clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Pirates still haven’t found their sense of urgency

We used to celebrate when the Pirates had a chance to finish over .500. That's not enough anymore.

Justin Berl/Getty Images

Before discussing the Pirates’ moderately disappointing season, in which they’ve been hovering around .500 for most of the year, a little perspective is in order. Back in 2013, this was the cover of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports section the day after the Pirates clinched a winning season:

That was how the Pirates celebrated the guarantee of finishing one game over .500. As of Tuesday morning, the Pirates are one game over .500, and this is something of a "What’s wrong with the Pirates?" article. Nothing is crueler than success and good fortune.

"What’s wrong with the Pirates" would actually be a short article. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon have combined for 26 starts. The other 83 starts have come from a pool of deeply disappointing starting pitchers. Pitching coach Ray Searage was unfairly viewed as a pitching Jedi, says the guy who drafted Juan Nicasio seven rounds too early in his NL-only league. It turns out a magic coach is never a good way to explain away an offseason of lackluster personnel moves. "Don’t worry. Just wait until Magic Coach gets his hands on Unremarkable Player" is bad analysis, and I’m guilty of it, too.

This is more of a "What in the heck do the Pirates do now?" article. Their struggles are more than just the pitching. Andrew McCutchen is having the first below-average season of his award-winning career, and he’s been the weak link in what should be baseball’s best outfield. Infielders both young and old are struggling to repeat their past success. If you’re looking for hope for the future, note that three of the best hitters (David Freese, Sean Rodriguez, and Matthew Joyce) on the team this season are over 30 and free agents after the season.

I’m not sure how to mention the ghastly Jung Ho Kang story in an article about baseball, but I know that not mentioning it would be even worse.

Then the Pirates had a practical and cynical trade deadline. They traded one of their most marketable assets, closer Mark Melancon, even though they were (and are) still in a postseason chase. It was a devastatingly practical move that move made a lot of sense. It’s not like they were going to re-sign Melancon, but it was worth looking at like as if he were on another team in the first place. Would the Pirates have had any business trading a young, flamethrowing, cheap reliever and a fine prospect for a three-month bullpen rental? Not really. Which means there’s an argument that they had no business refusing the deal in reverse.

Fine, then. The Melancon trade made sense. Super-closers are the well-manicured lawn in front of a baseball team’s house: Don’t bother worrying about it until the holes in the roof are fixed. The Francisco Liriano trade was much more disturbing, though. That was the Pirates acting more like a private equity firm in charge of a struggling business. They exchanged the future value of two of their better prospects to unload the contract of a struggling pitcher. Packaging young players to get rid of dead money would almost make sense if the team turned around and spent that money on free agents.

Hands up if you think the Pirates are going to do that. Actually, don’t bother, because this year’s free agent market is such a mess, there won’t be anyone for the Pirates to spend the Liriano savings on. I’ll tell you what kind of offseason this is going to be: It’s going to be the kind offseason where Francisco Liriano could sign a one-year, $13.7 million contract, and it would seem like a tremendous bargain. Except that’s the contract the Pirates ditched two prospects to get rid of.

And now we’re here, in which "here" is defined as a game over .500 and 2½ games out of the second wild card. Which would have been cause for celebration just five years ago! They would be the story of baseball. As is, it’s worth examining why the Pirates can’t escape the gravitational pull of the second wild card again, even though they’ve had years to do so.

The Pirates have tinkered in every offseason since the breakout 2013 season. The two-year, $17 million contract to Russell Martin before that ‘13 season is still the largest free agent contract in franchise history, which means they’ve had to tinker, tinker, tinker. Liriano was a cheap, brilliant buy-low signing at first. So was Edinson Volquez. So was David Freese. They’ve played like $50 million free agents at a fraction of the cost, which is exactly what the Pirates need.

The rest of the most recent offseason didn’t go as well. John Jaso has been a flop, as has Nicasio and Jon Niese (since returned to sender). You can’t blame Ryan Vogelsong for his flukish injury, but that doesn’t excuse the Pirates for making him one of their signature free agent moves in an offseason that probably required a little more urgency.

This is Year 4 of the New Pirates, the organization that shook off the past and used internal development and transactional creativity like masters. But they’ve effectively announced that they’re going to stick with tinkering and nothing more. If it doesn’t come through internal development and tinkering, it’s not going to come. This four-year run, which has led to increased ticket prices and 30,000 fans per game, will not change how the Pirates operate. Live by the tinker, die by the tinker. There's a picture of Ivan Nova on the hardback version of The Pirates Way.

If you read the beginning of this article, which makes it seem like the $16 million invested in Jung-Ho Kang was some sort of watershed moment for the franchise, you realize how differently they’re run. The limitations are real. The Pirates play in one of the smallest markets in baseball, so they can’t afford to gamble tens of millions on average pitchers or hitters. But they’ve lost the coverage of low expectations. Whereas four seasons ago, it made sense to put a gigantic, gold "82" on the cover of the sports page, the Pirates have reached a point where the guarantee of an over-.500 season just isn’t enough.

They still have a shot, a real shot, at the postseason. These are all criticisms that could have been directed at the 2014 Royals, too. It’s easy to pick apart a develop-and-tinker approach until it works. But even the Royals made their stunning trade for James Shields. Even the develop-and-tinker masters, the Cardinals, will occasionally stun the market with a deal for Matt Holliday or Jhonny Peralta. The Pirates have done neither, shipping off useful players because they’re too expensive and/or won’t be re-signed, and bringing in players from the outlet store.

It can still work. From here, though, four years in, it looks like the Pirates are emphatically refusing to treat their window of success with any urgency. Develop, tinker, rinse, repeat. And if Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow don’t work out, they’ll have to sift through the Jon Nieses to find the next Edinson Volquez, which is something a smart team can get away with, but not without the kinds of hiccups and missteps that can derail an entire season.

This season hasn’t been derailed yet. But the offseason and trade deadline were both about as exciting as investing in municipal bonds, and so was the return on that investment. The Pirates just might finish over .500 for the fourth straight year, and they’ve earned it. Good for them.

You’ll excuse the fans, though, if they’re wondering "Now what?" They’ve earned that, too.