The Pirates were playing above their true talent level as the trade deadline approached, sporting a record that Pittsburgh’s paltry run differential wasn’t bound to support in the long-term. But at the time an outside shot still existed that the team could stave off regression for another two months and improbably win the National League Central. Moves needed to be made to bolster the Pirates’ chance for success. The roster had some holes — ones where even marginal players would represent significant upgrades.
Winning the division would have been icing on the cake, but finishing above .500 was a more feasible goal. After 18 straight losing seasons, an 82-80 record was an alluring-enough outcome given what it would mean to the struggling organization.
Instead, the Pirates have experienced their worst-case scenario. Consider:
July 15: 4-0 win vs Houston, 48-43 record, t-1st in NL Central
July 20: 3-1 loss vs Cincinnati, 51-45, 1/2 game back in NL Central
July 22-24: Drop 2 of 3 to St. Louis, 52-47, t-1st in NL Central
July 25-28: Split four-game series with Atlanta, 54-49, 1 1/2 games back
July 29-31: Swept by Philadelphia, 54-52, 4 1/2 games back
July 30: Acquire Derrek Lee from Orioles
July 31: Acquire Ryan Ludwick from Padres
Aug 1-7: Swept by Cubs and Padres, 54-59, 10 games back
Aug 12-14: Swept by Milwaukee, 56-63, 13 games back
In 20 days, the Pirates went from tied for first place to 13 games out of the division lead. In the process, the team lost 10 straight games — getting swept in succession by the Phillies, Cubs and Padres. According to John Perrotto, of The Beaver County Times, the Pirates became just the 17th team since 1933 — when the all-star game was instituted — to lose 10 or more games in a row while being above .500 at both the all-star break and the day the streak began.
The three most recent examples are the 2008 Athletics, the 2009 Rays and the 2010 Padres. The Rays and Padres still finished with winning records.
The Pirates acquisitions were made as their tailspin was already in full force, and the players who were brought in were nowhere near talented enough to put the team back into the playoff picture. With the Brewers, Cardinals and Reds, the central division had too much talent for the Pirates to play that far from behind. Realistically, their pursuit of the division hinged on an ability to remain within a game or two of the lead.
But even if Pittsburgh’s playoff aspirations were in the rear view mirror, finishing with a winning record was still a real possibility. The team had a key decision to make as it entered a grueling 10-game stretch against the Cardinals, Braves and Phillies: go after good players a week before the deadline hoping to play at least .500 baseball against the three contenders and keep the team’s proximity to the division lead in tact, or see where they stood after that stretch and act accordingly.
Given the relatively late trades for Lee and Ludwick, it would seem the Pirates chose the second strategy. Perhaps they made the decision early in the process to forego dealing from their now solid farm system to coax Carlos Beltran out of the Mets, or to bring in Hunter Pence. Under this guise, and the assumption that even with a Beltran or Pence over a Lee and Ludwick, they would struggle in that 10-game stretch, waiting until late in the game to pay their price for the latter pair made sense.
It was merely unfortunate that, subsequent to their arrivals, the team played worse against poor teams than it did against those three playoff contenders. Then the team lost Lee to a wrist injury. In my Trade Deadline Necessities series, the Pirates were chosen as the team with the most pressing need to act on, or before, the July 31 weekend. Putting forth their best effort to improve the roster was vital in showing a disenchanted franchise that the team would do what it took to win. While my followup post about teams that should have done more suggested that the Pirates didn’t come close to making the most of their opportunity, my words were perhaps too harsh, all things considered.
Neal Huntington found himself in a precarious position. He had to balance proving to the fans that he wouldn’t squander a potential winner against not giving up too much in a season that might still end up a disappointment even after making significant trades. The 10-game stretch against playoff contenders might have been perceived to be unfortunate, since it essentially took the Pirates out of the postseason picture, but it was really a blessing in disguise. Mortgaging the farm — which took a long time to build up to respectable levels — for a non-superstar wouldn’t have been prudent for an organization that finally seems to have figured things out.
The Pirates aren’t going to make the playoffs this year, and the team might finish below .500 for a 19th straight season, but the organization succeeded in not overpaying for unnecessary players. Fans should be happy that their general manager didn’t mistake unsustainable success for serious contention and deplete the farm system the way Bill Bavasi did with the Mariners a few seasons ago.
The Pirates are building something real, and should be applauded, not condemned, for correctly diagnosing their position and responding in a commensurate fashion. While their contention was a tremendous first-half story, and their fall from grace a second-half tragedy, hope is still on the horizon. The organization has made strides in drafting and developing talent, and has proven an understanding as to how to best utilize that talent with respect to trades or promotions at the major-league level.