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Jonah Keri: Pirates Could Contend Next Year's Jonah Keri, on why the Pirates are like Dickie Noles (and yeah, this is a couple days old, but this is what ESPN gets for publishing this at 5:00 PM on a Friday):

Noles was the Cubs' resident arsonist, compiling a 5.15 ERA in an otherwise solid bullpen. The Pirates' once-promising set of young starting pitchers now looks abysmal, with Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, Paul Maholm and presumptive staff ace Ian Snell all flailing and the Bucs owning the worst team ERA in baseball. On the plus side, the Pirates somehow woke up with baseball's best outfield, with Nate McLouth, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady providing offensive fireworks, the latter two being among this year's top All-Star snubs.

Considering that offense looked like the team's prevailing problem with pitching the strong suit, could a few pitcher turnarounds, combined with some well-placed moves, make the Pirates a surprise contender in '09? Stranger things have happened.

I don't mean to pick on Keri here--he's far smarter than me, and he's not even wrong. (Well, he is wrong about Maholm "flailing," but whatever.) But is there a year that goes by that some well-placed commentator doesn't say something like this? And do those contending seasons ever actually happen? Or, to put it better, do they ever happen to the Pirates?

Teams do contend out of nowhere, despite themselves. The '03 Royals are an example I often mention. The '07 Rockies may well turn out to be another example. But these teams are usually one-year wonders, and the teams involved are usually no better off once it's over. 

The Pirates could be a contender in '09--if they keep all the hitters who have been so productive for them this season, and those hitters continue to be good, and some of their pitchers rebound, and they make some shrewd moves to shore up the pitching staff. But then Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, two of their best hitters this season, will be gone when the year's up, along with Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez and Damaso Marte, and what kind of franchise will the Pirates be then?

Again: the Pirates need to build the sort of team that can be competitive for years, not the kind of team that can contend once, by accident. The Pirates tried to be that team in '03, when they grabbed Jeff Suppan and a bunch of hitters on the cheap. It didn't work. When the Pirates are on the verge of building something lasting, it won't be a "surprise." The people who really pay attention will see it coming from a million miles away, because it'll come from the ground up, not from a serendipitous bunch of performances by a mediocre group of players who are already supposed to be in their primes.