In this space last week, I wrote that I wasn’t buying the steadfast hype this offseason for the Washington Nationals. I wrote that in the densely-packed National League East, the Nationals would be hard-pressed to reign supreme over the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, and Philadelphia Phillies. I wrote that if the Nationals played in the NL Central, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, I might project them to win 90 games. Accordingly, it’s time for another prediction.
It’s been 20 years since the Pirates last had a winning season. In the two decades since Francisco Cabrera dumped a bloop single in front of Barry Bonds that sent the Braves to the World Series, Pittsburgh fans have gotten to know a special kind of futility. They’ve had at least 90 losses ten times. Not once in 20 years have they scored 800 runs, though they’ve allowed that many eight times. And Pittsburgh has more or less served as an assembly line for sending talented young players to other teams.
Few teams in baseball history have stayed this bad for this long. The Boston Red Sox had a similar run after Babe Ruth left town. The Philadelphia Phillies had one winning season between 1918 and 1948. But eventually, those teams made it out of their ruts, and this year, I see the Pirates doing likewise. In 2012, I predict the Pirates will finish .500 or better.
It has to happen at some point, right? I see a few reasons why this could be the year. First, the Pirates have assembled a solid, young core. Their pitching staff, while nondescript, managed a 4.04 staff ERA last season and will have A.J. Burnett this year. On offense, Pittsburgh has Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and others. Alvarez is a power-hitting third baseman who struggled last year but is still young and comes highly touted. If Tabata can stay healthy, he looks like a potential .300 hitter. And Walker could be among the best second basemen in the National League if he builds on his 2.5 WAR, 12 home runs, and 83 RBI from 2011.
The Pirates also showed they may have learned from their past, giving a six-year, $51 million extension to budding superstar Andrew McCutchen who, after three seasons, looks a lot like a young Barry Bonds. As it was with Bonds, McCutchen’s an All Star outfielder with speed and power, and like Bonds, he posted a 123 OPS+ over his first three seasons. Unlike Bonds, McCutchen may not be going anywhere through his prime years. It’ll be interesting to see if the Pirates continue to build around him.
All of this is moot, though, save for the most important fact here: The Pirates play in the NL Central, baseball’s most dysfunctional division, the Sarajevo of the MLB. It certainly looks to have all the order this year of a post-Soviet kleptocracy. Consider: The Cardinals and Brewers have gone forward without Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, respectively. The Reds have much of a team in tact that won 91 games in 2010, but never underestimate Dusty Baker’s potential to create chaos. And as for the Cubs and the Astros, they might not even have a winning season in Triple-A.
So mark my words, good things should be happening in Pittsburgh this year, and for what’s it worth, at least one positive already has occurred. The Pirates kicked their season off taking two of three at home against the Phillies.