How fun has it been to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan this year? For the first time since 1997, the Pirates are in first place at the All-Star Break. Fans are not only excited for the first winning season since 1992, but a return to the postseason as well.
Pitching has been one of Pittsburgh's recipes for success. The Pirates staff is second in the National League in wins (48) and saves (29) and fourth in the league with a 3.48 ERA.
Included in the staff are three pitchers acquired in trades over the past three years.
A.J. Burnett may not have been selected to the All-Star Game, but he has a great chance of earning NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. After three sub-par seasons with the Yankees, New York traded Burnett to Pittsburgh for a pair of low-level minor league players. He's responded with a 10-2 record and a 3.68 ERA. Burnett won 21 games combined in his last two seasons in pinstripes.
Another All-Star snub, James McDonald, has emerged as a dominant starter in his third season with the Pirates. Acquired in a trade with the Dodgers for reliever Octavio Dotel in 2010, McDonald is 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA and 100 strikeouts. He also leads the NL with a league-low 6.2 hits per nine innings. Of his 17 starts, McDonald has only allowed more than six hits once; a 9-3 win over Atlanta on April 30.
All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan was acquired in 2009 from Washington for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan. After 40 saves last season, Hanrahan is more than halfway to that total this year with 23 saves. Also in the bullpen is Jason Grilli, who was picked up last season after his release from the Phillies. Grilli is 1-2 with a 1.87 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 33.2 innings in the setup role.
Three years ago, Pittsburgh's starters consisted of Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, and Ian Snell. They combined for only 37 wins, while the starters and bullpen combined for an ugly 4.59 ERA. Only Morton is still with the team, but his recent Tommy John Surgery ended his season after a 2-6 record and a 4.65 ERA.
With the pitching staff getting the majority of the credit, two other individuals should also receive accolades. Pitching coach Ray Searage has done a terrific job to help make the Pirates one of the best staffs in the league.
Credit also needs to go to General Manager Neal Huntington for his excellent transactions in building the current pitching staff. His trades and signings have greatly made up for all of former GM Dave Littlefield's mistakes, including pitching acquisitions such as Matt Herges and Matt Morris.
Since excellent pitching is a key to playing deep into October, look for the Pirates to possibly strengthen their staff at the trading deadline in order to make a long playoff run.