Thursday 09-30-2010 3:01pm ET
MY COUCH -- Despite all the losses at the ML level--102 and counting--2010 has been the best season for the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise since the start of The Streak 18 years ago.
And it's really not close.
The mess that has led to 18 consecutive years of losing actually started in the late '80's.
Though the Bucs had been playing good ball at the major league level, the quality of the Pirates system had been eroding for years when the Pirates won the first of their three NL East titles in the 1990's. After nabbing arguably the greatest player to ever walk the earth in the 1985 draft and Jeff King in 1986, the Pirates drafts in subsequent years were very poor...especially on the top end.
Mark Merchant, Austin Manahan, Willie Greene, Kurt Miller, and Jon Farrell were the Pirates 1st round picks from 1987-1991. None played a day in Pittsburgh, though Greene was packaged (with Moises Alou) to grab the helpful Zane Smith in 1990.
The 1987 draft produced, literally, no major leaguers that materially helped the Pirates. None. Tim Wakefield and noted RBI enthusiast John Wehner were the only two players to come from the '88 class. And between the '89, '90 and '91 classes, only Kevin Young, Tony Womack and Steve Cooke did anything for the big league club (and they didn't do much).
That's two middling starters, a bench guy, a middling 1Bman, and a middling 2Bman in FIVE YEARS worth of June drafts. It was a debilitating run of ineptitude in the single most important area of player procurement.
The wins at the major league level were doing a great job of invigorating the city and the fanbase but as the Bucs were winning those three NL East Titles, the very foundation of the club was crumbling. The future was slipping away.
The Pirates were losing stars and failing to replace them.
The Pirates stockpile of talent as reflected in win totals:
1994: 53 *strike-shortened season; Bucs were 8 games under .500 at stoppage
By 1993 Doug Drabek, Barry Bonds, John Smiley and Bobby Bonilla were all gone, with Bonds and Drabek leaving after The Francisco Cabrera Incident (Cabrera got eleven plate appearances in the 1992 regular season. 11.).
Subsequent years saw new unis fashioned with new players wearing them and, heck, even a beautiful new stadium was built. But the story remained the same--the Pittsburgh Pirates were chronically talent-poor. Occasionally the teams were slightly less bad, but, as we all know, there was never enough talent on a roster to break .500 in a given season.
The Dark Ages under McClatchy/Bonifay/Littlefield lasted from 1993-2007 and were notable, chiefly, for a lack of managerial savvy which revealed itself though the club's near-complete neglect of amateur talent procurement, the lifeblood of any MLB team.
Considering the aforementioned lack of savvy for a decade and a half, it's easy to understand why none of The Dark Age seasons would qualify as the Pirates best season since 1992.
One could even argue that the '87-'92 seasons--years in which the major league Pirates had successes and eventually won some Division titles--were ultimately counterproductive due to the gross neglect in virtually all areas of amateur talent. But I'll not outwardly discount the value of major league success to that degree, even if I privately believe it to be mostly true.
That leaves the title for 'Best Season Since the Start of The Streak' to one of the seasons since The Dark Ages ended: 2008, 2009 or 2010. These were all losing seasons in the bigs, but with an obvious thread of commonality--improved upper management.
2008 marked the first full season under the Nutting/Coonelly/Huntington regime and this is where things began to turn around.
Slugging infielder Pedro Alvarez was selected in the 1st round of the '08 draft and, after some protracted negotiations with The Boras Corp., he was signed. His selection and signing announced the return of reasonability to the Pirates braintrust, a key first step toward winning in the majors and re-establishing some trust within the fanbase. The Pirates were finally producing star-level talent again.
The Pirates took other high ceiling (read: expensive) players in that draft as well, finally spending some dollars and assuming the appropriate amount of risk for a small-mid market team.
There was also much re-tooling of the major league roster in '08, which was the logical first step given the lack of inventory both in the majors and in the minors. Some successful trades were made, some unsuccessful trades were made. But strategically, these moves needed to be happen.
Had the new management team been more successful in some of those trades--most notably the Jason Bay deal--this post might've been written in the waning days of the '08 season, celebrating 2008 as a landmark season for the club's resurgence and eventual success. As it is, '08 earns mere 'runner up' status.
In 2009 more good work was done in the draft, with a slew of high ceiling pitchers highlighting the class. Catcher Tony Sanchez was taken with the 1st round pick, and though many in the industry questioned the move, the Pirates look to be laughing last as Sanchez has seen nothing but success as a professional. He could arrive in Pittsburgh as early as 2011, though 2012 is more realistic.
2009 also saw the completion of a new Latin Baseball Academy in the Dominican Republic, it's completion heralding a re-dedication to the fertile pool of talent from that part of the planet.
The Pirates were dead-set on pairing a shiny new Latin prospect with their shiny new facility, but failed in this regard after Miguel Sano's agent, Rob Plummer, spurned the Bucs over-aggressive stalking of Sano and sent him instead into the grateful hands of the Minnesota Twins.
Had the Bucs brought in Sano, 2009 might've rightfully claimed the title of 'Best Season Since The Streak'. Alas, they did not and it does not.
That brings us, finally, to 2010.
Jameson Taillon. Stetson Allie. Luis Heredia.
If the '09 class of talent was notable for the risk the Pirates assumed with good young arms, the '10 class was notable for the risk the Pirates assumed with great young arms.
In '09 the likes of Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain and Trent Stevenson represented the highest ceiling pitchers the Bucs selected, and though these players do possess upside, none were projected to be true 'ace' level starters.
With Taillon, Allie and Heredia, the Pirates added three potential aces to their system.
This distinction between good players and great players is hugely important to understand as the difference between good talent and star-level talent is essentially the difference between a competitive team and a Championship team.
And that's why this '10 season, despite the ignominy of posting 100+ losses in the majors, is SO meaningful. In the span of four days in the summer of 2010, the Pittsburgh Pirates drastically altered their future: they went from having zero potential aces in their system to having three.
To put that into context--there are about 10-12 true 'aces' currently in MLB. Those players are typically worth about $20-30 million per season in terms of value to their teams and once they hit free agency, they can expect to make $20-25 million per year.
To have three players in your system capable of reaching that level of production when previously...for decades...you have had none, that's incredibly meaningful.
And believe it or not, it's not the only reason 2010 has been such an important season for the Pirates.
That the Bucs have been so horrendously bad in the majors in 2010 will actually work to their benefit long-term. By earning the worst record in MLB the Pirates will select first in the very talented 2011 draft...and given the Pirates recent industry-leading aggression in the draft, that means yet another superstar-level prospect will almost assuredly be in Pittsburgh's fold this time next year.
Jameson Taillon + Stetson Allie + Luis Heredia + Anthony Rendon/Gerrit Cole/Matt Purke. That's 4 more potential superstars than the Pirates had in their system prior to June of 2010. That's a relative deluge of talent, and it's coming to Pittsburgh.
To procure it (or in the case of Rendon/Cole/Purke, put themselves into a position to procure it) in the span of one season makes 2010, without equivocation, The Best Season for the Pittsburgh Pirates Franchise since the start of The Streak 18 years ago.