Commentary: Let's Go Pens! Why the Pirates won't win this year, either

”Line drive and a base hit! Justice has scored the tying run, Bream to the plate, and he is... safe! Safe at the plate! The Braves go to the World Series!” — Sean McDonough, Oct. 14, 1992, Game 7 of the NLCS.

Many Pirates fans remember this moment as the last time their team was any good. Braves first baseman Sid Bream, who fans still believe should have been out on the play, slid home safely under Pittsburgh catcher Mike LaValliere’s tag to send the Braves to a 3–2 victory and the World Series. Atlanta would go on to lose the Series to the Toronto Blue Jays, but made up for it by winning it in 1995 and winning the division title for 14 straight seasons, from 1991 to 2005. They also went to the World Series twice more, in 1996 and 1998, losing to the Yankees both times.

The Pirates, on the other hand, took a slightly different trail after their crushing defeat. The excitment of 1992 was followed up by a losing season in 1993 and, after a strike-shortened 1994, losing seasons in 1995, 1996, 1997, one-two-skip-a-few, 2007, and 2008. Personnel changes going into the 2008 season brought hope that maybe, just maybe, the Pirates would put together some semblance of Major League respectability, but fans were once again let down by another last-place finish. Don’t hold your breath, folks — the losing won’t stop here.

Today, at 4:15 p.m., the Pirates will begin the 2009 season in St. Louis. The Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright will oppose the Pirates’ best starting pitcher from 2008, Paul Maholm. To put “best starting pitcher” into perspective, Maholm went 9–9 last year. The team didn’t make any noteworthy acquisitions this off-season, but they did do the predictable Pirates thing by letting many key bench players go, like Doug Mientkiewicz and Jason Michaels, for fear that they would ask for — gasp! — too much money.

The Pirates also surprised no one with their stinginess in negotiating contract extensions for their best offensive producers, Ryan Doumit and Nate McLouth. Negotiations with McLouth, hands down one of the best offensive players in the league last year, took an especially long time, as the Pirates apparently forgot that he played for $425,000 in 2008 and deserved a considerable upgrade.

But stinginess has been a trademark of the Pirates organization for years. Fans have been calling for principal owner Bob Nutting’s head for many years now. Nutting, though claiming to have a goal of building a championship team, has clearly settled for instead making halfhearted runs at .500 seasons year after year. The three-year deals for Doumit and McLouth provide hope that a young, talented core to build a winning franchise around is finally being established, but just wait until their three years are up. If they’ve produced up to expectations, their monetary yearnings will no doubt be out of the Pirates’ and Nutting’s miniscule range.

Acquiring outfielders Craig Monroe and Eric Hinske in the off-season put them in a slightly better position to win this year, but also effectively blocked their four other outfield prospects — Brandon Moss, Nyjer Morgan, Andrew McCutchen, and Steve Pearce — from being promoted to the big league to showcase their talents and develop into that talented youth core the Pirates so badly need. The Tampa Bay Rays put faith in their youth and it worked out wonderfully last year, as they went all the way to the World Series after 10 straight losing seasons; why the Pirates refuse to follow suit is beyond me.

As an avid baseball fan, my assessment that the Pirates stink is considerably more educated than the average layman’s assessment that the Pirates stink. So if you’re a Pirates fan, stop holding your breath. Grab a ticket to one of the many fireworks and/or bobblehead nights, grab a beverage and a hot dog, and brace yourself for yet another season of blown leads, runners left on base, and a whole lot of booing.