The most exciting time, other than any actual championship, for a fan of a team that is supposedly in a total rebuild is when the hopes for the future start to populate that Major League roster. There isn’t any pressure of “having” to win, and no longer are these players relegated to the myth of whispers, reports, and assorted highlights on Twitter. You get to see them with your own eyes, and whatever they do on the field, you can start to dream about what it might look like in two or three years. You don’t feel so stupid for hoping when you can actually see the things on your screen or in person rather that just catching up on boxscores on MILB.com and the reports of various writers.
The Pirates, perhaps the first team anyone thinks of when they hear the word “rebuild” because they’ve been through about three in the past decade, are supposedly entering that phase now. Or at least dipping a toe. Oneil Cruz came up yesterday. If you’re not familiar with Cruz, he’s the Pirates No. 1 prospect. At 6-foot-7, he’s the size of an NBA wing, but plays shortstop. He’s also incredibly fast, and can do anything on the field. Like this:
(That throw is 97 MPH).
(That ball was hit at 112 MPH).
Cruz has already begun smoothing out the rough edges of his game, as he started to walk more in the minors last year. Scouts couldn’t wait to move him off of short simply because of how tall he is, but yet he’s remained there because well, he’s played it well enough. Whatever the details, Cruz’s toolbox and athleticism will provide something most every night that will reward Pirates fans for watching. Which isn’t a feeling they’ve had in a while.
The idea, the theory, is that once Cruz is joined by the likes of Henry Davis or Quinn Priester or Nick Gonzalez, or all of them, the Pirates will actually be relevant, and together they will provide some years of contention.
But does anyone actually believe that?
Cruz being up for good, if he is, already starts a clock for most Pirates fans on when he’ll be traded. Bucs fans maybe can hope he’ll sign a long-term extension, trading in arbitration years, or maybe even some free-agent ones, for higher salaries in his first three or four seasons in Pittsburgh. That’s the best that they can get, Cruz trading in some money later for money now.
But if not, then there’s really only about five years. We know that a player is at his most valuable the more time he has left of team control, even if he’s a true star and will break the bank in arbitration (such as it is). That could be five years from now. Do you think the Pirates can pull it all together in that time?
And even if they can, can those glad in the black and gold (I guess everyone in Pittsburgh is clad in black and gold) really ever hope that a player might play his whole career there? This is a fanbase that had to say goodbye to Andrew McCutchen, perhaps the most beloved player on the Confluence since Dave Parker. And all he required was a contract worth his standing. The Pirates did end up with Bryan Reynolds out of it, but where did that get them? Ask Pirates fans which they would have rather had.
No one in Pittsburgh actually believes that Bob Nutting would allow these prospects to be augmented with free agents to turn the Pirates into a true power, even though they play in a division that doesn’t have a financial power since the Cubs abdicated that responsibility forever. The NL Central is always there if you want it. There’s no Dodges or Yankees or Astros manning the gates. Maybe they can get everything to go right for one season as they did in 2015. And then MLB’s whackadoo playoff system will most likely undo them. You need multiple spins at the wheel, and the Pirates front office has never provided their fans with that.
Cruz will provide plenty of highlights. Moments that promise more as well. Maybe if you’re a Pirates fan and you’ve been in the baseball desert so long you’ll take any sign of water. But you’ll have to forgive the fans if they don’t. They’ve seen this movie, sometimes cut off before the second act was even over. Perhaps they don’t want to buy into the con again, as Nutting continues to inhale his revenue sharing and TV money and whatever other racket he’s got going in and around PNC Park.
Suck long enough, trade away enough vets, get enough draft picks, and unless you’re truly lost and helpless, you’ll end up with at least a handful of prospects that can portend to something better one day. But it takes more than that, and Pirates fans have seen more than enough times that their ownership isn’t willing to take that step.
Cruz arriving in Pittsburgh is supposed to herald a new era. It doesn’t in Rob Manfred’s MLB, and it’s not something he’s ever shown interest in solving. Wouldn’t be shocked if it just feels like a vicious cycle reloading to them.