For 20 years – two complete decades – the Pittsburgh Pirates were the laughingstock of professional baseball. After building an accomplished squad in the late 1980s, one that qualified for the playoffs from 1990 through 1992, the franchise’s on-field product started a long-term slide.
Tightfisted ownership was reluctant to pay more for some of its talented players, who fled in free agency to the pot of gold awaiting them elsewhere. That miserly mindset affected how the club drafted amateur players, with the Bucs bypassing “can’t-miss” prospects who would command big dollars to select middling but more affordable talent.
(Remember Daniel Moskos? The Pirates – selecting fourth in the first round of the 2007 draft – picked this left-handed pitcher who was not highly regarded by scouts. But he came more cheaply than Matt Wieters, Madison Bumgarner and Jason Heyward, projected future stars who were chosen later in that round. Moskos would appear in all of 31 major-league games.)
Bad drafts, bad trades, bad management, bad decisions and – most important – bad players led to 20 consecutive losing seasons. That run of sub.-500 futility, from 1993 through 2012, is the longest in the history of the nation’s four major professional sports leagues: baseball, football, basketball and hockey.
Led by rising stars Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Gerrit Cole and Pedro Alvarez, and savvy veterans A.J. Burnett and Russell Martin, the Pirates ended that horrific streak in 2013 and made the postseason three seasons in a row. Although they did not win a playoff series any of those years, the Pirates were among the best teams in baseball, especially in 2015 when they won 98 games. Fans in large numbers were enamored of them.
Few realized it at the time, but those three years of prosperity may have been a signal that history was about to repeat itself. Today, watching the listless Pirates, and their tightfisted ownership, has us wondering whether another stretch of 20 losing seasons is possible.
The club is heading full bore toward a third straight losing record, carrying a 41-48 mark into Monday’s game with Washington. Despite a promising 26-17 start, they are much closer to last-place Cincinnati than first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central Division.
There isn’t a bona fide standout player on board, despite so many indications in previous years that Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Josh Harrison were on the verge of becoming just that. The minor-league system is solid, yet it doesn’t appear there are any burgeoning superstars there. And, of course, don’t expect the Pirates to sign a talented free agent.
Each team has to be represented in the major-league all-star game, but are any Pirates truly worthy of being there off their 2018 performances? Closer Felipe Vazquez was announced Sunday as the Bucs’ lone selection.
In addition to all of this, decidedly fewer people are watching the once-battling Buccos. Their home attendance has been plummeting since the good times of 2015.
The more profound question is whether manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neil Huntington deserved the four-year contract extensions they received last September.
Hurdle often makes questionable decisions, the most glaring this season being his refusal to play Austin Meadows every day despite his wielding a lusty bat that was greatly needed, and which merited playing time for the rookie.
Huntington virtually did nothing to fortify the 2018 club in the offseason. In the two deals he did make, he was correct to send a declining McCutchen to San Francisco, but he traded Cole prematurely, and the still-young right-hander has become an ace with Houston. That latter deal, however, might benefit the Pirates in the future, as rookie third baseman Colin Moran and pitcher Joe Musgrove show promise.
Another 20-year losing streak is unlikely, to be sure. But the Pirates’ current outlook is grim.