I caught my first game in PNC this year yesterday, as the Pirates took BP against the Devil Rays to reach .500.
There is nothing terribly exciting about this. .500 is vanilla - average - and the Pirates dropped below it today. If anything, a .500 finish this year could potentially be destructive. It could convince the management that the Bucs are a player or two away from a division title, and with the Pirates' management and budget, those two players could be, say, Jose Cruz Jr. and Eric Byrnes.
I'd rather see the Pirates win 90 and contend - and I don't think they're near ready to do that. And since I don't think they're near ready to do that, I'd rather see them win 60 than have a .500 season give the management and fans the wrong idea. In 1997, a bad Bucs team stayed in contention until the end of the year. In every year since then until this one, the Pirates have tried to win by grabbing veterans rather than by developing their own talent.
Why don't I think the Pirates are likely to win 90 games anytime soon? Because their mediocre season so far has depended heavily on very good to freakish performances from players who probably won't be around in a year or two.
-Rob Mackowiak, 28, has a .953 OPS this year, compared to a .775 for his career. He's already gone through one year of arbitration.
-Daryle Ward, 29, has an .886 OPS, compared to a .769 for his career. Ward is not a good player, and he's also the sort of player my German former roommate would point to as proof that baseball should be treated with disdain: "Look at him. He is not even an athlete."
-Still, I'd rather have Ward than this guy, who does look like a futbol type and has inexplicably played league average baseball this year.
-I don't care how few homers he allows, there's no way Mark Redman can keep this up. Also, he's already 31.
-Jose Mesa is "39" and has a 3.70 ERA. The Pirates just drafted his son. He's not going to be around much longer.
-Matt Lawton, 33, is having a fine season for the Pirates. If he isn't dealt at the deadline, though, he'll certainly leave during the off-season.
Still, there are some things to like about the Pirates' recent play.
-Ryan Doumit's hitting has continued to be terrific since his promotion.
-Jack Wilson seems to have straightened himself out - he hit reasonably in May, then had a great day on the first of June, though he has slowed down since then. I doubt he'll ever be an .850 OPS player, but if he can put up a .725, he's still a very valuable player.
-Oliver Perez also seems to be back to normal - he hasn't posted a really bad start since early May. And his start last night was pure, 2004-vintage Perez, as he struck out ten Devil Rays, walked one, and allowed one run in seven innings.
-In the minors, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Tom Gorzelanny all look like they may be helping the Bucs soon.
There are puzzle pieces here, for sure. Dave Littlefield could look at the Pirates' fine play recently and do one of two things. I'm worried that he will size up the situation and figure that since they're playing well, they must be very close to contending.
What I would prefer he did is realize it is highly unlikely that Mackowiak, Ward and company continue to perform this way. Littlefield should take advantage of the situation, and hope he can trade some of these hot players for more puzzle pieces in July.