Adversity can bring out character; adversity can educate. But for the Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 edition, it has done nothing but frustrate.
As the Pirates meander down the river of mediocrity once again, the fans are faced with something that has not been a familiar part of battlin' Bucs lore over the past two decades.
The frustration that the fans, and undoubtedly the organization, are feeling is born out of that hope.
They know the pitching staff, essentially half of the team, looks ready to win now, and if the bats could be half-decent, the Pirates might contend deep into the season with the new playoff format.
In years past, the Pirates rarely had times where either the pitching or hitting looked playoff-caliber. Those teams were usually just all-around terrible, and it was an easy pill to swallow for all parties involved.
With the bats swinging at a historically-bad pace, yet the pitching keeping the team in most games, the facts have been harder to face. Part of this Pirates team is actually valuable, which creates that adversity. Instead of a full-fledged fire-sale, or resting on their laurels, the front office is faced with some decisions.
But facts are facts. And here are some of them.
The Pirates are not a playoff team. Not with this lineup.
The Pirates rotation, as a whole, is mediocre at best.
The starting pitching ranks 10th in the National League in ERA and 8th in batting-average-against. The emergence of James McDonald has been pleasant and A.J. Burnett has earned his money here thus far. But couple that with an average Erik Bedard, disappointing Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia pitching like Kevin Correia, and that's what you get.
The Pirates have practically no bats coming down the minor league pipe in the near future.
Starling Marte could provide immediate help, and they should call him up in June. But other than that, the cupboard is as bare as it has ever been. Outfielder Robbie Grossman may provide relief next year at the earliest. But the outfield position is not what is giving the Pirates the most grief.
They have nothing at infield positions of need. Catcher Tony Sanchez is developing too slow for a top-five pick (because he shouldn't have been one). They have nothing of value at shortstop, and first baseman Alex Dickerson is not due until as early as 2014.
That is a shallow pool of players that the team hopes—not knows—will pan out, and will take time to develop even when they arrive.
The Pirates bullpen is the best commodity they have.
It is number one in the National League in ERA and tied for third in BAA.
As a commodity, a bullpen has less value than a lineup itself.
Having a good bullpen is convenient. Having a bad one is a nuisance. Five of the top-ten bullpens in baseball (with lowest ERA) have losing records. Five of the bottom-ten bullpens have winning records. This includes the Reds and division-leading Cardinals.
The bullpen is deep from front to back. They would be wise to let some of these pieces go for any kind of bat that could help them now, or even in the near future at a position of dire need, like a shortstop, or a catcher.
To keep this hitting situation—in the majors or minor leagues—for the entire year would be an absolute travesty. They have to get something out of it.
Granted, it is early to trade in May. Most general managers are too conceited to change the teams they created, no matter how awful, less than two months into the season. Neal Huntington is one of those GM's, preaching patience in his recent statements to the media.
Some of these pitchers in the 'pen could sink over the season.
Who cares what closer the Pirates have when they stumble to another playoff-less campaign?
Even a guy like 35-year-old Jason Grilli, who is striking out a whopping 15.2 per-nine innings, will appeal to teams that want to win now and need holds. They would have to give up a decent prospect.
The pitching cupboard is stocked now and for the future. The Pirates have plenty of options to take over for the remainder of the season on the back-end. Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson, Kyle McPherson and Rudy Owens are all waiting their turn in AAA Indianapolis. One of them surely projects as a relief pitcher. Bring them up in that role. Kevin Correia will also remain in the back-end once Jeff Karstens returns from the DL.
Again, who cares if the bullpen takes the hit down the stretch and tails off on a losing team? Burnett, McDonald, and maybe a healthy Erik Bedard will provide the back-end with less pressure than last year down the stretch anyway.
Many of these players' values are as high as they will ever be. The Pirates need to use that advantage to fill out the current roster with better hitting, or fill up the farm system with relevant hitting prospects. The way this team looks, for now or in the future, either will do.