Even as Pirates players were donning costumes for their trip to Milwaukee Thursday, their franchise was continuing its multi-decade masquerade of being serious about contending for a championship.
Take the time to look up the photos of the Pirates on MLB.com and admire the amusing collage of get-ups ranging from Batman to Jesus chronicled in this team pose on the tarmac next to an airliner.
By Friday evening, after the plane had landed and the Pirates had absorbed yet another one-sided defeat to open their series with the Brewers, reality had intruded.
More to the point, the unfortunate status quo of the Pirates was reinforced by events earlier in the week as serious teams acquired free-agent help in bids to make postseason runs.
The Chicago Cubs, already battling it out with the Brewers for the lead in the NL Central, added former Boston closer Craig Kimbrel with a three-year, $43-million deal.
More unexpected was former Houston starter Dallas Keuchel joining Atlanta for one year at $13 million.
The Cubs had opened the season with the second-highest payroll among Major League teams, at a tick over $225 million according to Spotrac.com, but were willing to spend more in pursuit of winning it all.
Chicago is hoping for deja vu of sorts. The Cubs did something very similar in 2016, obtaining closer Aroldis Chapman at the trade deadline as the final piece for a team that went on to end a 108-year World Series championship drought for the Baby Bears.
Most baseball observers agree that without Chapman, the Cubs don’t win it all in 2016.
Whether or not Kimbrel can push these Cubs over the top this season remains to be seen, but it’s fairly certain they had little chance to make a serious run without him.
As for Atlanta’s Braves, their acquisition of Keuchel was a bit out of character considering that they had opened 2019 – again according to Spotrac.com – with the No. 15 payroll among MLB teams at $129.5 million.
The Braves, sitting second in the NL East, are looking to pounce on some weakness by division-leading Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the Pirates began 2019 with a payroll of just under $83 million, ranking 29th among 30 MLB teams.
Think of the old Road Runner cartoons and the faux Latin titles for the principal characters. Teams such as the Cubs and Braves would fit under the heading of Spendibus Plentius. The Pirates are Cheapus Maximus.
It’s not so much that the Pirates never even gave Kimbrel or Keuchel a sniff. Getting either, or even both, likely would not have been enough to make the Pirates a contender to win the World Series.
That owes to the effect on the roster of year after year of either trading away talent, or letting it leave via free agency.
The Pirates can’t cure with one big signing – or two – the chronic condition they’ve created since sitting by idly as their division-winning teams of the early 1990s were dismantled.
Other teams lose players, too. After all the Red Sox, with MLB’s top team payroll, allowed Kimbrel to leave and the Astros, sitting at No. 5, didn’t do what it took to keep Keuchel.
The difference is that these and the other serious franchises retain the bulk of their top-tier talent, plus are willing to add some icing on already substantial cakes when needed. Recall the Astros acquiring Justin Verlander at the 2017 trade deadline and going on to win the franchise’s first World Series.
The Pirates sit back and hope for a miracle season. But hope isn’t really a viable strategy.
Sam Ross Jr. is a freelance journalist who writes a weekly column for The Tribune-Democrat.