For the first time in 21 years, the Pirates had reason to celebrate last season.
But with accomplishment comes expectations, and when expectations aren't met in the world of professional sports, heads roll.
Whose heads exactly remains to be seen, but while general manager Neal Huntington's and manager Clint Hurdle's jobs are about as safe as it gets right now, what they accomplished last year has shifted the fan base's focus from the present to the future, for better or worse. A poor showing could quickly turn the tides against them.
Which makes the Pirates' sub-.500 record to begin the season especially troublesome.
They can do only so much for the pitching staff. Ray Searage has already worked his magic on Edinson Volquez to give them a serviceable top four that also includes Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton, but they just don't have the talent the Cardinals and Reds do. And the Brewers are making a case of their own with Yovani Gallardo, Kyle Lohse, Matt Garza, Marco Estrada and Wily Peralta.
No, the Pirates' best hope for distinguishing themselves is their starting lineup, which remains as top-heavy as ever with reigning MVP Andrew McCutchen leading the charge. Pedro Alvarez can hit some homers, and Neil Walker and Russell Martin certainly don't embarrass themselves relative to the positions they play. But particularly with Starling Marte scuffling to begin the season, the Pirates lineup isn't keeping anybody up at night.
What they need is another impact bat, and I'm not talking Ike Davis. I'm not talking anyone they could find on the trade market this time of year, but what's already right under their noses.
Through 18 games at Triple-A Indianapolis, prospect Gregory Polanco is hitting .419 (31 for 74) with three home runs, three triples, four doubles and three stolen bases.
Granted, it's a small sample, which is true for every player at every level this time of year, but when a prospect considered "on the verge" makes it look that easy at the highest level he can go, it usually means he's ready to graduate. It certainly did for Mike Trout in 2012, when he hit .403 (31 for 77) with one home run, five triples, four doubles and six stolen bases in 20 games at Triple-A Salt Lake.
Which isn't to say Polanco is as good as Trout. A player that good comes along once a generation. But Polanco is still about as high-end as prospects get, with Baseball America ranking him 10th overall, between Archie Bradley and Taijuan Walker (who are probably already owned in your league), coming into the season.
In terms of what he can do, he fits the mold of a Pirates outfield prospect perfectly, offering a skill set as well-rounded as McCutchen's and Marte's. But in terms of plate discipline and power potential, he comes closer to the former than the latter, making him worth stashing ahead of time.
Yeah, he's only 22, and you can't expect any 22-year-old to meet the full extent of his potential right away. But he's shown more in the minors than McCutchen did, and McCutchen arrived to hit .286 with 12 home runs 22 stolen bases and an .836 OPS in 108 games back in 2009.
In a worst-case scenario, Polanco's power takes a little longer to develop and he does about what Christian Yelich did after his arrival last year. But in a best-case scenario, he's too valuable to take out your lineup the rest of the way.
Of course, to deliver on any scenario, he'll need to arrive first, but that's where the Pirates' need to compete comes in. The biggest hole in their lineup happens to be the position Polanco plays at Triple-A, right field, where they're currently giving never-weres Travis Snider and Jose Tabata one last chance to prove they don't belong. Rebuilding teams like the Cubs can afford to be patient with reclamation projects, but the Pirates, with the expectations they've created for themselves, need to know when to cut bait.
And I have enough confidence in Huntington, with all the moves he's made to put his team in this position, to believe he does.
What's the argument against it? Yeah, Super 2 is on every general manager's mind, but it's a greater concern for those in rebuilding mode. As early as teams hand out long-term deals these days -- including the ones Huntington himself gave McCutchen and Marte -- it ends up being irrelevant much of the time. Trout and Bryce Harper arrived in late April two years ago to try to help their teams get over the hump, let's not forget. I can't help but see the parallels here.
And continuing with those parallels, I can't imagine a scenario, at least not in a five-outfielder league, where I couldn't find room for Polanco.
I can't help but think while watching Phillies third baseman Cody Asche struggle that it presents a perfect opportunity for the media to stir the pot and start conjuring up speculation about when highly touted prospect Maikel Franco will bump Asche from the starting lineup.
The only problem -- and it's a big one -- is that Franco hasn't given the media a reason to create controversy. As bad as Asche has been offensively, Franco has been equally as bad for Triple-A Lehigh Valley. Franco is batting .134 with no home runs, two doubles and four RBI in 18 games, while Asche is batting .196 with one home run, two doubles and three RBI through 17 games.
So what's general manager Ruben Amaro's take on the struggles of both players?
"Kids, man," Amaro told reporters Monday. "It takes some time to adjust. They’re kids. You have to go through some growing pains with the kiddies. Everybody wants everybody to be an All-Star right away. It's not happening."
Amaro said the Phillies are going to give Asche "chances to play," but if Franco was hitting the cover off the ball, there would be plenty of debate of having him replace Asche. Though, it still could happen sooner than you think.
Amaro hinted Monday Franco isn't playing well because of the cold weather in Pennsylvania. Amaro alluded to a similar issue Franco endured when he played in New Jersey a few a years ago for Class A Lakewood. Franco hit .208 through the first 25 games before batting .297 over his final 107 games, per The Philadelphia Daily News.
The Phillies handed Asche the starting job this spring partly because of how well he performed defensively after his promotion to the majors last season. He's shown at times he's no slouch offensively, slugging .481 in 2012 and .485 at Triple-A last season before his promotion.
However, most folks would probably agree Franco has a higher ceiling, and Fantasy owners would much rather see him in the starting lineup than Asche. But as long as a Franco's offensive production matches the chilly weather in Pennsylvania, a media-fueled controversy is on hold.
Bubba Starling, OF, Royals
Joey Gallo, 3B, Rangers
Micah Johnson, 2B, White Sox
Aaron Sanchez, SP, Blue Jays
Carlos Correa, SS, Astros