Talking about Pittsburgh (and Kansas City, too) has become something of a site meme around here -- those who think the Cubs should be big spenders say, "We're not Pittsburgh!"
This post isn't about that. Instead, it's about how that the Pirates have become a serious contender for either the National League Central title or a wild card, and not have a horrible second half like they did the last two years. I thought I'd have a look at how they got there and whether that might be a guidepost to see how long it might take the Cubs to get to where the Pirates are now.
Like the Cubs (Bobby Brownlie, Ryan Harvey, Mark Pawelek), the Pirates had a series of really bad first-round picks in recent years (John Van Benschoten, Bryan Bullington, Daniel Moskos) before finally hitting on better choices in Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Gerrit Cole; the former is becoming a superstar, while the latter looks like a solid rotation starter. In much the same way, the Cubs hope that recent first-round picks Javier Baez, Albert Almora and Kris Bryant, along with international signings like Jorge Soler, will become the centerpiece of Cubs contending teams in years to come.
But it's not just the first-round picks that have made the Pirates a solid team. Alvarez is, of course; he's having another big power season, though his BB/K ratio is still frightening. Walker is another first-round pick who turned into a solid regular, and of course, the Bucs hit the superstar jackpot with Andrew McCutchen, their No. 1 pick in 2005. Starling Marte, an international signing, is having a fine second year in the major leagues. Those four constitute most of the "core" of what was developed from the Pirates' system; this year, they also got Jeff Locke to come out of nowhere to be one of their best starters. Locke was acquired in a salary dump four years ago, when the Pirates sent Nate McLouth to the Braves. The Bucs also got rotation mainstay Charlie Morton in that deal.
The Pirates also added key free agents this past offseason; Francisco Liriano's renaissance has been almost miraculous, and Russell Martin has steadied the pitching staff.
That's not the only real difference between last year's Pirates, who failed, and this year's, though. There's one more thing -- the Pittsburgh bullpen, which has been outstanding. Jason Grilli has become a lockdown closer at age 36, sort of a modern-day Joe Borowski. The Pirates' pen has, collectively, put up 5.6 WAR as of Monday; the Cubs' pen (including only those who have pitched exclusively in relief, because it's too hard to separate out Carlos Villanueva's relief appearances and determine relief WAR from that) is at -1.7 WAR. So that's 7.3 additional wins, by WAR (using baseball-reference WAR) -- that's half the difference in the standings as of today between the Cubs and Pirates.
But what does this all mean for the Cubs' future? Look at when the Pirates' "core" was drafted, acquired or signed:
2004: Neil Walker (draft) 2005: Andrew McCutchen (draft) 2007: Starling Marte (int'l signing) 2008: Pedro Alvarez (draft) 2009: Jeff Locke (trade)
Just in case you've forgotten, here are the Pirates losses, from 2004-2012: 89, 95, 95, 94, 95, 99, 105, 90, 83
Many of you think the Cubs are going to return to contention in 2015. IF -- and that's still a big "if" -- some of the players currently tearing up the system such as Almora or Baez, make the major leagues as regulars by 2015, it still seems likely that they won't be stars for two or three years beyond that. For the Pirates, McCutchen is the only one who really reached the big leagues as a star (finishing fourth in Rookie of the Year voting in 2009), and even then, he couldn't lead the Bucs to contention by himself.
The Pirates are now in a position where they can add a piece at the trading deadline (they did so last year with Wandy Rodriguez) and have him be a significant contributor to a playoff run. Why the Pirates collapsed the last two years is still an open question that those of us who don't follow the team on a daily basis might not be able to answer. For the last few years, before they started hinting at contention, they were doing selloffs like the McLouth deal; they also did it in 2008, shipping Xavier Nady (and Damaso Marte) to the Yankees for Jose Tabata (and others) and in 2010, when they got James McDonald from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel.
If the Cubs are going to contend two years from now, it's going to take more than Baez, Almora, Soler or Kris Bryant to do it. This year's team could have been much closer to .500 with better bullpen work; you can see it in that seven-WAR difference between the Cubs and Pirates' bullpens. If this year's Cubs had the Pirates' pen, they might literally be a .500 team, ready to make the next step.
If they want to make that next step with the core they're developing, they will have to add some other pieces. Let me make it absolutely clear -- I am not suggesting breaking the bank for thirtysomething free agents on the downside of their careers. Instead, go out and find the next Scott Feldman or Paul Maholm, or someone to fill another need ... only this time, with the idea of keeping them around, rather than sell them off for pieces.
Thought this would be a worthwhile topic of discussion as we are on Matt Garza watch, and have a late-night game tonight. Have at it.