Will Pittsburgh Pirates Ever Get Back to Baseball's Promised Land of Playoffs?
Over the last decade, there have been many Major League Baseball teams that inspired the feeling for a split second that you could have made a career off that .300 average you carried in the Frankfort Dixie Youth League.
The Tigers marked their territory as the epitome of bad this latest decade by cruising through the 2003 season with an American League-worst 43-119 record, a mere 47 games behind the division-winning Minnesota Twins. Even the Lions are still wondering how this happened.
After a three-year rebuilding process and the replacing of Alan Trammell as manager by Jim Leyland, the Tigers rebounded by winning the 2006 American League wild card, ultimately leading to the AL pennant.
Teams such as the Rays, Brewers and Rockies have also gotten back in touch with their winning ways, but as the regular season ages each year and the typical bottom-dwellers of baseball begin to fade, you have to wonder what it will take for the longtime laughingstocks of baseball to transform into playoff contenders.
When you think playoffs, the Pirates are usually one of the first teams that come to mind. Right? Yeah, I didn't think so.
Which Pirate has the brightest future?
The Pirates have yet to accumulate a winning season since the then-180-lb. Barry Bonds led Pittsburgh to three straight NLCS appearances from 1989-1991. Since then the front office has fallen in love with the concept of hiring inadequate managers and trading away stars for scrubs.
Surprisingly, this bold strategy has yet to pay off for the Pirates. It started off with the transaction sending Bonds to San Francisco, which escalated into trading away young guns Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay and Nate McLouth, who were all dealt while still in the prime of their careers.
As always, the Pirates start the 2011 MLB season with the expectations of developing their group of young talent, even if that means losing a lot of games. The Pirates may be competitive in the NL Central into late May, but by June, GM Neal Huntington will be making plans to watch the playoffs at a local sports bar.
If there are any bright spots for the Pirates, they are the play of electric, young center fielder Andrew McCutchen, the pitching of 26-year-old soon-to-be ace James McDonald and the home run derby power of third baseman Pedro Alvarez.
The departure of Nate McLouth left an open spot in center field for Pittsburgh, but it didn't stay that way for long, as McCutchen quickly took firm hold of the position by hitting a solid .286 and also showing off his pop by hitting 12 balls out of the yard.
McCutchen's 2010 season was even more impressive—hitting .286, adding 16 home runs and stealing 33 bases on a Pirates team that set the major-league record for most consecutive losing seasons.
The Pirates acquired James McDonald from the Dodgers at the 2010 trade deadline in exchange for veteran relief pitcher Octavio Dotel. McDonald wasted no time proving his ability in Pittsburgh, hurling six innings of shutout baseball in his Pittsburgh debut.
Later in the season, McDonald bettered his Pirate debut by tossing two consecutive shutouts over the Braves and Mets. In doing this, McDonald accumulated a streak of 20 scoreless innings, the longest streak for a Pirate since Zach Duke in 2005.
As Pedro Alvarez emerged from the Pittsburgh farm system last June, the main question was whether his glove was good enough to be an everyday third baseman, as everyone assumed he would quickly become the power supply in the middle of the Pirates lineup.
Alvarez had a tolerable rookie season, hitting .256 with 16 home runs and 64 runs batted in during his second-half stint in the majors, but if his April is any indication, it looks like Alvarez's 2011 season may be overshadowed by the phrase "sophomore slump."
Through 18 games in this young season, Alvarez is hitting .177 without a home run and merely four runs batted in, but his greatest concern has to be the lack of contact being made. In 62 plate appearances, Alvarez has been called out on strikes 22 times, the fourth-most in the majors.
Don't expect the Pirates to make a "Cinderella"-type run to the playoffs in the next couple of years, but if they are able to hold on to and polish franchise-type players such as McCutchen, McDonald and Alvarez, filling a roster with talent should become child's play for the Pittsburgh front office.
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