Kevin Gorman: In the Astros, the Pirates find a blueprint for success
Watching Charlie Morton clinch a Game 7 victory in the World Series for the Houston Astros on Wednesday night had to be bittersweet for Pirates fans.
Sweet to see Morton, a former Pirates starting pitcher and one of the good guys of the game, become the first in baseball history to win Game 7s in both a league championship series and the World Series.
Bitter because the Astros did what the Pirates couldn't, following a five-year plan to rise from baseball's basement to winning the world championship.
Amazingly, the Astros' ascension was predicted in a 2014 Sports Illustrated cover story that outlined the organization's ability to act on analytics and deft draft moves to build what the front office believed could be a champion.
No surprise that the story was mocked, given that Houston had replaced the Pirates as baseball's perennial punchline.
But there are parallels between how the Pirates and Astros went from plummeting to the playoffs.
Where the Pirates endured a 20-year losing streak, the Astros were in the World Series as recently as 2005. But both teams endured a similar six-year string of losing before becoming contenders.
The Pirates went 405-566 from 2007-12 — an average of 67.5 wins and 94.3 losses — before making three consecutive postseason trips.
Believe it or not, the Astros were worse. They went 382-590 from 2009-14 — an average of 63.7 wins and 98.3 losses — before reaching the ALDS in 2015.
And both turnarounds started with the No. 11 pick.
With that pick in 2004 and '05, the Pirates chose Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen. In '11, the Astros selected World Series MVP George Springer.
After losing 90-plus games from 2007-10, the Pirates had three top-two picks in four years: Pedro Alvarez, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. After losing 100-plus in three consecutive seasons — amid accusations of tanking — Houston became the first team to have three straight No. 1 overall picks. With the first, they selected shortstop Carlos Correa.
But even their misses worked out. The Astros used the No. 1 overall pick on pitchers Mark Appel in '13 — a year after the Pirates drafted him eighth — and Brady Aiken in '14.
Where Appel was a bust, Houston traded him to the Phillies in a package for closer Ken Giles, who had 34 saves this season. When Aiken declined a lowball offer, the Astros used the compensation pick on Alex Bregman, who shined at third base.
The Pirates, on the other hand, had little to show for their losing. Despite drafting in the top 10 eight times between 2006-13, only Taillon and Cole are in the majors. Their compensation pick for Appel was outfielder Austin Meadows.
The obvious difference — take note, Bottom-Line Bob Nutting — is in payroll. The Astros finished at $137 million compared to the Pirates' $85 million. But Houston opened the season ranked 18th ($124.3 million), the Pirates 23rd ($100 million).
The Astros got more bang for their buck out of Jose Altuve and Yuri Gurriel than the Pirates did out of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.
The Astros were buyers, trading for pitchers Justin Verlander and Francisco Liriano — another former Pirate — for the pennant race. The Pirates dealt reliever Tony Watson to the Dodgers — yet another former Pirates pitcher to win World Series games — but made no major moves.
The Astros didn't just add the right players to win the World Series, they gave the team the confidence to do it. And the Astros beat the Red Sox, Yankees and Dodgers, who own baseball's top three payrolls.
The good news? At least we know a Pirate can win the World Series, even if it's with another team.
This story has been edited to reflect the Astros appeared in the 2005 World Series.