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Pirates Still Aren't Close

The Post-Gazette editorial page continues its commentary on the Pirates. I'd rather not comment on these sorts of things, but because of the impact a P-G editorial can have on public opinion, I'll add my two cents.

Last week Pirates executives made one of the most controversial trades in years, dealing Gold Glove centerfielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta for three prospects (we were part of the chorus of critics). Yet today the team is only three games under .500 and four games out of first place in the National League Central Division.

In February the Penguins didn't look like contenders either, but the lure of the cup proved all-powerful. Now the Pirates have had a taste. May they, too, take up residency soon in the City of Champions.

I don't know anything about the Penguins, but even I know they came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last year, have an amazing core of young talent and, moreover, spent several painful years patiently building that core of talent. There probably are lessons the Pirates can learn from the Penguins, but the idea that you should start putting champagne on ice every time you get anywhere near .500 isn't one them.

I'm not sure whether to read the above excerpt as a clueless criticism of the Pirates' current strategy or simple, ho-hum optimism, but just in case it's the former:

At almost this exact point in the year 2005, the Pirates beat the Devil Rays, giving them an actual .500 record, with 30 wins and 30 losses. They still lost 95 games that year, and that shouldn't have surprised anyone, because instead of looking at 60 games and assuming the results represent the team's true level of ability, a smart observer will, y'know, look at who's actually on the team. The 2005 Pirates started the year with Matt Lawton, Daryle Ward, Jose Castillo in Benito Santiago in their starting lineup and Tike Redman as the third hitter in their order. They also had Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Mark Redman and Dave Williams in their rotation. They were .500 after 60 games, yes, but does that look like a championship-caliber core? Did the Pirates fail to win it all that year simply because "the lure" of a title was something less than "all-powerful"?

Then in 2006, the Pirates played 37-35 baseball after the All-Star break. That didn't stop the 2007 team from losing 95 games yet again, despite the much-ballyhooed offseason addition of Adam LaRoche. Again, talent matters. A bad team can sustain a run of passable baseball for a while. That doesn't mean it's headed for the World Series.

The Pirates are currently three games below .500. They aren't as bad as they've been in past years, but they still don't have enough offense, frontline starting pitching, or relief pitching. And here's a big secret: being three games below .500 this year is not much of an accomplishment. The Pirates are currently last in their division, and it's very hard to leapfrog five other teams, especially when two of them have as much talent as the Cubs and Brewers do. The Bucs are on pace to win 77 games, which frankly is nothing to write home about, even if it's much better than they've been the past several years. And that pace is actually better than it was before they traded McLouth. As someone who watches the games, I'm happy to see the Pirates doing a better job throwing strikes and playing defense. But they're still miles from where a contender should be, and I hope the front office will continue its business of rebuilding the organization from the ground up.