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The Pirates are stuck in neutral

Heading into the 2020 pandemic-laden season, we expected the Pittsburgh Pirates to be, well, not very good. We just didn’t expect them to be as bad as they were — nobody did. Now, heading into the 2021 season, we have a much better idea for what to expect. This iteration of the Pirates won’t be competing for a playoff spot, much less a World Series — an annoying and constant occurrence in Pirates fandom.

When general manager Ben Cherington arrived in Pittsburgh prior to the start of the 2020 season, he promptly made a move that sent Starling Marte to the Arizona Diamondbacks, signaling to us that this new regime was about to begin a teardown. As we move into 2021, we’ve seen another departure in the form of first baseman Josh Bell.

Cherington won’t commit to labeling this organizational restructuring as a rebuild — he doesn’t really have any reason to concede that’s what’s happening — but that’s what it is. In fact, it’s reminiscent of what we’ve seen out of Baltimore with the state of the Orioles franchise over the last several years. The O’s finished in fifth place in the AL East from 2017-2019, and then finished fourth in 2020.

By that fact alone, it appears the Orioles are trending in the direction they want to go. Not so fast. FanGraphs projects Baltimore to command a .425 winning percentage in ‘21 and to finish last in the east once again. The Pirates, on the other hand, are projected to have a .434 winning percentage (or around 70 wins) as of this writing, which, to me, seems a bit high. Regardless, the Orioles are in a better division, something that the Pirates used to be able to boast, but can no longer now that the NL Central is turning into a breeding ground for mediocrity.

But it’s now been four seasons since the Orioles were good; they subsequently began their overhaul in the 2017 season. By the Pirates’ timeline, that means Baltimore should be in a position to begin contending again. Unsurprisingly, they’re not. That could serve as a cautionary tale in Pittsburgh. I certainly hope not, but we’re still talking about three or four years down the road from being able to even think about the Pirates as being legitimate Central contenders again.

If they follow the Orioles plan, we could be subjected to year after year of dismal baseball, an unfortunately common refrain on the field at PNC Park. The hope is that Cherington drafts well and moves pieces at the right time for the right price, ultimately meaning Nutting can, theoretically, let the GM do his job to his fullest capacity around the 2024 season.

In the meantime, the baseball world will continue to bypass the Pirates, cementing them into the basement floor for the imminent future. The Dodgers continue their dominance, while the Padres have entered into the conversation as legitimate World Series contenders, and, under new ownership, the Mets have apparently become the anti-Pirates, willing to pay the necessary money to turn themselves into contenders, as well.

But fans are stuck in a holding pattern, waiting for the next thing; or, as the organization appears to be, stuck in neutral. At this point in the process, it’s hard to envision a final product. The front office probably has an idea of where it wants to go, but it’s unlikely to have very much decided in stone. From a fan’s perspective, then, it’s doubly challenging to see what lies at the end of the tunnel.

It’s too early in Cherington’s tenure to fully understand if he can successfully operate within Nutting’s constraints — roadblocks which don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon — but knowing the fanbase the way I do, I’m sure they’ll keep a watchful on his every move. Think of the fanbase as an independent watchdog which, though they can’t levy any meaningful punitive measures, can nonetheless vocally express disdain and contempt for an organization which has had its feet buried in the sand far too often.