A Sunken Ship: Pittsburgh Pirates’ collapse clinches 20th straight losing season

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As it begins to sound like a broken record, the Pittsburgh Pirates have once again managed to finish under .500 for the twentieth consecutive season since 1992.

The Pirates, who were 16 games above .500 on the first of August, plummeted in the months of August, September, and October with a combined record of 20-39.  And after holding the division lead over a talented Cincinnati Reds team, who are now in contention for a pennant, the Pirates concluded the season with utter disappointment.  They finished 79-83 which placed them 4th in the National League Central, below the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals.

The 2012 baseball season in Pittsburgh was, in essence, a tease.  The team accumulated a tremendous amount of hope and excitement for the future of Pirates baseball, and then, in a flash, was quickly back to resembling the Pirates the city of Pittsburgh has been accustomed to for the last two decades.  One of disapointment, disarray, and dissatisfaction.

Although, there were some positives able to be extracted from this season.

Beginning with the acquisition of elite pitcher A.J. Burnett, the Pirates proved their thirst for an NL Central title.  And Burnett proved he was trade-worthy, becoming the first Pirates pitcher to reach 16 wins since Zane Smith and John Smiley did so in 1991.  Through the first three months of play, their starting pitching rotation and bullpen were phenomenal, and by season’s end, they were ranked eighth among National League teams with a 3.86 ERA.

Relief pitching was just as dominant.  Until an August 7th outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Pirates compiled an astonishing record of 53-0 when leading after the 7th inning.  Led by Joel Hanrahan, a closing pitcher with 36 saves ranking 5th in the NL,  the bullpen established its identity quickly and effectively.  With the reliability of Jason Grill in the eighth inning role, emergence of young arms Jared Hughes and Tony Watson, and pure dominance of Hanrahan with the game on the line, this bullpen illustrated its legitimacy.

Besides the pitching staff, Pirate hitters also flourished in the 2012 season.

Three hitters, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Garret Jones finished the year with 25 or more home runs.  McCuthen and Alvarez, who hit 30 plus home runs each, became just the third Pirates duo to hit 30 or more home runs in the same season.  The team as a whole blasted an almost record-high 170 home runs, 103 of which came on the road.

McCutchen, specifically, was on a tear throughout the first half of the season.  At one point in July, he was in discussion for an MVP nomination due to his MLB leading batting average of .376.  Without his stellar numbers throughout the season, the pitching would have barely received run support, and their record would have been in jeopardy early on in the season.

On another encouraging note for the tragic season, the team gathered their best overall single season home record at PNC Park (45-36).

So where does this leave the Pirates for the 2013 season?

Heading into the offseason, the team will need to make several additions in order to break this losing curse.  Management will need to solidify a few starting rotation/bullpen positions, strengthen the bench, determine a starting catcher, and configure the starting outfield that has four players with MLB caliber talent.

Starling Marte, Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, and Alex Presley will all be in contention for either corner outfield spot.

The Pirates will also need to make a choice between powerful young catcher Michael McKenry and savvy veteran Rod Barajas.

Barajas, who will enter his 12th season in the Majors in 2013, has a 3.5 million option for the Pirates in 2013, but with his age, Rod could end up holding a 60-80 game workload instead of his typical 100-120 which means McKenry will, more likely than not, be the starter.

General Manager Neil Huntington has also been criticized for his failure to acquire skilled, veteran free agents when the opportunity is presented.  For example, near the trade deadline this year, the Pirates’ had an opportunity to trade for Center Fielder Shane Victorino or  his partner Hunter Pence.  Huntington instead settled for a prospect outfielder Travis Snider, polished pitcher Wandy Rodriguez, and former all-star first baseman Gaby Sanchez.

Despite the significant step in the right direction Manger Clint Hurdle and GM Neil Huntington took in 2012, one piece is still missing from the puzzle:  a winning record.  Stats, accolades, and achievements have zero value if a team is not winning games.

The Pirates’ record of 20 straight losing seasons is currently the longest in North American professional sports history.

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