There are a lot of sad baseball teams in the league today. The Blue Jays were three wins away from the World Series last season, and now they’re 3½ games away from fourth place. The Giants had lofty expectations, and then talent mosquitos feasted on 23 of the players on their 25-man roster, with physics and stupidity costing them their best pitcher. The Mariners are a pitcher away from having an entire rotation on the disabled list, which is one of the saddest Xbox achievements in modern sports.
These are teams that had hopes. Those hopes were mostly squashed. You don’t have to feel sympathy for all of them, but you can understand if their fans are a little mopey.
None of those sob stories are close to what the Pirates are going through in 2017, though. They’re dealing with a horrific amalgam of on- and off-field miseries, stories that are sad in a baseball context, and stories that remind you how meaningless baseball is. In no particular order:
- Jameson Taillon, a fantastic young pitcher with a bright future, underwent surgery for testicular cancer.
- Jung-ho Kang, the team’s best hitter last year, can’t get a visa to return to the United States because of a DUI conviction.
- Starling Marté, long-term fixture under contract through 2021, was suspended 80 games for performance-enhancing drugs.
- Andrew McCutchen, one of the most joyous reasons to watch baseball for nearly a decade, is apparently awful now.
That’s before we get into the garden variety disappointments. Tyler Glasnow has allowed nearly two baserunners per inning. Jordy Mercer’s lack of hitting is making him nearly unplayable. Francisco Cervelli’s spell wore off, and he’s a regular, inoffensive catcher now. The team is in last place, four games under .500, and they’ve needed a hot stretch over their last five games to get that close.
It’s under these circumstances that we get a rumor like this:
With only a year of control left by the Pirates, teams are circling to see if (Gerrit) Cole is made available should Pittsburgh continue to struggle. The Astros, who know they need a high-quality starter to make their dream of winning the World Series a reality, are very interested, according to a major league source.
The Pirates actually control Cole through 2019, but the idea remains the same. This might be the peak of his value if the organization is looking to start over. While this isn’t an identical situation to the one from this past winter, where the Pirates knew they were taking a risk if they held onto McCutchen, there should be a similar sense of act-now-or-else driving them. Cole’s elbow problems cut his 2016 short. Another round of them could devastate his trade value.
Our job, then, is to ask ourselves if the Pirates are really there yet. This has been a miserable season for them on several fronts, but is it the kind of bottoming out that requires a complete demolition? A half- or quarter-rebuild makes no sense. If the Pirates are trading their best pitcher, they shouldn’t pretend they can compete next season or the season after that, not when they would be down an ace and without the money or means to acquire a proper replacement.
The answer is probably buried in a scenario that’s optimistic, but not far-fetched. Figure out some reasonable future developments that would lead to the Pirates getting back to a string of postseason appearances.
Taillon would have to regain his strength and get healthy, like we’re all rooting for.
Marte will need to prove his talent wasn’t created in a test tube.
Glasnow will need to find his control.
Josh Bell and Adam Frazier will need to turn the hot starts for their career into something sustainable and predictable. Austin Meadows will have to develop into the kind of player that makes McCutchen sting less.
Ivan Nova will have to continue surprising the world, and they’ll need help from another pitcher, like Chad Kuhl or Mitch Keller.
Gregory Polanco will have to continue turning tools into production and build on last year’s development.
That’s a laundry list of what-ifs, and it’s pretty daunting. They don’t include some potential but increasingly unlikely fixes, such as McCutchen enjoying a renaissance or Kang contributing at all over the next couple years. If you’re not sure that some or most of those scenarios are realistic, you might want what’s in the box.
“What’s in the box” is game show-ese for all the prospects. Cole would ostensibly start a chain reaction that would lead the Pirates with younger, cheaper players with unknown futures. In this scenario, they would have to develop Cole all over again. They aren’t winning with him, really, so they would have to do better than Cole.
What’s in the box should scare the absolute hell out of the Pirates. Sometimes Monty Hall gets to ask what’s in the box, and sometimes Brad Pitt has to. What’s in the box for them under previous regimes was mostly a disaster, with Kris Benson, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm representing the best that two decades of homegrown pitching had to offer. Then they finally secured their first-round success, their homegrown ace in Cole, and they deserve longer than this. It’s a different, smarter organization now, but that doesn’t mean the box should be appealing. It’s dark in there.
The reasons I was so high on the Pirates before the season are a whole lot iffier now. The Marte suspension, Kang legal problems, and Taillon’s diagnosis aren’t problems that time will automatically solve, with Taillon’s health making everything seem meaningless in comparison. But I’m still of the opinion that this is still probably the best shot the Pirates will have in the next five years. They can trade Cole, Nova, Harrison, Polanco, Watson, and everyone else making seven or eight figures, and hope they can sift through the ashes and find the next Cole, Nova, Harrison, Polanco, and Watson.
Or they can reload with those players, that core, and hope for some of those what-ifs to bear baseball fruit, and try again. It’s a smart organization that shouldn’t be compared to the post-Bonds carousel of incompetence, but there’s still a sense of urgency. The Pirates have a much better core than people give them credit for, with some upper-level prospects ready to help soon, and that’s still true even after all the wedgies they’ve received in the last three months.
It’s been a sad, sad, sad, sad season for the Pirates. The whisper of Gerrit Cole rumors are making it that much sadder. This isn’t a team that needs to give up completely, though. They shouldn’t be there yet, and maybe this sad, sad, sad, sad season is what will give them the sense of urgency next offseason that they should have had in the last one.