It has been a long time, more than 20 years, since Pirates fans have looked forward to a season with the level of anticipation they have for the upcoming one. For almost every year since 1992, followers of the team set as a goal merely reaching .500. That became almost a crusade in recent years as the team went 20 consecutive seasons, a North American pro record, without a winning record.
All of a sudden the dynamic has changed. Finishing merely with more wins than losses is no longer acceptable. The postseason, not .500, is the goal. Once there, all things are possible.
But with spring training beginning next week, some of optimism for 2014 has diminished. Almost daily comes word, rooted in opinion more than fact, that the Pirates will regress instead of progress. That’s not hard to understand. Since the end of last season the Pirates have lost two key components to their success -- right fielder Marlon Byrd and starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. Some minor additions do not make up for those losses, although it’s possible Burnett still might rejoin the team.
The rather stunning decision, at least thus far, not to significantly add payroll and make a bigger push toward another postseason has been perplexing. Although many fans, some of whom border on being apologists, claim the team is taking the right path and being careful with spending while waiting for top prospects to arrive, not everyone agrees with that philosophy.
David Schoenfield of ESPN.com, a writer who’s often seemed to have a favorable view toward the Pirates, wrote this the other day, when he ranked the Pirates as the 13th best team in the MLB:
''The Pirates had an Opening Day payroll in 2013 of $66.8 million. Right now, their estimated payroll for 2014 will be about $70 million. Each MLB team will receive an additional $25 million or so in national TV money over 2013 (although Pirates president Frank Coonelly said it's not accurate that teams will receive that amount this season.
''Pirates' attendance will surely go up after last year's playoff run. Coonelly has also said the Pirates' local TV deal with ROOT sports is in the top half of all MLB teams and that the reported figure of $18 million per year has been ‘grossly understated.’ While the decision to not sign Burnett is defensible, it still begs the question of why the Pirates didn't do anything to build on last year's momentum.’’
With Arizona, Cincinnati and Atlanta already ranked ahead of the them and with expected division winners Washington, St. Louis and Los Angeles likely to be among the top six, the Pirates are outside the mix of playoff candidates.
Schoenfield, at least, predicts the Pirates to have a winning record, 84-78. No such luck with PECOTA, a forecasting system that the brilliant Nate Silver helped develop at Baseball Prospectus before his career soared and took him to the New York Times and then to ESPN.
Predicting how baseball players will perform from season to season is little more than educated guesswork, even for someone like Silver. But PECOTA is well-respected in the Sabermetric world
PECOTA predicts the Pirates will return to a losing record -- 78-84 -- and finish 10 games behind St. Louis. To further insult the Pirates, PECOTA picks them to finish fourth in the NL Central, also behind Cincinnati and Milwaukee.
Schoenfield has what he believes is the explanation for the Pirates reluctance to spend. A lot of people won’t like it
He wrote: ''The answer, it seems, is that the Pirates are willing to take a step backward in order to take a step forward. With prospects such as outfielder Gregory Polanco and starter Jameson Taillon perhaps ready to contribute at some point this year and others such as Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham and Alen Hanson coming up behind them, the Pirates have talent on the way, some of it potentially top-line talent. Still, it's just potential at this point.’’