Two seasons ago, the Pirates wrapped up their 18th consecutive losing season by August 20th. They would finish with a record of 57-105. Last season, the Pirates finalized their epic collapse with an 82nd loss on September 14th. This season, the Pirates waited until September 30th before breaking their own North American record for consecutive losing seasons.
Rest assure there is improvement.
I am not talking about the team's ability to delay what has been the inevitable over the last two decades. A losing season is a losing season, in the end. However, the core players appeared to improve markedly; something that was missing with last year's team.
Last season, the Pirates won the majority of their games from great starting pitching. On top of that, most of their pitching staff was comprised of free agent signings and trades well after the players had developed in the minors. Guys like Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens, and Charlie Morton were the backbone of a first-half winning season. As encouraging as it was to see the team perform well, a sense of sustainability was lacking.
While the staff pitched well above their talent level, players like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez struggled. Alvarez was eventually sent to AAA where he would remain for most of the season. Meanwhile, McCutchen fell off in the second half of the season, failing to maintain his modest .291 average.
This season was different. Sure, the pitching staff was extremely effective in the first half of the season, but they consisted of James McDonald, a possible future ace, and AJ Burnett, an actual veteran and mentor to the rest of the staff. Nevertheless, the hitting picked up considerably once the Pirates got past the first month and a half of the season. Andrew McCutchen was batting well over .350 while Pedro Alvarez clubbed 16 home runs before the All-Star break.
In the end, both players finished with 30+ home runs.
The Pirates also received a strong year from Neil Walker (before his injury) and got a first look at Starling Marte who appeared to handle his rookie season relatively well. They also added young talented players to fill holes such as Gaby Sanchez and Travis Snider. While both players still need to improve to be considered starters on a competitive team, they are certainly proving to be better options than guys like Matt Hague and Alex Presley.
The farm system also saw improvement form the likes of Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia, Alen Hanson, and Gregory Polanco. Of the five aforementioned names, Cole is most likely to see the majors in 2013 while Taillon could get a chance next September. A rotation featuring AJ Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Gerrit Cole could build upon a solid foundation from the last two years.
The young players' ability to improve is the biggest positive we can take out of this season. The young core of players in the lineup are on the verge of breaking out if they haven't done so already (McCutchen).
Still, losing 82+ games this season sucks. There's no way around it. The Pirates have to win more than they lose in order to show the fans that they are improving. Make no mistake, though, they are getting better and the days of counting down another losing season will be over very soon.