On July 25, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ record stood at 53-47, good for a tie for first in the National League Central. Optimism around Pittsburgh was higher than it had been in almost two decades. Even if they didn’t make the playoffs, at least the Pirates had a good chance at finishing with the team’s first winning record since 1992.
But the team faltered badly down the stretch, losing 11 of its next 12 en route to a 19-43 finish that dropped the Pirates to fourth in the NL Central, 24 games behind first-place Milwaukee.
No playoffs. No winning season. No progress.
You can’t help but compare last year’s Pirates squad to this year’s bunch, who, at 60-44, have a four-game cushion in the NL wild card standings. But whereas last year’s success seemed like more of a fluke than anything, there are concrete reasons for the 2012 version’s success. Andrew McCutchen has played like an MVP, racking up an absurd line of a .373 batting average, .432 on-base percentage and .632 slugging percentage while Pedro Alvarez, the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, is finally living up to his potential with 21 home runs.
The pitching has been solid, too, as former castoffs James McDonald and A.J. Burnett — given up on by the Dodgers and Yankees, respectively — have been formidable at the top of the rotation. New addition Wandy Rodriguez figures to provide a boost as well.
There’s no doubt that the Pirates are better positioned to succeed this season, but if they cannot hold on and claim a playoff berth, then 2012 will end the same way 2011 did — as a failure.
Pittsburgh’s offense has raked so far in the second half, but take away McCutchen, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, and no Pirate regular has an average above .235 or an OBP above .297. There’s no guarantee that any Pirate apart from McCutchen will continue to hit in 2013 or beyond, and with the current composition of the pitching staff, Pittsburgh will need to have an above-average offense to contend in the future. Even if phenom Gerrit Cole lands in the bigs next season, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be effective right away.
That’s why it’s so critical for the Pirates to seize the opportunity at hand. They have one of the game’s best players and play in a beautiful ballpark, and their fans would like nothing better than to be watching playoff baseball come October. But if Pittsburgh blows its four-game lead in the wild card, they will have shown that they still cannot conquer their biggest problem from 2011: the inability to play an entire season (Red Sox fans might know a thing or two about that, too).
The Pirates are not the Nationals, a team with a great young core poised to contend for several years. They’re a team on the knife’s edge — a successful 2012 could pave the way for the future, but another collapse could be a killer for a team that hasn’t seen success of any kind in 20 years.
The good news for Pirates fans is that Pittsburgh is far better prepared to sustain its early momentum in 2012 than it was in 2011. Even better, McCutchen is signed to a team-friendly contract through 2018.
However, when measuring a team’s progress, one of the most important indicators is whether a team has corrected its problems from the year before. Pittsburgh was in good position to make the playoffs in 2011. So, should they miss the playoffs — again — the Pirates cannot consider 2012 anything but a failure.