Tonight the Pittsburgh Pirates (53-38) and Kansas City Royals (55-35) square off in a three-game series that could function as a potential World Series preview. As much as the state of Missouri would love to see a KC-St. Louis series, pretty much every other state would rapidly lose interest among the general viewers.
The Pirates and Royals wouldn’t be a great draw from a TV perspective, either, but it would be a great showing that small-revenue teams in once-proud markets can still succeed in today’s MLB. The window for success may be short for a small-revenue team, but with shrewd trades, smart free agent moves, and strong drafts, it can happen.
The Pirates and Royals both had to wander through the desert for long, long stretches until becoming relevant again. If it weren’t for an out-of-the-blue 83-79 season in 2003, the Royals would have been right there with the Pirates as the butt of jokes for futility, as they went from 1994 to 2012 without winning seasons (minus that 2003 season). And as a loyal Pirate reader, you know they went straight through from 1993 to 2012 without a winning season.
The Royals have been on the bottom tier of payroll for most of the 21st century. From 2000 to 2014, the Royals were 25th or lower in 9 of the 15 seasons, never finishing higher than 18th ($81M in 2009). In the same stretch, the Pirates have finished 25th or lower in 12 of the 15 seasons, never finishing higher than 21st ($62M in 2003).
The Royals have four homegrown starting position players (C Salvador Perez, 1B Eric Hosmer, 3B Mike Moustakas, LF Alex Gordon) and two homegrown starting pitchers (LHP Danny Duffy and RHP Yordano Ventura). Two other position players, CF Lorenzo Cain and SS Alcides Escobar, were obtained in an excellent trade for Zack Greinke to the Brewers. By comparison, the Pirates have six homegrown starting position players (1B Pedro Alvarez, 2B Neil Walker, SS Jordy Mercer, LF Starling Marte, CF Andrew McCutchen, RF Gregory Polanco), but only one starting pitcher in Gerrit Cole. The Pirates did add C Francisco Cervelli in a steal of a trade, plus “throw-in” Josh Harrison, and two starting pitchers (Morton and Locke) from the strong Nate McLouth trade.
For all of those fans that love seeing big market teams in the World Series (e.g. “front runners”), the next few years may disappoint them. The Yankees, Red Sox, Tigers, and Phillies are going to be either down or in fierce contention to even qualify for the playoffs for the next four years. Meanwhile, teams like the Royals and Pirates (not to mention the Astros, Twins, and Rays) see their windows remaining open for the next four years.
The Royals one-upped the Pirates by making a shocking run to the World Series that was buoyed by an absolutely dominant bullpen trio of Kelvin Herrera-Wade Davis-Greg Holland. Essentially games were over if the Royals led after 6 innings. The Pirates have a strong 8th-9th duo of Tony Watson-Mark Melancon, but lack that consistent 7th inning pitcher that they are probably seeking out on the trade market.
A potential World Series would see two fairly similar offenses. The Royals have five position players with a wRC+ greater than 115 (15% more offense than league average), with two OF’s leading the way in CF Lorenzo Cain and LF Alex Gordon. The Pirates have four position players higher than a wRC+ of 115, with two OF’s leading the way in CF Andrew McCutchen and LF Starling Marte.
The difference is that the Royals’ starting rotation is their weakness. Yordano Ventura is the nominal top starter, but he’s been injury-prone and inconsistent in his young career (4.73 ERA in 2015). Old friend Edinson Volquez is once again putting forth a strong, steady season for the Royals (8-5, 3.28 ERA/3.74 FIP, 112 IP), but he’s not someone that strikes fear on a post-season roster. It would be surprising to see the trade deadline pass without them picking up a frontline starter, especially someone like LHP Scott Kazmir or RHP Jeff Samardzjia.
So for the next three nights, let’s hope the Pirates and Royals put on a good show and play baseball that makes both fanbases dream of this happening on a cool, crisp October night.