It has been 20 years since the last time the Pittsburgh Pirates tasted the sweetness of October baseball, much less had a winning season. That 1992 team had a strong core of players that included stars like Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, Doug Drabek, and skinny, toolsy outfielder named Barry Bonds.
Since that glorious year Pirates fans have watched as first-round picks and heralded prospects have turned into disappointments on the field. Players like Chad Hermansen, Bobby Bradley, J.R. House, and Bryan Bullington were supposed to turn into the second coming of that '92 team that came one out away from a World Series.
When a player came up and actually succeeded at the major league level, we were forced to watch as the front office cursed our franchise by trading away our young stars (think Aramis Ramirez and Jason Schmidt) for disproportionately small returns.
So here we are in 2012 and wouldn't you know it, our Pittsburgh Pirates are actually giving us a glimmer of hope. After 53 games the Buccos are 27-26 in second place all by themselves and just three games behind the division leading Reds. Will the Pirates be able to sustain this success over the long-term or will they just revert back to the losing ways the world has come to associate with Pittsburgh baseball?
Here is a look at eight players who could help turn the Pirates into perennial contenders.
Andrew McCutchen is this Pirates team's version of Barry Bonds. The 25-year-old is turning into a superstar center fielder right before our eyes here in 2012.
After making the All-Star game in 2011 McCutchen has a .337/.396/.565 slash line with nine home runs and 30 RBI. Coupled with his domination at the plate the former first-round pick in 2005 has showed his elite speed on the basepaths where he has 10 stolen bases and in the outfield where he consistently makes difficult plays look routine.
For now the Pittsburgh Pirates go as Andrew McCutchen goes. If the MVP voting was based on how valuable each player was to his respective team, Cutch would win hands down. Management made all of Pittsburgh happy this offseason when they locked their superstar up until at least 2017. If the Pirates are going to contend for the next couple years it will be with Andrew McCutchen in the middle of their lineup.
Pedro Alvarez has been under the microscope since his major league debut in the middle of the 2010 season. After hitting four home runs combined in consecutive games and winning the Rookie of the Month award with an outstanding September, it looked like the Pirates had that power bat they'd hoped they drafted with the No. 2 overall pick in 2008.
However, 2011 was not kind to Alvarez as he hit .191 with just four home runs in 74 games while battling injuries and propensity to swing and miss a ton. While El Toro came into the 2012 season with the starting third base job, he was definitely on a short leash.
After starting off slowly Alvarez got hot, hitting five home runs in just a nine-game stretch in late April and early May. He has cooled off since then but has still hit for decent power with eight home runs in total and slugging percentage that hovers around .400.
For the Pirates to be perennial contenders in the NL Central they need Pedro Alvarez to become a consistent force behind Andrew McCutchen in the middle of the lineup. A big second half of the year could help squash any worries Pirates fans have of Alvarez reaching his potential.
One of the biggest surprises in all of baseball in 2012, James McDonald is quietly turning in a Cy Young-caliber first half.
After showing glimpses of his potential in 2011, McDonald is finally attacking hitters with his power fastball and big curveball under the tutelage of pitching coach and veteran AJ Burnett. The result after 11 starts is a 5-2 record with a 2.14 ERA good for second best in all of Major League Baseball. His 71 strikeouts are fifth in the NL and his 0.95 WHIP is tied for fourth in MLB.
With the veteran presences of Burnett and Erik Bedard teaching him the nuances of being an ace, McDonald is leading a Pirates rotation which ranks second in all of baseball with a 3.24 ERA. Starting pitching wins championships, it's been proven time and time again. With James McDonald the Pirates have an ace that can lead them to several division titles in the years to come.
Outside of maybe the Braves' Craig Kimbrel, there hasn't been a more dominant closer over the past two seasons than Joel Hanrahan.
The Hammer has 54 saves in 59 save opportunities since the beginning of 2011 while giving up just 20 earned runs in 88.2 innings pitched while striking out 85 opposing batters. The 2011 All-Star selection overpowers hitters with his high 90s fastball and devastating slider and Pirates fans breath much easier when the ball is in his hand.
The Pirates have played a major league leading 24 one-run games in 2012 and the also have a major league leading 15 wins in those games. A huge part of that success is Joel Hanrahan's ability to lock down the opposing lineup when Pittsburgh has the lead in the ninth.
Neil Huntington did a great job of grabbing Hanrahan from the Nationals in the Lastings Milledge/Nyjer Morgan trade. He gives manager Clint Hurdle a closer that he can rely on to finish games off as the Pirates are finding themselves in a position to win games late more often than recent years.
Chase d'Arnaud played in 48 games for the Pirates in the heart of their first-place run in 2011, filling in for the injured Ronny Cedeno. However, it is fellow 2008 draftee Jordy Mercer who has gotten a look in 2012.
While d'Arnaud has been injured for most of 2012, Mercer was putting up a .303/.368/.417 line at Indianapolis. He was riding a eight-game hitting streak before getting called up on May 29 to replace a struggling Clint Barmes.
While Barmes is still the starting shortstop in Pittsburgh, it shouldn't be long before Clint Hurdle gets fed up with his lack of hitting for good and inserts one of the Pirates' young shortstop prospects.
While neither Mercer nor d'Arnaud has superstar potential, they each have the ability to be quality starting shortstops at the major league level. Mercer brings the better glove and an outstanding arm to go along with more power in his bat. D'Arnaud on the other hand has had the better track record in the minors and is a close second to Andrew McCutchen on the basepaths.
Whichever shortstop prospect steps up and takes over the job will be an integral part of any Pirates contender in the future as Barmes' light hitting isn't going to cut it for a team trying to win a division.
Arguably the best position prospect in the Pirates farm system, Starling Marte made it very difficult for manager Clint Hurdle to send him down in spring training. All he did in just 12 games this spring was hit for a stupid .520/.520/.920 line with three home runs.
While there were many fans clamoring for Marte to start the season alongside Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata in the Pirates outfield, management made the correct decision in sending him down to Indianapolis to start the season. That doesn't mean that they can't call him up to help Pittsburgh contend for a NL Central title in the second half of 2012.
Currently at Indianapolis, the 2011 Futures Game participant is hitting .270 with five home runs and 14 stolen bases and he's been especially hot to start June.
Marte is a five-tool outfielder who will probably end up pushing Andrew McCutchen out of center field. That's right, All-Star Andrew McCutchen is going to have to move to a corner spot to make room for Marte who has plus-plus speed and an absolute cannon for an arm that has reportedly thrown 100 MPH darts from the outfield.
With the Pirates offense in the dismal state it currently is in Starling Marte would be a welcome addition to the top of the lineup. While he would wreak havoc on the basepaths and in the outfield, he would also provide a little pop to a lineup that desperately needs it. Regardless of whether Marte plays a role in the Pirates' 2012 season, he is surely to be an important piece to any Pirates contender in the near future.
A 2009 first-round pick, Tony Sanchez was picked to be the long-term solution at catcher that the Pirates have missed since the days of Jason Kendall.
While his professional career got off to a great start, injuries and inconsistent play have plagued the top prospect. He started off 2010 hitting the cover off the ball but he fractured his jaw when he was hit by a pitch in June and missed the rest of the season. Unfortunately Sanchez has never really gotten back to his old form and 2011 was a big disappointment as he struggled mightily at Double-A Altoona.
2012 saw him go back to Altoona and while he hasn't been as good as hoped, Sanchez is quietly starting to regain some confidence in himself and the confidence of the Pirates front office. This resulted in his recent promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis, where his talents will really be put to the test to see if he is in fact Pittsburgh's catcher of the future.
The Pirates have mostly been filling the catcher with stopgaps in the hope that Tony Sanchez would live up to the potential they saw when the drafted him No. 4 overall in 2009. If everything pans out as planned the Pirates would have an above-average defensive catcher who can hit 10-15 home runs in the mold of Yadier Molina. Having a solid long-term catcher like Sanchez behind the plate would be a big boost to the Pirates plans to contend in the NL Central
Ultimately whether the Pirates can be perennial contenders atop the NL Central rides on the development of their tandem of Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole.
Pittsburgh's first-round picks in 2010 and 2011 respectively, Taillon and Cole have ace potential and are on the same path to the majors as both are currently in High-A Bradenton's rotation.
Taillon has struggled recently but is still putting up respectable numbers with a 3.57 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 58 innings. No.1 overall pick Gerrit Cole is having a little more success with a 2.53 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 57 innings. Both Taillon and Cole were named to the 2012 Florida State League All-Star game which will take place on June 16.
While Cole is a little more polished with a better change-up than Taillon, having pitched for three years at UCLA, they both have consistent mid-90s fastballs with plus curves that have allowed them to dominate hitters so far in their minor league careers.
While James McDonald has risen to ace status for the Pirates in 2012, adding top prospects like Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole to the mix would give Pittsburgh a rotation that could dominate the NL Central for the next 5-10 years.
If all goes according to plan Pirates fans can expect to see Taillon and Cole some time in 2014, giving them the makings of a perennial contender not only for the NL Central title, but for a World Series.