Think for a moment about the teams in the NL Central as five brothers in a family. You’ve got the Cardinals as the successful one who has his life in perfect order, the Cubs are the down-on-his-luck older brother who’s had some promise but can never quite get it together, the quirky youngest in Milwaukee entertains himself with good humor, plenty of beer and the occasional ride on a slide, and the middle children always competing for some attention and recognition are the Reds and the Pirates (okay, Cincinnati’s actually the oldest professional baseball team, so this analogy isn’t perfect).
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh have had very similar paths in recent seasons. Both were mired in a pretty uninspiring stretch of play heading into the late ‘00s, then the Reds graduated several of its promising prospects at once, struck paydirt in picking up Brandon Phillips for next-to-nothing and rode that young core plus Scott Rolen and Bronson Arroyo to an NL Central title in 2010. Experts and many fans knew the Pirates weren’t far behind them in making the jump to playoff contention—Andrew McCutchen had just arrived, with Pedro Alvarez not far behind him and Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco shining a bit farther down the road.
The Pirates would draft Jameson Taillon and Jeff Locke in the summer of 2010 and Josh Bell, Nick Kingham, and Gerrit Cole in 2011, assembling quite the cupboard of impact prospects. With the hindsight of a few years, we can safely say Neal Huntingon and Co. drafted very well. Three years after the Reds broke a playoff drought of 15 seasons, the Pirates broke their own 21-year fast on an even more formidable assembly of young talent than that which was now heading into their third playoff appearance in four years, but limping noticeably.
In a way, the parallels between the Reds and Pirates in the last five seasons paint Cincinnati as a cautionary tale for the Pittsburgh franchise. Four and a half hours southwest from the Steel City is a team that had formidable skill and potential entering 2010, but began 2015 with very pessimistic expectations and perhaps some bristly feelings in the clubhouse regarding those expectations. The Reds’ young core is now in their early thirties, excepting new arrival Billy Hamilton, and they’ve dealt with their fair share of injuries and disappointment to the point that many thought it was time for them to start rebuilding again instead of gearing up for another playoff run.
As another franchise that has long kept its payroll well below the rest of league, Pittsburgh may worry that the Reds offer a possible glimpse into their future. The Pirates’ budget has cracked $90 million this year with the extension given to Josh Harrison and have their most important players under team control through next year. But having the higher payroll means less flexibility for the Pirates in signing complementary pieces in the offseason (ask the Reds about settling for Marlon Byrd in left field)—about $16 million will come off the books this offseason, mostly from A.J. Burnett’s one-year contract expiring, which will probably be spent in arbitration since one of Taillon or Kingham should be taking over Burnett’s rotation spot in 2016.
After that, team control becomes a little dicey. Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Francisco Cervelli and Mark Melancon all graduate from arbitration after 2016. That’s three starting position players and a closer who will all have to be extended or replaced for the last two years of Andrew McCutchen’s current contract, which ends after a club option in 2018. All the while, arbitration raises or extensions will be proffered to Jeff Locke, Gerrit Cole and Gregory Polanco. Suffice it to say, the Pirates’ roster foundation is solid for the next couple of years (especially if the Nutting family is willing to spend over $90 million each season from here on out) but there are serious uncertainties coming, starting in 2017.
Ask the Reds and they’ll certainly tell you the window for contention slams shut more quickly than you think. It’s one thing to have a roster that looks great in March with potential for greatness, it’s another to make it through an entire season without injuries, slumps or bad luck derailing those playoff hopes.
Without overreaction, this is a crucial season for the Pirates—it’s time for this roster, with one of the most talented outfields in baseball, to do what Cincinnati hasn’t been able to and make a statement beyond just making the postseason. They hung tough in 2013 and got pushed aside by destiny and Madison Bumgarner last season, but winning at least one playoff series this season is vital. It may not make it easier to keep this team together beyond 2018, but it will sure make it easier for the players and fans to look back on this period of Pirates baseball without some stinging regret.