The Pittsburgh Pirates were contenders in 2013. They were contenders because of bounce back pitchers like A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. They were contenders because they relied on unproven prospects, rather than going for the “guarantee” of an established major leaguer. They were contenders because they went against the norms — placing higher values on defense, pitch framing, ground balls, defensive shifts, and ignoring the myth of “proven relievers”.
I’ve talked in the past about how the Pirates need to stay the course. The approach that got them here is the approach that is going to keep them contenders for years to come. The idea that a team has to act one way to become contenders, and another way once they are contenders is wrong. Teams that act this way and change their approach usually don’t remain contenders for long, and quickly have to go back to a rebuilding process.
There’s one thing that gets lost in this discussion. Any discussion that talks about how the Pirates approach things is usually taking the feelings of fans and applying those feelings to the Pirates. Last year, fans didn’t see the Pirates as potential contenders. The moves that were made were viewed with the idea that the Pirates weren’t contenders, and needed a miracle to contend. So in the view of the fans, the Pirates were making moves last year with a small chance of contending. This year is different for the fans, because the Pirates have established themselves as contenders. The key difference is that the fans believe the Pirates can be contenders in 2014, and that belief didn’t exist heading into the 2013 season. Therefore, fans feel that the approach heading into the 2014 season should be different.
But what if the Pirates weren’t thinking like the fans? What if the Pirates viewed themselves as contenders heading into the 2013 season? That’s not far fetched at all. What if the moves and the approach made by the Pirates in the past were made with the view that they would be contenders? If that’s the case, then there should be no difference for them between last off-season and this off-season. If they thought they had a chance to contend in 2013, and they think they have a chance to contend in 2014, then there shouldn’t be a difference in their approach.
The only difference between last off-season and this off-season is that the fans now believe the Pirates can contend. The fans also apply this change in belief to the Pirates’ thinking, assuming that the Pirates were acting one way last year because they agreed with the fans that they weren’t contenders. Therefore, fans believe that the Pirates should act differently, assuming that the Pirates were only making the moves they made in the past because the Pirates held the same belief as the fans.
The truth about all of this is that there’s no such thing as a contender in the off-season. “Contender” status doesn’t carry over from one season to the next. Teams have to focus every year on building a contender for the following season. Sure, it gets easier when you had a contending team to start with the previous year. But each off-season the goal is the same: build a contender. The Pirates had that goal last year. They traded their established closer, Joel Hanrahan, and replaced him with an “unproven closer” in Jason Grilli. They brought in Mark Melancon as a set-up man, despite his horrible year in 2012. Their big addition to the rotation was Francisco Liriano, who looked just as bad as the bounce back candidates do this off-season. Their big offensive addition was a strong defensive catcher who had advanced skills working with pitchers and framing pitches — two undervalued skills at the time.
Fans didn’t see any of those moves as moves that were made to build a contending team in 2013. But the Pirates made those moves with the goal of contending. The idea that they should now act differently is kind of foolish when you consider that they successfully built a contender using the approach that fans want to discard. I don’t understand why a team should discard the approach that built a contender in the first place, but then again I don’t believe in the idea that a team has to act differently as contenders.
From the looks of things, the Pirates are going to go with the same type of approach they did last year. They’re going to target bounce back pitchers. They’ll target platoons and go with unproven prospects rather than making a big splash. They might even trade from their bullpen to help other areas of the team. Basically, they will take the same approach that they used before. Fans are already starting to say it: “Same old Pirates”. They’re just leaving out the part about how the “Same old Pirates” used this exact approach to contend in 2013. If this is the “Same old Pirates”, I say welcome back.
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