At the Crossroads
The good news from Pittsburgh is the fans are mad, really mad.
For 20 straight seasons, the Pirates were crummy or worse. Losing beget more losing. If Pittsburgh’s motto was .500 or bust, then the Pirates went bust. Every summer.
From 1993 through 2012, the Buccos were the Yuccos.
Life suddenly changed in 2013 as the Pirates won 94 games and reached the playoffs for the first time since Barry Bonds’ final season with them in 1992.
The Pirates won another 88 games in 2014 to again reach the playoffs with 98 more wins following in 2015 and a third straight playoff appearance for the first time since the churlish Bonds led them there from 1990-92.
Naturally, the team’s newfound success brightened the fans’ attitudes, rekindled their faith in the Towne Team and heightened expectations.
And why not?
The Pirates, arguably, had the best young outfield in the game with center fielder and onetime National League Most Valuable Player Andrew McCutchen flanked by Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.
The pitching staff had an emerging All-Star in starter Gerrit Cole, another All-Star in closer Mark Melancon, and two successful reclamation projects in starters Francisco Liriano and J.A. Happ.
Their third baseman was a hard-hitting South Korean named Jung Ho Kang, and their farm system was nurturing top prospects in pitchers Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, first baseman Josh Bell and outfielder Austin Meadows.
What possibly could go wrong?
Well, turns out lots.
First, the great expectations plummeted, and plummeted fast, as the 98-win Pirates of 2015 slipped in 2016 to 78 victories that led to Pittsburgh’s first losing season in four seasons.
The travails of this summer’s team – one on pace for another losing season – actually began months before Opening Day.
Instead of spending the winter priming their reinvigorated fanbase for an exciting 2017, the Pirates spent much of the offseason reportedly shopping McCutchen to any team willing to take on their suddenly declining center fielder and his $14 million contract.
Spring training found the Pirates still employing the unwanted and bewildered McCutchen, this time as a right fielder instead of his customary spot in center.
Then news came that Kang was not returning anytime soon to Pittsburgh as he found himself sitting in a South Korean jail after his third DUI arrest since 2009.
Marte also was shelved less than three weeks into the season as Major League Baseball suspended him 80 games for indulging in illegal pharmaceuticals, leaving skeptics to wonder if Marte’s breakout, All-Star season in 2016 was real or simply one propped up by performance-enhancing drugs.
As for some of the others, Bell has struggled on offense and Meadows remains in the minors, where he was joined last month by the woefully inconsistent Glasnow. Taillon missed much of the first half of the season with testicular cancer before returning in mid-June.
The once touted pitching staff has seen Cole go from All-Star to Also-Ran. This after the cost-conscious Pirates management last summer flipped Liriano and Melancon to other teams rather than pay them. They already had said goodbye to Happ, a free agent who won 20 games last season for Toronto after the Pirates could not afford to keep him.
The result has been a 2017 season that so far has been mired in or near last place in the National League Central.
Entering the middle of June, the chances of returning to the playoffs certainly seemed possible as the Pirates were only a handful of games out of first place.
The numbers, though, may be misleading, especially in the five-team Central Division.
Two of the four teams – Milwaukee and Cincinnati – have the same type of promising prospects, aspirations and hunger the Pirates had just a couple of years ago.
The other two teams – Chicago and St. Louis – either have the overwhelming talent or the pedigree to keep them at or near the top of the division for the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, the Pirates are simply trying to gain enough traction to put together something as modest as a three-game winning streak, a feat accomplished only twice in the season’s first two months.
Attendance this season at Pittsburgh’s picturesque PNC Park has slipped from an average of more than 30,000 per game just two years ago to 23,000 through mid-June.
Now, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington – deservedly touted for the team’s postseason runs from 2013-15 – must decide whether to buy or sell as Major League Baseball’s trade deadline fast approaches.
The Pirates may well be selling, which seems to be their intent anyway since first trying to peddle McCutchen in the offseason.
They must decide if Cole, still only 26 years old, is part of the process going forward or a trade candidate for prospects to help with the next rebuild.
Same with Iván Nova, the 30-year-old pitcher who has performed like an All-Star for the first three months this season and who could lure even more prospects from a contending team looking for a pitcher under contract for two more years.
None of this may be encouraging news for Pirates fans.
After suffering through two decades of ineptitude before finally enjoying some good baseball, fans there find themselves again backing a team that is at the crossroads of reload and rebuild.
They do not like their team’s rediscovered mediocrity. They want more, and that’s good. Great expectations always are.