Much has been said this week about the tension felt between the Reds and the Cardinals following the sweep in Cincinnati over the weekend. Here at BRM, we have written no less than 4 posts talking less about the games than the aftermath of them. I have chimed into this chorus myself. Here is the thing, we may not have directed our attention at the right rival. Over the course of the next two or three years the National League Central is going to change, possibly dramatically. Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols are both free agents at the end of the season and will command serious attention from the market. Lance Berkman and Scott Rolen are both good players whose careers are winding down though they both obviously have a little fight left in them. So who will fill the vacuum?
The Reds have most of their young talent locked down for a couple of years and look to contend for a while. Rolen must be replaced at some point and holes will always need to be filled but they should remain competitive. St. Louis has a few major problems but the young quality pitchers they have will always keep them in contention. This is the year for Milwaukee and they may be in trouble if they continue to struggle this season. Chicago and Houston have the occasional bright spot but by and large they are disaster areas and should be designated as such. That leaves an unexpected challenge. The Pittsburgh Pirates.
Now, I realize as you read this, tears are streaming down your face from cascades of laughter. But choke back your giggles for just a moment and look at some very interesting numbers.
The Reds are blessed with a corps of 4 young starters. You know the names Bruce, Phillips, Stubbs, and of course Joey Votto, the reigning NL MVP.
While Phillips has the most experience, until he came to Cincinnati his career never blossomed and at 30 is still relatively young and certainly in his prime. These numbers are solid but with the exception of Joey not spectacular. Each is a solid contributor to the 2011 club and are critical to the teams ultimate success. All are spectacular fielders at each of their positions in addition to the prowess at the plate.
With this in mind lets turn back the clock to the end of the second Major League Season for each player and examine the numbers.
Only Joey Votto truly appears ready to be a starter worthy of a line up spot on most any roster. Phillips would still bounce up and down between AAA ball for the next 3 years of his career not sticking to the majors until 2005. Votto graduated permanently to the big leagues in 2007, and for Bruce and Stubbs not until 2009 did they find a more permanent residence.
Now lets take a ride up the Ohio to the confluence of the three rivers to PNC Park the home of the Pittsburgh Pirates. 18 years. That was the last time the Pirates found themselves at the end of the season sporting a winning record. It is the longest streak of mediocrity in the history of American professional sports. And all indications say that within two years the streak will end. I predict next year. The Pirates have the 3rd lowest payroll in MLB at $45 million and 3 players on the team account for a third of that number. While they will not be in the running for Pujols or Fielder, they will have resources to fill holes entering next season and with just a little creativity they field a team around 4 young hitters with comparable pedigrees to the Reds quartet.
They are all young, inconsistent, frustrating, but quite talented players. They are very comparable to the Reds core. How many times as you watch Stubbs or Bruce strike out did your frustration bubble over and yet when they are performing to their capability it is poetry in motion. The average age of the Pirates is 27.3 as compared to the Reds 28.7. They are more than a year younger than any team in the NL Central and with free agency in the fall will most likely become even younger but they will still have most of the same pieces in place and will be a better team and a competitive team.
To me a rival is a team and a city you both admire and want to defeat. In the 70s I loved the rivalry with the LA Dodgers. You wanted to beat them but you always respected them. In the 80s culminating in the 1990 World Series run the Reds maintained a rivalry with the Pirates that ended when Cincinnati defeated the Pirates in the 1990 playoffs. As both teams suffered through the 1990s and 2000s the rivalry died on the vine. Two years ago the Reds began the long strange trip back to respectability and it seems as though the Pirates are on the verge of a similar rebirth. Charlie Morton‘s shutout tonight was not a fluke. Nor were the home runs of McCutchen and Alvarez.
I wrote this article tonight with a specific goal in mind. Reds fans need to remember last weekend. I would have been embarrassed to be a Cardinals fan. I was following Twitter tonight throughout the game and as the game ended many were moaning and groaning over the idea of losing to such a pitiful team. I think Pittsburgh is a team showing sparks of life after being left for dead 20 years ago. We need to be careful, as a fan base, to avoid becoming like the Cardinals fans. Even the best teams lose 50 or 60 games a season. And we have been there before.
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