In case you missed it this weekend, the August trade deadline came and went, and the Pirates again didn't make any significant additions. As we head into September, they're still allowed to trade for players, but those players won't be eligible for the postseason.
In general, if you want to upgrade your team in-season, it's best to do it in July. The Pirates were able to trade for Marlon Byrd (and John Buck and Justin Morneau, although those players didn't have significant value at the time) last August, but that was really a lucky accident -- Byrd made practically no money and was in the midst of a very good year, and some team with better waiver priority the Pirates should have claimed him. The Bucs got lucky that no one did.
In general, players who get through waivers, or even who get through to teams as good as the Pirates, should be bit players and players whose contracts outstrip their production. The list of players who we know cleared revocable waivers is filled with the latter type -- guys like Shin-Soo Choo, Andre Ethier and Stephen Drew. Jonathan Broxton is another example -- his peripheral numbers suggest he isn't worth nearly what the Brewers will pay him next season. Sometimes a useful, relatively inexpensive player will sneak through, but even then, his team isn't obligated to deal him.
So trading in August is difficult, as the Angels found last month when they lost Garrett Richards and went on a frantic search for starting pitching, only to come up with a bunch of guys like Scott Feldman and Bartolo Colon who are owed significant money beyond this season. (Ken Rosenthal has argued, pretty compellingly, that the Angels are too obsessed with avoiding luxury tax penalties next year and have hamstrung themselves without good reason, but the point remains that it's hard to make good additions this time of year without also adding a contract that at least will make the decision tough.)
So the Pirates didn't do anything in August. That's fine, I guess. It makes some sense. Not doing anything in July also sort of made some sense, because the biggest sellers ended up wanting big-league players rather than prospects. That the Pirates didn't acquire a reliever (unless you count John Axford) before either deadline is still irksome, but in the end, that's probably a minor point.
Still, the Pirates are a contending team, and since last August, they've passed on every significant chance to make themselves better. In the offseason, they acquired Edinson Volquez, who didn't figure to make them any more than modestly better, and he hasn't. They got Vance Worley, who was a great free talent acquisition, and one they deserve ample credit for. They got Ike Davis, who has been a bit worse than expected. That's about it.
The Pirates' window doesn't close this year, and the idea of "windows" is probably overrated anyway -- it's based on the idea that we can predict the distant future a lot more accurately than is actually possible, and really good organizations like the Cardinals needn't think much about windows, because their windows are nearly always open. But the Pirates clearly have a shot at something next year, and the year after that, and the year after that.
There's no reason, though, for the Pirates to behave as if this year isn't crucial. Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano will probably be gone after this season. Next year's rotation is questionable, and so are the bullpen and the catcher position. So if the Bucs didn't do much to improve the team for this season, when will they do it? Next year doesn't represent a significantly better opportunity than this one did. Next year's NL Central doesn't look any weaker than this one was.
So what is the endgame here? With the notable exception of the Rays (whose financial margin of error is probably much smaller than that of the Pirates'), teams the Pirates might consider role models take chances. The A's traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester. The Brewers traded for C.C. Sabathia and Zack Greinke. The Reds traded for Mat Latos and Shin-Soo Choo. The Cardinals signed Jhonny Peralta and Carlos Beltran, and traded for Matt Holliday.
We can debate how smart some of these moves were, or whether they worked, or how smart a similar move might be for the Pirates, or how good some of these teams' other strategies actually are. Overall, the Pirates are better run than the Brewers and Reds, for example.
But when push came to shove, those teams made things happen. When they had chances to contend, they took significant steps to make dramatic improvements. The Pirates haven't. Yes, the Bucs have done well acquiring and developing amateur talent, and yes, the Russell Martin signing was the best thing ever. They've made some terrific acquisitions. But they're nearly always relatively cheap and under-the-radar ones. When it comes to taking a bold step, especially when that step involves a real financial commitment, the Pirates just aren't there.
There's a scene from the second season of The Office where Pam explains to Jim how her fiancee talked her out of taking art classes:
Jim: So you're not doing it.
Pam: How did you know?
Jim: Why not?
Pam: Just not -- no big reason, just a bunch of little reasons.
Jim: Come on.
Pam: Roy's right. There's no guarantee it's going to lead to anything anyway.
Jim: Roy said that?
Pam: What? You have something you want to say?
Jim: You got to take a chance on something sometime, Pam. I mean, do you want to be a receptionist here always?
Pam: Oh, excuse me! I'm fine with my choices.
Jim: You are?
Jim's right -- you've got to take a chance on something sometime. There are a bunch of little reasons the Pirates have stood on the sideline this past year. Good ones, even. The free agent market and trade markets weren't always favorable for them. And deadline acquisitions only make so big an impact.
But at some point, if you're the kind of person, or team, that dreams big, you've got to get things done. Big decisions often require us to do things that make us uncomfortable, or that don't make short-term financial sense. Leaving an uninspiring relationship can be disorienting. Moving to an unfamiliar city and living on your own can be weird and expensive. Hiring movers costs money. Taking a new job involves learning new routines, meeting new people, and wondering what might happen if things don't work out. Life is full of powerful reasons to simply remain the same slightly unhappy person you've always been. But there's a time to cast aside those reasons and take a chance on something bigger.
Eventually, the analogy breaks down, because while an unhappy receptionist will almost certainly remain an unhappy receptionist if she doesn't take active steps to change her life, a baseball team that won't improve itself can back into a World Series victory if it's lucky and its talent base is strong. The Pirates do have a very good core, and they'll continue to have star talent in Pittsburgh for at least the next several years. That's much to their credit. But they aren't doing enough to complement it, and in that sense, they're Pam, settling for a fiancee who isn't right and a job that isn't good enough.