Pittsburgh Pirates: Why It's Finally Time to Believe in the Bucs

Tim KaranContributor IIJuly 4, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates: Why It's Finally Time to Believe in the Bucs

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    Pirates fans have little sympathy for Cubs fans.

    Sure, the Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908. But the Pirates haven't won one since 1979. And to Pittsburgh fans in their 30s or younger, there's really little difference between a 103-year-old championship drought and a 32-year-old one. It's been a lifetime either way.

    But at least the Cubs have been contenders in the current millennium. In the two decades since the Pirates last finished with a winning record (1992), the Cubs have been to the playoffs four times—and as recently as 2008. 

    Still, for the second July in a row, the Pirates find themselves unexpectedly fighting for first place in the NL Central and pulling a bandwagon that's heavier than usual. However, unlike last season (which ended in more heartbreak for those in black and gold), there are a few more reasons to believe in this year's version of the Buccos.  

Homegrown and Built to Last

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    After all those years of watching your favorite Pirates players being unloaded in the name of future success, it's finally becoming the future.

    While not all of the players on the starting lineup have spent their entire professional careers in Pittsburgh, almost all spent at least a decent amount of time coming through the Pirates system.

    Almost five years into the reign of GM Neal Huntington and the big league squad is built upon a foundation of players he drafted: Second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Alex Presley and pitchers Jared Hughes, Brad Lincoln and Tony Watson. And there are tons of other guys like Garrett Jones whom fans would have trouble picturing in anything except black and gold. 

    Although it used to be dangerous to get too attached to promising young Pirates players, you get the feeling it's a little safer to trust these guys will be sticking around.

Andrew McCutchen

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    Everything about Andrew McCutchen is perfect right now.

    He's like Barry Bonds back when Bonds was a dual-threat and still mostly deserving of unapologetic praise. The only things Bonds possessed that McCutchen doesn't is an unlikeable public persona and questionable personal agenda.

    But not McCutchen. Ever since he took the place of the popular Nate McLouth in 2009, he rapidly ascended into the face of the franchise role thanks to five-tool talent and the magnetism of a superstar in the making. Although he's been good the entire time (.289 career average and a 20-20 season last year), McCutchen is operating at a superhuman level in 2012. He leads the majors in batting and is top 10 in home runs (16), RBI (54), runs (53) and basically every other recordable statistic (including defensive ones for center fielders). 

    His teammates can't help but benefit from residual electricity in his game, and McCutchen is unquestionably the driving force behind the Pirates' current push. He's bound to slow eventually but maybe not as much as you think.

These Guys Are in These Uniforms

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    The NL Central is literally upside-down this year.

    Except for the Cubs and Astros who are once again battling for last place, the other four teams are completely reversed in how they finished 2011. Last year's top team, the Brewers, are struggling to reach .500, the Cardinals are three games out, and it's been the Reds and Pirates fighting for first.

    There are tons of tangible and intangible reasons why things have fallen into place exactly the way they have, but you've got to believe at least a little of the thanks needs to go to the Angels and Tigers.

    With Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder gone to AL during the free-agent sweepstakes of 2011, the Cardinals and Brewers have often looked a little like shells of their former selves.

    If the season shakes out as it looks right now, it would seem like the Buccos could stay competitive against the Reds—considering they lead the season series and already got into the head of their impressionable young closer.

The New Fellas Are Working out Just Fine

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    Something seemed a little different about the Pirates off-season moves this year.

    Instead of being forced to feign excitement over the additions of guys like Ryan Church, D.J. Carrasco and Brian Bass, fans actually had legitimate prior knowledge of the existence of some of the guys Neal Huntington brought to town.

    Of them all, A.J. Burnett was under the largest microscope. Although he easily could have just been a damaged Yankees' castoff mailing in the tail end of his career, Burnett has been the veteran anchor of the Pirates surprisingly dominant pitching staff.

    Erik Bedard hasn't been quite as overwhelming but still dependable—and just keeping him on the field is a victory unto itself. Casey McGehee has been an occasionally invaluable and interchangeable infielder with Garrett Jones (who historically hasn't been great against lefties) and Pedro Alvarez (who historically had been prone to extended slumps).

    And although shortstop Clint Barmes started out pretty horribly with the bat (he's coming around), he's been vital with the glove.

    As the season shakes out, it provides a little more hope that Huntington might make similarly effective moves later in the chase.

Clint Hurdle Is a Man You Can Trust

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    If you haven't really been paying attention to the Pirates since the last time they were really good, you're probably unaware that the team has had four managers since Jim Leyland was running things—each with a worse record than the last. 

    Gene Lamont went 295-352 (.456 winning percentage), Lloyd McClendon went 336-446 (.430), Jim Tracy went 135-189 (.417) and John Russell went 186-289 (.384).

    But since Clint Hurdle came to town last year, his impressive .467 winning percentage almost takes second fiddle to just how effectively he has changed the forlorn culture surrounding the perennially losing Pirates and turned them into a solid and respectable team of blue-collar throwbacks.

    Of course, it's not the first time. He did the same sort of thing with the Colorado Rockies, turning them into NL champs in 2007.  

    Rarely second-guessed and mostly revered in Pittsburgh, Hurdle is himself workmanlike in his approach to the team's recent run. "Those around in April and May know it hasn't been all high-fives and walk-offs and giggles, he said, according to mlb.com, after today's game. "There was a lot of gnashing of teeth."

The Bullpen Is Locked Down

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    For the better part of the past two decades, the middle and late innings of games have been perilous for the Pirates.

    There have been a few temporarily reliable closers to come along (Mike Williams, Mike Gonzalez, Jose Mesa, Matt Capps and even Octavio Dotel) but nobody quite as reliable as Joel Hanrahan has been.

    In a little under 200 appearances since coming over from the Nationals in 2009, Hanrahan is seventh on the Pirates all-time saves list with 66 in 77 opportunities, and PNC Park erupts every time he takes the field accompanied by Slipknot.

    But perhaps, just as important as finally having a full-time closer, the Pirates also have assembled a bullpen filled with efficient relievers. The team is among the top two in the majors in bullpen ERA (2.70) thanks to Jared Hughes (0.98 WHIP), Juan Cruz (10.16 K/9), Brad Lincoln (1.17 WHIP in 48.2 innings) and setup man Jason Grilli (team-leading 20 holds).

They've Been Here Before

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    No, the Pirates haven't recently been "there" before if you're implying that "there" is the postseason or even still in the hunt deep into September. But they have been "here" before if you think of "here" as continuing to be an unexpected force atop the NL Central well into July.

    It happened last year. 

    But after a shocking start, the Bucs descended into a downward spiral—arguably after the Braves won a 19-inning game in late July on a blown call at home. Images from that game were especially painful for Yinzers who still feel the pain inflicted by Sid Bream in 1992.

    But if there's a silver lining to last year's self-destruction, it's that the young Pirates—many of whom were a part of the surprising 2011 squad—have to now have a little bit more confidence that they actually do belong in the playoff hunt.

    After all, nobody could blame them for buckling under the self-fulfilling losing prophecies of being a Pirate for the past 20 years. But this year, they know they're no fluke.   

A Way to Win? They'll Find It

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    While there used to be quiet resignation when things looked bleak, this year's (or at least, this month's) Pirates team never seems to give in.

    Whether diminutive backup catcher Michael "Fort" McKenry is ending a 29-inning scoreless streak by Aroldis Chapman with an extra-innings RBI double or journeyman Drew Sutton (playing for his fifth pro team in two years) is belting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth to beat the tenacious Astros, the Pirates have won more one-run games (19) than any other team in baseball this year.

    A record like that typically reflects a reliable bullpen and an offense that comes up big in the clutch, but it's also good for one other underrated aspect. It gets the Pirates on all the highlight reels and gives fans even more of a reason to show up and show support.

Heart, Not Arrogance

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    In a world where pulling for the underdog is sometimes the most popular stance to take, the Pirates could've handled their recent success completely wrong. There could be prima donnas in the locker room, jaded veterans who refuse to run out infield hits and phenoms who pout for playing time.

    But this year's team is youthful but mature and exciting while still fundamentally sound. They're the kind of hungry young team that can embarrass less solid teams on the field (look at all the defensive mistakes the Astros made just this week) but remain mostly modest and professional.

    Even their inside joke hand signal (which is apparently mandatory among teams this year) is a reference to the mostly harmless Dude, Where's My Car?.

    And with players who willingly step in no matter the situation (pitcher James McDonald has stepped in as a pinch runner), this Pirates lineup feels more like a little league team playing for pride than a group of millionaires playing for paychecks.

And There's More Help on the Way

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    Although it's been a long time coming, the Pirates' minor league system is among the top 10 in the game, and some of the talent scheduled to arrive in the next few years is downright staggering. The floodgates could be opening any day now.

    The demotion of right fielder Jose Tabata is a pretty good indicator that Starling Marte—the top offensive prospect in the Pirates system—is due to debut. Marte is hitting .290 with nine home runs, 50 RBI and 17 stolen bases through 79 games with Triple-A Indianapolis, and adding him to an outfield with McCutchen could be akin to a Jordan-Pippen scenario.

    And Marte's not even the most anticipated Pirates prospect. They've got three of the most coveted young right-handed starters in the minors—first-round draft picks Gerrit Cole (who went first overall in 2011), Jameson Taillon (second overall in 2010) and Mark Appel (who was projected as a Top 3 pick but inexplicably fell to the Pirates at No. 8 in this year's draft).

    So even if the Pirates somehow falter under their newfound expectations and finish this year lower than they'd like, there's still reason to believe. Because the window for winning isn't closing—with all these future stars still just stretching out, that window has barely been cracked open.