It has been eight years since the Pittsburgh Pirates appeared in the postseason. While that seems like a long time for win-starved fans, it is a very short time in the context of franchise history.
Heck, the Pirates haven’t won a division title in 31 years. And, of course, it’s been 44 years since they last won a postseason series as they rallied to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the 1979 World Series.
So, it is easy to understand why those long-suffering fans are a bit giddy over the Pirates’ surprisingly good start to the season. Or at least until Wednesday night when they stumbled and bumbled through an 8-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field at St. Petersburg, Fla.
Despite losing three games in a row for the first time all season, the Pirates still lead the National League Central with a 20-11 record. The .645 winning percentage extrapolates to a final record of 105-57.
The Pirates, as improved as they are over recent iterations that included triple-digit losses the last two years, are extremely unlikely to win 105 games this season.
It is also far from a sure thing that the Pirates will even be in contention come September, even though Major League Baseball expanded the postseason from 10 to 12 teams last year.
Baseball Reference gives the Pirates a 35.5% chance of reaching the postseason. FanGraphs rates their chances at 30.5% while Baseball Prospectus is less bullish on the Buccos at 12.5%.
But, hey, it is much better than the 0.001% I gave them when the season opened March 30. I thought they could win 75 games this season – which would be 13 more victories than last season — but the postseason seemed all but impossible.
However, I’m starting to think that those baseball think tanks’ playoff odds might be valid. In fact, I’m beginning to feel that the Pirates’ chance of winning the National League Central title has now at least moved inside the realm of possibility.
I fully realize the Pirates didn’t even win the NL Central in 2015 when they finished with 98 victories, the second-highest total in the major leagues to the St. Louis Cardinals’ 100. However, the division of 2023 is not nearly as strong as the 2015 version in which the Chicago Cubs won 96 games and beat Pirates in the NL wild card game.
Let’s start with the Cardinals, who entered the season as the NL Central favorites. They are a hot mess with their 10-21 record.
Well, considering that record, perhaps the Cardinals are more of a cold mess. Either way, they are already in a big hole as they sit in last place in the division, 10 games behind the Pirates.
The Brewers are in second place with an 18-12 record and appear poised for a bounce back season after having their run of four straight postseason appearances end in 2022. Yet, despite their strong starting pitching and outstanding manager Craig Counsell, the Brewers aren’t quite as good as they were a few years ago.
The Chicago Cubs are 15-15 and that seems just about right. They aren’t great but they’re not terrible.
The Cincinnati Reds are in a rebuilding phase, have a 13-18 record, and are not a threat to win this division.
Then there are the Pirates. They aren’t a great team, but the first 31 games of this season do not feel like a fluke – Wednesday night notwithstanding.
Considering the state of the NL Central, unlike 2015, the Pirates might be in the right place at the right time.