The season is underway, but we’re still in the midst of that delightful time – the first couple weeks – when anything seems possible to over-excited baseball fans who have burst out of winter hibernation at the crack of the bat. Fueled by fantasy drafts and opening-day hype, fans make ludicrous extrapolations, anticipate season-long trends from tiny sample sizes and describe the most run-of-the-mill ups and downs in drastic terms. If they’re really extreme, you might even hear the words “on pace.”
Nelson Cruz, for instance, is on pace to hit 162 home runs. Toronto may not only have the two front-runners for AL Rookie of the Year in Kyle Drabek and J.P. Arencibia, but at the current rate, the Cy Young and MVP, too. Will Albert Pujols’ disappointing .125 average in a contract year hurt his chances of becoming baseball’s highest paid player? These examples may be hyperbolic, but certainly no crazier than the theories postulated on local sports talk radio programs daily. Every season sees a Chris Shelton (learn more) – an individual or team vastly over- or under-achieving out of the gate, and the fan and analyst communities seem to react to these situations with the emotional subtlety and sound-mindedness of schizophrenics. This early-season turbulence is like that time in middle school when you were at the mall and you ran into that girl you had a crush on but then your MOM WALKED UP with the PACK OF TIGHTY WHITIES SHE JUST BOUGHT FOR YOU and it was the MOST EMBARRASSING THING EVER IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE and you wanted to DIE RIGHT THEN SO YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO LIVE IN AGONY THE REST OF YOUR LIFE. In retrospect, of course, it seems a silly anecdote not even worth mentioning. The first couple weeks of an MLB season look similarly overblown when viewed from the perspective of an entire season.
So enjoy those homers while they last, Howie Kendrick, and savor the fantasy points, Jeremy Guthrie and Ryan Hanigan owners. Sorry Baltimore, you won’t win the AL East any more than San Fran will finish dead last in the NL West. And for god’s sake, buck up, Boston fans. It’s not wasted money (yet). It’s baseball. I had the misfortune to spend several minutes of my life reading an article by Kevin Kaduk over at Yahoo! that made the Yahoo! front page headlines (usually reserved for serious news fare such as water-skiing squirrels, celebrity boob slips, and Snooki’s latest WWE wrestling move – actually, that last one was a real topic yesterday). I’ll provide the link [here], in case you also want to lose a few brain cells without even banging your head against a table. That Kaduk never really played the game of baseball and has little understanding of its inner workings couldn’t have been more obvious if he’d referred to Crawford as a “quarterback” and Ortiz as a “pretty good puck-handler for a bigger guy.” If a manager shuffling his lineup from game-to-game is news, well, then there’s A LOT of news. Like, all the time. And Kaduk not comprehending how batting seventh is less pressure-filled than batting third is, as Mastercard would put it, priceless. At least Passan and Behrens do pretty good work over there. Tsk-tsk, Yahoo!, for again promoting a sensationalist piece written with an unsensational line of thought. This is the sort of short-sighted schlock that humorously punctuates the start of the season.
This all brings me to my original topic: the Pittsburgh Pirates. So, it turns out they won’t finish 122-40. But they are displaying encouraging signs of offensive chemistry. Tabata, Walker, McCutchen, and Alvarez form the youthful and powerful backbone of a capable batting order. They’re still green enough to be erratic, but I wouldn’t want to face these guys – which is a change from other Pirates lineups of the past decade. However, there is one thing separating this talented young Pirates team from, say, one of the Marlins’ small-market championship teams: pitching. These Buccos will score runs – in addition to the kids, they’ve added some boring but reliable veterans (like Lyle Overbay, a somewhat Conine-esque character), but holding their opponents to modest run totals is another matter. The current rotation of Correia, Maholm, Ohlendorf, Morton, and McDonald (a collective “Who?!” is acceptable) does not exactly strike fear into the hearts of opponents entering a series. If you trust the scouts, the two best starting pitchers in the Pittsburgh organization, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, are currently mired in cloudy State College, Pennsylvania. Those two are 19 and 20 years old, respectively. Many organizations have the privilege of bringing such stellar prospects along slowly, letting them mature and develop in the minors, and carefully managing their “major league clocks” to maximize their useful time spent with the big league club. I’m not sure this approach is best for the Pirates. They’ve already shown a willingness to throw very young up-and-comers right into the mix and let them develop on the major league diamond. Perhaps this is their only shot at a Marlins-style Cinderella season. Because they don’t have the finances or clout to retain their baby-faced stars once they hit free agency, the Bucs might be well served to throw most or all of their remotely big-league-ready prospects onto the MLB roster simultaneously and hope they’re quick learners. Maybe they’ll pull out one nice year of overlap — before McCutchen, Alvarez and company pack their bags — in which the maturing Taillon and Allie, and perhaps even lefty Luis Heredia, head a staff that is no longer a push-over. It is, unfortunately, the best the Pirates can hope for. But unlike the inexplicably apathetic Florida masses, Pittsburgh actually has a fan base that will get behind a surging young team – and while a surprisingly strong season obviously wouldn’t completely reverse the Pirates economic fortunes, it certainly wouldn’t hurt. A little extra income from merchandise and ticket sales, a little more positive thinking in the organization and interest in the fan base – are these goals too modest to risk running down the major league clocks (and small contract years) of some of the game’s top prospects? Perhaps my wild speculations and theories, fueled by a mere handful of games and the droolings of a few scouts, make me as bad as the rest.
If you wish, please take the entire last paragraph and apply to the Kansas City Royals. They are, by the way, also on pace to finish 122-40.