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The Pittsburgh Pirates Unfortunately Remind Me of the 2003 Royals

I think I’ve seen this before, Pittsburgh, though I sincerely hope that I’m wrong. The cities of Pittsburgh and Kansas City are soulmates in baseball, going back to the days of the Negro Leagues when the Pittsburgh Crawfords, Homestead Grays, and Kansas City Monarchs represented some of the best the league had to offer, back when the color of one’s skin determined where they could play.

In the 1970′s, both franchises were among the best, reaching the playoffs a combined 9 times between 1970 and 1980. Kansas City had George Brett; Pittsburgh had “Pops” Stargell. And since the baseball strike, these two markets of similar size have occupied similar positions in the losing column, with only one winning season between them, until this year in Pittsburgh.

That only winning season belongs to Kansas City in 2003. It is both desperately sad and desperately hopeful that the 2003 season is still mentioned in somewhat reverent tones here. Eight years ago today, the Royals were 53-42, a slightly better mark than the Pirates at 51-44, and were 6.5 and 7.0 games ahead of the Twins and White Sox, respectively. It was a season driven by the diverse talents of a great young centerfielder, the contribution of a few other hitters, and a pitching staff that seemed blessed with the winning touch despite not missing many bats and relying on journeymen. Soft tossing lefty Darrell May led the starters in ERA, while Jose Lima was claimed off the scrapheap and turned in a great first half.

Now, it is centerfielder Andrew McCutchen playing the role of Carlos Beltran, emerging as a true superstar and the one well above average offensive player on the team. If the team had more like Andrew McCutchen, then I wouldn’t be as worried. Neil Walker is above average at second, and Jose Tabata is playing well as a young left fielder, but the offense overall is not full of young emerging stars in 2011.

The resurgence in 2011 has been primarily driven by the pitching. Joel Hanrahan is legit at the back of the bullpen, and if the team gets to the late innings with a lead, they are in good hands. The starters, on the other hand, concern me that we are looking at a healthier version (the top five starters have made all but 3 starts) of what Kansas City did in 2003. James McDonald, the youngest of the group at 26, has the highest ERA but is also the only one with a strikeout rate above 5.5 per 9 innings.

Jeff Karstens is legitimately pitching better in 2011. He’s gone to a sinking two-seam fastball more frequently, particularly when ahead, and is in good form recently; his 2.34 ERA is currently second among NL starters behind Jair Jurrjens. However, he’s still striking out batters at the same rate, and those WHIP and ERA numbers are unsustainable. Charlie Morton’s 3.62 ERA while having a 1.47 WHIP and 5.3: 3.5 K to BB ratio also falls into the “not likely to continue” category. Kevin Correia and Paul Maholm are the definition of journeymen having above average years so far.

For all the good will that the Pirate’s resurgence has brought, they are now 0.5 games up on the Brewers and 1.5 games ahead of St. Louis; the Reds are also lurking 4.0 games behind, and this situation of having several teams within 5 games of the lead at this point isn’t unusual for the six team NL Central. With 3 teams within striking distance, and two less than one bad series away, the Pirates chances of winning the division would be barely more than 25% even if we thought they were equal. The Brewers are likely going all out, realizing that they will lose Prince Fielder anyway. The Cardinals have dealt with injuries at several key positions, notably Holliday and Pujols for stretches.

In addition, Pittsburgh has had a front loaded schedule with Chicago and Houston (15-6 against those teams, only 12 games left), and is now back loaded with St. Louis and Milwaukee, who they play 23 more times–a third of the remaining schedule. If they win, they will have to do it head to head against the two teams that are in a virtual tie with them right now.

Like I said, I hope I’m wrong with all this. I want Pittsburgh to experience success. I also know that the hardest thing for teams to do is to honestly evaluate things when success comes unexpectedly. Should they be a buyer or hold? Buyer, I say, but only at discount prices. Add a piece like a player on the left side of the infield or another bullpen arm, but only if it is short term and doesn’t cost more than middling prospects. I don’t want Pittsburgh to look back with too much fondness about the summer of 2011 in eight years, because very little has happened since then.

[photo via Getty]

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