Arrow-right Camera

Mellinger: Pirates did what Royals wanted to do

Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, right, is succeeding with young stars such as Andrew McCutchen. (Associated Press)
Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle, right, is succeeding with young stars such as Andrew McCutchen. (Associated Press)

NEW YORK – Andrew McCutchen is a wonderful baseball player with great hair and a big smile. He does not, however, know much of anything about Kansas City or the Royals, and we know this from the way he explains how his Pirates have gone from national joke to baseball’s second-best record at the All-Star break.

“If you don’t do so well for so long, you have to eventually get better,” he said. “You’re drafting high. You’re getting key guys. It’s the laws of physics. It has to eventually turn around.”

I tell McCutchen that folks back in Kansas City are still waiting for physics to kick in, and he doesn’t say much. Laughs a little. Shrugs his shoulders. Not his problem. His Pirates are winning, he’s joined by four teammates for the All-Star Game, so he’ll leave the analyzing to us.

Don’t mind if we do.

The Pirates are doing what the Royals keep talking about doing, or dreaming about doing. They are 56-37 and better positioned than ever to end a 20-year streak of losing seasons that dates back to Barry Bonds and Three Rivers Stadium.

There are so many similarities, which is only natural since these are baseball’s worst two franchises of the last two decades. The Pirates have had owners unwilling or unable to spend, a diminished farm system and a once-proud fan base making jokes to hide their pain. Sound familiar?

The Pirates changed directions six years ago, hiring Neal Huntington as general manager and promising to invest big money into scouting and player development and, well, sound familiar?

The difference, of course, is that Huntington took over his team more than a year after Dayton Moore took over the Royals, and at the moment the Pirates are 12 1/2 games better. All of this, and the Royals have outspent the Pirates on total payroll over the last six years, including this season.

Two different franchises, with similar blueprints to end similar stretches of impotence. One is poised for the playoffs, the other might soon be better off selling spare parts.

On Monday, I asked each of the Pirates’ five All-Stars what they see. None had anything more specific than McCutchen’s law of physics. Jason Grilli is the best positioned to answer, being that the Pirates are his 10th organization and one he chose over two others in free-agency.

“I don’t think there’s any, really, hidden secret,” he said. “We’re definitely a story line because of the history of the Pirates, and the success that’s in the making right now. But I don’t think there’s any one thing.”

Talk to others within the game and what you see is relatively simple: The Pirates have made better decisions.

Clint Hurdle was hired in 2011 and is a better manager – more complete – than Ned Yost or certainly Trey Hillman. More important, their personnel decisions have proved to be better.

The biggest might be the Nate McLouth trade in 2009, for which the Pirates were generally panned at the time. But they got a lefty with a good curveball who turned out to be Jeff Locke, here as an All-Star and second in the N.L. with a 2.15 ERA. McLouth, meanwhile, was nearly out of baseball a few years after the trade.

The trade also allowed the Pirates to promote McCutchen, which brings up the most important point: They’ve done well developing amateur talent. Besides McCutchen (third in MVP voting last year), the Pirates have signed or drafted Pedro Alvarez (24 homers this year), Starling Marte, Justin Wilson and Gerrit Cole since Huntington’s hire.

Basically, it’s Moore’s best hopes and talking points playing out in some other long-suffering baseball town.