Pittsburgh Pirates: 10 Signs the Buccos Are Getting Close

Kyle StanzelCorrespondent IIIMay 28, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates: 10 Signs the Buccos Are Getting Close

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    It is the play that is painfully burned into the minds of Pirates fans everywhere. Sid Bream slides ahead of young superstar Barry Bonds' throw to send the Atlanta Braves to the World Series thanks to an improbable ninth inning comeback. The date was Oct. 14, 1992.

    It is now 2012 and the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the midst of 20 consecutive losing seasons, a North American professional sports record. Only once since that devastating loss in Atlanta have the Pirates finished higher than third place, and that was in 1997 with a team whose collective payroll was a measly $9 million.

    The Steel City faithful have had to sit and watch as poor play on the field and inept decision-making in the front office have led to the tarnishing of what was once a proud and successful franchise.

    Yet as the glory days of summer draw closer on this young season, there is a sense of optimism among those who continue to follow the Pirates. Here are 10 signs that the Bucs are getting close to finally ending their consecutive losing seasons streak.

Pirates 2011 Season

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    There was an electricity about the city of Pittsburgh during the month of July last year that Pirates hadn't felt in decades. The team entered the All-Star break with a 47-43 record, the first time they had been over .500 for the Mid-Summer Classic since the fateful 1992 season.

    On July 18, the Pirates defeated the Cincinnati Reds and moved into sole possession of first place in the NL Central. The combination of outstanding starting pitching and timely hitting led by first-year manager Clint Hurdle had Pittsburgh fans thinking about making history.

    While some fans would like to blame umpire Jerry Meals' terrible call at home plate in the 19 inning marathon against the Braves and the 10-game losing streak that ensued, it was really the Pirates young pitching staff wearing down and the lack of offensive firepower catching up to the team that caused their 19th straight losing season.

    However, the excitement that the young Pirates team offered the city during the 2011 season should give fans hope that the promised land is not far away.

Starting Rotation

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    Starting pitching is what carried the Pirates to their impressive start in 2011, and it has been doing just the same here in 2012. The only difference is now Pirates starters are striking out hitters at a much higher rate than last year.

    The addition of former aces Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett has helped propel this new look rotation, but it is the maturation of 27-year-old James McDonald that has the Pittsburgh brass really excited. USA Today ran this article outlining how pitching coach Ray Searage has really helped the former Dodger top prospect trust his stuff, and it is the reason he is putting together an All-Star-caliber first two months. 

    With a staff that is ranked ninth in the majors in ERA through 47 games and several experienced veterans to go along with their young hurlers, the Pirates have a playoff-caliber starting rotation right now.

Bullpen

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    As good as the Pirates rotation has been, the bullpen has been even better. Led by All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan, the Bucs have a bullpen ERA of 2.61, good for second in the National League behind Cincinnati.

    Jason Grilli, Juan Cruz, Jared Hughes and Brad Lincoln all have ERA's under 2.00 and Hughes has one of the best ERA's of any rookie in baseball. Imagine the options Clint Hurdle might have if former All-Star Evan Meek finds his old form in Triple-A and comes back to help the team down the stretch.

    Relief pitching is one of the hardest commodities to find consistent success with in baseball, but it is a testament to Hurdle's ability to manage his bullpen arms that the Pirates have been this dominant so far this year without any real big-name relievers. 

Pedro Alvarez's Power Surge

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    The struggles of former No. 2 overall pick Pedro Alvarez have been well documented since his debut in the majors in 2010. While he still struggles to put the bat on the ball consistently and his fielding at third base leaves a lot to be desired, "El Toro" gives the Buccos a left-handed power presence the Allegheny River hasn't seen since the days of Brian Giles.

    He is tied for seventh in the National League in HRs with eight, and his slugging percentage is the highest it has been since his rookie campaign. More importantly, however, he gives the focal point of our next slide a dangerous hitter to hit in front of, meaning better pitches to drive.

    Alvarez is going to be an important part of the future of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and if he can get the bat going like the front office believes he can, NL Central pitchers could be having nightmares about coming to PNC Park.

Bonafide Superstar in Andrew McCutchen

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    I think it is just about time that we start labeling centerfielder Andrew McCutchen a superstar in this league. After making the All-Star game in 2011, McCutchen is showing off every tool in the shed so far this season. His .339 batting average is good for sixth in the NL, while his eight home runs rank seventh, and his 10 stolen bases put him tied for fifth.

    On top of carrying the worst offense in the National League, McCutchen is making acrobatic plays all over PNC Park's expansive centerfield and making it look easy. He is a lock for his second consecutive All-Star game appearance and don't be surprised if he garners a few MVP votes at the end of the year, especially if the Pirates are even remotely close to contending.

    McCutchen gives Pittsburgh a player to build a team around, which is the first step to becoming a perennial contending ball club.

Attendance at PNC Park

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    Want a sign that the Pirates are getting close to contention? People are actually coming out to their beautiful stadium to come see them play!

    Between 2007 and 2010, the average attendance at PNC Park, arguably the most beautiful stadium in all of sports, was just 20,413. For a ballpark of such aesthetic value having one of the lowest average attendances in baseball can only say something about the team playing inside it.

    Over the past two seasons, however, the Pirates have averaged 23,871 people in the seats, due in large part to their run at the top of division last summer. They even totaled over 1.94 million fans for the 2011 season, the largest season attendance total since PNC Park's inaugural season in 2001.

    If you want a true indication of how close the Bucs are to contention, just take a look at how many people are in the seats each night at PNC Park.

Clint Hurdle

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    I don't think enough can be said about the way Clint Hurdle has handled these young Buccos during his short time here in Pittsburgh. In just his first season as manager, he gave the city of Pittsburgh hope for their once beloved Pirates.

    Hurdle really has done nothing but win with overachieving teams everywhere he has gone. He took an upstart young Rockies team to a World Series in 2007, and then went on to another World Series as the hitting coach for the Rangers in 2010.

    He takes every game one inning at a time doing whatever it takes to give his team the best opportunity to win each game, something that couldn't be said about previous manager John Russell.

    The Pittsburgh Pirates team that finally breaks this consecutive losing streak is very close to arriving, and Hurdle is the man that can lead that team to a title. 

Neal Huntington

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    Neal Huntington has taken a lot of criticism since taking over for Dave Littlefield in 2007, and some of it is rightfully warranted. The Jason Bay trade was a disaster, and we have yet to see any of his high profile draft picks make a real contribution yet other than Pedro Alvarez.

    But yet the more I look at the reasons the Pirates have been much more fun to watch the past couple years, the more I see Huntington as a reason behind it all. While his big trades and draft picks haven't necessarily worked out, his ability to get the greatest value out of the players he trades has been surprising.

    Here is a quick look at some of Neil's more fruitful moves:

    • Getting starter Charlie Morton, starter Jeff Locke and outfielder Gorkys Hernandez for Nate McClouth only to have McClouth come back two years later for nothing.
    • Getting outfielder Jose Tabata, starter Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf and reliever Daniel McCutchen for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte.
    • Getting All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan and Lastings Milledge for troublesome outfielder Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett.
    • Getting starter James McDonald and prospect Andrew Lambo for basically a month of Octavio Dotel from the Dodgers.
    • Getting starter AJ Burnett and his salary from the Yankees for two low-level prospects.

    I sincerely believe that Huntington is capable of making the right moves to put the Pirates in the best position to succeed on the field and to finally put together a winning season.

Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole

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    Speaking of Neal Huntington, his last two first-round draft picks are right-handed flamethrowers Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. Between these two youngsters the Pirates have two of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball and a pair of aces that could form an unstoppable one-two punch in the National League.

    They are both currently in High-A ball in Bradenton and each is progressing nicely so far in 2012. Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in 2010, has a 3.29 ERA in 52 innings while giving up just 41 hits and striking out 48 batters. Cole, the No. 1 overall pick in 2011, has been even more impressive with a 2.60 ERA in 45 innings, giving up just 32 hits while striking 46 batters.

    We have seen how even just above-average pitching has allowed the Pirates to keep up with the top teams in the NL Central, and Taillon and Cole have the ability to go in and shut down an opposing lineup night in and night out. The progression of these two stud right-handers is ultimately going to be a key factor in the Bucs' ability to contend over the next couple years.

Struggles for the Rest of the NL Central

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    As we saw last year for much of the season, the NL Central is a wide open race at the top. Only the Brewers and the Cardinals finished with winning records last year, and Milwaukee seems to have missed its chance to get to the World Series with the departure of Prince Fielder. The Cardinals still have the pieces to win right now, but will they still have the same firepower in a few years?

    The Cubs seem to be in complete rebuilding mode under Theo Epstein and shouldn't be a factor for several years, and the Houston Astros look like a team who could actually make a run at the Pirates consecutive losing streak record.

    That leaves the Cincinnati Reds who have talent at the Major League level along with a fairly deep farm system, but haven't seemed to have been able to get over that hump and dominate the Central like they are capable of.

    It appears that there is a slowly widening window of opportunity for the Pirates to make a run at a division title over the next couple years, including what looks to be an interesting rest of the 2012 season. If the Bucs make the most of the chances they are given in the near future, we could see PNC Park packed to the Allegheny River in October.