Pirates and Cubs at very different crossroads

Pittsburgh's young studs, including home-grown product Neil Walker, have Pirates fans excited about the future. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

As the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs headed into this weekend’s three-game series at Wrigley field, you probably couldn’t find two franchises facing each other that are at a similar, yet very different, crossroads anywhere else in baseball. Both teams head into Friday’s game with 22-26 records and tied for fourth in the NL Central, but its amazing how different 22-26 appears to each franchise.

For the Pirates, 22-26 is a sign of progress. Despite the losing record, the team is competitive and the fan base is staying interested beyond April. The team has a franchise face in Andrew McCutchen, a Pittsburgh born and raised star-in-the-making in Neil Walker, and a chance to make another splash with the first overall selection in next month’s MLB Draft. The young core is immensely talented, and so far, there’s reason to believe that the sky can be the limit for McCutchen, Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata.

For the Cubs, on the other hand, 22-26 is a failure. The team is loaded with some of yesterday’s star players, who are now just overpaid, under-achieving 30-somethings. Sure, Alfonso Soriano seems to have found a little bit if his 2006 form, but in all honesty, how long will it be until the strikeout swing starts up again? With the years piling up for Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Aramis Ramirez, and Ryan Dempster, one has to wonder how long it’s going to be until the Cubs brass decides to pull the plug and start from scratch.

The biggest thing that puts these franchises at a crossroads is they share the same record with an $80 million difference in payroll. The Cubs have MLB’s sixth-highest payroll at slightly over $126 million, while the Pirates have the fourth lowest, coming in a little under $46 million. Soriano, Zambrano and Dempster combined make more than the entire Pirates payroll. And for that extra $80 million, what do the Cubs have again? Aging veterans, little promise for the future (Starling Castro excluded) and a penchant for losing when it matters.

Speaking of losing, I’m reminded of one thing these two franchises have in common. As I’m sure the whole baseball world knows, the Pirates have posted a losing record in 18 straight seasons, and the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908. When put side by side, which one is really worse? An entire generation of fans have yet to see the Pittsburgh have a winner, but several generations of fans have come and gone without the Cubs winning the Fall Classic. A Cubs fan would argue that the team has had plenty of winning seasons and success during the past 103 seasons. But for a franchise surrounded by as much “mystique” as the Cubs, not winning a World Series since 1908 is simply unnacceptable. I don’t know about all of you, but I’ll pass on the Chicago “mystique” and take Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski’s walk-off in the 1960 World Series, five titles, and 18 straight years of losing over the past 103 years.

So I suppose I’ll end this with an open-ended question of sorts. What’s worse — being given false hope every season only to end up disappointed for the past 103 years with no foreseeable end in sight, or being beaten down by losing for the past two decades but being able to look into the future and see a very bright one for my franchise?

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