The Pittsburgh Pirates appear to be meaningfully ahead of where they were in 2012, a year in which they were contenders for about a month and a half on either side of the All-Star Game before a late-season collapse took them into loss territory.
That's because the Bucs' surge into positive territory started about a month earlier, around April 20th instead of May 20th. Therefore, they stand to do better than last year's sub-.500 result, although it's not yet clear they are championship material. That's because there are potential grounds for both optimism and pessimism. Summing up, here are some of the team's pluses and minuses.
Reasons For Optimism
1.The rotation is doing very well. A.J. Burnett is repeating as a legitimate ace. Jeff Locke is turning into a quasi second starter of the Paul Maholm variety, and on a faster timetable than I anticipated. Jeanmar Gomez is also showing unexpected strength, after the initial disappointment of Jonathan Sanchez. All this means that Wandy Rodriguez is great for a de facto No. 3 or 4 starter. And Francisco Liriano hasn't been a disaster.
2. Starling Marte has joined Andrew McCutchen as an offensive threat. Although McCutchen is playing well, he is nowhere near MVP caliber as he was last year—meaning he has lots of room for improvement. The same is true for Pedro Alvarez and, to a lesser extent, the Neil Walker-Jordy Mercer tandem at second base.
3. Russell Martin is a decidedly better catcher, both offensively and defensively, than Rod Barajas.
4. In addition to maintaining a relatively strong showing against strong teams, the Pirates are starting to beat weak teams that others can beat, including the New York Mets and the Milwaukee Brewers.
5. A maturing Pirates team has gotten off to a strong start in road games and Interleague Play, with a winning record in both categories.
Reasons For Concern
1. The late-inning bullpen combo of Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli have a combined ERA of about 1.00 so far. They can't possibly keep this up for a whole season, can they?
2. The right field platoon of Travis Snider and Jose Tabata is playing above historical levels, and they are likely to regress.
3. Michael McHenry is still only second catcher caliber, not having made much progress since the latter part of last year.
4. The Pirates are only 4-3 against the Brewers because of four home games. The sweep by the Los Angeles Dodgers and one-run games against a weak Houston team spell trouble ahead against other weak teams, such as the San Diego Padres or the Miami Marlins, and even against Los Angeles and Houston later in the season.
5. A still-young Pirates staff will start losing away against stronger Interleague opponents and on the road, as the season progresses.
Overall, the Pittsburgh Pirates are building on last season. Specifically, I expect them to win 80-90 games in 2013. Only ONE of those scenarios (80 wins) would have them finishing below .500, and only one more (81 wins) will prevent them from having a winning season.
If they produce at the high end of expectations, a Wild Card slot would not be out of the question. And if a disproportionate number of wins occur against the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds thereby suppressing those division opponents' win totals, a division title would even be a possibility.