As I sit here on a Tuesday night early in February, I think of the never-ending polarization of our political landscape as the State of the Union will be on tonight and I find a whole lot of parallels to the Pirates' franchise and a divided fanbase.
On one side, you have the eternal optimists. These folks can find a bright spot in the darkest corners of any roster composition. Hope springs eternal for this party, and sometimes it leads to blind spots to the excellence of the competition.
Now, the optimists aren’t alone, no, they caucus with the apologists. The apologists think that most decisions were made correctly, but luck and or the structure of the league is purely to blame for all the wrongs that befall their favorite ball club. Sure, these two groups don’t always see eye to eye, but they stick together more than most and create a pretty tight-knit group.
On the other side of the aisle you have the opposition. I’d elaborate but the name says it all. This group has one goal, ensure that everyone knows that Bob Nutting is Satan incarnate and everything he touches is tainted by his evil. They never miss a trick as to how it makes its way into conversation either. I honestly think I saw a story on CNN the other day about saving bees and someone wrote "Nutting is cheap" as a comment.
Not unlike the apologists, another group caucuses with the opposition, they are the cold-hard-fact group and they want you to know they have no emotion because it's all about the numbers. Somehow this faction has by far the hottest temper and quickest trigger of them all. Here’s the thing though, it's because deep down they care more than most and are desperately afraid to let it show, just in case.
If you’ve ever written about sports or covered a team for any length of time, you know all of these groups intimately well, because you’ve been accused of being all of them if you are halfway competent at calling balls and strikes on a subject.
It would be nice if one day there would be a State of the Union that didn’t always show one half of the room clapping while the other sits on their hands. The same would be great for the Pirates because no one group here is right all the time.
USA Today just predicted the Pirates would lose 102 games in 2020. Because of what many have already decided they believe, half think this is a completely reasonable expectation, and half think it’s criminally wrong.
The truth is, if you just looked at last year’s record and weren’t familiar with all the ins and outs of the 2019 season the prediction makes sense. If you watch the wire and see this club signed no free agents of any note, of course they will be the same as last season. Its rational to assume moving Marte is a guarantee that the club must fall. But none of this gives room for young players who started to show themselves as solid contributors for years to come to improve. It says nothing about Kuhl, or Santana stepping back in and contributing to the cause.
Am I saying Chad Kuhl is worth a 20-win swing in the standings? No. What I am saying is ignoring the injuries last year, neglecting to believe a new coaching staff can make a difference, or pretending the Cards, Cubs and Brewers haven’t taken a bit of a step back is to not see the whole picture.
That’s what we owe ourselves. More than anything else, we owe ourselves an honest look at what we see with this club as a whole. It’s impossible to have observed and hammered the past regime for not being able to teach the fundamentals without also acknowledging that it's quite possible this group can get through to them. Is coaching going to turn Colin Moran into a +5 WAR defender, oh hell no, but it could ensure he 100% of the time makes the right decision with the ball. Is it going to teach Polanco to throw darts 275 feet, not likely, but it could teach him how to play the angles off the Clemente wall or hit the cut off man with more regularity.
Does Mitch Keller stink out loud this season because he got touched up in his rookie season with a coach many of the same people would readily blame for the Black Plague? No. Nobody knows how a young pitcher like this will perform, but anyone that has actually watched the kid knows he has great stuff, so maybe getting beat up last year and a coaching change really will move him to the next level. At the same time, its not fair to expect Mitch to turn into Cy Young overnight. Expect improvement, because that’s what good ballplayers do, but set the bar up by the Pirates Charities sign and plan to never reach your ideal.
It’s not like we haven’t had recent examples. Kevin Newman had quite possibly the worst September call up I’ve ever seen in 2018. It was so bad the Pirates themselves didn’t trust him heading into 2019 and they went out and got Erik Gonzalez. Kevin got his opportunity and turned it into an outstanding rookie campaign, now many fans consider him one of few untouchables on the club. Erik himself was labeled a bum, an absolute joke of a pickup because he got off to a very cold start to the season. Sometime in late August Erik found himself and started hitting. Josh Bell was being called a bust after a brutal 2018 as he struggled to learn to play 1B and adjust to a league that knew how to pitch, 2019 for a few months had people comparing him with some of the greatest names the game has ever seen.
The point is you can spend life or a baseball season assuming you know everything, but if you don’t open yourself to the possibility of things not always being black and white, you’re bubble will never expand and worse, you’ll prevent yourself from the greatest gift whatever you believe in gave us brainy primates, the ability to learn.
So, while I acknowledge there are truths in all of these ways to look at the Buccos, above all I’ll acknowledge that none of them on their own are exactly right.
If you can bring yourself to have an open mind and have a stomach for the ugly truth when warranted, get ready for the ride, this could be some fun. If you want to see things through your prism at one angle no matter the subject, man its gonna be a very long nine months or so.
The State of the Franchise is a work in progress.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007