Pittsburgh Pirates fans these days don't dream of the franchise signing superstars such as Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. Rather, we obsess over landing international players with potential such as Miguel Angel Sano and Yoenis Cespedes.
Pirates fans simply want what Barack Obama offered during the 2008 presidential campaign: Hope.
We want hope that a winning season is near. We want hope that the highlights of our team's offseason won't be signing minor league free agents and claiming a prospect in the Rule 5 draft.
Pittsburgh fans simply seek a reason to cheer at baseball games once again.
Alas, the fact that the Pirates went 0-for-2 in attempts to sign the coveted free agents -- Sano and Cespedes, not Pujols and Fielder -- speaks volumes about the franchise and what it has done to its highly loyal but now extremely cynical fan base.
Little has gone right baseball-wise in Pittsburgh since the Braves’ Sid Bream outran Barry Bonds' arm and knocked the Pirates out of the 1992 playoffs.
Since then, the Pirates have lost. And lost. And lost. And lost. They haven't had a winning season since 1992 and will make it an even 20 in a row in 2012 if they don't get spectacularly lucky. Already, Pittsburgh's streak of 19 consecutive non-winning seasons is a record in major sports.
Sadly, though, despite the record-setting skein of consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates have been good at something: Blowing high draft picks.
They haven't had a decent shortstop since they traded Jay Bell after the 1996 season. Part of the reason is they've failed miserably with shortstops in the draft. In 1994, they took high school shortstop Mark Farris with the 11th overall pick. He never played a game in the majors. One pick later, at 12, the Boston Red Sox chose Nomar Garciaparra, who was rookie of the year, won two batting titles and was a six-time All-Star.
A year later, they continued their pursuit of a shortstop when they picked Las Vegas high schooler Chad Hermansen with the 10th overall pick. Hermansen played only 189 games over parts of six seasons with the Pirates, Cubs, Dodgers and Blue Jays.
A few picks later, the Blue Jays selected Roy Halladay with the 17th overall pick. Halladay, of course, is the best pitcher in the game and has won two Cy Young Awards and made eight All-Star teams.
Always in need of power-hitting outfielders, the Pirates picked prep outfielder J.J. Davis eighth overall in 1997. Eight picks later, the Houston Astros chose Lance Berkman. In 1998, the Pirates selected first baseman Clint Johnson 15th overall. Just five picks later, CC Sabathia went to the Indians.
In 2000, Pittsburgh chose Sean Burnett 19th instead of Adam Wainwright, who went to Atlanta at 29.
Had the Pirates made the right pick in those three years alone, they would have had a rotation of Halladay, Sabathia and Wainwright.
Almost unbelievably, it gets worse. In 2002, with the first overall pick, the Pirates selected Bryan Bullington, whom then-general manager Dave Littlefield said had the potential to develop into a No. 3 starter.
By choosing Bullington, the Pirates bypassed, among others, B.J. Upton (second, to Tampa Bay); Zack Greinke (sixth, to Kansas City); Fielder (seventh, to Milwaukee); Cole Hamels (17th, to Philadelphia) and Matt Cain (25th, to San Francisco).
In 2006, they took Brad Lincoln at fourth overall instead of Clayton Kershaw, who went seventh to the Dodgers. The Pirates decided in 2007 they didn't want to deal with agent Scott Boras, so they snubbed Matt Wieters, who already has become an all-star catcher, and chose instead Daniel Moskos, a less-than-middling reliever.
The current management team, headed by president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington (below), took over beginning with the 2008 draft and chose Pedro Alvarez second overall. While the pick was highly praised, and Alvarez did have a decent second half to 2010, is there anyone now who would rate Alvarez above Royals' first baseman Eric Hosmer, taken third that year, or Giants catcher Buster Posey, picked fifth?
I didn't think so.
And so, despite a few occasional successes with players, the Pirates stink. They've spent money in the draft in the Coonelly-Huntington Era, which they hadn't done before, and it's paid off to a degree.
Their top two prospects are 2011 first-rounder Gerrit Cole, who was chosen first overall, and 2010 first-rounder Jameson Taillon, who was picked second overall. Both are starting pitchers.
Mayo ranks Taillon eighth in his Top 100 and Cole 11th. He also has outfielder Starling Marte, who should begin 2012 in Triple-A, 40th, and has 2011 draftee Josh Bell 69th.
Law ranks Cole 10th, Taillon 16th, Bell 67th, Marte 72nd and outfielder Robbie Grossman 86th.
If two or three of those guys develop and if center fielder Andrew McCutchen (below) and second baseman Neil Walker continue to progress, and if Alvarez turns things around from his nightmarish 2011, and if outfielder Jose Tabata can stay healthy for a full season, the Pirates won't be half bad.
They'd at least have a shot to win 82 games and end this mind-boggling decades-long losing streak.
This being the Pirates, though, most hope is false hope. And while the fan base accepts that the Pirates could never possibly be in the Pujols or Fielder sweepstakes, they had reason to believe that the Pirates would be in the Sano and Cespedes sweepstakes.
They were in on Sano, a slugger from the Dominican Republic described in a 2009 story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by agent Rob Plummer as a generational talent.
"Based on what I've seen and heard from talent evaluators, his upside is that he's Albert Pujols in Hanley Ramirez's body," Plummer told the newspaper. "He might not stay at short the way Ramirez has, but he's been compared to Pujols' bat because of a short, compact swing with lots of power."
Sano reportedly wanted to sign with the Pirates, but wound up going to the Twins instead for a $3.15 million bonus. The Pirates offered $2.6 million. Mayo ranks him the game's 23rd best prospect and said, "Sano has as much power potential as anyone in the minors."
The Pirates were among the early teams looking at Cespedes, the Cuban whom the Oakland Athletics signed to a four-year, $36 million deal earlier this month. Cespedes, if he were eligible, would likely have wound up around 20th in the Top 100 lists.
He's a power-hitting outfielder who would have filled a huge void in Pittsburgh, but after being linked to him early in the signing process, the Pirates faded away and were never a factor.
If a team is going to all but ignore the major league free-agent market -- the two-year, $10.5 million deal the Pirates gave shortstop Clint Barmes in December is the richest free-agent deal in franchise history -- then players like Sano and Cespedes need to be signed.
Had the Pirates landed them, there would be legitimate hope in Pittsburgh that the streak may soon end. There's no guarantee that either Sano or Cespedes will become stars, but there's also no reason the Pirates shouldn't have been able to land either, or both of them.
As it is, the Pirates have to hope that not only do Cole (left) and Taillon both turn out to be the dominant starters scouts project them to be, but that both become impact pitchers before McCutchen departs as a free agent.
Pitchers and catchers report for the Pirates on Saturday. Spring is always a time of hope in baseball, even for fans of downtrodden franchises.
The sad fact of life for Pirates' fans, though, is that the good players will likely be traded or lost as free agents and the losing in Pittsburgh will go on.
And on and on and on.
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