Andrew McCutchen is a wonderful baseball player with great hair and a big smile. He does not, however, know much of anything about Kansas City or the Royals, and we know this from the way he explains how his Pirates have gone from national joke to baseball’s second-best record at the All-Star break.
“If you don’t do so well for so long, you have to eventually get better,” he says. “You’re drafting high. You’re getting key guys. It’s the laws of physics. It has to eventually turn around.”
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I tell McCutchen that folks back in Kansas City are still waiting for physics to kick in, and he doesn’t say much. Laughs a little. Shrugs his shoulders. Not his problem. His Pirates are winning, he’s joined by four teammates here for Tuesday’s All-Star game, so he’ll leave the analyzing to us.
Don’t mind if we do.
The Pirates are doing what the Royals keep talking about doing, or dreaming about doing. They are 56-37 and better positioned than ever to end a 20-year streak of losing seasons that dates back to Barry Bonds and Three Rivers Stadium.
There are so many similarities, which is only natural since these are baseball’s worst two franchises of the last two decades. The Pirates have had owners unwilling or unable to spend, a diminished farm system, and a once-proud fan base making jokes to hide their pain.
The Pirates changed directions six years ago, hiring Neal Huntington as general manager and promising to invest big money into scouting and player development and, well, sound familiar?
The difference, of course, is that Huntington took over his team more than a year after Dayton Moore took over the Royals, and at the moment the Pirates are 12 1/2 games better. All of this, and the Royals have outspent the Pirates on total payroll over the last six years — including this season.
Two different franchises, with similar blueprints to end similar stretches of impotence. One is poised for the playoffs, the other might soon be better off selling spare parts.
On Monday, I asked each of the Pirates’ five All-Stars what they see. None had anything more specific than McCutchen’s law of physics. Jason Grilli is the best positioned to answer, being that the Pirates are his 10th organization and one he chose over two others in free agency.
“I don’t think there’s any, really, hidden secret,” he said. “We’re definitely a storyline because of the history of the Pirates, and the success that’s in the making right now. But I don’t think there’s any one thing.”
Talk to others within the game, and look closer at the Pirates roster, and what you see is relatively simple: the Pirates have made better decisions.
Clint Hurdle was hired in 2011 and is a better manager — more complete — than Ned Yost or certainly Trey Hillman. More importantly, their personnel decisions have proven better.
The biggest might be the Nate McLouth trade in 2009, for which the Pirates were generally panned at the time. But they got a lefty with a good curveball who turned out to be Jeff Locke, here as an All-Star and second in the NL with a 2.15 ERA. They also got Charlie Morton, who is in the starting rotation, and a player they eventually traded for Gaby Sanchez — now the starting first baseman. McLouth, meanwhile, was nearly out of baseball a few years after the trade.
The trade also allowed the Pirates to promote McCutchen, which brings up the most important point: they’ve done well developing amateur talent. Besides McCutchen (third in MVP voting last year), the Pirates have signed or drafted Pedro Alvarez (24 homers this year), Starling Marte (.804 OPS), Justin Wilson (1.89 ERA in 36 appearances) and Gerrit Cole (3.89 ERA in seven starts) since Huntington’s hire.
Along with hitting on low-risk moves like Francisco Liriano (2.00 ERA in 12 starts) and A.J. Burnett (3.06 ERA in 16 starts), it’s produced a team built on pitching (first in ERA) overcoming a slow offense (12th in runs per game).
Basically, it’s Moore’s best hopes and talking points playing out in some
long-suffering baseball town.
History tells us that baseball turnarounds often happen fast, after long stretches of ineptitude. The Rays lost for 10 straight years before going worst-to-first in 2008. The Orioles went from 93 losses to 93 wins in 2012. The Twins had their first winning season in nine years in 2001 (Terry Ryan’s sixth season), then won their first of three straight division titles in 2002.
For now, all that means is that hope is not completely lost. Just growing more desperate. Royals fans have been patient. But they know that other fans, in other cities, have seen inept franchises turn hopeful in less time than they’ve waited already.
Gets old, always seeing it happen in other places.