The Cardinals and Dodgers are the only major-league teams to win more games than the Pirates the past three seasons. The Cardinals are the only team to win more this season. Yet, what is the Pirates' likely reward? A third straight appearance in the winner-take-all, Wild Card game.
The current system offers the Pirates a solution -- overtake the Cardinals, win the NL Central, proceed to the best-of-5 Division Series. But the format remains a subject of debate in baseball. Is it fair? Are the proper teams getting rewarded? Should the sport devise a better plan?
Commissioner Rob Manfred, in an interview with FOX Sports on Wednesday, gave a lengthy, detailed answer when asked about the Pirates' potential predicament.
"If I've accomplished anything in the first months that I've been here, I hope it is that we have projected a willingness to evaluate and re-evaluate where we are on important topics," Manfred said. "On this one, if in fact there is sentiment among the clubs that we have an issue here, we will take a hard look at it.
"Personally, I think it is a mistake to get caught up in results. I understand what you're saying about Pittsburgh and what has happened to them. I get it. But I think it's a mistake to focus on an individual team as opposed to the system. Where we need to stay focused -- but may need to revisit -- is on the incentives we're trying to create. Let's talk about those.
"When we went to this system, we wanted to try to encourage people to compete all the way to the end of the season to win the division. I think this system does that. No. 2, even within the wild card, we wanted to build in a situation where those two teams continued to compete in order to get what we perceived to be a significant advantage, competitively and from a business perspective -- that is, a home game in the playoffs. I think we've achieved that.
"Then you get to the question of, what do you do with those two wild cards? That's the next sequential question. The balance we struck there was that we were trying to disadvantage the wild cards. We wanted the division titles to be more meaningful.
"Our evidence there ain't so great. We did have that little San Francisco Giant problem last year -- they did win as a wild card (Manfred said this with a chuckle). But the reason we got even the most traditional baseball people on board with the one game was that they felt going two out of three put you in a window that probably was going to be five days where the division winners sat.
"They thought that would be such a disadvantage for the division winners, they didn't buy into it. We may need to re-examine those dynamics. But I think those dynamics are a lot more important than, 'Pittsburgh played really well, made the wild card, got beat in the first round.'"
The Pirates played the Wild Card game at home the past two seasons, beating the Reds behind Francisco Liriano in 2013, succumbing to the Giants' Madison Bumgarner in '14. They currently hold the top Wild Card spot in the NL, two games ahead of the Cubs, and would play at home again. But it is possible they again will draw a red-hot pitcher -- Cubs righty Jake Arrieta, who held the Pirates to one earned run in eight innings on Wednesday night.
The question is whether baseball could devise a best-of-3 wild-card format that would not produce too lengthy a layoff for the division champions. Theo Epstein, the Cubs' president of baseball operations, recently told the Chicago Tribune, that he actually suggested one such plan.
"We threw out something a few years ago about making it a two out of three, but with a doubleheader the first day because days are at a premium that time of year, and you don't want the teams that win the division to have to wait too long and then get cold -- it's not fair to them," Epstein said. "That didn't pass. It got rejected.
"But we'll see. I think honestly, not just kissing up here, but the commissioner and his people have a really good feel for how to appeal to TV and also what's fair, what respects the integrity of the regular season. And they're open-minded. So I would expect that it evolves over the years, maybe in the next (collective bargaining agreement)."
"It's fine the way it is now. You can never come up with a scenario that's perfectly fair to everybody. In a year like this, theoretically, teams might want to be re-seeded, but in another year that might be a benefit to you. You've just got to kind of play the hand you're dealt."
By re-seeding, Epstein meant that the team in the Division Series with the best record would play the team with the worst rather than automatically face the wild-card team. Under such a plan, the Cardinals would face the Mets if the season ended today and the wild-card winner would face the Dodgers.
No system is perfect. But if Arrieta eliminates the Pirates, the discussion likely will grow more pointed. A one-game knockout makes for great theater, but the Pirates could reasonably argue that they deserved better. They have played too well for too long.