On August 1, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 60-44. They were only three games behind the Reds for the division lead, and had a comfortable 4-game lead over the Cardinals for the second wildcard berth. They were a .500 road team but had the majors’ best home record at 33-16, and while they had only outscored their opponents by 36 runs it seemed likely that they would contend to the end of the season, and certainly the streak of 19 straight losing seasons would come to an end. Given the relatively easy schedule the last two months and their dominance at home, 82 wins seemed like a ‘gimme’ – and I said so in this column back then.
Friday night, the Pirates lost their 81st game, and for good measure managed to get no-hit while doing so for the first time in 41 years. Sunday, their most reliable pitcher – closer Joel Hanrahan – gave up two runs and blew a 3-2 lead, which led to the 82nd loss and ensured the 20th straight losing season. Since August 1, the Pirates have gone 18-38, the worst record in the National League over that span. The most exciting, enjoyable Pirate season in two decades quickly became the most frustrating, almost unwatchable team since 1992 – and the agony was made worse by the fact that this is the second major August/September collapse in a row. How did the Pirates blow it?
Through August 1, the Pirates had scored 431 runs (4.14 per game) and allowed 395 (3.80 per game). The offense was below-average, but the run prevention was among the best in the league. Since August 1, the offense has averaged 3.84 runs per game, but the Pirates have allowed a whopping 4.89 runs per game. Quite simply, the pitching collapsed.
Offensively, Andrew McCutchen faded somewhat – but that had to be expected, I think we can all agree that for all of McCutchen’s talents, he’s not really a .370 hitter. In the end he will hit about .330 with 30 home runs and 20+ steals – ANY team would take that from its center fielder. Alvarez and Jones continued to hit, but the injury to Neil Walker really disrupted the offense- and manager Clint Hurdle’s insistence on giving Rod Barajas a lot of playing time despite a sub-.200 batting average has not helped either.
However, the offense has done enough to finish above .500 given the hot start – the pitching clearly is the main culprit. A.J. Burnett has been very solid all season, and Wandy Rodriguez has been as good as can be expected since he was acquired – but the rest of the rotation has been a disaster. James McDonald has been so bad that he was pulled from the rotation (I still think he’s hiding an injury), Jeff Karstens has been injured/ineffective, and there hasn’t been anyone else to step forward to pick up the slack. Even the once-feared bullpen has fallen on hard times – Jason Grilli is still racking up the K’s, but he’s allowed 11 runs in 20 innings since August 1. Hanrahan has been mostly effective, but has still exhibited wildness – and the rest of the supporting cast has been prone to meltdowns.
As a result, the Pirates managed to go 8-24 against the Padres, Brewers, Astros, Cubs, and Mets the past two months – that’s beyond disappointing; it’s completely unacceptable and should lead to some changes. The simple fact is that aside from the obvious first-round picks, the farm system is not appreciably better than it was five years ago. Yes, there’s a core in place now to build around, and yes general manager Neal Huntingdon deserves real credit for trading for Burnett and Rodriguez, and for picking Jones off the scrap heap a few years ago – but his free-agent signings have been nothing short of disastrous. Clint Barmes is the closest thing to an actual success he’s had in that area, simply because he’s an excellent defensive shortstop – but when the cream of your free-agent crop is a .227 hitter who has walked NINETEEN times all season (against 104 strikeouts), that’s a very bad sign. I’ve defended Huntington for years, but both he and Hurdle deserve blame for two years of late-season collapsing. If the Pirates’ ownership maintains the status quo, I’ll be less convinced than ever that they are truly committed to winning as opposed to making a profit.
There is still hope for the next couple of seasons – with McCutchen signed long-term, the arrival of Alvarez as a real power threat, and the expected arrival of pitching prospects Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole by the end of 2013, the major-league talent level will be as high as it’s been since 1992. Unfortunately, the farm is more or less barren after those two, so the window of opportunity will likely be very short – and I no longer have confidence in Huntingdon or Hurdle to apply the finishing touches to a winning team. Hopefully, owner Bob Nutting can make some hard decisions, bring in a savvy GM (even if it costs a little more to do so), and Pittsburgh can FINALLY end this long streak of futility. Pittsburgh baseball fans are starved for a winner, and they showed this summer that they WILL come to the park to support a good team. Mr. Nutting, the next move is clearly yours.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.