For years, I wanted the Pirates to build a young core of players who could take the team out of its perennial doldrums and lift it to the top of the major leagues. In fact, five years ago, when the Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL were building a young nucleus that would eventually lead them to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals and a championship in 2009, that was the kind of young core I envisioned for Pittsburgh's baseball team.
Today, in 2013, I feel as if the Pirates have their own talented, young nucleus, and judging by their current record (59-39), they now have one of the best teams in baseball.
Every young core needs a leader, a face that fans, both locally and nationally, can identify with. In Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh's top pick in the 2005 draft, they have that man. Is Cutch on par with Sidney Crosby in terms of national and even international fame and accomplishments? No. But he's certainly doing fine for himself. As the 11th overall selection in '05, he didn't make the immediate impact of Crosby, who was the number one over all selection in the 2005 NHL Draft and came to Pittsburgh already anointed as one of the best players in the NHL before even playing in his first game, but No. 22 has been his team's best player since being called up to the majors in the summer of 2010.
Is Cutch the same kind of fiery personality as Crosby? No. But a year ago, when Aroldis Chapman gave him a shot to the ribs with a 90plus mph fastball, McCutchen was reportedly overheard exclaiming, "Blank that motherblanker!" That certainly sounds like Crosby.
Will the Pirates win it all this year? Maybe. Maybe not. But I wouldn't be surprised if they made a deep-run in the postseason. In-fact, right now, in this very article, I'm predicting your 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates will make it to the World Series. Why do I think this? Because I feel as if history has a tendency of repeating itself, and there are many parallels I can draw between these young Pirates and the Penguins of five seasons ago, a once proud franchise that rose up after many years of struggles and competed for a championship.
The Cutch/Crosby comparisons aren't the only ones I can draw between Pittsburgh's baseball team and its professional hockey club.
The Pirates also have a young slugging third baseman named Pedro Alvarez, a player picked second overall in the 2008 draft who, when he's on, looks like one of the best power hitters in baseball, but his lapses in productivity are almost as noteworthy and often frustrate fans to the point of rage.
Doesn't that remind you of a certain Penguins second-line center who was drafted second overall in the 2004 draft? That's right, I'm talking about Evgeni "Geno" Malkin, a former regular season and playoff MVP. A man who often looks even more talented and dominant than Crosby when he's on, but when he's struggling, he disappears, and you wonder if he's been kidnapped and taken back to his native Russia.
Yet another young core player is a hard-nosed second baseman who hails from Pittsburgh. His name is Neil Walker, the team's number one pick in the 2004 draft. And while he'll probably never win a league MVP, he's certainly capable of driving in the key run and making the critical defensive stop when called upon.
Sound like a native Pittsburgher who played for the Pens during their Stanley Cup run in '08? I believe it does, and his name was Ryan Malone. Malone wasn't the greatest winger to ever play in Pittsburgh, but he sure knew how to get the job done, and often did the dirty work in front of the net. While his goals were rarely of the highlight variety, they counted just the same. In 2008, Malone contributed 51 points--including 27 goals--for the eventual Eastern Conference champions.
Who else do the Pirates have that's similar to players from the '08 Pens? Let's see, they have a flighty and often misunderstood starting pitcher in one Charlie Morton, a man who sometimes looks totally dominant, and other times looks like he doesn't have a clue out there on the mound.
Remind you of a certain Penguins goaltender? That's right, I'm talking about Marc Andre Fleury.
Who else? Ah yes, A.J. Burnett, a veteran pitcher with World Series experience who was traded to Pittsburgh a year ago and has become a clubhouse leader and has shown the young players what it takes to win a championship. In addition, he doesn't take crap from other teams. Whether he's telling Hanley Ramirez to "sit the blank down" after striking him out, or motioning to the Cardinals dugout to "please be quiet," Burnett is the kind of guy who won't just sit back and allow the Pirates to be treated as doormats any longer.
Sounds an awful lot like Gary Roberts, a former Penguins winger who won a Stanley Cup as a young player before coming to Pittsburgh in the twilight of his NHL career and contributing to the '08 team with his leadership and wisdom. In addition to that, "Scary" Gary Roberts didn't back down from a fight and refused to allow the young Penguins to be intimidated.
How about Starling Marte, a five-tool outfielder who has every bit the talent of a McCutchen and could someday surpass him in career accomplishments if he ever truly puts it all together.
Kind of puts you in mind of Jordan Staal, just 20 years old in 2008, he was already considered one of the best third-line centers in the NHL, complete with the talent to perhaps become a superstar center on par with Crosby.
What about the Pirates constant quest to find more production from their corner outfielders/corner infielders? While Marte and Alvarez have certainly solidified left field and third base, respectively, guys like Gaby Sanchez, Garrett Jones, Jose Tabata and Travis Snider are journeymen players who leave a lot to be desired in terms of production in right field and first base. Fans are always clamoring for the team to go out and find "a bat" to add production to the lineup.
Sounds an awful lot like the Penguins and their infinite search for "a winger or two" to play along side Crosby and Malkin. That certainly was the case back in 2008, when Chris Kunitz, Petr Sykora and Georges Laraque were just some of the average-to-decent forwards who played next to the aforementioned superstar centers.
The Pens did finally pull the trigger on a trade for a star winger when they brought in rent-a-player Marian Hossa at the deadline. Hossa proved to be a valuable contributor to Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run before leaving as a free agent after the season.
Will the Pirates bring in a rent-a-right fielder/first baseman at baseball's trade deadline next week? Perhaps. Perhaps he'll actually be a vital contributor. Heck, maybe he'll leave for another team in the offseason, and we'll all hate him as much as Pens fan hated Hossa for signing with Detroit.
There's also the eye-candy factor for the fairer sex, at least when it comes to Jones. While the Penguins probably had more players who made the ladies squeal back in '08, Garret "Freakin" Jones certainly has his fair share of female supporters around town. If I had a dime for every time I heard a woman say, "All I know is Garrett Jones is hot!," I'd probably have a few dollars by now.
What about Russell Martin and the upgrade and steady presence he's provided to the catcher-position since signing with the Pirates in the offseason? Whether it's working with the pitching staff, throwing out would-be base-stealers (a rarity in recent years for the team), or coming up with a clutch hit, Martin is all business, and he's got "postseason baseball" written all over him.
That all kind of reminds you of Sergei Gonchar, a talented veteran Penguins defenseman for the '08 squad, who not only acted as a mentor for young players like Malkin but was one of the best power-play quarterbacks in the business and, with Pittsburgh facing elimination in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals, scored the game-winning goal in triple-overtime to keep the Penguins alive.
The Pirates bullpen even has a catchy name--the Shark Tank--and just about every NHL team has a catchy name for one of its lines. Didn't the Penguins have a name for one of their lines back in 2008? I'm sure they did, or at least they tried to come up with one.
I really do think this is the year for the Pirates to, not only make it to the postseason, but make a deep-run once they get there. Like the Penguins in Crosby's first few seasons, the Pirates suffered some disappointments in Cutch's first few years--including a 57 win campaign in his rookie year and two-consecutive late-season collapses--but you have to learn to walk before you can run.
Right now, the Pirates are in a dog-fight with St. Louis for the NL Central Division. But since the Cardinals have the experience and the "know-how," I wouldn't be surprised if they managed to outlast the Bucs for the division. However, the Pirates do have a comfortable lead for one of the two wild card spots, and any postseason berth for this once proud franchise would be just fine by me.
Since hockey fans love to tell you how difficult it is to win a Stanley Cup (boy do they love to tell you about that), wouldn't it be neat if the Pirates were the first team to take the longest route to the World series by winning the NLDS play-in game, the NLDS and then the NLCS?
The play-in game would be especially sweet if Pittsburgh faced the Reds and defeated them at PNC Park like the Penguins defeated their fierce rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, at the old Civic Arena five years ago.
As for the World Series, the obvious opponent would have to be the Detroit Tigers, if only to complete the parallel that the Penguins followed in '08 when they faced the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final. In fact, it's quite realistic, considering the Tigers have been one of the most consistent teams in baseball over the better part of the past decade--including three playoff appearances, two division titles and two World Series appearances.
The Red Wings were one of the most consistent and dominant teams in the NHL when they took on the upstart Penguins five seasons ago.
Of course, a Pirates/Tigers World Series would bring Jim Leyland back to Pittsburgh. How fitting would that be, considering Leyland was the last skipper to guide the Pirates to the postseason? Heck, for a sportswriter like me, that would be such a great story line, I'd probably ask it to marry me.
The Pirates might lose the Series, heck, they might even get shut out in the first two games like the Penguins did in the first two games of the 2008 Finals (if any lineup is vulnerable to being shut-out for 18 straight innings, it's Pittsburgh's), but it would still be pretty awesome, and heck, maybe later in the Series, Morton stands on his head and pitches shut-out ball in a "must-win" game, and Martin comes through with an extra inning homer to keep the Pirates alive.
Yes. A loss in the World Series would hurt, but if you could look at things in a future hindsight, wouldn't you take that right about now? Besides, not only do you have to learn to walk before you can run, once you learn how to run, you have to get faster before you win the ultimate race.
The Penguins answered their 2008 run by winning it all the following year.
While I won't go all the way and predict a runner-up season for our 2013 Pirates, I'm going to say right here, right now they'll be facing Detroit in the Fall Classic.
Remember this day.