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Last year on July 24th the Pirates climbed to 50-50, and sat just 2.5 games back in the NL Central. They were also 7.5 games back in the Wild Card race, with only the Cubs between them and the two Wild Card teams.
Today their situation is almost flipped. They’ve won 10 in a row in order to climb to 52-49. Their chances in the division are lower, sitting seven games back. However, their chances of the Wild Card are improved, sitting four games back, with two teams between them and the Wild Card teams.
I didn’t think the Pirates should buy last year. I didn’t see them as contenders at all, and thought they needed to trade away veterans and rebuild. Part of that was because I thought they were too far out of the Wild Card race, and didn’t have the pitching to win the division when the Cubs or Brewers eventually took off and separated themselves.
When the Pirates did a mixture of buying and selling — trading away Tony Watson, but adding Joaquin Benoit, George Kontos, and Sean Rodriguez — I felt they were in No-Man’s Land, not really having a clear path toward either contending or rebuilding, and destined to be stuck in the same situation this year if things didn’t change.
I guess you could argue that the Pirates are currently in the same No-Man’s Land situation. They are definitely contenders for the Wild Card game now. That said, they’re not really in a position to go all-in with this team, and there are veterans who they could move to clear the way for younger players coming up, all without really losing much steam.
But here’s the thing: If the Pirates don’t escape No-Man’s Land in the next week, and go all-in, I don’t think it will be a problem. If they don’t go total rebuild, I also don’t think it will be a problem. I feel that baseball is rewarding teams that go to the extremes right now, rather than playing the middle and trying to win every year. But in this case, the Pirates can make moves to help their team without going to the extremes.
They’ve done this before, and it has worked out. Way back in 2011 they were buyers, but not really strong contenders, and they added Derrek Lee for practically nothing to give them a huge boost to their offense. They made similar moves along the way, including the 2015 trade deadline where they brought in J.A. Happ, who was one of the best acquisitions of that deadline by any team.
If they went big and added someone like Chris Archer, I wouldn’t complain, and obviously that wouldn’t be a bad thing. But there’s a massive valley between adding Chris Archer and doing nothing, with a lot of possibilities for the Pirates in between to upgrade their team without acting like this year is their only chance to contend.
Right now, if the Pirates aren’t adding to this team in some way, they’re doing it wrong. They don’t need to go all-in this year — that time will eventually come, but this isn’t the time or the team. But you can’t look at this current run and just ignore it.
They also have no need to be sellers right now. There’s no Mark Melancon or Tony Watson on expiring contracts. The only guys on expiring contracts are guys like Jordy Mercer and Sean Rodriguez, who wouldn’t land much in a trade. Other veterans like Josh Harrison, Ivan Nova, Francisco Cervelli, David Freese, or even Corey Dickerson are under control through at least the 2019 season, and could be traded in the offseason if needed.
Then you add in the fan factor. The past year has been rough for the Pirates with their fanbase, and a lot of that is of their own doing. Fans don’t trust that the team is serious about winning, due to mixed and unclear messages from the front office, and actions that don’t add any more clarity.
This whole run started with Neal Huntington saying that the next week would help determine whether the team would be buyers or sellers. That was two weeks ago, and the Pirates have won all but one game ever since. And don’t think that Huntington was rooting for the opposite to happen, because if there’s one person who believed this team had a shot at winning from the start, it was Huntington, and he has a lot of public comments to back that up.
If Huntington doesn’t respond to this current streak by adding to the team and giving a clear indication that the Pirates aim to contend, then he might never win the fans back. You can’t spend all of the pre-season saying this team will contend, spend the roughest parts of the season saying you still believe they can contend, say that their record leading up to the trade deadline will determine the path, and then not add at the deadline. I can’t imagine the PR shitstorm that would follow that series of events, and I’m old enough to remember what happened when they let Juan Nicasio walk for a $600 K savings.
And that’s still a tough situation. It would definitely help in a huge way if the Pirates went big and added someone like Archer. From a PR standpoint and a competitive standpoint, that might be a move that helps the organization more than any other move. And considering they still get complaints about not adding at the deadline in 2015 — even though Happ was a great pickup and just as good as David Price down the stretch — I’m not confident that just any addition outside of a big splash will generate the same goodwill.
The fan factor is one thing to consider. But even in this time when the Pirates desperately need to regain fan trust, it’s important to make good moves, regardless of how they’re perceived. As I said, the Pirates don’t need to add a big guy like Archer in order to improve this team. There are a lot of other options available to them.
One thing is clear: the Pirates need to add. This isn’t a time for playing both sides, adding and trading players away at the same time. This also isn’t a time where they need to protect absolutely every single prospect in the system in order to focus on future years. They need to capitalize on this current wave and go for the Wild Card game this year, all while sending a clear message that this team is serious about winning.