It’s early May - no, you’ve heard enough about 20-8, how about mid-June? It’s the morning of June 15th, 66 games into the season and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place of the NL Central.
They lost SS Oneil Cruz after just nine games to a (presumably) season ending ankle fracture, offseason acquisition 1B/DH Ji-Man Choi also went down after nine games with an Achilles injury and would not return until July.
They had lost two MLB starters — J.T Brubaker and Vince Velasquez — to season ending elbow surgery, and Roansy Contreras and Luis Ortiz are really struggling.
Their replacements for Cruz were staggering for all the wrong reasons. They had already tried Rodolfo Castro there the previous year and got bad results defensively, but sure let's try it again, and Tucupita Marcano who neither had the range nor the arm (or even the bat) to play the position ended up with the bulk of the starts. Chris Owings was so anemic even the Pirates found him unpalatable, and he still lasted nearly a month on the roster.
They are still playing, nearly every day, a completely inadequate player in the form of Alika Williams, whose pitiful bat doesn’t make up to begin for his decent glove.
Not once did they do, or attempt to do, what a franchise serious about winning games in 2023 would do. Attempt to fill the position with a real live MLB caliber baseball player.
Their answer when Contreras and Ortiz forced their way into demotions in late June and early July? Osvaldo Bido.
Then there was Austin Hedges, one of the worst statistical hitters in baseball history with as many plate appearances, was starting games well into July while on pace for the 4th worst offensive season from a starting catcher ever.
Meanwhile the team's top two prospects, both catchers, were either in the minors or busy floundering at a position they had never played before because the team decided it was going to stick with Hedges.
After May’s collapse saw them crash back to .500, and then under it, general manager Ben Cherington was actually bragging about how they were actually outperforming their internal projections by playing at that level.
“No,” [in regard to if the internal projections had the Pirates as a .500 team] “And I don’t think many others did either. I don’t mind saying that.”
He doesn’t mind because the Pirates goal for 2023 was simply trying to stink a little less, and that made it OK to give up trying to field capable players the moment they were faced with the inevitable adversity that all teams face over the course of the season.
They entered June 15th in first place and dropped out of it with a loss. Their third loss in a row of what would become a 10-game losing streak, losing 12 of 13.
Henry Davis was called up on June 19th, just in time for an 8-0 shutout loss to the Chicago Cubs to drop them to four games back of first place. It was too little, too late.
Now could a team, especially one in the Pirates position, have reasonably replaced, or filled all of those holes on their roster with enough quality to make the playoffs? No, they could not have. It was simply too many injuries, too many poor performances, too much... everything to overcome. But it is still not an excuse for giving up.
Not only is the benefit of the doubt harder to give, but it should not be given when the team doesn’t try.
Last night the Pirates pitching composed of Andre Jackson, a failed reliever waiver claim turned starter with an ERA over 5.5, Hunter Stratton, a AAA call up walking nearly five batters per nine innings, Cody Bolton with his 6.50 ERA and Jose Hernandez, a Rule-5 lefty.
The pitcher acquired in the Rule-5 draft was the best pitcher they used. Predictably it went poorly.
This kind of indifference toward the quality of players on the field and additional indifference to the results those players have produced, cannot be replicated in 2024 if the team is going to take that next step.
And it’s entirely on Cherington, Travis Williams and Bob Nutting to start caring.