I didn't want to have to write this post. After all, I didn't have a specific rooting interest outside of my lousy hometown team, and like many fans, I fell a little bit in love with the Pittsburgh Pirates and their rise to prominence this past season after years of misery and losing. Who doesn't enjoy a good underdog story?
We know the plot: Twenty consecutive losing seasons and the slide into irrelevance, the second-half collapses after strong starts in 2011 and 2012 ... and then a taste of glory in 2013, with 94 wins and the Pirates' first playoff appearance since 1992. The fans were loud and supportive, alive with baseball fever. The Pirates even nearly beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series, leading 2 games to 1 before scoring just one run in the final two games as Michael Wacha and Adam Wainwright ended their dream season.
The Pirates were young and scrappy and had steadily improved -- from 57 wins to 72 to 79 to 94. This wasn't just a fluke season but another step in this process of building a dormant franchise into a winner. The season ultimately ended in disappointment, but now comes the excitement of 2014, when the Pirates take the next step.
Every playoff team believes it will return the next season. Maybe it changes the roster; maybe it goes with the same group. Either way, it will be back.
Of course, that's not what happens. Every year, at least one playoff team from the previous season has a big drop. It's the nature of the beast. Look at the 10 seasons from 2003 to 2012, with this list of the playoff team that declined the most the following season:
2003 Marlins: 91 wins to 83
2004 Dodgers: 93 wins to 71
2005 Cardinals: 100 wins to 83
2006 A's: 93 wins to 76
2007 Rockies: 90 wins to 74
2008 Cubs: 97 wins to 83
2009 Dodgers: 95 wins to 80
2010 Twins: 94 wins to 63
2011 Phillies: 102 wins to 81
2012 Giants: 94 wins to 76
So it happens. But what caused the declines? My guess would have been that these teams suffered the most in their run prevention. Pitchers are less consistent than hitters and more likely to be injured; bullpens can be great one year, mediocre the next.
As it turns out, the teams declined on offense and defense. Here is the list again, with each team's decrease in runs scored and increase in runs allowed:
2003 Marlins: -33 RS, +8 RA
2004 Dodgers: -76 RS, +71 RA
2005 Cardinals: -24 RS, +128 RA
2006 A's: -30 RS, +30 RA
2007 Rockies: -113 RS, +64 RA
2008 Cubs: -148 RS, +1 RA
2009 Dodgers: -113 RS, +81 RA
2010 Twins: -110 RS, +133 RA
2011 Phillies: -29 RS, +151 RA
2012 Giants: -89 RS, +42 RA
On average, the teams decreased 77 runs on offense while allowing 71 more runs. Most of these teams had a big drop on at least one side of the ball, however. Look at last year's Giants, the defending World Series champs. Everyone blamed their decline on the bad years from Matt Cain, Ryan Vogelsong and Barry Zito, but in reality the offense was much worse than 2012, scoring 89 fewer runs. The 2011 Phillies had a historic rotation that wasn't able to repeat in 2012.
What does this have to do with the Pirates? They're ripe for a big increase in runs allowed.
The 2013 Pirates allowed 577 runs -- the third-lowest total in the National League since 2008, behind only those 2011 Phillies and the 2013 Braves. That in itself isn't a sign of worse things to come: The 2010 Giants allowed 583 runs and then 578 in 2011; the 2012 Reds allowed 588 and then 589; the 2012 Dodgers allowed 597 runs and then 582.
But the Pirates don't have a Clayton Kershaw on their staff. What they have are some question marks:
Francisco Liriano: 16-8, 3.02 ERA in 161 innings. He's always had the talent but has had injuries and control issues throughout his career. From 2009 to 2012, he posted a 4.85 ERA. He cut his walk rate from five per nine innings in 2011 and 2012 to 3.5 in 2013. Can he do that again?
A.J. Burnett: 10-11, 3.30 ERA in 191 innings. He's had two solid seasons in Pittsburgh but is now a free agent and still unsigned. He has said he wants to return, but the Pirates have signed Edinson Volquez as a backup plan. The same Edinson Volquez who was the worst regular starter in the majors in 2013 and hasn't had an ERA under 4.00 since 2008.
Jeff Locke: 10-7, 3.52 ERA in 166 innings. Locke came out of nowhere to make the All-Star team, but his low strikeout rate pointed to the possibility that his first half was a fluke. Sure enough, he had a 6.15 ERA after the All-Star break. He doesn't have great stuff, relying heavily on a 90 mph sinking fastball. Who is the real Jeff Locke?
Charlie Morton: 7-4, 3.26 ERA in 116 innings. The Pirates just signed him to a three-year, $21 million contract even though he's entering his age-30 season and has never pitched more than 171 2/3 innings in a season.
The bullpen: 30-20, 2.89 ERA, 55 saves (second in majors), 15 blown saves (fifth-fewest). The bullpen was brilliant while also throwing the fourth-most innings in the majors. The Pirates had the third-best bullpen ERA in the majors behind the Atlanta Braves and Kansas City Royals -- which ranked 29th and 28th in the majors in innings. It was a remarkable season by the Pittsburgh relievers, one that will be difficult to repeat.
Three more quick notes here. First, the Pirates' pitching staff was helped by a very good defensive team, as the Pirates ranked third in the majors with 68 defensive runs saved. It's possible the Pirates are a legitimately great defensive team, but it's also possible they'll take a small step backward there. Second, the Pirates' runs scored and runs allowed totals suggest a team that should have won 88 games, not 94 -- those totals suggest the Pirates have to get better just to win 94 games again. Finally, it's worth noting that the Pirates weren't as young as everyone believed. The NL average age for position players was 28.3; the Pirates were 27.9 (weighted for at-bats). For pitchers, the league average was 28.1 and the Pirates were 28.7. Young teams are more likely to improve, but the Pirates were pretty much a league-average team agewise.
Of course, the offense could pick up any slack from the pitching staff, but it's difficult to see where the offense will get better. Andrew McCutchen was already the MVP, Pedro Alvarez hit 36 home runs, Neil Walker did Neil Walker things and Starling Marte projects to have a similar season. The front office hasn't made any moves to improve, the lineup and Gaby Sanchez is the full-time first baseman right now.
The future of the Pirates remains bright, even if management can't sign a big-ticket free agent. Right-hander Gerrit Cole is a stud, and Jameson Taillon, another righty, may become one. Exciting young prospects like outfielder Gregory Polanco and shortstop Alen Hanson will soon hit Pittsburgh. But the Pirates are likely to take a step backward before taking another step forward.