The comparisons are numerous. How so? Well, with a hot-shot young outfielder on the verge of stardom (Bonds), a terrible hitting ss with an exceptional glove (Belliard), a right-field by committee approach, a catcher that wasn't supposed to be any good (Lavalliere), an "at best" average 1b (Bream), a power hitter who strikes out a lot (Van Slyke), a "charlie hustle" type on the bench that plays everywhere (Cangelosi), a crafty veteran SP helping to groom some young pitchers with promise (Reuschel, Drabek, Smiley), a popular closer (Gott), and a promising Manager in his 2nd year with the team (Leyland). Sound familiar? Oh, and one more: Over the last 20 years, the Pirates median avg record for the last 20 games of the season is 8-12. If the 2012 version goes 8-12, they will finish at 80-82...yep, exactly the same as the 1987 Bucs. Uncanny? I think so.
1987 was the year the Buc's "Turned the Corner" from losing franchise to contender. The moves they made from Fall 1987 - 1989 were the catalyst for 3 straight NLCS appearances.
Some of those moves were hard to accept as a fan at the time, but turned out to be golden. Toward the end of 1987 season, they traded away a popular veteran (Ray) with the highest salary on the team to make room for another hot-shot kid (Lind), and before the end of season, out goes the 38 year old starter (Reuschel), and in his place comes the young promising lefty who spent most of the season in the pen (Smiley). During the off-season there were some mostly ho hum moves with bench players. That is it. RF by committee carries into 1988 (R.J.Reynolds getting the lions share), Sub-par 1B entrenched in lineup (Bream), suffering with terrible hitting SS (Belliard). How did they do? The SS and 2B couldn't hit well or often, and the pitching was shaky at times, but they started the season 15-5. After starting hot, they played .500 ball the rest of the way and finished 85-75, 15 games back of the 100 win Mets. By 2010 standards, a pretty good year.
How the jump from 2 games under .500 to 10 games over .500? Smart play, smart coaching, and a few surprises. First, they led the National League in BB (indicating increased hitting discipline) and also in SacFlys (taking advantage of the opportunities to score.) Although mediocre in most offensive categories, they were 3rd in the NL in runs scored. They scored runs with smart at-bats, timely hitting, and good base-running. They built this team around defense, with an exceptional defensive Catcher, Shortstop, 2B, CF. Yes, the old adage, defense up the middle wins championships. They also had moved a promising young outfielder to 3B, which paid off big. (Bonilla) By the all-star break he was the 3B starter for the National League, on his way to a silver slugger and MVP consideration. By the end of 1988, the Buc's has 3 bonafide stars (Bonds, Bonilla, Van Slyke), 2 top tier pitchers and tons of promise. What else did they have? The best defense up the middle in the National League.
So how does this relate to the 2012 Bucs? Defense up the middle still wins championships. "Barajas" roughly translated means "go ahead and steal second." I like McKenry and his scrappiness, but scrappiness doesn't gun down base-runners regularly. The fact now is, any above-average runner can and will turn a single into a double. Barmes is above-average defensively, but the production level he gives at the plate is that of an elite defender, and Barmes is not elite. Walker is slightly above-average defensively, but again, I believe the Pirates can do better. It was unpopular when the Pirates traded Johnny Ray in 1987, but they chose defense over offense at 2B. They waited too long to do it, and Ray was on the downside of value, and they got nothing in return for him. Am I saying to trade Walker? I don't know, maybe? Can he move somewhere where slightly above-average is good enough defensively? Right Field? First Base? I could argue that he is likely more valuable as a trade asset than as a player. How about Cutch? Undoubtedly a budding superstar. I just think he needs to shift to left or right. For all of his world-class speed, I think there are better options defensively (and don't get me started on his baffling inefficiency at stealing bases.) Hopefully for 2013 the Pirates take a page from Jim Leyland's book, and start with shoring up the middle defensively. Oh, and hire a base-stealing expert to teach these guys how to use their speed.
In 1987, a team which had suffered for several years was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They gave the fans something to believe in. They built a foundation from within, and supplemented with a few key pieces from outside the organization. They were building a successful team on the concept of smart baseball, with limited mistakes. To improve on the 2012 version, they need to find a way to limit the mistakes, fielding and base-running alike. If the comparison continues, I will be sitting at PNC watching Game 1 of the NLCS in 2015. A little further in the distance than I would like, but at least I can see the light...