Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - There were few better stories in baseball last season than the Pittsburgh Pirates snapping their 20-year postseason drought.
With a reigning National League MVP in Andrew McCutchen, along with up-and- coming stars like Pedro Alvarez and Starling Marte, in addition to potential ace Gerrit Cole, it was almost a fait accompli that the Pirates would be fighting for an NL Central title.
Make no mistake, this was a Pirates team built for the long haul.
But, here we are nearly a quarter into the season and the Pirates are nowhere near what people expected them to be. In fact, they might be the biggest disappointment in baseball, as they sit just a game out of last place in the NL Central, and 8 1/2 games off the pace of the surprising Milwaukee Brewers.
So what gives?
Well, as good as McCutchen may have been a year ago, the Pirates made the postseason because of their pitching staff. To be kind, their pitching has been atrocious this season, particularly the starting staff, whose 4.55 ERA is second-worst in the NL.
Francisco Liriano won 16 games a year ago, but here we are on May 7 and he is still searching for his first victory of 2014. He's far from the only problem, though, as the Pirates have recorded a ridiculously low three wins from their starting staff this season.
Three, and Cole has two of them.
And don't expect much from lefty Wandy Rodriguez when he returns from the disabled list. The veteran left-hander, who is out with a knee injury, is 0-1 with a 10.38 ERA in two rehabilitation starts for Double-A Altoona.
This team desperately misses the leadership of A.J. Burnett. He may not be the best pitcher in the league, but he will go out and give you a tough six- or seven-inning effort when needed. Every team needs a Burnett-type of pitcher.
Who is that guy on this staff? Charlie Morton? There is none.
Most assumed prospect Jameson Taillon would debut this season at some point. He could have given the team a lift, but he is out for the year recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The pitching may be the biggest problem, but it's far from the only one.
Pittsburgh's offense just can't get it going. Aside from McCutchen, of course, who is hitting .317 with four home runs, 17 RBI and 18 runs scored.
But even with McCutchen, the team is hitting a paltry .236 and ranks near the bottom of almost every offensive category.
Unlike the struggling pitching staff, though, there could be some help on the way in the form of outfield prospect Gregory Polanco. Actually, given how bad the right field platoon of Travis Snider/Jose Tabata has been, it's kind of amazing that Polanco hasn't been called up yet.
The Pirates keep saying he isn't ready. Well, his stats tell a different story. The 22-year-old has appeared in 29 games for Triple-A Indianapolis and is hitting .397 with four home runs, 26 RBI and 23 runs scored.
Maybe I am crazy, but I think he could probably help.
Last year's run changed nothing in Pirates land. Winning still isn't the priority. If it was, Polanco would be there right now. Instead, the Bucs are still concerned with milking that extra year of service time out of him
They are not the only ones who do it, but this isn't a team in the midst of 20 straight losing seasons anymore. This is a team that was supposed to fight for a playoff spot. At least that's what they told their fans when they raised ticket prices off last year's success.
We have broken this down before, but the top 22 percent of each service class are designated Super 2 players, meaning they are granted arbitration for four seasons instead of three. By keeping a player in the minor leagues until after the Super 2 cut-off, which is usually right after Memorial Day, teams save a few bucks.
In other words, Polanco will be with the Pirates soon. Just not soon enough, though, that he will be able to stay in the Steel City for another year.
Given the way it's going, though, it may be too late.