One thing that really hits home when your team reaches the bottom of the food chain in MLB is that they are staring at years of work to become a more relevant team. And if you live in Pittsburgh, chances are you see it as even more unreachable because your owner has never dedicated the money it takes to reach the summit.
It’s an undeniable truth, one that we may ignore at times so we can have actual baseball discussions but truth nonetheless. It crops up almost no matter what we’re discussing. For instance, when we discuss the possibility of extending Josh Bell many in Pittsburgh will rail that he isn’t worth it, or he at the very least isn’t worth the risk. What is really being expressed here is we know if Bob Nutting spends on Josh Bell, we won’t keep someone else long term and this team can’t afford to make a mistake like that. Problem is when THAT guy does come along, they can’t keep him either.
Again, true, at least it has been.
So, many fans have taken another approach all together. Openly wishing for another bottom basement level performance hoping a string of 7-1-1 in first round picks can drag this team up by the boot straps and force contention on a franchise loathed to make it happen through other methods.
I’m not here to say that’s a bad way to think, I get the evil genius in this way of thinking if I’m honest. I’d also caution, when you want to eventually extend some players that the team develops or are actively on the club, you might want to show them that winning mattered along the way.
One area that I’ve (and many others of course) identified as something dire in importance is the bullpen, specifically the back end. I’m very excited for Blake Cederlind and I’m cautiously optimistic about Edgar Santana, but for the Pirates it’s important that the players start seeing some reward for their efforts.
A solid bullpen will help that more than any one other thing they could pull together affordably this off season. If you have a lead after 6 innings, reason says a good team will win more of those games than they lose, but a poor team will struggle to win a third of them. That’s the razor’s edge that overall record lives on.
Now, when I say improvement, I’m talking about incremental upturn. Seeing less mental mistakes in the field. Closing a tight game out to reward a starter that gave you six strong innings. Playing people at alternate positions only after they’ve received proper training. Not being afraid to sit guys who make more money than others.
Competing for a championship isn’t going to happen in 2021, but the Pirates will probably improve just because their youth continues to develop, in addition to some key adds returning from injury. If they don’t strip the team to the bone, and nobody serious sees this happening right now, there is no reason this club can’t start to show signs of improvement.
Think of it this way, one of the top perks to hiring Ben Cherington and ultimately Derek Shelton was the focus on being ‘player-centric’. This essentially means if a player is good at skills 1-7, maybe don’t ask them to become better than average at 8-10. Some skills are non negotiable, you need to be able to field a position well enough that you aren’t a liability, you need to be able to run the bases well enough that you aren’t costing the team runs through poor decisions. But some skills don’t fit a player, and while I don’t have hard evidence this happened I feel asking Bryan Reynolds to focus on launch angle may have messed with a good thing.
Counter intuitive for a new coaching staff that claims to be about the opposite, no? On the other hand, Ke’Bryan Hayes never showed the type of power (including gap power) he did after his call up, much of that can be attributed to the team focusing on altering his swing starting back in Spring and continuing during his stay at the Altoona alternate training site.
The point is, if you’re going to be a team that claims to be focused on developing talent, and that’s your bread and butter, you better be able to show that there was some improvement when you keep most of the same players.
Mitch Keller should improve, Joe Musgrove should continue to evolve, Ke’Bryan Hayes set the bar high but he should be able to continue to show he belongs. I could go on listing just about every young guy on the roster and while I know everyone won’t take a step forward in unison, many should, IF you’ve hired the right coaches.
We don’t know the makeup of the ballclub yet for 2021, but teams don’t often shoot for being the worst in the league year over year and there’s a reason or two. One, it’s really difficult to win that race, in fact if the 2020 season were even close to full it’s hard to say the Rangers wouldn’t have overtaken the Bucs. Another is when you believe you have some members of what you hope is your future core, like Hayes, Keller, pick your poison here, you don’t want to have them think or play like bottom dwellers.
The mentality and culture of a club is also being built as you start your journey and you need only think back to Jack Wilson’s welcome to the Pirates clubhouse to see how caustic a bad culture can become. To a man, right now, all the players seem to have a fairly positive outlook and that’s great, but it’s easy to feel that way when you’ve had little choice as to where you’d play for the best part of a decade.
I could take this into a full scale ‘the fans deserve to see…’ direction here but the fans aren’t going to be HAPPY with a 5-10 game improvement, where the team itself really should be. A ten game improvement would leave them in the top ten of the draft most likely and also start to create an environment where Keller doesn’t feel he needs to throw a no hitter to ‘succeed’. It creates an situation where everyone starts to feel they’re pulling in the same direction and the individual progression creates a cumulative affect that shows up in the record.
In baseball, it’s not about championship or it doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s about showing the arrow is pointed up, even if the angle isn’t too steep.