The Magic Ran Out – a Retrospective on the Pirates Season

The Pittsburgh Pirates, despite last night’s sudden explosion of offense, are all but done this year. Another disappointing season where the front office refused to pay quality players (Walker) and brought in nothing to fill any gaps in our lineup (Niese was terrible, Jaso is below average at best) while insisting they were “building a winner”. Let’s take a look at what really happened this year.

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PNC Park in downtown Pittsburgh on game day

The Offseason

Last offseason was a very active one in the NL Central, but not for the Pirates. While the Cardinals and Cubs were thinking big and the Reds and Brewers were starting the rebuilding process, the Pirates largely sat idle. The only big move they made was also the one that would haunt them: trading Neil Walker, the hometown kid, to the New York Mets for Pitcher Jon Niese after saying Walker wanted too much money. This is a classic move for the Pirates, who have a long history of refusing to pay to resign players that they spend enormous effort bringing up to the major leagues. Walker spent his entire career with the Pirates, up until he said he felt he needed a better contract. He certainly earned it after years of excellent defense and surprising power hitting. Walker and Cutch, friends for their entire careers, embodied the occasionally goofy spirit of the resurgent Pittsburgh Pirates. But that wasn’t enough for our front office, who traded Walker away instead and got essentially nothing in return.

Meanwhile the Cubs were building a powerhouse lineup. Like the Pirates, they had tremendous talent coming in from their farm system. Unlike the Pirates, they were willing to build a winning team around that talent. Rather than getting a Jaso, they ate the Cardinals lunch and brought in Jason Heyward. Their pitching staff, already one of the best out there, now included the long-term signing of Jon Lester. A rental for last year’s playoff race, Lester was assumed to be going back to the Boston Red Sox – until the Cubs made him a sizeable offer along with the promise of competing for a World Series team. Ben Zobrist brought experience to the infield which the Mets didn’t need any more because they replaced him with, you guessed it, Neil Walker. All this set the stage for the regular season.

The Regular Season

The Cubs were the most hyped team in baseball in March of 2016, and for good reason. They spent big bucks augmenting their team, and it showed. The Pirates started out losing their first nine straight games to the Cubs in a run that showed the clear differences in the approaches the two teams had taken. While the Pirates were plugging holes and hoping that “good enough” guys would come up big for them, the Cubs simply crushed everything in sight. They never had to worry about turning up big. Every night it was like another Cubs player would be the hero. They were paying incredible baseball.

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In what would become a running theme, Andrew McCutchen just didn’t have his usual spark. He hasn’t hit over .300 all year, and he certainly won’t before the end of the season. A mid-season injury torpedoed Gerrit Cole. Ryan Vogelsong, another offseason acquisition, was average at best not to mention past his prime which he spent with the Giants after (surprise) the Pirates traded him early in his career. The Pirates were treading water around .500 as the All-Star Break approached.

Moving on to the trade deadline, the Pirates got rid of Mark Melancon (a move I actually agreed with, since we wouldn’t have been able to resign him even if they spent like I think they should) and inexplicably gave up two prospects so they could unceremoniously dump Liriano’s salary. Meanwhile, the Cubs traded for the hardest-throwing closer in the game in Aroldis Chapman. Once again, the Cubs made big moves while the Pirates did not.

As we close in on the end of the season here, I think it’s clear what message the front office sent to the team at the trade deadline: we aren’t investing in you. And judging by how the team has played since then, the message was received loud and clear. They might actually finish under .500 this year. Even ultra-enthusiastic Greg Brown can’t make me watch them right now.

The Coming Offseason

This offseason will let us know the Pirates prospects for next year. If they carry on business like they did last year, and every year before that, they will continue to be “good” but not “good enough”. A good bellweather for this is what happens to Cole – if the Pirates don’t work on resigning him, I think it’s safe to say that they’re not going to compete.

It really hurts seeing them like this, because I want to see this team succeed. Jordy, Harrison, Cole, Marte, and of course McCutchen have formed the core of this club for the past 3 years. I want to see them win the World Series together. I’ve been following this team since I can remember. This year, they finally ran out of whatever magic they’ve been using to make something amazing out of lemons, but this core group is finally our chance to win. I don’t want to see the Pirates waste it.

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