Kevin Gorman: If Pirates want a new narrative, playoffs are only answer
Neal Huntington knows as expectations have changed for the Pittsburgh Pirates, from ending a two-decade losing streak to wanting to win a World Series, so have the never-ending narratives.
The Pirates general manager buys into neither the notion that the baseball club would be satisfied with finishing above .500 nor claims they are too cheap to be a contender.
The goal all along has been to win a world championship, and Opening Day on Thursday at Cincinnati will serve as the start of a daily reminder it’s been 40 years since the Pirates won the 1979 World Series.
“We recognize that 40 years is too long,” Huntington said. “We recognize that we’ve significantly changed the level of expectations. … We came in with the intent to win the World Series. We haven’t done it yet. We’ve done some good things but not enough.”
Nothing is ever enough for the Pirates, not even a seven-game improvement from one season to the next. After going from 75 wins in 2017 to 82 last season, the Pirates are projected to finish fourth — at best — in the NL Central this season.
That’s another narrative Huntington isn’t buying. He believes the Pirates are closer to being a playoff team than they are one going backward, even if their offseason moves did little to inspire a frustrated fan base.
“Every year, there are two to three teams that are not supposed to win that do,” Huntington said, pointing to the Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays as surprise 90-game winners last season. “We feel like we’re one of those teams this year. We need to take care of business. We need to do our thing. But if we do that, we believe we can be one of those teams that’s not supposed to win but does.”
It’s less far-fetched than it sounds for a club brimming with confidence.
If the Brewers improved from 73 to 86 to 96 wins over a three-year span, the A’s from 69 to 75 to 97 and the Rays from 68 to 80 to 90, why can’t the Pirates go from 75 to 82 wins to the low 90s?
After all, the Pirates jumped 15 victories from their 79-win season in 2012 to 94 in their first wild-card season. And Huntington said “this team has the attributes of” and reminds him of their ’13 team.
“The bottom line is, how does this club win two more games a month?” Huntington said. “That’s what we need to do. We need to win two more games a month than we did a year ago, and we put ourselves right in the middle, if not in the hunt for October.”
That’s asking a lot of ifs.
For one, the Pirates would need to repeat their 43-33 record against an NL Central that saw the Brewers add catcher Yasmani Grandal, the Cardinals add first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and the Reds swing big deals for pitchers Sonny Gray and Alex Wood and outfielders Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig.
The Pirates would need to improve their 17-20 record against the NL East and 9-18 record against the NL West without the benefit of beefing up their 14-5 record against the AL Central.
Mostly, they need to maintain winning records in April (16-12), July (17-9) and September (16-10) while improving upon losing marks in May (12-15), June (10-16) and August (10-17).
The Pirates believe their strength is in pitching, and both the starting rotation and the back end of the bullpen are better than they were at this time last year because of the trade-deadline acquisitions of Chris Archer and Keone Kela and the offseason addition of Francisco Liriano.
They also believe there is more potential for power production in their lineup, if first baseman Josh Bell can return to his 2017 form (26 home runs), third baseman Jung Ho Kang to 2015 (21 homers), left fielder Corey Dickerson to ’14, ’16 or ’17, when he hit 24 or more homers, and right fielder Gregory Polanco can repeat ’18 (23 homers).
But Polanco is expected to miss the first month of the season, so they are counting on Lonnie Chisenhall to provide production. They are banking big that Erik Gonzalez can be their everyday shortstop. Where their NL Central rivals were swinging for the fences, the Pirates made minimal moves and allowed themselves little margin for error.
The 40-year anniversary celebrations this summer will remind the Pirates of how long this town has waited to win another World Series. Right now, the Pirates look like a team that did some good things but not enough, hoping they will be one of the teams that’s not supposed to win but does.
We would welcome a new narrative, especially if it involves the playoffs.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .