Joe Starkey: Pirates couldn’t help but contend for bloated playoff field

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Let’s go with 66. That’s a pretty good number around here.

Sooner or later, baseball owners and players will agree that they agreed on something, and they’ll play. That much seems obvious.

Veteran scribe Jayson Stark has the number of games pegged at 66. Perfect. Combine that with a bloated playoff field — 16 of 30 teams would qualify — and you’re suddenly lending hope to the hopeless. Only the most wretched teams would fail to contend.

The Pirates are wretched-capable, as Mike Tomlin might put it. They need no endorsement from me. But I’m thinking they will merely be bad, and bad could get you a first-round date with the Dodgers.

After that? Well, as Billy Beane once said, “My job is to get us to the playoffs. Everything after that is (expletive) luck.”

I am not predicting a playoff spot here, let alone a playoff run. Please don’t accuse me of that. I am predicting the Pirates will contend for one.

How could they not?

Think about it: If the season is 66 games, you’d really be looking at the 56-game mark to determine contenders. Who’s within a couple of games of playoff position with 10 games left?

The Pirates of 2019, a truly wretched bunch, were 28-28 after 56 games — eighth place in the National League. That’s a playoff spot here in the land of Shangri-La.

In fact, if you look at the Pirates after 56 games in each of the past four seasons, you’ll find they were among the top eight three times and a game out the other year (2017).

I’m telling you, it’s going to be nearly impossible to avoid contention. And if you really want to break it down, it’s the 46-game mark, or thereabouts, where contention will matter most. That will be the approximate time of the trade deadline, if there is one (I hear Tyler Glasnow and Austin Meadows are available).

There might be a trade deadline a month-and-a-half into the season! I can’t decide if that’s pathetic or magnificent, but I know this much: It’s compelling.

I mean, 46 games? The 105-loss Pirates of 2010, one of the worst teams in franchise history, were four games out of eighth place after 46 games. They were buyers!

“We could see outcomes in a short season that are unexpected,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington told 93.7 The Fan on Tuesday. “The shorter the season, probably the more potentially extreme outcomes could happen.”

I like extreme outcomes. I like sprints better than marathons. Every night’s a playoff game.

Do the Pirates have any strengths, or potential ones?

Sure they do. I agree with manager Derek Shelton, who says, “I think we have a good core group of young position players.”

Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman and maybe even Gregory Polanco provide hope for a decent middle of the order.

The bullpen might be pretty good, too, and as Shelton put it, “I definitely think bullpens will be utilized more (in a short season). You may see leverage guys used a little sooner in games. It could be more on par with how teams have run their bullpens during a playoff series or during a pennant stretch.”

Keone Kela will close, and he was pretty dynamic over the final two months. The rest of the group has performed well over stretches — so you know it’s in there — while also pouring gasoline on a number of fires.

But there is absolutely talent. Kyle Crick has one of the game’s best wipeout sliders.

Richard Rodriguez gave up home runs like each carried a $6 million bonus last season, but he also had long runs of excellence. Combine his June, July and September, and in 38 appearances (36 innings), he had 35 strikeouts and a 1.25 ERA.

Micheal Feliz and Nick Burdi have swing-and-miss stuff. Feliz had 73 strikeouts in 56 innings. Burdi, coming off an injury, looked strong in spring training. So did Edgar Santana, who is coming off Tommy John surgery.

All I’m saying is it’s an intriguing group that in a short season could be utilized creatively and aggressively.

The Pirates would have nothing to lose in a 66-game season.

They’d be contenders. Just like everyone else.


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