The absolutely unexpected plays out at PNC Park tonight as the Pirates -- at this time a year ago, the perennial laughing stock of MLB -- enter the postseason for the first time since 1992 in a wild-card game against the Cincinnati Reds. We've had a week to come to grips with the fact the Pirates have achieved what almost everyone thought impossible, but it still seems a bit surreal.
But what so recently was totally unexpected can quickly become the fully expected. No one gets spoiled more quickly than sports fans.
Long-time supporters of the Pirates in general and the current management team in particular are understandably rubbing their hands with glee and telling the world, "I told you so." While in the process of heaping much-deserved praise on general manager Neal Huntington, they are happy to provide a lengthy list of prospects -- some near, some far -- who will turn this unfamiliar phenomena into an annual rite of October.
There are no guarantees in athletic competition and that most certainly applies to MLB. Raise your hand if you expected the World Champion San Francisco Giants to fall from 94-68 to 76-86. Or the Washington Nationals, everyone's favorite, to drop from 98-64 to 86-76. If the 2012 World Series winner can decline 18 games in the win column, so can the 2013 National League Central Division runnerup.
Which makes the No. 2 question of the day -- behind which team will win tonight -- this: Can the Pirates repeat?
It has been my experience that there is no sport where individual achievement is as unpredictable as baseball. One of my favorite stats is this: In 1988, Orel Hershiser had one of the greatest seasons in the history of pitching. He was 23-8, set an MLB record for consecutive scoreless innings, won the Cy Young, the NLCS MVP and the World Series MVP. The year before he had been 15-15. The next year he was 16-16.
If it can happen to Hershiser, it can happen to, say, Francisco Liriano. Not that Pirates fans need much of an education in the unpredictability of pitchers. They need only recall Jeff Locke this year and James McDonald last year.
That said, the Pirates definitely have the capability of contending next season. The core of the team returns: Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Starling Marte, Neil Walker, Gerrit Cole. Liriano will be back to lead a rotation that also will include Cole and Charlie Morton. That's nice nucleus. Add Jordy Mercer, Russell Martin, Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson and Wandy Rodriguez, if healthy, and the possibility of A.J. Burnett and the Pirates look better and deeper.
But there are holes.
• Who plays right field?
• Who plays first base?
• Is Tony Sanchez ready to pick up more of the catching load from Martin?
Huntington has improved the team considerably via trades and free agency the past two seasons, adding Liriano, Burnett, Martin and Melancon, to name the most prominent. Doing something similar this offseason would be a major plus.
The team will make a run at outfielder Marlon Byrd, but coming off a strong season, he'll likely go to the highest bidder, which won't be the Pirates.
Jose Tabata, coming off his best season with a .771 OPS, might get a chance in right field. Andrew Lambo, who hit 32 minor-league home runs in 444 at bats, along with a .922 OPS, will get a look in right and possibly at first base.
Gaby Sanchez figures to return to play first base against left-handed pitching, which the Pirates saw very little of this season. But Sanchez showed himself not to be an everyday first baseman and the Pirates need to acquire an experienced, productive bat to go with him. If the late-season addition of Byrd showed the Pirates one thing, it is the importance of another power bat in the middle of the lineup.
Some fans think Gregory Polanco will be ready take over right field by mid-season. Polanco is an outstanding talent, but he hit six home runs in 243 at bats at Class AA this season and had a .762 OPS. At 22, he probably needs a full season of Class AAA.
Traveling a similar path with Polanco, is first baseman Alex Dickerson, 24 in May, who hit 17 home runs and had an .832 OPS at Altoona. Dickerson also looks to need a full season at Indianapolis.
The talent is there to field a competitive team in 2014. But there are no guarantees. Only this one: It won't be 20 years before the Pirates make their next postseason.