On the path from league worst to contender rarely does a franchise in baseball leap from worst to first, the Pirates will certainly be no different in that regard, but respectability is in sight.
Now, what do I mean when I say respectability? I have to define it because everyone has their own definition of what that word looks like in practice. For some this means playing meaningful baseball in September, for others it could simply mean never cheating the fans for effort. In this instance, for this club, what I mean by respectability is being in more games than not. Less 1-8 shellacking and more 2-3 nail biters with a few more squeaked out wins in the mix too.
Maybe you’re a loss is a loss guy or gal, hey, normally I am too. For where the Pirates are in this process though, it’s very hard to put too much weight on wins. They are very much so in a talent valley of their own making.
That’s not to say they have no talent, it is instead to illustrate that incremental improvement is a thing, and it also is a healthy expectation.
Even after moving out the talent they did this off season, I just can’t find a way to convince myself this roster got precipitously worse. The positions all over the field are deeper, the pitching depth is leaps and bounds deeper. Maybe the ceiling isn’t as high, but ceiling is all about potential anyway, not performance.
I expect the bullpen to keep this team in more games late, and I expect some players with pedigree to return to closer representatives of their talent level.
No, I’m not sitting here trying to tell you St. Louis better watch their backs. But I am saying if they roll into Pittsburgh thinking a sweep is inevitable they might get punched in the mouth.
It’s too early to really sit back and take in the team as a whole and predict anything definitively, but the fact I can’t pin down the 26 man roster, at least 25 of them with an open question or two, speaks to the overall improvement to the depth of the 40-man and beyond.
This isn’t pining for Cruz to make the club out of camp or Swaggerty to get it and patrol CF to make the next generation start early, it’s simply looking at what they have in house and knowing right now good players won’t make this team. And it won’t be for service time manipulation or money, it’ll be because better choices did make it.
And that is a thing I haven’t seen here in Pittsburgh for quite some time. Again, I think the ceiling is lower, the ifs this year aren’t “well if Bell hits 35” or “I think Joe is gonna step up”, instead the ifs are more like “if Chad Kuhl can’t pitch past the fifth which of the 4 viable options do they go to”.
It’s a small difference, but to me it means a much more even and steady club. One that has less likelihood to simply crater at the first sign of injury trouble. Certainly there are players they won’t do without well, like Reynolds, Hayes, Keller, but a few players going down outside that group won’t cause disaster because of the depth and options.
Let’s take Catcher. Last year if Jake were to go down the club would have been left with Susak and Murphy. This year they have a damn near defensive equivalent in Tony Wolters and a Perez who can also handle the leather. It’d be a drop off, but that’s the very definition of back up. It also wouldn’t be a nightmare that sends Ben Cherington to the waiver wire.
The outfield holds the deepest questions as to qualified backups but there too, the Pirates have brought in some options that could steady the ship and get through a moderate injury.
I guess what I’m saying is, this roster doesn’t look the same as last year, and I’m ready to stop pretending they will somehow be even worse than 2020’s worst club.
Now, if nothing matters until they’re in a playoff hunt, cool, they aren’t there yet. If you’re expectations are a bit more down to earth, you might just be pleasantly surprised.