5 Reasons the Pittsburgh Pirates Are for Real
Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE
Going into Friday night's play, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a half-game behind the Cincinnati Reds for first place in the NL Central. Last year, the Pirates were in a similar position, only to fall into a crater and tumble to an eventual fourth-place finish, 24 games back.
That has some people skeptical about the Pirates' chances this season.
Are we looking at another year of false hope for Pittsburgh? Is this team teasing its fanbase, along with any other baseball fans looking for a great story? Should we really be getting excited about a possible Pirates playoff team?
This isn't last year's team. The starting pitching is better. The defense is improved. The front office is looking to bring in outside help. And the center fielder is building off last year's success and is now an MVP candidate.
Last year, the Pirates were six games over .500, staving off mediocre, underperforming competition. One year later, this team is 11 games over .500 and keeping pace with a Reds club that once looked as if it might begin to establish a strong first-place lead.
Can the Pirates keep this up? Absolutely, and here are five reasons why this team is going to compete for a division title and a spot in the postseason all the way through September.
They've Been Through This Before
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Last year at this time, the Pirates were also fighting for first place in the NL Central. They were a half-game behind the Brewers.
Eventually, they completely collapsed and fell out of the race, looking like a false contender that briefly experienced some good fortune.
However, last year gave this team a taste of competing for a division title and playoff spot. Those players remember how quickly, how easily it can all slip away. Now they know how difficult it is to sustain that level of play throughout a full season. One good month isn't enough to finish in first place.
Manager Clint Hurdle has been beating this drum all season long with his players.
“You need to be persistent when you’re trying to change what you’ve done historically," Hurdle told MLB.com's Tom Singer in May. "You can’t back away, you have to look right after it. I’m looking forward to it."
I don't think Hurdle is one of baseball's great managers. He's a little too enamored with small ball, for one thing, but put the strategy aside. Hurdle has been a great motivator this season, pushing his team to disregard expectations and aspire to more.
Pitching, Baby, Pitching
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Last year, the Pirates' starting rotation consisted of Charlie Morton, Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens and James McDonald. Morton led the way with a 10-10 record and 3.83 ERA.
This year, the Pirates added A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard to their starting five. That, along with McDonald developing into one of the NL's best pitchers, has made a huge difference.
Correia and Karstens are solid at the back end of the rotation. That's where they should be, rather than among the Pirates' top three pitchers.
Burnett has been one of the best acquisitions of the season. Dumped by the Yankees, it looked as if the Pirates were picking up trash. But away from the pressure cooker of New York and the AL East, Burnett has rebounded impressively.
With a 10-3 record, 3.78 ERA and an average of nearly eight strikeouts per nine innings, he's become the veteran ace Pittsburgh needed.
McDonald has actually been even better. If he's not the staff's true ace, he's a very strong No. 2. Also sporting a 10-3 record, McDonald has a 2.78 ERA, one of the best in the NL. He's allowing seven hits per nine innings, while striking out nearly eight batters a game.
Why won't the Pirates suffer another second-half collapse? Just look at this pitching staff.
Love for the Glove
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General manager Neal Huntington upgraded the level of talent on his pitching staff. But he also made sure his pitchers got help on the defensive side.
Clint Barmes isn't anyone's idea of an All-Star shortstop. He's just not a very good hitter (currently batting .205/.229/.292), but his glove has kept him in the majors and made him a popular target each year around the trade deadline.
Based on Ultimate Zone Rating, Fangraphs rates Barmes as the sixth-best defensive shortstop in the major leagues this season. In the NL, he ranks third.
Another player in the lineup for his defense is left fielder Alex Presley. While the Pirates are looking for an upgrade in their corner outfield due to Presley compiling a .656 OPS, he's provided excellent defense. UZR has him fourth best among left fielders defensively.
The Front Office Is Buying In
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By playing well enough to be in or near first place in the NL Central, the current Pirates roster has done its part. Now it's time for the front office to reward the players for that effort and bring in reinforcements to continue giving the team a fighting chance in its playoff race.
Judging by current trade rumors, Huntington doesn't intend to squander the opportunity that his team has created for itself. The Pirates have been attached to sluggers like Carlos Quentin and Justin Upton in the weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline.
According to Fox Sports' Jon Paul Morosi, Upton is their top trade target. And to get a young potential superstar like that, Huntington is reportedly willing to trade a top prospect like Starling Marte.
Additionally, Bill Center of the San Diego Union-Tribune is reporting that the Pirates are heavily pursuing Padres third baseman Chase Headley. Headley might seem like a curious fit, since the Pirates already have Pedro Alvarez at third base.
However, Headley has experience playing left field (though he wasn't very good there, according to Fangraphs' UZR). The Pirates would certainly find a way to get a batter who has a 1.002 OPS at PNC Park into their lineup.
The Pirates have also looked at bringing back Paul Maholm to bolster their starting rotation, in addition to inquiring about infielders Marco Scutaro and Stephen Drew.
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Andrew McCutchen had a breakout year last season, hitting 23 home runs with 89 RBI and 23 stolen bases. He made his first All-Star appearance and looked ready to take his place as one of the NL's best outfielders for years to come.
So if last year was his breakout, what do we call what McCutchen has done this season? He's not only one of the best outfielders in the league, he's establishing himself as one of its best players—period.
McCutchen is absolutely crushing the ball. He leads the majors with a .369 batting average and .649 slugging percentage. Along with a .423 on-base percentage (third highest in the NL), he's compiled a 1.072 OPS, which is the best in baseball.
With those numbers, McCutchen certainly wins the "best player" side of any MVP argument. But looking at the Pirates roster, he also has to win the "most valuable" side as well.
Where would Pittsburgh be without McCutchen in its lineup?
Alvarez and Garrett Jones are having nice seasons, but they're complementary players. McCutchen is having the kind of season that can carry a team to heights it wasn't previously capable of reaching. That's an element the Pirates were also missing last season.
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