PITTSBURGH – Charlie Morton is a believer. He thinks the Pirates, at this very moment, have the foundation of a winning team.
"I do," Morton said. "I really do. We all feel that."
He should say that. The club employs him as a starting pitcher.
Understand, too, that Morton was in a good mood when he made this declaration on Wednesday night. He pitched six innings and beat the Chicago Cubs. He improved to 1-5. His ERA dropped to 10.30.
Yes, dropped . That is not a misprint.
Then I asked Morton the more pressing question: What will it take for Pittsburgh fans to become similarly bullish on the franchise's future?
He thought for a moment.
"Results," he answered. "I mean, I'm assuming that's all they care about."
Yes, Charlie. After 17 straight losing seasons - with No. 18 coming around the Monongahela bend - that would be a very good assumption.
The great thing about baseball is that we get access to the "results" that Morton referenced. Politicians have lies and spin and half-truths. We have the standings. If you stink, you stink, and everyone knows it.
Well, right now, those standings say that the Pirates stink - at least a little. They are 12-15, just like the Braves. And the Braves were supposed to be good this year.
Of course, the fortunes of those two franchises have diverged slightly since meeting in the 1992 National League Championship Series. ("Here comes Bream!") The Braves have 12 division titles and just two losing seasons. The Pirates: 0 and 17, respectively.
I don't think Pittsburgh fans are demanding a division title right now. At least, I didn't catch that vibe from the hearty crowd of 11,053 who watched Morton's triumph. They would gladly take a winning season, or at least a meaningful series in September.
Sadly, I don't think the Pirates will finish above .500 this year. And I can't guarantee to my friends in Pittsburgh that it will be different in 2011.
Sorry, Charlie. I'm skeptical. And I'm not alone.
Oh, the Pirates have a plan under general manager Neal Huntington. This is Year No. 3 of his tenure. The approach he took during the first two seasons was obvious: He traded older, more expensive players for younger, cheaper ones.
The payroll dropped from $38.5 million in 2007 to a major-league-low $34.9 million this year, according to salary data compiled by USA Today . (For the sake of the organization's credibility, I hope that number increases in each of the next three seasons.)
The Pirates punted on the 2008 and 2009 seasons, ostensibly because they didn't look too promising, anyway. Huntington wanted to bolster the farm system. And he clearly understands one of baseball's ultimate truths: The only thing worse than losing is losing with an expensive roster.
It's still difficult to watch, for a fan base that has been pining for a winner - 82-80 would be great - since the Bonds Era.
But this season marks an inflection point in the rebuild. Huntington said in an interview this week that he has moved past the "talent accumulation phase," when it seemed that virtually every veteran was available on the trade market.
Charlie Morton might describe this as a time to see "results."
In that case, the current major-league club is a more telling snapshot of the franchise's evolution than at any other time of Huntington's tenure. It's fair to start measuring the value of players the Pirates obtained in those deals.
And I'll be honest: This doesn't look like a contender in the making.
Prior to Wednesday's game, the Pirates had the highest rotation ERA in the majors: 7.34, nearly two runs worse than the next team.
The early returns on a key bullpen decision - cut Matt Capps, sign Octavio Dotel - aren't great, either. Capps joined the Nationals and became baseball's Delivery Man of the Month for April, with 10 saves in as many opportunities. Dotel has an 8.74 ERA.
Good teams generally have an abundance of power at the corner positions. The Pirates don't.
Lastings Milledge has yet to hit a home run. Odd for an everyday left fielder.
Jeff Clement is limited defensively and didn't appear in the majors last year. Yet, he was anointed as the everyday first baseman. He is currently hitting .164.
Right fielder Garrett Jones (17 RBIs) and third baseman Andy LaRoche (.479 slugging percentage) are off to decent starts. But it's hard to find a scout who would describe either as an above-average major leaguer.
It's the same story elsewhere on the diamond. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno and second baseman Aki Iwamura, both acquired in trades last year, form an unexciting double play combination. Neither is hitting better than .240.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and catcher Ryan Doumit are good hitters at their respective positions ... but both were around before Huntington arrived in September 2007.
This is not to suggest that Huntington has done a bad job. But we can't say yet that he's done a good one, either. His grade should be "incomplete," with a verdict to be rendered within the next 14 months.
By then, we should know more about outfielder Jose Tabata, who arrived from the Yankees in the 2008 Nady-Marte deal. Only 21, he's excelling at Triple-A. Tabata might be the only high-impact position player in the system, aside from recent first-rounders Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez.
Bay was the best trade chip the Pirates had, and they didn't get much for him. Gorzelanny and Grabow were shipped to the Cubs for two pitchers who are currently on the disabled list. And I still don't understand why the Pirates preferred Milledge to the more dynamic Morgan.
In Huntington's defense, there wasn't much value left in some of the players he traded. (And have you checked the 2010 statistics for Nady, McLouth, Wilson and Sanchez?)
With so many trades, the Pirates should have received a lot of value back. One day, maybe we will learn that they did.
But I know this: Before Wednesday, pitchers acquired since 2008 had accounted for 14 starts this season - and only one win.
At some point, results matter. Charlie Morton can tell you that.