The Pittsburgh Pirates completed their 2012 collapse on Sunday, clinching a 20th consecutive losing season following a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Cincinnati Reds—so now seems like an appropriate time to look at what could have been.
For much of the season, the Pirates were strong contenders for one of the two National League wild-card spots. Had they held their form and claimed one of those two spots, they would have found themselves matched up against the Atlanta Braves in a one-game playoff.
Yes, those same Braves that Sid Bream used to play for.
The Bucs conclude their season against Atlanta this week, enabling Pittsburgh fans to wonder how the Pirates might have fared if that one-game playoff had ever occurred.
A.J.'s Return to the Spotlight
If the Pirates had the opportunity to set their rotation, A.J. Burnett almost certainly would have taken the hill against Atlanta. Burnett's return to the national spotlight would have been a testament to just how far he has come in 2012.
After being unceremoniously dumped by the Yankees this winter, Burnett became one of the keys to the Pirates' 2012 resurgence. The power pitcher was a leader on the mound and in the clubhouse throughout the year.
Despite whatever baggage he brought with him from New York, Burnett's role as a go-to pitcher this year makes it likely that he would have performed well in this environment. The Bucs can look forward to turning the ball over to him in big games in 2013.
An Offense Capable of Exploding
The Pittsburgh offense would have made an interesting case study for a one-game playoff, as the Pirates are capable of scoring 10 runs or being shut out on any given night.
The Pirates' home run-happy lineup would have provided a stern test for Kris Medlen, who has been very good at keeping the ball in the park in 2012 but was prone to high fly-ball rates earlier in his career.
In particular, Pedro Alvarez has earned the chance to make a national name for himself following his development this season. Given his patented hot streaks, a playoff environment would give Alvarez the chance to dominate the headlines if he were on his game.
A Shutdown Bullpen
The Pirates' bullpen sets up very well for playoff baseball. The Bucs' late-inning relievers are dominant, but the overall staff lacks depth.
Jason Grilli and Joel Hanrahan are both strikeout machines, and the Pirates can usually take comfort in knowing that a seventh-inning lead will turn into a Pittsburgh victory. There is no reason to believe this formula would have been any less successful in a playoff environment.
All in all, the combination of a front-line starter, a potentially explosive offense and great late-inning relievers could have made the Pirates a pretty effective playoff team. Unfortunately for the Bucs, their lack of depth and overall inconsistency caught up to them over the course of a 162-game season.