Tim Benz: Pirates went wrong, even in proving themselves right
The Major League Baseball playoffs began Tuesday night.
The Pittsburgh Pirates aren’t in them.
For the third year in a row.
For the 23rd time in 26 years.
For the 33rd time in 39 years.
We’re used to that around here. The only guy who gets fewer treats in October than the Pirate Parrot is Charlie Brown.
“I got a rock!”
While stewing over this plateau which the Pirates didn’t reach yet again in 2018, it reminded me of one that they did achieve.
The Pirates had a winning season. It was just their fourth since 1993. But without the playoffs attached to it, the “accomplishment” didn’t come with much fanfare. The Pirates’ 82-win total was hardly discussed at all within the Pittsburgh sports scene.
Had the Pirates gone over .500 in 2010 or 2011, there would’ve been a parade down the Boulevard of the Allies for breaking that nearly two-decade-long stretch of losing seasons.
However, that rather menial accomplishment was merely a pit stop in 2013 on the way to the first of three straight playoff berths. So it was only momentarily celebrated before the focus shifted back to the pennant chase.
And since the playoffs are still fresh in our minds from three years ago, this version of a winning season is just a kinder way of saying “tied for seventh place in the National League.”
“Not good enough,” Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said on 93.7 FM before the season finale in Cincinnati Sunday. “We’re not going to the postseason. We’re not in a position to win a World Series.”
Credit Huntington for avoiding an oversell there. He could’ve done so.
Many — myself included — thought Huntington was blowing smoke after pitchers and catchers reported when he said this year’s Pirates could replicate a season like last year’s Minnesota Twins.
That group won 85 games and grabbed an American League Wild Card. The analogy felt like a pie-in-the-sky pipe dream after he had sold off Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole before spring training.
But Huntington was wise to avoid playing the “I told you so” card after his club crept into the realm.
Basically, this year showed us that when it comes to proving themselves right, the Pirates can still do it wrong.
Had 2018 built to a steady crescendo of improvement throughout the year, maybe getting above the .500 hurdle would’ve been greeted with more acclaim. Instead, it was a year of fits and starts.
The Pirates had a solid April and beginning of May, hitting a record of 26-17 on May 17. Then they were atrocious through July 7, when their record plummeted from nine games above .500 to eight games below .500 at 40-48.
From there, it was that wild stretch around the All-Star break when they won 13 of 14. The Chris Archer trade happened only to be followed by 16 losses in August.
After that, it was football season in Pittsburgh, and a 16-win September virtually happened in a vacuum.
“We were a very inconsistent team,” Huntington said.
“At stretches of time, we were among the most productive offenses in baseball. At stretches of time, we were among the least productive teams in baseball.”
The good news for Huntington is that if — and this is a big if — the Pirates make minor improvements, or at least keep the current roster intact with Major League capable replacements for departing players such as Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison, then they’ll have local baseball fans expecting better than 82 wins.
Expectations are good. Given their roster missteps after 2015, we haven’t witnessed optimism in Bradenton since the spring training before that season. Optimism means buzz and ticket sales.
The bad news is you actually have to live up to those expectations. So roughly .500 in 2019 won’t be enough. Comparisons to the 2017 Twins won’t suffice. Given the wins expected from this starting pitching staff, the more likely analogy may be to mirror the leap made by the 2018 Brewers whose win total jumped by 10 up to 96 and an NL Central crown.
I’d take 92 wins next year. How about you?
“We have to earn that appreciation,” Huntington said. “We have to earn (the fans’) hard-earned dollars.”
Yeah. You do. So how about spending some dollars yourself and getting a few hitters in the lineup this offseason to support that pitching staff of yours.
Give us some candy in October, Neal. We’re all tired of getting rocks.