Bucs' breakthrough won't be easy
PITTSBURGH -- Location, location, location.
Like in real estate, it can be a key to success in baseball. The Pirates know that as well as anyone, and the challenges they face aren't getting easier any time soon, not with the Cubs joining the Cardinals in constructing a powerhouse built to last.
On Wednesday night, the Pirates will play in the NL Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser (8 p.m. ET, TBS) for the third consecutive year, this time after a 98-win season. They've averaged 93 victories during this run, yet have been unable to unseat the Cardinals, who have won 96 per year.
You've got to feel for owner Robert Nutting, president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle -- not that they're looking for sympathy. It's a trip to the World Series they want, and they've done just about everything right to punch that ticket. :: NL Wild Card Game: Cubs vs. Pirates -- Tune-in info ::
Before the latest labor agreement established spending limits on amateur talent, Nutting authorized Huntington to outspend the market size (23rd nationally, the sixth-smallest in the Majors) in pursuit of teenaged ballplayers, both through the Draft and international signings.
Tireless work by scouts and Minor League coaches created a largely homegrown team around Andrew McCutchen, Gerrit Cole, Neil Walker and Starling Marte, and Huntington has consistently complemented it through shrewd player acquisitions, with Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon and Francisco Cervelli among them. Hurdle, hired in 2011, added his experience and uniquely upbeat personality, and Pittsburgh experienced an overdue baseball renaissance.
Only one problem.
For the story to get the ending it deserves, the Pirates are going to have to get past the Cardinals one of these seasons. That could happen in the Division Series next week, but there's no guarantee the Pirates will get that chance.
So maybe now there are two problems.
For the Pirates to get an NLDS rematch against the Cardinals, who beat them in a dramatic five-game series two years ago, they first have to beat 22-game-winner Jake Arrieta and the Cubs. The last time anybody did that was July 25, when Cole Hamels threw his no-hitter at Wrigley Field.
Like everyone in baseball, the Pirates knew something was brewing in Chicago. Theo Epstein had arrived with a plan to build a "player-development machine,'' doing his best to succeed with the same basic model that had worked so well in places like Pittsburgh, Kansas City and Tampa Bay, accruing high Draft picks while trying to out-scout and, out-spend, when possible, the competition to assemble a deep farm system.
And unlike the Pirates, who have never opened a season with a payroll above the $90 million they had on the books this season, the Cubs are in great shape to augment their young core with big-ticket veterans. They signed Jon Lester to a $155-million deal last winter and are weighing the pursuit of David Price and Jordan Zimmermann in a month, when the next free-agent window opens.
None of this is a surprise to Huntington or anyone with the Pirates, except perhaps the timing. It was a given that life in the NL Central would get more problematic at some point, but few expected the new threat to arrive this season.
A year ago, the Cubs finished in fifth place for the fifth year in a row. But here are owner Tom Ricketts, Epstein, Joe Maddon, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, in the thick of things after crashing through the gates with their 97-win statement.
When you're playing a win-or-go-home game like the one at PNC Park on Wednesday, it's probably silly to talk about anything raising the stakes in that game. But what kind of a sense of urgency will the Pirates carry onto the field for Cole's first pitch to Dexter Fowler?
This is a game that the Pirates wanted to avoid but couldn't. They fell two games short of the Cardinals, even though Mike Matheny's team opened the door a crack by going 14-16 down the stretch.
It's possible that whichever team wins on Wednesday will be favored against St. Louis in the NLDS, given the Cardinals' collection of injuries. The Pirates have had the guts of this team together for years, just waiting to one day kick the Cards to the curb.
Imagine how they'd feel watching the Cubs do that. Or, maybe even worse, watching the Cardinals advance to the NLCS for the fifth year in a row.
While McCutchen will still be three years away from free agency when the season ends, the clock is ticking on the Pirates. They are reaching a crossroad with Walker, who could become an eight-digit player in his last year before free agency, and must deal with the retirements of A.J. Burnett and Aramis Ramirez after this season, as well as the likely departures of Sean Rodriguez and recent acquisitions J.A. Happ, Joakim Soria, Antonio Bastardo, Corey Hart and Joe Blanton.
There's a lot of talent in the pipeline, for sure, but what are the chances of putting together another 98-win season in a meat grinder of a division like the NL Central? Beating Arrieta figures to be difficult. But it might be easier than keeping pace with the Cardinals and Cubs in the second half of the decade.