Thursday, September 25, 2014

Pirates Know Best

Wednesday, Sept. 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
The Pirates have a chance to be really good for a long time, thanks at least in part to general manager Neal Huntington (left) and owner Bob Nutting, according to columnist Joe Starkey.

The Pirates are back in the playoffs, even if they did not take the path some would have preferred.

They did not throw tens of millions of dollars at James Loney or Matt Garza. They went Dumpster diving. They turned up maybe the worst pitcher in baseball in Edinson Volquez, who took a $5 million contract and not only outperformed the $50 million Garza but also most others in the National League, including one A.J. Burnett.

How dare he.

The Pirates did not trade Starling Marte for a rental pitcher at the July 31 deadline, which outraged either the masses or the vocal minority. I can never figure out which. As if on cue, Marte started raking like never before upon his return to the lineup Aug. 5. He has been the NL's best hitter since.

How dare he.

So last year wasn't a fluke, after all. The Pirates are playoff-bound again. They Buc'd all the popular and convenient narratives.

Bob Nutting looks smart because he's the one who hired Frank Coonelly, who hired Neal Huntington, who hired Clint Hurdle and brought in the likes of Russell Martin, Francisco Liriano, Mark Melancon, Josh Harrison (lucky, I know, just like losing Jose Bautista and seeing him morph into Jose Canseco was unlucky, right?), Jordy Mercer, Volquez, Vance Worley, Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and the legendary John Holdzkom, who I believe will be president of the United States one day.

Nobody's laughing at the old “best management team in baseball” quote anymore. And I'm not saying the Pirates have the best management team in baseball. I'm merely suggesting that raising the dead should probably get them an invite to the conversation.

Here's the part that must really gall the conspiracy theorists, the ones who label loyal fans suckers: The Pirates have an excellent chance to be really good for a long time (how dare they), just like they promised.

Cole said it in the champagne-soaked clubhouse Tuesday: “We're not going to go away.”

Even if Martin doesn't return, this team will come back next season dotted with talent all over the diamond.

It's conceivable the Pirates could open 2015 with an outfield of Marte, McCutchen and Gregory Polanco and an infield of Pedro Alvarez at first, Neil Walker at second, Mercer at shortstop and Harrison at third.

Cole should be the staff ace. Young talent waits behind him, along with Morton, Jeff Locke and who knows who else? Maybe another successful reclamation project. Melancon, Watson, Justin Wilson, Jared Hughes and President Holdzkom all could be among the affordable bullpen returnees.

That doesn't mean the Pirates will make the playoffs every year. Baseball can be cruel that way. Consider the Washington Nationals, a loaded young team that emerged in 2012 only to be crushed by personnel losses last year before rebounding big time this year.

These Pirates, by all rights, should have been the 2013 Nationals, given all their injuries and unforeseen issues. But they refused to succumb, and that, in part, goes back to players such as Worley. Which goes back to Huntington.

The Worley saga isn't about luck. It's about outsmarting other teams. Somebody had to scout him. Somebody had to fix him. Special assistant to the GM/pitching guru Jim Benedict took care of the latter. He's a guy the Pirates retained last fall when the Philadelphia Phillies tried to hire him.

How's that for a free agent signing?

Of course, no matter how the Pirates do in the postseason, the next big flashpoint will be Martin. If he doesn't sign here — regardless of the circumstances — outrage is sure to follow. And if the club makes no real attempt, outrage will be warranted.

But none of that is happening right now. The criticism is all weirdly preemptive. People see Martin do something great and instead of saying, “There's an example of the Pirates being smart. They got this guy and made him the fifth highest-paid catcher in baseball (which he is this season),” they say, “There's another example of Nutting's cheapness.”

Martin could hit the winning home run in Game 7 of the World Series, and instead of celebrating, the most deeply scarred conspiracy theorists would jump in their cars with pitchforks and storm PNC Park.
It never ends.

First, it was the Pirates' new regime would never sign a homegrown superstar. They did (McCutchen).

Then it was they'd never be buyers at the deadline (they were, starting in 2011), never sign a game-changing free agent (they did, Martin), never win again, never reach the playoffs again and certainly not make it back the next season.

People sometimes ask why I don't criticize the Pirates the way I used to. Is it because I work for the flagship station?

No, I say. It's much simpler and much less conspiratorial than that. It's because they used to lose most of the time, and now they win most of the time.

How dare they.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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