More than a few times this season, I’ve had flashbacks to 2008.
Ten years ago, the Pirates’ lineup was respectable enough, with five of their usual starting eight — Ryan Doumit, Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay, Nate McLouth and Xavier Nady — posting OPS+ figures of 120 or better. However, only Paul Maholm had an ERA above average among the five pitchers to make 10 or more starts, so that offensive production was wasted in a 95-loss season.
Now, it will take quite the continued downturn for this year’s edition of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club to lose 90 or more, but the current eight-series losing streak illustrates that the worst-case outcome is possible.
The 2018 offense is more well-rounded than the ’08 team, as Corey Dickerson, Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli all have OPS+ ratings of 120 or above, while Josh Harrison and Colin Moran are over 110. Even the stragglers — Gregory Polanco, Jordy Mercer and Josh Bell — have been decent enough to get above 90.
The problem remains pitching, though, with only Joe Musgrove able to post an ERA more than 5 percent above National League average, and he’s only appeared four times. Then there’s the bullpen, where Felipe Vásquez and Michael Feliz have fallen flat.
This staff isn’t as bad as it’s looked during this 7-18 stretch, but it’s quite clearly the weak spot for an organization that supposedly values run prevention most of all.
Not to belabor the 10-year comparison, but the passing resemblance between Neal Huntington’s first Pirates team and his 11th should be enough to inspire shudders and a chill down the back.
When we boil it all down, are the Pirates any better off in 2018 than they were in ’08? We can probably all agree that Dave Littlefield had nearly burned the baseball operations department to the ground, but practically I’m not sure if the Pirates have made any meaningful headway against the rest of Major League Baseball in a decade of leadership from Huntington and Frank Coonelly.
Have they modernized the operation from top to bottom? Certainly. All things considered, have they done well with the limited resources they’ve been presented? Probably.
But can I say I have more optimism for the future of this team than I did when baseball operations turned over late in the 2007 season? I’m not sure.
Some of that isn’t the Pirates’ fault. The entire industry has gotten smarter and more advanced. Payroll disparity hasn’t alleviated much, even with a de facto soft cap in the form of a stringent luxury tax. The so-called ‘launch-angle revolution’ has apparently mitigated the Pirates’ formula of sinker-heavy pitching, too.
I could be dead wrong. It took nearly four years for the Huntington Pirates to show any real signs of life. It took almost six to forge a path to the postseason. I wouldn’t be shocked if this year’s team at least finishes around .500, which would be better than the first five teams fielded by this regime.
On top of all that, there are at least a couple more interesting prospects in the high minors right now than there were a decade ago. Mitch Keller and Kevin Newman lead that pack, and Austin Meadows’ transition to the majors has put the bloom back on his rose, and Nick Kingham has done all he can to put himself in the big-league picture.
All the Pirates had 10 years ago was Andrew McCutchen — which turned out to be a lot, in fairness — and the hope that the Pedro Álvarez pick would eventually deliver. In retrospect, it was quite the hill to climb.
To their credit, they pulled it off, but there was no head start. That was a deep hole, much deeper than whatever faces this year’s sagging club.
Still, as we approach the middle of the 2018 season, it’s easy to be pessimistic. It might even be appropriate to be pessimistic. The Pirates have tried to build teams several different ways under Huntington, but they don’t appear to have gotten any better at it, at least not in the context of the modern game.
If we’re generous, we could say this was always going to be a future-focused year, since the team moved on from McCutchen and Gerrit Cole mere months ago. Looking back to earlier points of the season, it seems that the Pirates might’ve been trying to warn us that they were prepared to take their lumps.
Clint Hurdle said exactly that three-word phrase in reference to a question about his inexperienced bullpen back in early May. That’s fair, but after back-to-back losing seasons, there shouldn’t be much patience with an organization that still hasn’t found the answers on the pitching side of the ledger.
The 2008 Pirates were eventually blown up, with Bay, Nady, McLouth, Freddy Sánchez, Jack Wilson and a guy named José Bautista all sent away within the span of a year. With better support from the fellows on the mound, that could’ve been an offense that pushed this team back into the playoffs. Instead, they were lost in the churn of losing.
The fear now should be that a similar situation is developing with this year’s team. There’s enough to dream on, but not enough in reality.
With the way the Pirates operate and the economic system they reside in, halfway there might as well be square one.