Pirates free-fall unexpected? Not in the slightest

Like most of Pittsburgh, Andrew McCutchen is none to pleased with the Pirates' losing streak. (AP/ Gene J. Puskar)

Welp this season was fun, wasn’t it?

The Pirates 2011 season came to a screeching halt over the past two weeks, as the team has dropped 10 in a row and 12 of its past 13. I had a point earlier this year where I thought I’d be heartbroken if they went on this inevitable losing streak. I held hope that they wouldn’t do it, but I was scared of how I’d feel when they did. I thought it’d be ugly for me and my buddy Wayne, who is a die-hard fan just the same as I am.

And how do I feel? No different. This past week has taught me that I am absolutely numb to the team’s losing ways. I feel no sorrow, no remorse, no anger. If the Steelers went on a 10-game skid, the majority of the city would be on suicide watch, myself included. But this streak the Pirates are on? It’s barely even registered in the grand scheme of things. I was saving money for the outside chance the team actually made the playoffs so I could be there for it … that got spent on tickets to see Kanye West in November.

Now, I’m not denouncing my fandom of the team like most of the bandwagon jumpers in the city are starting to do. I’m a Pirates fan through-and-through, and when they finally do get over the hump, I’ll be proud to say I was there all along. But I am saying that this free-fall shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Let’s be blunt, the team was vastly over performing compared to its talent, but it was spectacular while it lasted. Just as I predicted, it’s been a fun summer on the North Shore of Pittsburgh. The Steelers Super Bowl loss seems like a distant memory after the roller-coaster ride the Pirates took us on over the first four months of the season. In the wake of the worst homestand in team history, let’s take a look at what can be salvaged as the team’s brutal schedule takes them into San Francisco and Milwuakee this week.

  • The fans proved that they are out there. Pirates team president Frank Coonelly made some questionable comments during the off season by insinuating that the team won’t spend money on players until the fans proved they’ll pay to see the team. When the fans did indeed prove that they’d see the team, Coonelly bucked up and acquired Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick at the trade deadline. Have the moves been unsuccessful so far? Of course, as the team hasn’t won since the deadline. But that’s the side story to this thought. Over the last four months, the fans in Pittsburgh proved that they still exist. Attendance is way up this season, to the tune of 17%, as of the All-Star break. The trend continued into the weekend series against the Padres, which drew the fourth largest three-game series crowd in PNC Park history. I witnessed tailgate parties in the stadium parking lots before Thursday afternoon games in mid-July, something unheard of in this city. The fan’s went gaga over this team’s success, which is great for the franchise.
  • Other younger players will get a chance to step up now. Actually, let me rephrase that — Brad Lincoln will get a chance to step up now. With the pitching rotation in shambles, Lincoln will get an opportunity to prove that he can handle major league hitters in a competitive environment. I won’t lie, I’m in the verge of writing off Lincoln as a bust. The former first-round pick has yet to live up to the expectations the team set for him. This might be his last chance to prove he can handle the challenge; it’s do or die time, Brad.
  • Pedro Alvarez will finally get a chance to “figure it out.” He’s been one of the biggest mysteries of the 2011 Pirates. Alvarez was slated to be the power bat that anchored the lineup and produced runs, but instead he’s been a colossal bust, putting up sub-par numbers and spending considerable time on the DL. But without the added media scrutiny that comes with playing on a first-place baseball team, Alvarez can finally get his reps in against big league pitching and not get blamed for the team losing. The team send him to triple-A, and he did exactly what he should do, hitting .325/.439/.538 in 80 ABs. Now, he needs to remember how to hit major-league pitching like he did during his sensational rookie season. He is the single biggest part of the teams future; getting his issues worked out is essential.

This reminds me about something that’s been eating at me. I can’t think of a better way to state this than to do it bluntly — Pedro Alvarez is not the reason the team has lost 10 in a row and 12 of 13. He’s not the second or third reason either. A lot of people in Pittsburgh feel that way and I haven’t been able to figure out why. A majority of the blame goes to the pitching staff. I wrote earlier this year that if the arms started to give out it could get very ugly for the Pirates. The offense is putting up the same numbers it has put up all year; the starting pitching, which drastically outperformed itself, finally gave out and started to perform more in line with its talent level. But to all you bandwagon jumpers who think that Josh Harrison or Brandon Wood are the answer at third base, please, check yourself before you wreck yourself. Hop off the bandwagon while you’re at it, too. And yes, this also applies to those of you who think that Alex Presley will have a bigger part in the team’s future than Jose Tabata.

Anyhow, moving forward, the biggest thing the team has, starting now, is Gerrit Cole and the upcoming deadline to sign draft choices, which is less than a week away. As Dejan Kovacevik wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on Monday, this isn’t optional. This is the most important thing the franchise will do during the rest of the season. Do I still think the team had better options than Cole? Yes. But either way they have to continue to build the talent base for the future, and Cole will be a huge part of that.

At the beginning of the season I told Wayne I’d be content with 75 wins, and I’m going to stick with that. It would represent an 18-game improvement in the win column, which is progress toward to ultimate goal of playoff contender. Maybe this team will prove me wrong and get back to their “Battling Bucco” ways, but I’m not going to hold my breath for it. Getting 75-80 wins is still well within reach; the rest of the Pirates fans out there need to realize that would constitute a successful season for this franchise.

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