The Pirates franchise was already 87 years old when the Royals joined the American League in 1969, so the parallels only go back so far. Yet they are intriguing and, to my eye, must inform at least a little bit the approaches these clubs are taking and will be taking over the next week.
The first thing that connected them is success. Let’s begin there. These franchises have had periods of elite success within the lifetime of many of today’s baseball fans, and they’ve tended to occur in similar cycles, albeit offset by a few years.
From 1969 to 1979, the Pirates won two World Series and six division titles, and only the Cincinnati Reds had won more regular-season games in the National League. The Royals enjoyed a similar run of success from 1975 to 1985, winning a World Series, two pennants and six division crowns; only the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees won more regular-season games in the American League during those years.
The Pirates had a resurgence in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Barry Bonds first rose to prominence, but they hit the skids when Bonds took his heart to San Francisco. Pittsburgh endured 20 straight losing seasons — an MLB record — from 1993 to 2012. The Royals’ downturn is better described as a Hemingway paraphrase: They declined gradually, then all at once. After winning the World Series, the Royals played 28 seasons without returning to the postseason.
The suffering finally ended for both franchises this decade. The breakthrough season for the Pirates was 2013, when Pittsburgh won 94 games, Andrew McCutchen was named the NL’s MVP and the Pirates won the first of three straight wild-card berths. A year later, the Royals also earned a wild-card berth, and they parlayed it into an AL pennant; the following year, they won it all for the first time in 30 years.
Even this season, right up to this moment, the similarity persists. Both teams recovered from terrible starts and overcame significant player absences to spring back over the .500 mark, and they remain in a cluster of teams who mighta-kinda-sorta be in postseason contention.
The patterns of success and failure are similar, but it goes further. Depending on the metric you want to look at, Pittsburgh and Kansas City rank among the four or five smallest markets in baseball. Both are terrific baseball cities with loyal fan bases, but with market realities being what they are, attendance dovetailed with success, and during the down years, both teams hung around the bottom of their respective leagues at the turnstiles. Both play in venues that are absolute gems, though — I’m about to alienate a large percentage of the many Royals fans I know — there is no competition when it comes to stadium location.
Right now, in the week before the deadline, these paths remain in lockstep. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and Royals GM Dayton Moore face what feels like the same dilemma as that of all teams in the no man’s land between buying and selling. Things are never as cut and dried as we want to make them in sports. No teams inhabit that in-between space more right now than the Pirates and Royals.
It is very easy to look at these teams and declare that they should be in the mode of exchanging current production for future value. According to the latest run of simulations in my system, the Royals have a 17 percent shot at making the playoffs. The Pirates were at 5 percent. They are a combined four games over .500 but a combined minus-37 in run differential. Recent trends offer hope, but the Vulcan perspective is clear: The odds are long that either of these teams will make the playoffs.
Not for nothing, both teams are bleeding attendance. The Pirates’ decline of 3,817 fans per game is the second highest in baseball, behind the 5,231 decrease of the Royals. And you have to wonder whether all those years of losing have created waves of flashbacks in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Everyone remembers what it looks like when the window is shut.
The situations facing Huntington and Moore are different in two key respects, however. First, Huntington faces only a moderate amount of contract drama. Relievers Juan Nicasio and Tony Watson will be free agents, and if the Pirates were out of it, it would make sense to move them for prospects. McCutchen has a $14 million team option for 2018 that is sure to be picked up, given his return to All-Star-level play.
Things are much more hairy for Moore, who has Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Jason Vargas all hitting the market after the season. Already gone is closer Wade Davis, sent to the Chicago Cubs over the winter for disappointing outfielder Jorge Soler. Closer Kelvin Herrera is nearing the end of his arbitration window.
The other key difference between the teams is the perceived disparity of their minor league systems. During his organizational rankings over the winter, Keith Law had the Pirates in the top five and the Royals in the bottom five.
Think of it like this: The Royals and Pirates have followed the same long, winding path for years and arrived at exactly the same place. But the contents of the baggage they carry is of a very different nature.
The Pirates would seem to be in the better place. Huntington can get away with playing both sides, as he has done to good effect before. He can cash in one of the relievers if he can find someone of comparable ability and better upside but with a shorter track record, as he did last year in landing Felipe Rivero. He can trade McCutchen or keep McCutchen; he’s only trying to find the best use of McCutchen’s remaining high-quality production, but the financial ramifications aren’t backbreaking.
Yet Moore might actually be the one in the better spot in the near term — and not just because the AL’s tepid wild-card race gives him an avenue to a playoff spot that is unlikely to be there for the Pirates.
It is widely assumed that Kansas City’s free agents are as good as gone, an assumption Moore has been quick to deny. He said the Royals will compete for their guys, and virtually no one believes him, because that’s just our sense of how baseball economics are. At the same time, there has been no indication that Moore is ignoring the kind of prospect haul that would re-energize the farm system. The Royals’ free agents might simply be more valuable to them than anybody else.
That leaves Moore with the option of going all-in. Add a starter or two. Look for a rental bat. Show your free agents that you don’t believe in this closing window business but only your players. It can’t hurt when it comes to the offseason negotiations. But you’re doing that with the knowledge that your best chance to win any time in the next five years is with this year’s team, right now. A rebuild will come, and tearing down this roster when it still has a chance is not going to speed up the timeline to any appreciable degree. Why not be aggressive?
(One possible response to that: the Philadelphia Phillies. Yeah, there is a risk to hanging on too tightly to your aging core.)
Meanwhile, Huntington runs the risk of appearing passive. If he holds McCutchen and later loses him for nothing, the Pirates will have missed an opportunity. If he cashes in a prospect or two to bolster this year’s run, and it fails, then he has risked the future for a long shot. Inaction might be passive, but action could be looked at as reckless. Of course, this was the case last year and Huntington turned Mark Melancon into Rivero. Still, Huntington could be nudged toward aggressiveness because of the one thing Moore has that he doesn’t: a World Series title.
So as the deadline approaches, much of my attention will be fixed on these two squads, which embody the riddles that come with running a major league team in a challenging market in the 21st century. But I will temper my analysis with the understanding that you’re not just dealing with the on-field fortunes of a ballclub; you are dealing with the still-bruised psyches of great fan bases not far removed from near-annual irrelevance.
Those fan bases are part of these equations, perhaps to a degree we will never fully be able to appreciate.