Pittsburgh Pirates are in Baseball Purgatory

PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 17: Clint Hurdle
PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 17: Clint Hurdle /

As the 2017 season enters its All-star Break, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in a unique situation. It’s not just because of their 42-47 record. The reason the Bucs are in a weird spot is that for the first time this decade, it looks like they might be going on a downward trajectory, rather than upward.

When people think of the Pittsburgh Pirates turnaround that led to erasing a 20-year losing streak, the year that comes to mind is 2013,  the was the season the Pirates ended their losing once and for all on a thrilling run to the National League Division Series. The truth is, it all started in 2011.

It was the year marked the arrival of Clint Hurdle as manager, as well as Ray Searage’s first full season as pitching coach. Right away, progress was made.  The Bucs, coming off a 57-105 2010 campaign, were right in the thick of things in the NL Central for four months. Although the wheels ended up falling off, the Pirates still finished with 15 more wins than they had the year before, and gave their fans something to look forward to for the future.

The next season was similar.

Pittsburgh was 16 games over .500 on August 8th and ended up finishing 79-83. As bad as the last two months of that season were, the Pirates still finished with seven more wins than the year before, and gave their fans something to look forward to for the future. Three straight playoff appearances followed, so that hope, at least temporarily, was rewarded.

Even 2016, which saw the Pirates regress from 98 to 78 wins, was intriguing for the most part. It’s easy to forget that the Bucs were in the hunt for a Wild Card position with less than two months to play last season. Even though last year was a setback, the Pirates still gave this city something compelling to watch for 2/3 of the way. So far, 2017 hasn’t had that.

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The Bucs are currently seven games out of first place in the NL Central, with no hopes of securing a Wild Card spot. Not only are they are far from good enough for playoff contention; they aren’t bad enough to get a top-five pick in next summer’s draft. It is my belief that, generally, a team must either be winning a lot of games or losing a lot of games. Seldom in the past 25 years have the Pirates not met the criteria for either of those options, but 2017 looks to be that type of season where the Bucs are stuck in baseball purgatory.

This makes things a little tricky for the front office come trade deadline time. Do the Pirates acquire veterans in hopes of contending next season and, god willing, a run this year? Do they sell some pieces in hopes of building for the future? Do they do nothing and save their moves for the offseason? My hope is for the

My hope is for the latter because I do think the Pirates can contend in 2018. With that said, these are strange times for me as a fan, because as bad as things were from my birth up until 2010, it was always easy to tell what the Pirates had and didn’t have. Now, that question is harder to answer.

It’s indisputable that the franchise is in a much better state than it was in 2007, which was the last chapter of David Littlefield’s reign of terror. That said, it might not be a stretch to say that the Pirates franchise might be in it’s worst state since 2009 or 2010.

During Neal Huntington’s first few seasons as general manager, Pirate fans younger than 25 probably didn’t remember what it was like to experience a summer pennant race. The only exception was the “Freak Show” year of 1997 when the NL Central was so terrible that it took all 162 games for the 79-83 Bucs to be eliminated from playoff contention.

Now, that has changed entirely. For the past six years, the Pirates have entered the month of August as postseason contenders. Now, that streak looks like it’s coming to an end. In recent years, this city has grown accustomed to winning and have a taste of the joys that come with a packed stadium in late September, losing is a different type of discouraging.

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For many years, we fans feared that we’d have to wait awhile to see the Pirates finish with a winning record, let alone compete for a World Series. Now that we have experienced the successes of 2013-15, I think there’s a different concern. The concern now is more of an “is that all there is?” variety.

What if the Pirates peaked with three Wild Card Games and just one NLDS? Did management do enough to strengthen the team during that run? Will 13-15 for this generation become like 90-92 for an older generation? When will the Bucs be great again? These are all questions that are being asked, either out loud or in the back of our minds.

I believe that the Pirates are a smart organization that still has a lot of pieces to contend in the next few years. But it doesn’t look like 2017 is our time to shine, and given the way things ended up last season, it’s only natural to have an impatient and uneasy feeling about what is to come.