This season has, in the (almost) end, not worked out so well for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Just two months ago, they were thinking about the playoffs and probably planning on their first winning season since 1992.
Which, for those of you not real strong with the figures, was a long time ago.
It's all gone to hell. Nevertheless, Pirates president Frank Coonelly recently released a statement in which he announced that the club's top management will be retained beyond this season. Coonelly:
For the second consecutive year, we put ourselves in an excellent position to meet our objective of winning our division but did not play nearly well enough during the last two months of the season to accomplish it. Our fans are understandably disappointed and frustrated, as is every individual in the organization.
As soon as we finish this season as well as we possibly can, we will turn our full and total attention to evaluating why were unable to finish the job and what we must do differently to take the next step to becoming a championship team. There will unquestionably be changes made to the way in which we operate as a result of this thorough critical self-evaluation, but we will not be making personnel changes at the very top of our baseball operations department. Neal, Kyle, Greg and Clint are dedicated and intelligent baseball men in whom I have great confidence.
Confidence in and support of Neal, Kyle and Greg should not be misunderstood with acceptance of another poor finish at the Major League level. We must understand why the quality of our execution and play deteriorated so markedly in August. Finishing was the focus from spring training but it certainly was not achieved.
For the record, "Kyle and Greg" are Assistant General Managers Kyle Stark and Greg Smith. "Clint" is, of course, Clint Howard, who has appeared in so many of our most beloved movies.
Kidding. It's really manager Clint Hurdle. I will mention in passing that Hurdle is now managing in his 10th season, and has finished nine of those seasons with a losing record. Take that for what it's worth (or isn't).
There are a couple of obvious measures for the success of a baseball executive:
1. Is the team improving?
2. Is the team progressing toward a 90-win season?
Regarding the second of those, it's not really worth talking about a championship, because there are so few of those to go around. Or even a postseason berth, because those can be so capricious. If the Rays don't reach the postseason (and they probably will not), has the front office failed? Not in my opinion. The Rays are going to finish with the second- or third-best run differential in the American League. Pay your money, take your chances, and sometimes you lose too many of the close ones.
So let's take those in order.
Are the Pirates improving?
Yes, clearly. Early in Huntington's tenure, they pulled one of those we-have-to-get-worse-before-we-get-better things, and lost 105 games just two years ago. But last year they were outscored by "only" 102 runs, this year by ... well, this year obviously isn't over yet. Probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 runs, though. If you prefer wins and losses, the Pirates are going finish this season about 22 games better than 2010.
The Pirates are a lot better than they were two years ago. That's inarguable.
Are they going to get significantly better, though? Seems to me it's a lot easier to go from 57 wins to 80, than 80 to 90. Well, maybe not a lot easier. But these days you rarely see teams lose 100 games every season, but you often see teams hover around the .500 mark for a few seasons in a row. It's just easy to be average. It's not easy to win around 90 games, especially with some regularity.
Are the Pirates heading in that direction?
Well, the Pirates are going finish this season 10th or 11th in the National League in scoring. But that's terribly misleading for not one, nor two, but three reasons.
One, the Pirates have a young lineup. Their projected lineup for next season, leaving out catcher and shortstop -- because it's not clear who will catch next season, and they obviously need a new shortstop who hits better than Clint Barmes -- will average around 26 years old. So we might expect at least some slight improvement for that reason alone.
Two, the Pirates added prospect Starling Marte and Marlin Gaby Sanchez to the lineup in the middle of the season. Both were better than their predecessors, and both should be around next season.
And three, the Pirates' home ballpark is not friendly to hitters, and the Pirates are actually going to finish this season with the fifth- or sixth-best road OPS in the league.
The bottom line is that the hitting attack has been rebuilt, and it's going to be good next season.
Gee, I'm reminded of a team in Kansas City ... used to follow them religiously, because I lost my faith.
The Pirates are like the Royals in another way: They need better starting pitchers. The big difference is that where the Royals shored up their rotation with veteran Jonathan Sanchez and it didn't work, the Pirates shored up theirs with A.J. Burnett and it kept them in contention for most of the season.
Burnett's not enough, though. Wandy Rodriguez, acquired from the Astros before the trade deadline, hasn't been enough, either. Fortunately, Burnett and Rodriguez are both signed for next season; while neither is going to be a Cy Young candidate, they're a lovely foundation for the future.
Well, the immediate future anyway. Burnett's contract ends after next season, while Rodriguez's deal includes a $13-million team option for 2014.
Meanwhile, the Pirates' two best pitching prospects, former first-round draft picks Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, aren't likely to be ready to flash their considerable talents in a meaningful way until 2014 at the very earliest. Alas, the Pirates' first-round pick this summer, pitcher Mark Appel, declined to sign a pro contract and returned to Stanford for his senior season.
So are the Pirates heading toward 90 wins? It's impossible to say, because we just don't know what their five-man rotation will look like on Opening Day in 2014. Which leads to the conclusion that baseball is one capricious business. Should our evaluation of Neal Huntington's tenure really hinge upon the tender young arms of two or three pitchers barely out of short pants?
Perhaps not. But in the end, it probably will.