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What could’ve been in Pittsburgh

This article is predicated on the 2021 season: not the future, not the past, only the present.

With Spring Training underway, we’ve all turned our attention to the field. Yes, baseball is back and that’s reason enough for excitement. I suspect, however, that many folks will inevitably grow weary of Pirates’ baseball this season. It will be a year with losses and few bright spots. That has left me wondering about this season and what could’ve been.

If you don’t like retrospectives about what went wrong, particularly in a time when things still aren’t right, then you might want to skip over this. But if you’re somewhat of a masochist, then hang around and let’s get through this together.

Recently, Beyond the Box Score published an article about how the Pirates are “the worst of the worst.” The article is quick to note that the Pirates are a non-factor this season in a division which could very well see the winner win fewer than 90 games. That line alone makes me wonder what could’ve been had the Huntington regime not decimated large swaths of the future in Pittsburgh.

As you recall, before his departure, Huntington and pals shipped away Gerrit Cole, Andrew McCutchen, Tyler Glasnow, Austin Meadows, and Shane Baz. Sure, McCutchen wasn’t the player he once was, so it’s not unreasonable that he was traded — plus we like Bryan Reynolds. But the others were a mistake from the beginning.

Cole, as we’ve seen, wasn’t reaching his potential as a Pirate, but that was likely because of mismanagement, not his own shortcomings. He then spent time in Houston — and now New York — as a top starting pitcher in the game. Glasnow has had an ERA- under 100 in the two seasons since his departure, and has even appeared in a World Series. The same goes for Meadows; although he struggled in 2020, he posted over 4.0 fWAR in 2019.

It’s not a leap to think that the Pirates could’ve been competitive for the division this season if they’d retained all the aforementioned assets. But of course, there’s pros and cons with everything. Had those players been retained, Huntington might still be in the front office, or worse, the Pirates might vacillate between a step from being competitive and being largely irrelevant (but not the worst).

In other words, without the mind-bogglingly bad moves by Huntington in his parting couple years, the Pirates might truly never stand a chance to be competitive again. A team like the Pirates can’t compete in perpetuity — at least, that’s what we’ve been led to believe. When a team like Pittsburgh is stuck in an inescapable ether which never yields a high draft pick, nor does it ever really result in a competent enough baseball team to challenge its competitors in a meaningful way, fans are left wandering in a wasteland full of mirages.

That said, with a roster consisting of players like Cole, Meadows, Glasnow, Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, and perhaps one or two talented veterans sprinkled in, that team could conceivably make a run at a division title this season. As with before, some of those assumptions are based on the Pirates being able to extract those players’ abilities; in other words, it would require the organization to not only challenge the way it was operating, but understanding that their production is underwhelming and needed overhauled — something that might not happen if Huntington was still around.

All in all, had those trades not taken place, the Pirates likely would’ve been able to put together a roster that can defeat the 2021 iteration of the National League Central. But if those players were still around, we might see bigger organizational problems still present. While none of this addresses the owner of the club, the front office was in need of a revamp. An optimist can find the good in having traded those talented players; a pessimist will find the negatives. It’s not necessarily a binary choice, though, and you could accept certain premises of either argument in tandem with one another, but which camp would you choose?