That familiar old game – the back and forth of reality and imagination – the fine line between what one wants and what one is able to have.
I played that game over the last ten days, a game that began when the Pirates placed themselves on top of Major League Baseball’s standings at 12-6 after Honus Wagner, I mean Cole Tucker, made his MLB debut by hitting, essentially, a game-winning home run against the San Francisco Giants.
The air at the top might feel easy to breathe, but it’s thinness is deceptive.
The only thing thinner is the Pirates’ lineup. Even with Corey Dickerson and Starling Marte, the Pirates’ starting lineup is about as threatening as a declawed, toothless kitten.
Yes, the Pirates built their 12-6 record against some pretty bad baseball teams – but that is what good teams are supposed to do. Yes, the Pirates have been competitive in games against better teams (please forget the Arizona series), but their inability to win those games has been more than a little frustrating.
But it all makes perfect sense.
I am redacting (what a fun word these days) my original prediction for 2019. Like The Ministry of Truth, I will not even acknowledge that it existed. Instead, I will simply stay in the now and talk about why the Pirates slide makes perfect sense, and why their 12-14 record is probably closer to who they are than their 12-6 record of 10 days ago.
The reason are simple:
- The starting rotation is overrated. The Pirates’ late-season surge in 2018 that pushed them over .500 was due in large part to the emergences of Jameson Taillon and Trevor Williams, and the solid work of other starters sans Chris Archer. Taillon has not taken the next step in his development as a top-of-the-rotation starter, and Williams has pitched well, but not well enough.
- Chris Archer is what he is. His best two seasons were a combined 22-22. While wins and losses might be the wrong way to judge a pitcher’s worth, Archer loses too many games. He is not very good. Bob Walk would have you believe he is Sandy freaking Koufax because of his swing and miss percentage on his slider, but Koufax’s slider won him baseball games – Archer’s looks pretty until one hangs and ends up floating in the river. Sure doesn’t help to see what Austin Meadows and Tyler Glasnow are doing in Tampa Bay.
- The bullpen is erratic. Only the Washington Nationals and Chicago Cubs have blown more leads than the Pirates, and the Pirates have held onto the fewest number of leads that have translated into wins of any team in baseball. If the bullpen is not preserving leads, but instead blows them and loses games, the bullpen is a liability.
- The defense. Watch the games and this will reveal itself. Teams built on pitching who also cannot hit cannot kick the ball around as much as the Pirates.
The Pirates’ platform for success in 2019 was built on the prospects of a strong starting rotation (which has been good, but not great), a shut-down bullpen that has been erratically disappointing, and an offense able to scratch out enough runs to win close games. The offense is a joke, the defense is almost as funny, and the pitching has been inconsistent to bad.
The Pirates probably have too much to correct to plug the holes in their sinking ship. Do you trust this ownership group and the bumbling, stumbling management group that assembled this bunch to fix it? Forget the Jolly Roger – might be time to raise the distress flag (yes, I know it’s only April). Cue a 10-game win streak that belies everything I just wrote.
- I love the move to trade up in the first round to land Devin Bush. The Steelers addressed a major need, but I love the move because it allowed the Steelers to cut ties with Jon Bostic, a severely limited player. As for the rest of the draft, as with any, time will tell, but I do like the strategy to address positions. Erin likes to call them by their initials (“WR” for wide receiver, for example), and she thought taking a WR in the third and a CB in the fourth (my personal favorite pick in the Steelers’ draft) was savvy. Erin is not as high on Benny Snell Jr. as Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin because Snell is a bit slow for an NFL running back, and the rest of the draft is always a crap shoot.
- It’s that scary time for a franchise. That time when it looks at some iconic players – players whose personal success has helped the team succeed – and asks, is it time to move on? Well, yes, it probably is. But you see, it’s that, “probably,” word that scares fans. It is probably time for Phil Kessel, Kris LeTang and Evgeni Malkin to go. It is probably time to get younger and faster, to retool with admittedly lesser, but less also less expensive talent. Somehow the bottom four teams in the Eastern and Western Conference playoffs managed to oust the top four seeds, all loaded with impressive talent, so the Penguins should probably look at the probable trade values of Kessel, LeTang and Malkin. They probably will survive, and probably should toss Patric Hornqvist into the mix, as well. Probably.