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How soon can the Pirates contend?

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Pittsburgh Pirates v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

So just how far away are the Pirates from being a playoff contender? If you watched any significant part of the 2020 season, you’d say they’re about a million miles away. But if you watched the Miami Marlins in 2019, you might have said the same thing.

The ’19 Marlins finished 57-105 and it seemed like the playoffs were the last thing on anyone’s mind. Yet Miami – thanks to an expanded playoff field brought on by COVID-19 – snatched a spot in this year’s National League playoffs and swept the favored Chicago Cubs in two straight games in the opening round.

And now the Marlins find themselves in the NL Divisional Series against their NL East rival Atlanta Braves, with Game 1 slated for Tuesday. What in the Wide, Wide World of Sports was going on that allowed the Marlins to not only sneak into the tournament but advance to Round 2?

Well, as previously mentioned, the expanded playoff field has a lot to do with it. The Marlins finished just two games above .500, with a 31-29 mark – a .517 winning percentage. And while that did not exactly scream ’27 Yankees, it did represent a major improvement over the .352 mark of 2019 and the .391 mark of the previous season.

It seemed like a year ago at this time – and for a while previous to that – the only thing that people had to say when it came to the Marlins was how poor of a job Derek Jeter was doing running the franchise. And for good reason; there was no indication that Miami was on the verge of appearing in the postseason tournament anytime soon.

But somehow, the Marlins rose from the dead and put together two months of decent ball. The club featured four hitters who finished with OPS marks of .800 or better in first baseman Jesus Aguilar (.809), shortstop Miguel Rojas (.888), third baseman Brian Anderson (.810) and DH Garrett Cooper (.853). On the mound, the club got strong efforts from starters Pablo Lopez (6-4, 3.61 ERA in 11 starts), Sandy Alcantara (3-2, 3.00) and Sixto Sanchez (3-2, 3.46). Closer Brandon Kintzler (2.22) saved 12 of the club’s 31 victories and several other relievers turned in stellar seasons.

This is not to say the Marlins could have sustained their winning ways throughout a 162-game schedule. Nor is it to say the club is on the verge of becoming a power in the National League. In fact, the Marlins might even flounder in 2021. It just illustrates how teams are capable of turning things around in a hurry. Other teams have done it in the past; the Minnesota Twins went from 59-103 and last place in the AL Central in 2016 to 85-77 and a spot in the AL Wild Card game the next season against the Yankees. And the Twins have been able to sustain that success, finishing second in the AL Central in 2018 and then first in 2019 and again this year. (Pay no attention to their postseason failures.)

The point is, anyone who watched the Pirates this year would say the club was nowhere near close to contending for postseason play. With the exception of Ke’Bryan Hayes, the hitting was horrible, and the starting pitching – aside from a two-week stretch at the end of the season – was just about as bad. The bullpen, a collection of pitchers who didn’t figure to log many innings when the season began, somehow kept things together for much of the abbreviated season, but the arms there were no great shakes.

But were all of those horrific performances from players like Bryan Reynolds, Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Kevin Newman and Adam Frazier a true read on their abilities as everyday players? Or was 2020 an aberration? Could the same players turn things around next season and have solid years? Could the starting rotation, augmented by a healthy Jameson Taillon, hit its stride and continue the success that it showed in the final two weeks? I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. Sometimes, players play over the heads – for a month, for two months and sometimes for an entire season. That’s what makes baseball the intriguing game that it is. If everything fell into place, I could actually see the Pirates finishing above .500 next year and even competing for a wildcard, particularly if MLB decides to maintain its expanded playoff format.

As I said, I wouldn’t bet on it. And I’m not even sure it would be a good idea; perhaps another overall No. 1 draft pick in June 2022 would help the long-term cause even more.

But who would have bet on the Marlins being in the NLDS this year?