18 and Counting: Will the Pirates Ever Have a Winning Season?

Top draft pick Jameson Taillon brings hope to a moribund and hapless franchise.

And I thought I had it bad as a Mariners’ fan… 

With their loss to the New York Mets on August 20th the Pittsburgh Pirates clinched a record 18th consecutive losing season and furthered their reputation as the worst franchise in professional sports (apologies to the L.A. Clippers, Oakland Raiders and some NHL team that I don’t care enough about to research. The Florida Panthers?) To make matters worse, reports were leaked early this week that the Pirates’ ownership had been pocketing nearly $30 million a year while slashing payroll and trading away fan favorites like Jason Bay, Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez. 

Uh-oh. 

That news isn’t likely to settle well with a fan base that hasn’t tasted success since before Miley Cyrus was born, and with a team that ranks at or near the bottom of most statistical pitching and hitting categories, things aren’t likely to get much better anytime soon. 

But the Pirates can’t be terrible forever, can they? Well… 

There are certainly signs of life from Pittsburgh, and besides borrowing with no intent to return $30  dollars every year from revenue sharing, the Pirates new front office seems to have a game plan for contending in the NL Central. One of the most important steps that the organization has taken is drafting based on talent (Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Jameson Taillon, etc.) rather than signability (no offense to you personally Danny Moskos). For a team with a limited budget, building a strong farm system through trades and the draft are essential for building a winning franchise (just look at the model put in place by Tampa Bay) and the Pirates have a bevy of talent in the minors and in the big leagues that should allow them to reverse their bad fortune in the coming years. 

Pedro Alvarez soared through the minors and is finding quick success at the big league level.

While it’s been a lost season for Pittsburgh at the big league level, several players have shown enough promise to give Pirates’ fans optimism heading into 2011 and beyond. Second-year centerfielder Andrew McCutchen (.278-12 HR’s-37 RBI’s-26 SB’s) continues to look like a five-tool star in the making and he’s been complemented nicely by rookie leftfielder Jose Tabata (.309-3 HR’s-19 RBI’s-14 SB’s) who arrived in Pittsburgh through last season’s Xavier Nady trade (which now looks very lopsided) with the Yankees. Former top prospect Neil Walker (.296-5 HR’s-41 RBI’s) is excelling at the plate and in the field and, after a slow start, rookie third baseman Pedro Alvarez has flashed a blend of power and patience that could make him an all-star for years to come at the hot corner. The pitching hasn’t fared quite as well, though newly acquired James McDonald (24 K’s in 22 innings) has the makings of a future staff ace and Ross Ohlendorf (4.07 ERA in 108 innings)  looks like a solid, work-horse type starter. 

There’s more good news down on the farm too, where the Pirates improved decision-making and baseball academy in the Dominican Republic have started to yield some promising results. Eighteen-year-old flamethrower Jameson Taillon was the gem of last year’s draft for Pittsburgh, and the organization envisions him as a front-line starter with a Cy Young-caliber ceiling. Though his season was ended early by a broken jaw,  catcher Tony Sanchez (.314-4 HR’s-35 RBI’s-.416 OBP) proved worthy of his number four spot in the 2009 draft, and will hope fill a long void at backstop for the Pirates when he reaches the big league level. Andrew Lambo, who came to the Pirates along with James McDonald in a trade with the Dodgers, has a well-rounded approach at the plate (.287-6 HR’s-35 RBI’s), and should be ready to compete for a starting job within the next few years. 

So, while another 100 loss season is on the horizon, there is reason to believe that the Pirates might win again. 

Just not before their losing season streak reaches its drinking age…

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