, though? The Pirates just finished a six-game home stand against the Astros and Cubs. They went 2-4. The Cubs swept them over the weekend. That was supposed to be the part of the schedule where they pulled ahead, but instead they dropped another game behind the Cardinals. It was a miserable weekend in Pittsburgh.

This brings up an interesting question, then. The Pirates haven't finished over .500 since Barry Bonds was on the team, which was before Bryce Harper was born. Teams can luck into a .500 season, whether it's with the help of luck in one-run games or a couple of surprise individual performances. The Pirates have not. They'll need to go 10-13 over their last 23 games to be the first over-.500 Pirates team in a very long time.

That would be a consolation prize for the fans, I figured. Even if the Pirates can't hook back into the race, they would still have something to show for a surprising season, and it would be something to build on in the offseason. I'm not wild about pretending I know how to quantify intangibles, but it sure seems like there should be some kind of mental benefit for a team to think, "We were the first winning Pirates team in two decades."

But Pat Lackey from Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke isn't keen on that consolation prize. He took to Twitter to rant a bit.

There are more on his timeline, as well as responses and interactions with Pirates fans who disagree. As an outsider, I figured it was an no-brainer. Of course Pirates fans should be happy to finish .500, considering the preseason expectations. But I'm a tourist here. I get to say, "Aw, nuts" about these latest losing streaks, and then resume not thinking about the Pirates. I'm not invested in this.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize that just finishing .500 wouldn't make the season a successful one for the Pirates. Lackey's right. If any other team fell that far that fast, they'd be looked at like the 2011 Red Sox or Braves -- teams that are synonymous with disappointment. The Pirates were rolling just a month ago. The universe owed Pirates fans a playoff team, and they thought they were going to get it. Anything less is a disappointment. Massive and crushing, indeed.

But forget the arbitrary 82-win cutoff. The real measure of success shouldn't be winning more games than they lose this season. The real success should come from looking at the roster, studying the players who will be back, and asking, "Can the players who were responsible for the surprising season help the Pirates get even better next year?"

Yeah. They can. Andrew McCutchen is great, Pedro Alvarez is fulfilling his promise, and there are pitchers on the roster and in the minors who should help next year. The team will have a better idea of what holes need to be filled, and the front office can go into the offseason with a win-now mindset for the first time in decades.

The season is already a success, .500 or no. Rooting for 82 wins is like rooting for a player to finish with a .2995 batting average instead of a .2994. If that helps you enjoy baseball more, sure.

But this Pirates season is perilously close to being a painful, horrific disappointment, too. Both things can be true -- it can be an unqualified success and an unmitigated disappointment. The Pirates are flying close to the sun on wings made out of desiccated parrot feathers and a purple, waxy substance they harvested from Clint Hurdle. You have a guess how it's going to work out.

The Pirates have suffered long enough to enjoy some success without any ambiguity. But unless there's a late charge and a September run, ambiguity is what the Pirates and their fans are going to get. That would be a shame. A positive development with shame-flavored icing.

Really, it would be a helluva lot easier if the Pirates would just win a bunch of games before the season ended.

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