It’s time to recognize a situation for what it really is instead of what it’s purported to be.

When the autopsy of the 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates is conducted, the cause of death will not be a middling payroll, an unwillingness to increase said payroll or even trade-inflicted. If this team is indeed doomed to die a playoff-premature death, then hope will be the culprit with indecision as the smoking gun.

The Pirates’ season didn’t suddenly go down the toilet at 3:59 on Monday afternoon when Francisco Liriano and his team-high salary were shipped north of the border with two prospects for a Triple-A pitcher, nor did it check out when closer Mark Melancon was traded to Washington two days before.

The death knell came at the All-Star break on the heels of a 12-4 run in two weeks that wrapped up the first half of the season, leaving the Pirates within striking distance of a playoff spot.

That was the beginning of the end: when the face of the franchise went on a relative two-week binge, hitting .288 with four homeruns and 10 RBI to raise his season batting average back above .240 and his OPS+ to league average, all while striking out nearly three times as much as he had drawn a base on balls at that point in the season.

Yet the prevailing argument in defense of the accused, hope, was that IF Andrew McCutchen could somehow turn things around, maybe the team could get back on track. But the truth was the offense wasn’t languishing without him; it had actually improved in spite of him. The Pirates’ offensive numbers from the first half of this season exceeded last season’s in nearly every major category without their star centerfielder contributing much more than 11 of his 14 homeruns that came with the bases empty.

Hope created the belief that while one of their top two starters would return healthy from the disabled list and regain his proper form, the other would suddenly fix the mistakes he had made almost routinely since the third month of the season. Gerrit Cole has kept his end of the deal, allowing only 23 hits in 24 innings with 22 strikeouts in four starts since his return.

Francisco Liriano, however, had only one quality start and one win in seven tries between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July. And just like McCutchen’s blip on the radar in late June, Liriano gave the Pirates one more gem that would be his last, a 6.2-inning, 13-strikeout spike against a Brewers team with only two starters hitting above .280 and whose record fell to 40-53 after the loss.

Reality tells us that Liriano was the mean, the very middle point in the plot of a starting rotation that had chronically failed to pitch deep into games, with the damning evidence being Jeff Locke leading the staff in innings pitched per start, number of starts of six innings or more, number of starts of seven innings or more and quality starts. That wasn’t just a warning sign. It was the Bat Signal shining high above Market Square and being ignored like a wayward cloud.

General manager Neal Huntington had the chance to diagnose this season as one that had little chance of rebounding, and checking the team’s payroll figures told the story more than anything. Of the five highest-paid players on the roster at the All-Star break, two of them (McCutchen and Josh Harrison) were tied for ninth on the team in Wins Above Replacement (among position players with minimum 100 plate appearances), and two others (Liriano and Jon Niese) had the third and fourth-worst ERA’s among the Opening Day starting rotation. The lone outlier was Melancon, the only one of the five to meet expectations and consequently make the National League All-Star team.

Perhaps what is more telling is that none of those five are participating in the Pirates’ current series in Atlanta. Liriano, Niese and Melancon were traded. McCutchen has been benched, and Harrison is out with an injury. Only one of those is a coincidence.

Huntington and his staff put their chips on their top veterans coming into this season to hold the fort until the cavalry arrived, when the young reinforcements such as Jameson Taillon, Tyler Glasnow, Josh Bell, Adam Frazier, Chad Kuhl, et al could come in and fill the remaining holes. But the problem was the top veterans (outside of Melancon) became the holes, and the team couldn’t plug all of them.

A 46-43 first-half record should’ve been taken at face value, but instead the 1.5-game deficit in the Wild Card standings became the selling point, the rallying cry for hope. But hope has become the very transgression that could lead them down the road to perdition.

Then came the failed appeal attempt from Huntington, who said: “Our goal in this was to continue to allow this 2016 team the opportunity to compete for a playoff spot,” during his conference call after the trade deadline. But by then, it was already too late. After a series sweep by a sub-.500 team and now the possibility of losing the very next series to another, the last pleas of a season full of hope have fallen on deaf ears.

It is now time to call this situation what it’s been for at least two months: Fool’s Gold; and the players this team trusted to find the real shiny stuff led them right to it.

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