Playoff time in baseball always triggers feelings of what could have been for fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and while that has become an accustomed feeling over their past two decades of futility, the pain has gotten worse the past two off-seasons after significant late-season collapses.
What makes it worse is watching players star in the post-season that were available this past off-season or this summer, who would have looked awfully good in black and gold.
Gio Gonzalez wasn’t at his best on Sunday afternoon, but his dominance of the National League this season is a major reason why the Washington Nationals were playing in their first NLDS in the first place. Gonzalez was acquired in a trade this off-season as a part of the Oakland A’s jettisoning of veteran pitchers, and the Pirates were among the teams that missed the boat on acquiring the power-armed left-hander.
The price for Gonzalez was collection of prospects that not all teams could offer. The A’s received major league ready catching prospect Derek Norris, left-hander Tommy Milone (who has far exceeded expectations in his rookie season), right-hander Brad Peacock (a mid-level pitching prospect) and A.J. Cole (a high-ceiling young prospect still quite low in the minors).
With all trades, fit is important. The Nationals and A’s may have matched up better than the Pirates would have, and there’s no telling if Pirates GM Neal Huntington would have been able to pull off the trade, but the Pirates were among the few organizations in baseball that had the prospects to compete with the Nationals offer.
Tony Sanchez, for instance, is a notch below Norris as a prospect, but is a catcher who is close to being major league ready himself. Rudy Owens (who has since been traded to the Houston Astros in the Wandy Rodriguez deal) is in the same class as Milone, as is Jeff Locke, who made a few late-season starts for the Pirates. Kyle McPherson is perhaps a notch below Peacock, but profiles as a mid-rotation starter and could have been available as well. There are many others in the Pirates organization as well.
The Pirates may not have had the same exact pieces that the Nationals sent to Oakland, but the A’s have shown a willingness over the past decade during multiple rebuilding attempts to trade for any pieces they like regardless of fit, and figure out where to play everyone later. The Pirates entered this off-season with strong organizational depth, and could have made a competitive offer for Gonzalez without touching top prospects Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, or Starling Marte.
Instead, their big move of the off-season was the signing of shortstop Clint Barmes, a move which didn’t work out well at all, as Barmes had one of the worst seasons of his career. While the Barmes signing was not a bad signing at the time, and in fact was a good signing, regardless of his play this season, it simply wasn’t enough to make up the gap between the Pirates and the rest of the National League.
It got worse at the trade deadline. The Pirates were active in late July, working as buyers for the second straight summer, but once again, they chose incremental improvements rather than being willing to make a big splash.
Their big move was the acquisition of Wandy Rodriguez, despite their pitching having been a strength to that point in the season. Offensively, where the Pirates had remained competitive simply by hopping on the back of Andrew McCutchen, the team went for secondary pieces, acquiring outfielder Travis Snider from the Toronto Blue Jays (and hoping for the “change of scenery” card to rear its head) and Gaby Sanchez from the Miami Marlins (who had spent half the season to that point in the minor leagues due to his struggles).
Available at the trade deadline was Hunter Pence, who soon became a representation of possibility among Pirates fans. They called long and loud for Huntington to trade for the Philadelphia Phillies outfielder, but he ultimately ended up in a San Francisco Giants uniform.
The price for Pence ended up being mid-level catching prospect Tommy Joseph (again, enter Sanchez from the Pirates, if that’s what the Phillies were looking for), low-minor leaguer Seth Rosin, and major league bench player Nate Schierholtz. The Pirates had more than enough depth to meet this asking price.
While nothing would have solidified their place in the post-season, the addition of players like Gonzalez and/or Pence would have gone a long way towards fixing what ailed the Pirates in 2012 – no offensive support for McCutchen and the lack of a true ace on the pitching staff.
It’s easy to look back in hindsight after a failed season, and there are a handful of teams who could also make their case for having been able to acquire Gonzalez and Pence, but it’s the Pirates lack of action for decades that feels painfully obvious this post-season.