How a 98-Win MLB Team Has Plummeted to 100-Loss Candidate in 2 Years

Jacob Shafer@@jacobshaferFeatured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2018

Pittsburgh Pirates' Andrew McCutchen bats during a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

The sinking ship metaphors are too easy and too cruel for Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Yet, it must be written: In the span of two short years, the Bucs have gone from a team that won 98 games to one that might lose 100. 

It's a plunge that makes Davy Jones' locker look like the shallow end of the community pool.

On Jan. 13, the Pirates traded ace Gerrit Cole to the Houston Astros. Two days later, they sent outfielder Andrew McCutchen to the San Francisco Giants. Presto change-o, a weakly whipping white flag replaced their black skull-and-crossbones banner.

Subsequently, two-time All-Star and super-utilityman Josh Harrison released a statement saying "perhaps it would be better for all involved" if he were also dealt, per The Athletic's Ken Rosenthal

No shocker there. As Harrison added in his statement, "I want to win, I want to contend, I want to win championships in 2018, 2019 and beyond." The opportunity to do that in Pittsburgh is sunk.

It didn't have to be this way. In 2013, the Pirates snapped an ignoble streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons and finished 94-68. They beat the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card Game before losing three games to two to the St. Louis Cardinals in the division series. They were a squad on the rise.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

In 2014, Pittsburgh finished 88-74 and snagged another wild-card spot but lost to the San Francisco Giants and postseason buzzsaw Madison Bumgarner in the do-or-die contest.

Then, in 2015, the Pirates peaked at 98-64 before falling again in the NL Wild Card Game, this time to the Chicago Cubs.

Three postseason forays, three dispiriting exits.

That's when the wind began to gust away from Pittsburgh's sails. An 83-loss 2016 was followed by an 87-loss 2017. Only the lowly Reds kept the Pirates from the division cellar in the latter go-around.

A number of factors were responsible for the decline. 

McCutchen, a five-time All-Star and the NL MVP in 2013, endured a steep statistical dive in 2016. Infielder Jung Ho Kang looked like part of the team's future after coming over from Korea in 2015, but a drunk-driving arrest and subsequent prison sentence in his home country derailed that plan. 

In April 2017, Starling Marte was suspended 80 games for a positive performance-enhancing drug test.

Some of that isn't the Pirates' fault. Good players fade. Others make poor choices. 

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

On the other hand, ownership has been stingy, as Sports Illustrated's Jon Tayler spelled out:

"Keep in mind that [principal owner Bob] Nutting is a billionaire who owns a newspaper conglomerate and is the chairman of a ski resort in Pennsylvania. Keep in mind that, before the 2017 season, Forbes valued the Pirates as being worth $1.25 billion. Keep in mind that the Pirates are revenue sharing recipients, and that their $109 million payroll in 2017 was 25th in the league, some $50 million below the MLB average."

Nutting could have spent more. He could have opened his wallet and built around the largely homegrown, championship-caliber core that emerged beginning in 2013. Instead, the Pirates are initiating a fire sale.

"It's refreshing to come to an environment where the team is willing to continually put resources into the club and continue to move forward and try to provide the best possible product for its fans," Cole said after being traded to the Astros, per Elizabeth Bloom of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Take that as you will.

Pittsburgh got some interesting players back in the Cole and McCutchen deals, including a couple who could help in the big leagues in 2018. They also punted on any hope of contention in the near term.

According to FanGraphs' calculation, McCutchen and Cole were worth a combined 6.8 WAR. Add Harrison and we're up to 9.4.

That shoves an 87-loss club perilously close to 100 losses, even if you believe in oft-injured outfield prospect Austin Meadows or 26-year-old right-hander Jameson Taillon (4.44 ERA in 2017).

If you want to take the temperature of the Pirates fanbase, look no further than a Change.org petition aimed at forcing Nutting to sell the team. As of this writing, the petition had vaulted past 48,000 signatures.

"Pittsburgh is a baseball town that is being destroyed by a greedy owner," the petition reads. "There are so many loyal fans who truly care and support this team through thick and thin. We deserve better."

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Baseball's economics are tricky. Winning windows close as quickly as they open. McCutchen, in particular, was an obvious trade candidate in his final year of controllability. Sometimes, even local heroes have to go.

At the same time, the grievances against Nutting have merit. Pirates fans aren't wrong to be sharpening their pitchforks on the shores of the Allegheny River.

It's possible 98 wins could become 100 defeats in the span of two years. It's possible the Bucs pulled the plug too quickly and didn't expend enough effort to build around their once-enviable core. 

The sinking ship metaphors are too easy. That said—glug, glug, glug.

                

All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs

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