This is the way it was supposed to happen.
Tomorrow the Pirates have the chance to end their 20 year consecutive losing streak. They won game number 80 today, and can take win number 81 and avoid a losing season tomorrow. After that it’s win number 82 for the first winning season since 1992. And while people are excited for these two things, they take a clear back seat to the current playoff race.
Just like it should be.
If you haven’t been reading Pat Lackey’s series on WHYGAVS after each win, you’re missing out. Here is win number 79. Tomorrow you can look forward to reading his thoughts on win number 80 and how that relates to the last 20 years (Spoiler Alert: no team in the last 20 years has won that many games). I encourage you to go back and read all of them.
Going back through and reading the series can torment you, and make you appreciate what is happening this year, all at the same time. It takes some bad management to get to 20 years of losing in a row, but even bad management lucks into winning one year. There’s almost no difference between the Pirates and the Kansas City Royals, who have had one winning season since the 1994 season. The main difference is that the Royals won 83 games in 2003, which is why they’re not talking about breaking some extraordinarily long losing streak as a consolation prize this season with their 70-66 record.
The past few weeks as I’ve been reading through Pat’s recaps each week, I remember different moves and different feelings. There was the under-rated horrible move to leave Joe Randa unprotected in the expansion draft, leading to Aramis Ramirez coming up too soon, leading to Ramirez being arbitration eligible before he was established in the majors, and leading to Ramirez being salary dumped to get under the debt/equity ratio in 2003 because he was making too much money. There was Jason Kendall looking like a future star, then he snapped his ankle, possibly hurting the chance for a winning season. There were all of the Dave Littlefield years where it seemed like the only focus was just getting one winning season, without a plan for sustained success.
There were so many years where you looked back and said “if only they would have won a few more games, we wouldn’t have to talk about the streak”. There were so many years where you thought that during the season. The idea of playoffs or being actual contenders was a joke that would get you mocked on blogs and message boards. At some point during the streak there had to be a moment where you thought the Pirates might have a chance at one lucky winning season, which would most likely be followed by years of more losing. It was easy to think this, since the Pirates spent so many years with that as their strategy.
It’s hard to remember those days now. Part of that is because you don’t want to remember, but a bigger part is because it’s unbelievable. Out of all of those years, the Pirates never tried to end the streak the way they should. They ignored the farm system. They were non-existent in Latin America, even though they had the biggest selling point of any team: Roberto Clemente. They traded for safe, major league ready players, and signed low risk, low upside guys hoping to capture some magic just once.
It all seems so simple. The current management group came in with the worst situation. They had no farm system to work with. They were coming off a year where the previous group passed on the best player in the draft, then traded for Matt Morris’ dead weight in salary. There was no believe that they would spend on anything. Every single prospect that came through the system previously either had a major arm injury (for pitchers), or had one big season that put him on the map, and then never lived up to that season again (a lot of the prospects, actually). The current group had to come in and say they were going to do the things the previous group said they were doing. Only this time, the current group had to actually do it.
This wasn’t a hard task to accomplish. Spend a ton in the draft, and establish that no one is too difficult to sign. Don’t just stop at the first round, but expand the scouting and look for those middle and later round value picks. Focus a lot more money on the international market, and look for talent in places where people aren’t looking, hoping to find values. Build a Dominican Academy to attract some of those potential breakout players, and to help train some of your own guys for breakout performances. Create a development system where every level is on the same page, where the pitching coach in Double-A knew exactly what the pitching coach in high-A was working on right when the pitcher was promoted, allowing that Double-A coach to take the next step in the very structured development system that had been established. Take caution with these players, move them along at a steady pace, making sure they’re ready when they get to a new level, rather than listening to the criticism from fans wanting the Pirates to be like other teams who ruin plenty of prospects by moving them too quickly.
It’s not just the farm system either. The current management group had to come in prepared to blow the major league team up and start from scratch, despite already being at 15 losing seasons in a row. Those moves didn’t go so well the first year, but they quickly improved, and started showing the long-term value you’d hope for. Trade short-term assets who aren’t going to help you win for long-term assets who are risky but have more upside and could help you win. Sign free agents who have some valuable attribute that everyone else is ignoring. Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to stray from the same old on field approach everyone else takes. This led to bad plans like pitchers hitting eighth and the extreme no doubles defense, but it also led to the use of this year’s defensive shifts, which has been a big factor to the success of the 2013 group. Sign young players to potential team friendly extensions, because even though Jose Tabata looks like a waste of money, Andrew McCutchen brings in more than enough value to make up for that. Then, after you’ve started to rebuild, and when your team is trending up, start to spend, but spend wisely, because you’re not just trying to win for one season.
Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, and everyone else involved in rebuilding this system have done everything the right way. The execution hasn’t always been right, but you don’t get to this point without being right more often than you’re wrong. There was a time where you couldn’t say the Pirates were on the right path. You couldn’t say that the Pirates knew what they were doing with a certain move, or that all of their efforts in the farm system were leading to a period of sustained success. That time was from late 2007, when the current group came on, all the way to the start of this season. It wasn’t even a year ago that you were deemed an “apologist” or criticized for supporting everything the management group did, just because you thought Mark Melancon was a huge bounce back candidate, Francisco Liriano was a great risk to take, and the farm system was actually good and was something that could lead to the Pirates winning.
Those questions aren’t around now. Sure, it was only a week ago that the Pirates hadn’t added Marlon Byrd, John Buck and Justin Morneau and people went back to saying the Pirates didn’t know what they were doing. Then they added those three players, and people acted like this was some change in approach, like the same management group didn’t add Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick two years ago, and Wandy Rodriguez last year. But people have pretty widely accepted the truth.
The Pirates are an actual contender. They’ve got one of the best farm systems in the game. Almost every key player from this Pirates team is under control next year, and a bulk of the key players are under control for a few years beyond that. They have waves of top prospects ready to join this already-contending group over the next few seasons. Gregory Polanco, Jameson Taillon, and Nick Kingham in 2014. Tyler Glasnow and Alen Hanson in 2015. Then guys like Austin Meadows, Josh Bell, Reese McGuire, Luis Heredia, and many more after that. They haven’t stopped their approach in the minors, and they’re not in a rush to sell any key pieces to the farm, so they should continue getting a constant flow of prospects, just like the group of Starling Marte, Jeff Locke, Jordy Mercer, Gerrit Cole, and Justin Wilson that joined the team at the end of last year or the start of this year.
The Pirates have a chance tomorrow to end 20 years of losing with win number 81. If it doesn’t happen tomorrow, we know it will happen soon. It’s a step along the way to something much more important, and something that was once thought to be unachievable. Breaking the losing streak, and following that up with win number 82 and the first winning season is a chance to remember how bad it once was, and celebrate how the Pirates have finally come out of the darkest hole any team in professional sports history has ever been in. But after that, the real celebration begins. That’s when the Pirates resume their playoff race, with a 99% chance of going to the playoffs in one form or another. No matter the outcome this year, the Pirates are then set up to do this again in the future.
They’re not barely getting a winning season. They’re not good one year, then falling right back into obscurity. This is the way it always should have happened. Wins number 81 and 82 are just a pair of stops onto something bigger this season, and bigger in years to come. After years of wins 81 and 82 being the biggest story surrounding the Pirates, it’s just a smaller note in a much bigger season. So credit to Bob Nutting, Frank Coonelly, Neal Huntington, and everyone involved in this process. They did this the right way. They didn’t try to take shortcuts. They didn’t aim for one year. They aimed for sustainable success. And now the Pirates are a win away from ending the losing, a near lock to make the playoffs, and set up to be contenders beyond the 2013 season. Just like it was always supposed to be.
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