Just how close are Clint Hurdle's Pirates to winning a championship?
It's fairly obvious that, when you compare the 2011 Pirates to the 1979 World Series Champion Pirates, the current edition has a long way to go before becoming true contenders.
The 2011 version, led by Clint Hurdle, was able to stay in contention through the end of July by playing within their capabilities, utilizing pitch to contact and defense to keep opponents off the board and playing small ball to manufacture their own runs. Beset by injuries and stretched to their limits, their weaknesses finally caught up with them. By August 20, the Pirates found themselves 14 and a half games out of first place.
The current Pirates team placed three All-Stars on the 34-man roster: starting pitcher Kevin Correia, relief pitcher Joel Hanrahan and centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, although Hanrahan and McCutchen were selected as replacement players.
The pitching staff is now 13th in the Majors with a 3.72 ERA. Struggling offensively, the 2011 Bucs are 26th with a .244 batting average, far from championship material.
The 1979 Pirates were a completely different animal...
Known as "The Lumber Company," the Pirates hit .272 and led the league in slugging (.416) and OPS (.746) and total bases (2353), and were second in hits (1541), home runs (148), and RBI (710).
Pirate pitchers were third in the league in ERA (3.41) and WHIP (1.291), second in strikeouts (904) and No. 1 in saves (52).
Led by Cap'n Willie Stargell, the Pirates won the N.L. East by two games over the Montreal Expos, then defeated the Cincinnati Reds three games to none for their ninth National League Pennant.
The "We Are Family" Battlin' Bucs rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 4-3 and win their fifth World Series.
Stargell shared the NL MVP award with St. Louis Cardinal Keith Hernandez, the only time there was ever a tie in the vote. Stargell was also NLCS MVP and World Series MVP.
Amazingly, the Bucs were able to place just one player on the 28-man All-Star team, right-fielder Dave Parker. Parker was MVP at the Mid-Summer Classic, which was played at the Seattle Kingdome. Ironically it was defense that won the award for Parker, as he threw out runners at third base and home plate to help preserve the victory. The National League won 7-6 that year.
Between Stargell and Parker, the Pirates won all four of the possible MVP awards for the National League in 1979.
So are the 2011 Pirates truly just a couple of players away from contending? Or do the needs run a little deeper?
Here's a position-by-position comparison between the current Pirates and the star-studded 1979 World Champion Pirates, which shows exactly how far they have to go to be true contenders.
2011: Ryan Doumit, Mike McKenry, Chris Snyder, Dusty Brown, Eric Fryer, Wyatt Torreagas, Jason Jaramillo
1979: Ed Ott, Steve Nicosia
This is a comparison that should probably be considered somewhat unfair due to the injury situation in 2011. The Bucs have actually used seven catchers this season, but the primary three are Doumit, McKenry and Snyder.
Since his return, Doumit has raised his average to .287. McKenry is batting .243 and Snyder was at .271. Doumit has an OPS of .809 and McKenry's is at .625, and Snyder was at .772
The 1979 Bucs had Edd Ott (.273), backed up by Steve Nicosia (.288) and occasionally, a 35-year-old Ott, who was a durable catcher with seven home runs and 51 RBI, and an OPS of .699. Nicosia had four home runs, 17 RBI and an OPS of .799.
The 2011 catchers have thrown out 27 runners trying to steal; 1979 catchers nailed 49.
2011 catchers have 11 passed balls so far; 1979 catchers had 10 for the entire season.
Edge: Fairly Even. 2011 Pirates have slightly better AVE and OPS; 1979 catchers were better defensively.
2011: Lyle Overbay, Garret Jones, Derrek Lee
1979: Willie Stargell
2011: Overbay was a complete disappointment for the Pirates, batting just .227 with eight home runs and 37 RBI. Jones is hot since taking over first base with Lee's injury. He has hit 14 home runs and 47 RBI in his utility role. Derrek Lee had two home runs and three RBI in four games since his acquisition before breaking a bone when hit by a pitch.
1979: The Pirates had legend Willie Stargell, team captain, who hit 32 home runs and 82 RBI, batted .281 and had an SLG of .552 and an OPS of .904, which was SECOND on the team. Stargell was a co-winner of the NL MVP award and was MVP in both the NLCS and the World Series.
Edge: 1979 and Stargell. 475 home runs over 21 seasons. Member of the Hall of Fame, 1988.
2011: Neil Walker
1979: Rennie Stennett
2011: Neil Walker has rapidly developed into a dependable second baseman for the current team. He has 10 home runs and 72 RBI and is batting .276. He has a fielding percentage of .990.
1979: Rennie Stennett was an average second baseman who hit .238.
Edge: 2011 and Walker.
2011: Ronnie Cedeno
1979: Tim Foli
2011: Cedeno has been somewhat erratic defensively and is hitting just .255.
1979: Foli hit .291, but made 15 errors.
Edge: 1979 and Foli's bat.
2011: Pedro Alvarez
1979: Bill Madlock
2011: Alvarez has been a train wreck this season and was demoted to AAA as he strives to find his swing.
1979: Madlock hit .328 with 102 hits, seven HR and 44 RBI in 85 games after joining the Pirates from the San Francisco Giants. Four-time NL Batting Champion and a three time All-Star.
Edge: 1979 and Madlock
2011: Jose Tabata
1979: Bill Robinson
2011: In a few years, this comparison should be won by Tabata, though he may be moved to right field permanently. He spent most of the season on the DL, but is currently hitting .267 with four homers and 17 RBI in 75 games played.
1979: Bill Robinson hit for power, batting .264 with 24 home runs and 74 RBI.
Edge: 1979 & Robinson... for now...
2011: Andrew McCutchen
1979: Omar Moreno
2011: Captain Andrew McCutchen was selected to his first All-Star game. A complete player, he excels offensively, defensively and on the bases. Cutch is hitting .274 and has 17 home runs, 72 RBI and 20 stolen bases to date this season.
1979: Moreno was also a speedy centerfielder who hit .282 that year and scored 110 runs. Moreno had seven home runs and 69 RBI and led the NL with 77 stolen bases, 695 at-bats, 757 plate appearances and outfield put-outs with 490. He was second in triples with 12 and fifth with 196 hits.
Edge: Even...for now. While McCutchen has more power and more potential, Moreno was at his peak and was an absolute terror on the bases.
2011: Revolving door of Alex Presley, Xavier Paul, Ryan Ludwick, utility players.
1979: Dave Parker
2011: Alex Presley has impressed since his call-up to replace an injured Jose Tabata. Presley, playing mainly centerfield during Tabata's injury, was batting an impressive .333 at the time of his injury. He is also blessed with great speed and solid defensive ability. Along with Tabata and McCutchen, Presley gives the Pirates a solid, versatile outfield for years to come.
If Tabata switches to right field, Presley could move to left field or even center field, and McCutchen could move to left.
The rest of the outfield platoon is average at best.
1979: Dave Parker, "The Cobra," hit .310 with 25 homers and 95 RBI. Parker was speedy and superior defensively. He was the only All-Star from the 1979 team and led the team with a .906 OPS. He also led league in extra base hits (77) and scored 109 runs. He won a Gold Glove as well.
Edge: 1979 and Parker
2011: Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton
1979: Jim Bibby (bullpen to start season), Bert Blyleven, John Candelaria, Bruce Kison, Don Robinson, Jim Rooker,
2011: It would be interesting to see the records of the starters had they had any offensive support this season. Jeff Karstens has emerged as the ace of the staff. McDonald and Morton are having solid seasons. Correia has regressed somewhat during the second half, as has Maholm.
ERAs: Correia 4.79, Karstens 3.12, McDonald 4.20, Maholm 3.66, Morton 3.42
In a few years, the Pirates' pitching staff may rival anyone in baseball.
1979: Jim Rooker was the only starter who had a losing record (4-7). Look at these ERAs: Bibby 2.81, Blyleven 3.60, Candelaria 3.22, Kison 3.19, Robinson 3.87, Rooker 4.60
Edge: 1979 starters
2011: Set-up Men: Joe Beimel. Jason Grilli, Brad Lincoln, Daniel McCutchen, Chris Resop, Tony Watson, Jose Veras. Closer: Joel Hanrahan
1979: Jim Bibby (split time between the pen and as starter), Grant Jackson, Dave Roberts, Enrique Romo, Ed Whitson. Closer: Kent Tekulve
2011: Joel Hanrahan has had a stellar season, saving 32 of 34 opportunities. Tony Watson has been a pleasant surprise.The majority of the rest of the bullpen has seen both success and struggle. ERAs: Beimel 4.81, Grilli 3.86, Lincoln 5.40, McCutchen 2.89, Resop 4.20, Watson 2.63, Veras 3.05, Hanrahan 1.46
1979: Tekulve had 31 saves, Jackson 14. ERAs: Bibby 2.81, Jackson 2.96, Romo, 2.99, Roberts 3.26, Whitson 4.37
Edge: 1979 bullpen. Better balance.
2011: Chase d'Arnauld, Mike Diaz, Josh Harrison, Steve Pearce, Brandon Wood
1979: Matt Alexander, Dale Berra, Mike Easler, Phil Garner, Lee Lacy, John Milner, Frank Taveras
2011 Bench: As weak as they come.
1979 Bench: Strong and capable all around.
Edge: 1979 bench. These guys would have been starters on other teams.
2011: Clint Hurdle
1979: Chuck Tanner
Both coaches being the eternal optimists and true motivators, Tanner simply had all of the tools to finish the job. His toughest job was keeping all of the egos in check.
Edge: 1979 and Tanner
When you compare the 2011 Pirates with the 1979 champs, it becomes ever more apparent that the current team is more than a player or two away from being real contenders.
It's true that the 1979 team was assembled during a different time, and there is no chance of putting together a line-up of the same caliber players under today's financial limitations.
The Bucs still need a power hitting first baseman, a shortstop, a third baseman, a strong catcher, a couple of starting pitchers, a couple more good relief pitchers and a much stronger bench.
Time will solve many of these shortfalls as several outstanding prospects advance through the farm system.
Impact third-baseman Pedro Alvarez is laboring in the minor leagues as he hones his swing.
Matt Hague might develop into the first baseman that the Pirates have been desperately seeking. Look for GM Neal Huntington to pursue a free agent in the short term.
Catching help could arrive in a couple of years when Tony Sanchez gets his bat in order.
The outfield will become crowded with homegrown talent with the maturing of Starling Marte and 2011 second-round draft signee Josh Bell.
Pitching help is definitely on the way, with stellar prospects Stetson Allie, James Taillon, Rudy Owens and 2011 first-rounder Gerrit Cole all poised to challenge for spots in the majors over the next few years.
The Pirates are going to add a few free agents along the way, especially some pitching and at shortstop.
To be sure, the Pirates have a fine core of young talent in the Majors on which to build. Andrew McCutcheon, Jose Tabata, Alex Presley and Neil Walker will only get better.
The future is bright.