Pittsburgh Pirates: At Least Winning Seasons Are Now Possible

Andrew KaufmanSenior Analyst ISeptember 13, 2008

On September 7, the Pittsburgh Pirates reached an infamous milestone when they lost their 82nd game of the 2008 season. The defeat ensured that this year will be Pittsburgh’s 16th consecutive losing season, tying the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies for the longest losing streak of all time.

The season has been all too familiar for Pirate fans, as a year that started out with some promise has deteriorated into a final two months of uncompetitive baseball.

Once again, Pittsburgh fans have little reason to follow their team down the stretch. Once again, there are few bright spots on the field. Once again, there is no end to the losing in sight.

Sort of.

Let’s be clear: I’m not saying there is a definitive end to the losing in sight. At the very least, the Buccos’ outlook for 2009 looks extremely grim and 2010 will be an uphill battle as well. Given the volatility of prospects, it’s virtually impossible to declare that the Pirates will be winners any time after that either.

But therein lies the hope. The phrase “volatility of prospects” isn’t one that Pirate fans have even been able to use very often. Most Pittsburgh prospects in the last 10 years haven’t been unpredictable at all—they have been overhyped, oft-injured players who were destined to fail from the beginning.

Aside from a very, very small number of exceptions (Paul Maholm is the only one that comes to mind), the Pirates’ top draft picks of years’ past have given fans nothing to be excited about. Sure, a guy like Bryan Bullington had a nice minor league career, but when you are the No. 1 overall pick and are projected as a No. 3 starter at best from day one, somebody is doing something wrong.

Now, at least, there are names to follow. Andrew McCutchen and Brad Lincoln, the Bucs’ first-round picks in 2005 and 2006, respectively, each have tremendous amounts of potential. If Pedro Alvarez’ arbitration hearing is settled without his contract being voided (and the likelihood that his contract will be voided is slim), he immediately adds another big-time impact bat to the Pirates’ system.

And it’s not just about the draft, either. Pirate fans of the last 10 years will remember the numerous salary dumps that left their team with nothing—the summer of the Aramis Ramirez trade being a prime example.

Say what you want about the decision to break up the 2008 Pirate offense by trading Xavier Nady and Jason Bay, but at least the Pirates got something in return. In fact, they got a lot of somethings in return.

Brandon Moss, Jeff Karstens, and Ross Ohlendorf have all already shown that they are capable of producing at the Major League level. Former top prospect Jose Tabata, who still is only 20 years old, was hitting the cover off the ball at Double-A affiliate Altoona when the season ended.

Despite their struggles, Andy LaRoche and Craig Hansen are at least very highly-touted prospects who could turn things around. Daniel McCutchen has the potential to be a back-of-the-rotation starter, and Bryan Morris is a young pitcher with a live arm.

Now there’s a good chance several, if not most or even all, of these players will fail to live up to their potential. But when was the last time the Pirates had more than three or four players in their system about whom fans could be even remotely excited?

Not that this something Pittsburgh fans should be too grateful for. They are rooting for a well below-average major league club with some decent young players who have a chance to turn their team’s fortunes around in two or three years. Essentially, they are rooting for a prototypical bad baseball franchise.

But, given how the past 16 years have gone, rooting for a prototypical bad team is actually a pretty significant improvement in the Steel City.