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Rob Neyer is the National Baseball Editor for SB Nation. He's been a Royals fan since 1976, and regretting it since 1986.
I’m writing this at the conclusion of Major League Baseball’s July 21 schedule.
Improbably enough, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place.
I’m going to write that last bit again, just because.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in first place.
I’m overly fond of italics but didn’t use them there, because you don’t need them; when it comes to that sentence, the italics are implied.
Still, we don’t really believe in the Pittsburgh Pirates, do we?
Granted, the Pirates do play in a pitcher’s park that’s been particular tough on hitters this season. But they’re currently 13th in the National League in scoring, and it’s obviously difficult to win that way.
Not that it absolutely can’t be done. In 1985, the Kansas City Royals won the World Series after finishing 13th in the American League in scoring. But where the Royals had Bret Saberhagen and Mark Gubicza and Danny Jackson and Charlie Leibrandt and Bud Black, the Pirates have Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton and Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia and James McDonald.
Does that seem like a championship rotation to you? Or even a rotation that’s likely to finish the season with a winning record, considering the Pirates’ problems scoring runs?
It doesn’t to me, anyway.
I don’t mention this because I enjoy being a wet blanket, draining my boils over every parade I come across. And like everyone else I know—well, except for the Cardinals fans in my life—I’m rooting for the Pirates to finish with a winning record for the first time in nearly 20 years. As sports fans, we root for the underdogs, and as a sports writer, I root for the story. And what a story this could be.
One thing has changed, though. If the Pirates were doing this exact thing two or three years ago, I think my advice would have been this:
Hey Pirates! Forget about 2011! Trade any veterans and relief pitchers you can trade for prospects and think about 2013!
Not this year. Not even after the case study of the 2011 Baltimore Orioles, who spent $15 million on Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero last winter in the vain hope of their first winning season in a long time. I didn’t like the contracts, and I really don’t like them now. But those guys were signed with hopes for success; management was hoping a couple of (relatively) marquee players would bring the fans back to Oriole Park.
The Pirates are different. They’re already successful, and the fans have already started coming back. Now the trick is to keep winning, and to keep the fans. Unfortunately, the winning… Well, there’s not much that management can do about that. Even adding Hunter Pence and Jeremy Guthrie—which of course isn’t going to happen—probably wouldn’t make a real dent in the standings.
The fans, though? They’re looking for a sign. Of course, what they’re mostly looking for is winning, which is why they’ve begun to come back this summer. But they also want some tangible evidence that ownership is ready to back up those wins with more than just words.
But it’s not just the fans. What about the players and the coaching staff and everyone in the front office? Mightn’t they also be looking for a sign that the people running the organization are committed to winning?
Little (if any) of this can be quantified to the point of justifying an aggressive course of action. Which is why, until recently, I might have just shrugged my shoulders and said, “So what? This team isn’t going to contend—just look at Baseball Prospectus’s Playoff Odds Report: 4.4 percent!—so they obviously don’t have any business trading a prospect for a veteran or paying a veteran’s salary for two months.”
Well, I’m two or three years older, and I think I would have been wrong. Today I think a Grade-B prospect and a few million dollars might actually be a small price to pay for the goodwill the Pirates will gain if they actually try to win a division title this season, no matter the odds against them.
By the end of this season, most baseball fans are likely to have forgotten about the Pittsburgh Pirates. But most baseball fans are irrelevant. The only baseball fans that matter are the baseball fans in Pittsburgh, some thousands of whom are watching, very closely and with great interest, to see what management is going to do next.
If you’re management, treasure this chance to make a real impression. There aren’t many chances like this, and they shouldn’t be wasted.