In 2007, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays won 66 games. They featured a mismatched collection of players, some talented (B.J. Upton, Delmon Young, James Shields, Edwin Jackson), some not. They were interesting, but they didn't look anything like a playoff team.
Before the 2008 season, Nate Silver's PECOTA projection system famously predicted that the Rays would win 88 games. At the time, it looked like an off-the-wall prediction, even though most knowledgeable baseball writers thought the Rays (who had by then dropped the "Devil" from their name) were on their way up.
But with a few deft moves and some luck, the Tampa franchise turned its team from a collection of random talented players into a winner. The 2008 Rays shot way past 88 games, winning 97 and making it all the way to the World Series.
This Pirates team's turnaround wasn't quite that dramatic, but it was close. 94 wins is a far better result than any impartial commentator should have predicted. And as with the Rays, the recent the Pirates turned the corner is because they turned their collection of talented players into a team. Their pitching staff generated ground balls, and an improved infield defense shifted like mad and gobbled them up. Free-agent signing Russell Martin, and some great coaching, helped a half-dozen pitchers (Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson, Jeanmar Gomez) post career-best seasons. Gerrit Cole turned into an ace (or a pitcher who, right now, looks very much like an ace) right in front of us. Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, both bargain-basement acquisitions from the American League, were far better than anyone could have reasonably expected when they were acquired. Starling Marte quietly posted a 4.6 WAR season. Marlon Byrd arrived at the August trade deadline and smacked line drives all over the place. Pedro Alvarez hit 36 home runs and somehow even became a pretty good defensive third baseman. Jordy Mercer and Jose Tabata provided more offense than we expected. And, of course, the Pirates had the best player in the National League in Andrew McCutchen.
A ton went right this year. Just a ton. And so, while the franchise's outlook improved dramatically this season, it may be worthwhile to point out that things may not go quite so smoothly next year. Like the 2008 Rays, the 2013 Pirates were a more talented team than their predecessor ... but, man, this much more talented?
In the coming weeks, as the 2013 season becomes smaller in the rearview mirror, I hope we'll remember it, and appreciate it. Hopefully we'll have many more seasons like this one, as the Rays have. But we might not. In 2003, the Royals had their first winning season in a decade, but the 2004 Royals quickly went down the tubes. Attendance shrank, and the good feelings dissipated almost immediately. The Pirates are much better built for the future than the Royals were, obviously. But I hope we won't immediately begin taking winning seasons, or playoff berths, for granted.
If those things don't happen right away, let's not forget the stratospheric highs of this season. Let's not forget the Nate Schierholtz / Justin Morneau play that clinched a playoff spot. Let's not forget 40,000 fans dressed in black and screaming, "Cue-to." Let's not forget the Pirates' spectacular late-July thrashing of the Cardinals. If next season doesn't go as well as we hope, let us assess the reasons why as clearly as we can. We should not settle for mediocrity, and we should not let sentimentality cloud our vision. But let's not become entitled. We got much, much more than we expected this season. Let's enjoy it as much as we can, for as long as we can.