They say it’s better to burn out than to fade away.
I think we can see why when looking at the Pittsburgh Pirates over the last half-decade.
After the 2015 season, this organization was on top of the game. They were Baseball America’s Organization of the Year in 2015, with the second best regular season record, unfortunately losing in the Wild Card game to the team with the third-best record.
Of all the directions you could have chosen for that 2015 team, fading away would be the least preferred.
There would have been mass outrage if the Pirates had undergone a “burn out” rebuild in any sense of the word following the 2015 season. Maybe that’s why we saw a “bridge” year, where the Pirates tried to contend in the first half with the likes of Jon Niese and John Jaso, while ultimately waiting for the big prospects to arrive.
The 2021 Pirates would be in a much better situation under the above scenario. Perhaps even the 2017 or 2018 Pirates would have been in a better situation.
Instead, the Pirates faded away, gradually moving to the point where they were the worst team in the National League — where they started when Neal Huntington took over in late-2007 — along with a middle of the pack farm system, which was a decline from 2015.
Thus, we’ve got the 2021 Pittsburgh Pirates: A rebuilding team that doesn’t like using the word rebuild, and yet will leave all of us searching all season for signs of hope that this team can return to where they were after their last build.
The Pirates faded away after the 2015 season.
At the very least, Ben Cherington has stopped the fade and the decline.
In the last few months, the Pirates have seen something they were lacking for the last few years: A clear direction.
It’s clear that the Pirates don’t intend to win in any way in 2021.
And yet, a strong performance during the spring, and the lingering memories of the 1997 Freak Show team leave hope that anything is possible.
It’s clear that the Pirates are waiting on their prospects to arrive, possibly starting as early as the middle of the 2021 season.
Not really much of a difference from where this team was in 2016, knowing they’d need the prospects to extend their competitive run.
In fact, I don’t see much of a difference between where the Pirates are at now, and where they were in 2016.
Both teams were waiting on prospects to arrive to get them back to the playoffs for the long-run.
Both teams were banking their competitive hopes on everything breaking right in the first half. That seems less likely for the 2021 club, but there were arguments before the 2016 season that the Pirates were destined to lose with the club they started with.
If anything, the current club is just blatantly cheaper, but that’s misleading to suggest the current club is worse. I’m not so sure that league-minimum guys like JT Brubaker or Wil Crowe are worse than $10 M options like Jon Niese. Is there an overall value difference between Colin Moran and John Jaso? Is Adam Frazier just the new Josh Harrison? Will Gregory Polanco finally break out?
The biggest differences between the teams are that the 2016 team had Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole leading the way. The 2021 club has Ke’Bryan Hayes and Mitch Keller. The former pair had already established themselves, but the window was closing for the Pirates to win with Cole and McCutchen. The current club needs Hayes and Keller to step up in order to win in the future, but neither is fully established.
All of this is just to say that I feel the Pirates have returned to where they were in the year or two after the 2015 season.
That wasn’t a good place to be.
It was a team that, at best, could sneak into the post-season as a Wild Card contender. It was a team that was torn in direction, trying to remain the 98-win team from 2015, while also trying to rebuild without totally blowing up that memory.
The Pirates aren’t making the playoffs in 2021, though their strong performance this spring, and a roster that will trend younger and younger as the season progresses, gives them a chance to exceed expectations.
My bold prediction for the 2021 Pirates is that they won’t get the first overall pick in 2022, and it won’t be close.
I could see this team giving enough hope in 2021 that next offseason is spent discussing what the Pirates need to do to get back into the playoffs in 2022. That would be a massive improvement over this year’s semantics about the proper vocabulary to describe a rebuild.
That would largely require improvements to the player development system under Ben Cherington. There have been some good signs, and changes have been implemented in the minors.
Maybe the most important thing to watch in 2021 will be the results of those development changes.
I don’t know what the opposite of “burn out” and “fade away” would be on the building end of a rebuild.
I do know that a strong player development system could help the Pirates “burn out” from their current rebuild, and get to the point where thoughts of the next rebuild “fade away” into the distant future.