Whenever you read about the Pittsburgh Pirates these days, you hear about 2013 being “the end”. With their win over Texas on Monday, it was officially the the end of more than two decades of losing baseball, dating back to the Barry Bonds / Doug Drabek Pirates of 1992. Barring a massive collapse over the next two weeks, it’s soon going to also be the end of a playoff drought going back to that same season, the one that ended on Sid Bream’s infamous slide home.
As the NL Central race heats up, the Pirates have been treading water, having lost 16 of 30 games over the last month of play — though after being swept by St. Louis, they just finished off a sweep in Texas on Wednesday. The magical season, the one that has seen them spend 52 days in first place to date, might not even end with a single home playoff game in front of the Pittsburgh fans, should they be unable to hold off the Reds and Cardinals and end up with the second wild card spot. (The Pirates and Reds face off six times in the final nine games of the season, the closest we’re likely to get to must-watch baseball in the National League this year.) Wouldn’t that end up being the most Pirates way possible to end the streak?
Yet for all of the discussion about what the Pirates are in position to end, the state of this franchise is about far more than the ghosts they’re about to excise. 2013 isn’t the end. It’s merely the beginning, because this organization is being built for the long haul, not just to poke above .500 for one year before falling back off. (Looking at you, 2003 Royals and 2009 Mariners.)
The story starts, as it should, with the team’s best player. 26-year-old Andrew McCutchen is, by at least one measure of WAR, the second-most valuable player in baseball behind only Mike Trout. A true five-tool player who is considered by many to be the frontrunner for the NL Most Valuable Player award, McCutchen is also notable for doing what past generations of Pirates stars hadn’t. He decided to stay, signing a $51 million extension prior to last season that buys out two years of his free agency and keeps him under team control through the 2018 season.
McCutchen doesn’t turn 27 until next month, making him the senior member of an outfield that could potentially be overflowing with talent over the next few years. Starling Marte, 26 in October, has been worth more than four wins in his first full season, stealing 36 bases (along with 13 failed attempts, which is admittedly poor) to go with an above-average .344 wOBA and solid defense. If Marte manages to get four more extra-base hits (he’s been dealing with a hand injury lately), he’ll be just the third Pirate since the end of World War II to put up a season of 35 steals and 50 extra-base hits.
While the Pirates have had trouble all season long filling right field next to Marte & McCutchen — they’ve used 10 players there, and only four clubs have had less cumulative production from the position — that could change relatively soon. Gregory Polanco, who turns 22 on Saturday, moved up to #17 on Keith Law’s midseason Top 50 Prospects list while playing at three minor league levels, including Triple-A Indianapolis, and could see time in Pittsburgh as soon as next year. Polanco has stolen 78 bases over the last two seasons, so when he arrives, the Pirates will have three of the youngest, fastest, and most talented outfielders in baseball roaming the grass at PNC Park.
While the outfield is where the star power is on offense, it might be difficult to compete with the coming one-two punch in the starting rotation that Pirates fans have been dying to see since the team used back-to-back top-two draft picks on pitchers in 2010 and 2011. Righty Gerrit Cole, who turned 23 just last weekend, arrived in Pittsburgh earlier this summer and has proven more than effective, pitching to a 3.48 ERA / 3.18 FIP in 16 starts and allowing more than three earned runs just once.
Cole was already a highly-touted prospect, but even he has shown improvement in his brief time in the big leagues. Over his first eight starts, Cole relied mostly on his sinker and his fastball and had difficulty missing bats, striking out just 29 in 48.2 innings. In his last eight starts, he’s dialed down the sinker usage to take more advantage of his full arsenal, and the results have been clear — in a nearly equal 49.2 innings, he’s struck out 46 hitters, a much better rate. Cole’s adjustments made for national news on Monday night when he outdueled Texas’ ace, Yu Darvish, and struck out nine Rangers over seven scoreless innings — including striking out the side in just 11 pitches in the bottom of the fifth inning.
Taillon, meanwhile turns 22 in November and was the number two pick out of high school in the 2010 draft. Ranked ranked as a consistent top-fifteen prospect, he should make his debut next year. After years of wasting first round picks on the low-upside likes of Brian Bullington, Daniel Moskos, and Brad Lincoln, the team is finally reaping the rewards of smart, focused drafting. Imagine what we might have been saying about the future rotation had they been able to sign Mark Appel, their top 2012 pick who returned to the draft and went number one overall to Houston this year?
Along with 25-year-old starter Jeff Locke, 26-year-old third baseman Pedro Alvarez — both first-time All-Stars this year, though neither without their flaws — and 26-year-old lefty reliever Justin Watson, the Bucs have built up a core of excellent young talent that they can build around. With prospects like shortstop Alen Hanson and pitchers Tyler Glasnow & Luis Heredia on the way, the Pittsburgh pipeline should continue to provide reinforcements.
It takes more than just prospects to win, of course and general manager Neil Huntington is going to have to continue to pull rabbits out of his hat like he’s done recently with the successful low-risk acquisitions of important pieces like A.J. Burnett, Jason Grilli, Garrett Jones, Francisco Liriano, Russell Martin, & Mark Melancon. He might even have to package some of those young players for the additional elite bat this offense probably needs.
Even if it’s taken far longer than fans might have liked, Pittsburgh is finally a destination where free agents might consider coming if they want to contend. That might be a win just as big as any of the 84 they have so far this year, and it’s why things are just getting started for the Pirates.
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