DENVER, CO - APRIL 29: The Pittsburgh Pirates celebrate their 3-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies at Coors Field on April 29, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Here we are in mid-May, and the attitude among Pirates fans is considerably happier than it typically is this time of year. The team hasn't been terrific, but it has been competent, and it looks like Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and a solid pitching staff could keep the team within sniffing distance of the .500 mark for a while. For fans of many teams, that would be a disappointment, but for fans of the Pirates, it's a breath of fresh air. Many of the core players on this year's team are less experienced than in past years, too, which gives 2011 a different feel than we've had before. Beneath fans' ever-present expectations that the Bucs will ultimately flop, just like they always do, lurks something like ... possibility. So will 2011 be the best Pirate season in recent memory, or are fans in store for another 67-win season?
The Pirates are currently 22-24 and in fourth place in the N.L. Central. But let's forget about that for now. Instead, let's look at the Pirates' run differentials compared to previous years. These are better indicators of the team's performance than won-loss records, because run differentials correlate broadly with wins and losses over time, but a team might win far more or fewer games than their run differential suggests they should over a small sample.
Here's where the Pirates have been at this point in late May in this year and in previous seasons.
|Season||Runs Scored||Runs Allowed|
Clearly, the Pirates have been competitive this year, far more competitive than the horror show in 2010, in which the Bucs lost 105 games. Don't expect that to happen again.
We notice, however, that having a team that's competitive through the first couple months of the season doesn't ensure that the team will stay competitive throughout the entire season. In 2008, the Pirates played fairly well through late May, but were more than 10 games out of first place in July, at which point they traded Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. The 2009 team actually didn't play horribly through July, scoring about as many runs as it allowed. But it ended up at the bottom of the standings anyway.
More to the point, the 2008 and 2009 Pirates teams were in an awkward position. Not only were they not quite good enough to contend, but they possessed little depth in the farm system to help them when times got tough, and, with a number of key players due to become free agents after 2009, they offered little hope for the future. So Pirates general manager Neal Huntington did the sensible thing and spent most of those two summers trading veterans. After those trades, which mostly brought back prospects and inexperienced players, the Pirates understandably got worse in the short term.
To determine whether the 2011 Pirates will be the best Bucs team in recent memory (better than any Pirates team since, say, 2003, when the Pirates won 75 games, admittedly not a high bar to clear), we'll need to answer two key questions. First, is the Pirates' current level of play sustainable? And second, will the Bucs tear down their existing team at the deadline?
It's possible, at least, that the Pirates could maintain their current level of play. One can look at most of the team's top performers and see key reasons why they might continue to produce. Charlie Morton looks like a completely different pitcher after remaking his delivery in the offseason, and he should continue to frustrate hitters. McCutchen and Walker are just flat-out good young players, and they should continue to produce. Ryan Doumit has struggled with injuries throughout his career, but he suddenly looks like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders now that he's in a time-share with Chris Snyder. Garrett Jones, too, has thrived now that the Pirates have stopped trying to make him hit left-handed pitching. And the Pirates' top relievers in Joel Hanrahan and Jose Veras are just nasty, and that's not going to change.
There are several players who have arguably overachieved, such as starting pitchers Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens. But those players' likely regressions might well be offset by contributions from talented players who have had disappointing seasons so far. For example, James McDonald got off to a slow start this year, but he appears to be finding his groove now. Evan Meek is back from the disabled list, which could give a boost to a bullpen that's already pretty tough. And Pedro Alvarez showed at least some signs of snapping out of his funk when before he went on the disabled list again this weekend.
As for the second question, the Pirates are less likely to trade key players at the deadline than they were in previous years. It could happen, of course - Paul Maholm's and Ryan Doumit's team options for 2012 (and 2013, in Doumit's case) may be more than the Pirates want to pay, and Huntington may see Maholm and Doumit's strong play so far this season as a good excuse to shop them while their value on the trade market is at its peak. Also, Hanrahan is quickly establishing himself as a strong closer, and those are always in demand.
But, unlike in 2008 and 2009, the Pirates' play this year hasn't been built on the backs of players who are about to depart via free agency. Walker, Alvarez and Jose Tabata won't be free agents until after 2016. McCutchen, McDonald and Jones aren't eligible until after 2015. Morton and Meek can't leave until after 2014, and Hanrahan can't until after 2013.
In short, while there is no guarantee these players will stay with the Pirates until they're eligible for free agency, there is no pressing reason to trade them, either. In the past, the Bucs traded guys like Bay and Nady partly because they were getting old, but also partly because they would soon be gone anyway. That isn't the case with most of the team anymore.
Another consideration is that in 2008 and 2009, there was very little in the farm system. Here's a list of the Bucs' top prospects heading into the 2008 season. There was McCutchen, Walker, a couple of role players in Steve Pearce and Nyjer Morgan, still-prospect Brad Lincoln, and a couple of future role players in Tony Watson and Danny Moskos, and that's about it. Now, the farm system, while not exactly jammed with future stars, at least has serious depth. Minor-league depth is important, especially for a team in need of rebuilding, so it made sense at the time that Huntington wanted to trade veterans for Class A pitchers. If he did that now, he'd have trouble even finding minor-league innings for them. There is no longer any reason for the Pirates to trade someone like Hanrahan for a bunch of Class A lottery tickets. They should only trade someone like Hanrahan for prospects if they're blown away by the return.
So while the Bucs may deal a veteran or two at the trading deadline, we're unlikely to see many of them go. The team that has been close to a .500 team so far should remain intact. That makes the 2011 Pirates a decent bet to be the best Bucs team since 2003, perhaps with a win total around 73 or 74. That's hardly cause for celebration, but it could be enough to convince the Pirate faithful that the team is finally heading in the right direction.