Gajtka: Pirates Awaiting Breakthrough, But Still Back From The Dead

The Pirates are probably not making the playoffs this year.

You could probably determine that on your own, even after a welcomed series win in Denver kept them from sinking back under the .500 mark. FanGraphs has their playoff odds at just under 12 percent after Wednesday’s win, but you could surmise that from a glance at the standings.

Still three teams between them and the National League’s second wild card position. Still five games separating them from the postseason zone. Still very much a long shot to head into the final week of the season with something tangible to play for.

But if you can pardon my big-picture perspective here, what happens over the next two months doesn’t matter much if a World Series is what the Pirates are after.

If we’re all honest with ourselves, the Pirates were never going to contend seriously this season. As of about a month ago, I was getting pessimistic to the long-term viability of the franchise in Pittsburgh, let alone their spot in the MLB hierarchy.

Not that all of those issues can be fixed in the span of one trade call to the league office last week, but the acquisition of Chris Archer has me thinking much differently about this franchise — differently than I’ve ever thought about the Pirates in my 33 years on this planet.

Archer himself isn’t a panacea for the Pirates. Judging from his career trajectory at this point, the team will be fortunate to get an above-average starting pitcher for the next three seasons.

The more salient development that comes from the Archer hoopla is philosophical. Yes, there were plenty of factors in the Archer trade that made it palatable for Neal Huntington — years of control, prime of career, manageable salary — but I still wouldn’t have figured him to push this particular boulder over the hill until it actually happened.

It’s not that anything is now possible for this franchise. There will continue to be onerous financial limitations (both imposed and self-imposed) to their baseball operations, but if young players with promise are suddenly more ‘in play’ in trade talks, then maybe there has been a meaningful shift in how the honchos on Federal Street are thinking about their whole procedure.

If that is the case, then I feel more optimistic about the Pirates’ chances to make the most of this group of talent either already in the majors or on the verge. Clearly, the solid performances of Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and Jameson Taillon on the whole also make me more bullish, but I never had the sense that aggressive moves would be made to augment … until the arrival of Archer, that is.

All of which brings me to a different point. The Pirates’ fan base, among the most beleaguered and beaten down in all of sport, absolutely needed a moment like this.

In what seemed like a bolt from the (Tampa Bay Rays) blue, the Pirates had a player …

• Who has a good MLB track record
• Who’s not over the hill
• Who actually wants to be in Pittsburgh
• Who has a desire to give back to the community

I was fortunate enough to have tickets to the Pirates’ home game against the Cubs on the evening of the Archer deal. Seated in the lower bowl, there was a sense from the fans in my section and surrounding it that the Pirates were once again ‘in the game.’

If you’ve been to PNC Park at all this season, the place felt more like a barren cavern than the Best Ballpark In America™. Time will tell whether the fan base is truly engaged enough to turn up at the stadium more often, but as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the TV ratings would indicate that people have been paying attention even though all the controversy and struggle of 2018.

In a more intangible sense, though, Archer’s arrival made it more exciting to pull for the Pirates again. Not only was Huntington active around the trade deadline, but he actually made real national news. Chasing hoopla is a troublesome way to go about one’s business, but a little juice can go a long way in keeping fans engaged.

I’ve been writing it since spring training: This is entertainment. Only the diehards are going to have the patience to think along with the GM as he tries to nip and tuck and pile up enough surplus value to stay competitive. And a pro sports franchise can’t truly succeed with only diehards on board.

So here the Pirates are, with several weeks left to play in the season, but perhaps with a new perspective on how they want to do business.

The hole is probably too big to dig out of before October, no doubt. However, there’s at least some reason to believe that this team isn’t consigned to managing its assets with a stultifying sobriety that threatened to kill any MLB enthusiasm still remaining in this market.

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