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Perrotto: The Pirates Don’t Stink, Which Represents Progress

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The Pittsburgh Pirates have gone through plenty of rebuilds since their last World Series appearance and title in 1979.

One produced three straight National League East championships from 1990-92. Another produced teams that played in three consecutive Wild Card games from 2013-15.

Beyond those six seasons, the Pirates have finished over .500 just twice since 1984. That’s a whole lot of losing and enough to make anyone skeptical of anything the franchise tries to do.

I happened to be talking to Andy Van Slyke the other day, and he summed up the Pirates’ stretch of futility in his own unique way.

“The Pirates have been like the Communist Party,” said the five-time Gold Glove winner, who was a mainstay on those division-winning teams. “First, they had a five-year plan then they had another five-year plan then they had another five-year plan and the next thing you know they had a 25-year plan.”

General manager Ben Cherington hasn’t talked about any five-year plans since being hired following the 2019 season. He also never uses the “R” word.

However, Cherington seems to be slowly steering the Pirates in the right direction following two abysmal seasons to begin his tenure.

The Pirates return from the All-Star break with a 39-54 record when they face the Florida Marlins on Friday night at PNC Park. That translates to a .419 winning percentage, which ranks just 24th among the 30 major league teams. It also puts the Pirates on a pace to finish 68-94.

That is certainly nothing to celebrate. Yet it would be progress for a team many analysts thought three months ago would equal or surpass their 101 losses of last season.

The Pirates are giving reason for hope that better days could be ahead. The most encouraging sign is the number of players on their roster worth watching.

Rookie shortstop Oneil Cruz tops the list with his raw – emphasis on raw – talent. Bryan Reynolds has turned into a premier player. Ke’Bryan Hayes seems to have multiple Gold Gloves and All-Star berths in his future. Despite being demoted to Triple-A Indianapolis last week, Jack Suwinski’s raw power is intriguing.

Closer David Bednar pitched a scoreless inning in the All-Star Game on Tuesday in Los Angeles. Roansy Contreras looks like a long-term rotation mainstay. Mitch Keller is starting to finally live up to the hype in his fourth big league season.

More potential impact players are on the way, including a group at Double-A Altoona that includes right-hander Quinn Priester, catcher Henry Davis, second baseman Nicky Gonzales and shortstop Liover Peguero.

Some scouts compare the hitting ability of the Pirates’ first-round pick in this year’s draft, middle infielder Termarr Johnson, to such greats as Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. While history suggests it might be wise to pump the brakes a bit on those comparisons, Johnson does appear to have a very bright future.

Speaking of brake pumping, I’ve seen multiple Pirate rebuilds fail during 35 years of covering the franchise and Major League Baseball in general. Not all prospects live up to their billing. I can recite a long list of those who failed.

So, it may not yet be time to start thinking about ordering those playoff tickets for 2023. Cherington, manager Derek Shelton and the rest of the baseball operations staff have plenty of work left to do.

However, this rebuild is at least passing the smell test. And it doesn’t stink this time.

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