On Tuesday night in PNC Park, a tragedy that has been written for over 20 years will finally come to a close. How lengthy the rejuvenation story that follows is solely up to the Pittsburgh Pirates, but fans are optimistic that the 2013 NL Wild Card Game against the Cincinnati Reds could be the first of many wonderful chapters to come. So how did this losing-streak-breaking, against-all-odds-defying collection of rookies and journeymen, All Stars and role players come to be?
A quick look shows a portrait that’s been painted by 2 General Managers, a handful of coaches, and a city that never gave up on their team. Without a desire to re-create the wheel, first allow me to link two fantastic articles already penned about the team. Author Jesse Spector of The Sporting News takes a novel approach, comparing multiple lineups that the Pirates ran out since way back in 2004, pausing along the way to show when key pieces were added. Clearly, the organization has come a long way from when Pittsburgh ran out the following collection of bats in an interleague game against the Texas Rangers in 2004:
C Jason Kendall
SS Jack Wilson
1B Daryle Ward
LF Rob Mackowiak
DH Randall Simon
3B Bobby Hill
CF Tike Redman
2B Jose Castillo
P Kip Wells
MLB.com’s Jonathan Mayo takes a different but equally valid approach, separating the players’ origins into homegrown talent, players acquired by trade, and free agent signings. From both lengthy articles, here’s a summarized breakdown for you, based on the overall potential 25-man playoff roster- as opposed to Tuesday night’s Wild Card roster- which may carry less SP so that the Manager Clint Hurdle can roll out a deeper bench, as winning teams have the ability to modify their rosters after tonight’s game.
Drafted players (8 out of 25, or 32% of the team)
Small-market teams need to develop talent internally, and with another strong showing from the farm system this year, the Pirates are well on their way to doing so. Interestingly, of the players drafted and developed as Pirates…
Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Tony Watson, Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson, Gerrit Cole
…38% (3/8) were actually brought in by much-maligned former GM Dave Littelfield: a bona fide MVP candidate in McCutchen, a homegrown hero and current hot bat in Walker, and a rising star in Marte. These are not small contributions from a GM that rightfully deserved to be fired, but not without contributing a significant amount of impact talent to the 2013 club, years after his dismissal.
Players acquired by trade (12 out of 25, or 48% of the team)
This just goes to show that Huntington is one of the biggest “wheeler-dealer GMs” that nobody is talking about, and in previous articles, I’ve given him credit for always managing to make deadline acquisitions- some more significant than others- to try to improve the club over the past 3 seasons. And keep in mind, this % doesn’t cover All-Star SP Jeff Locke and SP Wandy Rodriguez, both shut down for the year (in Rodriguez’s case, due to possible arthritis of the forearm, and for Locke, a disappointing 2nd half of ineffectiveness). So in reality, over 50% of the 2013 Pirates could’ve been comprised of trades!
I’ve long been critical of Huntington’s trade history, and there have been significant losses from the Pirates’ end (think how amazing this lineup would look with Jose Bautista right now!), but Huntington has certainly acquired valuable players comprising the current team. The full list is:
Bryan Morris, Jose Tabata, Charlie Morton, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Gaby Sanchez, A.J. Burnett, Travis Snider, Jeanmar Gomez, Justin Morneau, Marlon Byrd, John Buck
Players signed as free agents (5 of 25, or 20% of the team)
To me, this roster-composition percentage is perfectly in line with where a small-market club should be. It does contain one remnant of years’ worth of ill-advised free agent signings by Huntington, as the Pirates are currently paying SS Clint Barmes $5,500,000 to be Jordy Mercer’s suddenly-shaky defensive replacement (or hopeful replacement, as it wouldn’t surprise anyone for the veteran-loving Hurdle to start Barmes (58 OPS+) over the rookie Mercer (118 OPS+) in the Wild Card contest. But the lists also boasts 3 difference-making additions that Huntington acquired over the past two offseasons: Closer Jason Grilli, Wild Card starting SP Francisco Liriano, and offensively-cooling-but-defensively-strong backstop C Russell Martin.
It’s really disappointing that Huntington’s longest-tenured free agent addition to the current club- 1B/OF Garrett Jones (2008) hasn’t come close to matching his 2012 production of 27 HR, and an .832 OPS (126 OPS+). Then again, the Pirates might not have acquired Justin Morneau if he did, although the 6’4″ former Minnesota Twin needs to hit his potential if the Pirates plan any lengthy stay in October.
Overall, the club is an exciting mix of players from a variety of backgrounds that few- myself included- gave much credit to at the outset of this season. But they’ve exceeded all expectations, and despite any errors of the past, significant credit has to be given to GM Huntington, and Manager Hurdle and his staff- especially my personal Pirates’ MVP, pitching coach Ray Searage.
For the game itself, I’m planning on penning a sign, proudly displayed from the cheap seats of PNC Park’s upper deck (which certainly weren’t all that cheap this time around!), with something along the lines of the following:
“Last time: 12 years old
“This time: 33 years old
“Getting to see it in person: Priceless”
The Wild Card game in Pittsburgh will be a deeply significant event for not only the team, but millions of Pirates’ fans that have struggled with the lingering memories of Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS, and all of the bad decisions and misfortunes that have plagued the franchise since. It’s time to close the book on that tragedy, and pen the first of hopefully many chapters of a new work that will stay open for years to come. Thanks for reading, and Let’s Go Bucs!