It's not clear the the Pittsburgh Pirates will win the World Series this year, or even get there. But it is quite clear that they will have a winning season.
What convinced me was the recent series against the San Francisco Giants, who are in a neck-and-neck race with the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League West (and whose players made a large contribution to the National League victory in the All-Star game).
The Pirates won two out of three games at home, avenging their 1-2 defeat in AT&T Park earlier this year. And one of these victories was by a convincing 13-2 score.
Before tying San Francisco, Pittsburgh was behind five teams in the season series. Now the number is down to four. The Bucs are playing .500 or better against 16 out of 20 teams they will face during the regular season this year.
The four teams the Pirates are trailing so far are the Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets, the Baltimore Orioles, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Of these four, the Bucs don't have to worry about the Orioles again this season (unless both make it to the World Series).
They're 4-5 against the Cardinals, with six of nine games having been played in Busch Stadium. If both get to the playoffs, the Pirates figure to be underdogs only against the Dodgers (and, less likely, the New York Mets).
To compensate, the Pirates are doing quite well against most strong teams. They are 5-4 so far against the Cincinnati Reds, their main rivals for the National League Central, making up for their deficit against the Cardinals.
They lead the former National League-leading Philadelphia Phillies 4-3, and the Washington Nationals 3-2, while tying the Atlanta Braves 2-2 and the Florida Marlins 1-1. This more than compensates for their losses to the New York Mets.
But some may protest that the Pirates were 47-43 at the All Star break in 2011. What is to prevent another collapse like last year's? The answer is "strength of schedule."
In 2011, the Pirates feasted on a few weak teams like the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, and San Diego Padres (for a total of 17-6 up to the All-Star break). Take out these three season series, and Pittsburgh was only 30-37 against stronger teams.
The Pirates have also done well against weak teams so far this year. They are 3-0 against the Chicago Cubs, and 6-1 against the Houston Astros. They haven't played the cellar-dwelling San Diego Padres yet, but swept the low-ranking Kansas City Royals 3-0.
The Bucs have 12 more games against the Cubs, nine more games against the Astros, and six against the Padres for a total of 27, more than one third of the remaining contests. But they're 39-36 against stronger teams.
Crush a few weaker teams. Go .500 or better against the rest of the league. That's a prescription for a winning season, possibly a trip to the playoffs.