Monday, March 5, 2012

A Win for the Buccos, At Last

I have often, repeatedly, and ruefully lamented the lowly exploits of the Pittsburgh Pirates, The Team That Would Be My Other Team, in this space.

Yesterday, March 4, 2012, Pittsburgh's days as a perennially cellar-dwelling National League franchise unworthy of the Steel City's 1970s moniker "City of Champions" finally came to an end. Yesterday, the Pirates agreed to a high-value, six-year contract extension, with a club option for a seventh year, with its franchise player, All-Star center fielder Andrew McCutchen. Yesterday, the Pirates set themselves up to achieve a winning record in 2012 and win the N.L. Central Division within four years.

You could say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.

It's impossible to overstate the break with the past that the McCutchen long-term signing represents. Here's the past: starting with Barry Bonds, the post-Willie Stargell Pirates had lost to free agency, or traded for budgetary reasons prior to free agency, the Killer B's -- Bonds and Bonilla -- along with most other letters of the alphabet. Ex-Bucs stars squeezed out of Pittsburgh's plans for having the temerity to move up the MLB salary scale have included Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, Freddie Sanchez, Aramis Ramirez, Adam LaRoche, Andy LaRoche, Xavier Nady, Nate McLouth, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm. Jose Bautista just smacked 54 and 43 home runs for the Blue Jays in consecutive seasons; how did your right fielder do?

Fast-forward to the present (Q: Do MP3 shuffles "fast-forward"? I need a new cliche!). The proof of concept, on the field and at the gate, was Pittsburgh's extraordinary first half of the 2011 season. Excitement was up, attendance was up, the buzz around baseball was up. Clint Hurdle's suddenly fearsome 25-some was, for once, the talk of the town in a city that also sports the Steelers and Penguins. The Bucs' epic second-half regression to the mean of their prior performance doesn't obscure the startling conclusion that if you win more, you attract more fans; if you attract more fans, you can sign more players and win more games -- sometimes, almost immediately.

Now, in preparation for the 2012 season, the Pirates are making their move. Atop the earlier Jose Tabata signing, the A. J. Burnett free agent acquisition, the return of veteran Nate McLouth, and the inexpensive trade for former 100 RBI man and comeback candidate Casey McGehee, the McCutchen deal sets in place a multiple-year core around which the Buccos' front office can attract talent and manager Hurdle can develop young players and win ballgames.

As with the Milwaukee Brewers during the past four years, when the youthful core of Fielder, Weeks, Hart, Braun and Gallardo remained intact, the Pirates can be seen as a choice destination for free agents and first-round picks for the first time in decades. Or at least an acceptable one. Upon his retirement, National Leaguer Jim Edmonds recommended Milwaukee as a free agent destination with a lot to offer veteran players; the Pirates have now put themselves in a comparable position to compete in the market for scarce talent, and maybe even avoid inclusion on some All-Stars' no-trade clauses.

Time will tell if Owner Bob Nutting, President Frank Coonelly, and General Manager Neal Huntington truly mean it; will they put forth a half line-up of stars with a limited supporting cast to try to overcome twenty years of losing, or will they now, finally, provide the resources to give the Steel City a full roster worthy of its long-ago winning history?

Of course, if the Pirates' notoriously stingy ownership reverts to its pattern of recent years, McCutchen might not play the full length of his contract in a black and gold uniform. He could be traded, as McLouth was at the peak of his value, to a savvy organization with deeper pockets. Perhaps Theo Epstein will covet an outfield asset for the Cubs, or the Steinbrenner family or the new Dodgers owners will make the Pirates an offer that they can't refuse -- which historically has been far less than what other teams couldn't refuse. Or, heaven forbid, McCutchen could be injured and follow another Pittsburgh sports legend, Sidney Crosby, onto the long-term disabled list.

But for now, the benefit of the doubt is in order. This shot in the arm for the Pirates is a shot across the bow of every team in the National League. The pregame pyrotechnics on the PNC Park scoreboard can finally be matched by its tally of Pirates' runs during the game. The polarity of free agent transactions can be reversed.

Once again, at long last, you can raise the Jolly Roger. It's shredded and tattered after years of neglect, but if you look closely, you can still see a hint of a wild skeleton grin. It's a Renaissance at Three Rivers, Yo Ho!

You in?

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