Even though all eyes in Pittsburgh will be focused on Busch Stadium Wednesday night as the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals end their epic 24-game battle (regular season included) in Game 5 of the National League Division Series, it's important to talk about what this year has meant for the once-maligned franchise.
There were times throughout the 2013 season when I expected the Pirates to fall apart. I convinced myself there wasn't enough talent on offense and that certain pitchers overachieving in the first half would fall back down to earth.
Yet the fall never came for two reasons. One, teams can have really good years that exceed even the most optimistic expectations. Two, and more importantly, the Pirates have finally hit that window of contention you hear about with smaller-market teams.
The "window" is when all the years of drafting, scouting, trading and player development converge at the MLB level. Some teams, like Tampa Bay, are able to stay in contention over a longer stretch of time than others.
There's no telling how long the Pirates' window stays open, but I can tell you with complete confidence right now that this isn't a one-year wonder.
Here is why those skeptics out there should start to pay close attention to the Pirates.
Often, you will hear a team talk about the "core players" it will build around. Some can be franchise-type players who will represent the city and team in All-Star Games and get all the media attention, both good and bad.
Other times these are good players who wouldn't be classified as superstars, but they are more than capable of handling themselves as a starter on a playoff team.
The Pirates already have their franchise cornerstone with Andrew McCutchen. Beyond that, while they don't have many stars, there is a core that works together quite well. More importantly, for a team that can't spend a ton of money in free agency, most of the key players from this year's team will be back.
The one big name from the 2013 team that isn't under control through next season is A.J. Burnett. After flaming out in spectacular fashion with New York, Burnett has found a second life with the Pirates with a 3.41 ERA, 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 7.0 wins above replacement in 393.1 innings.
Would it be a surprise to see Burnett go after a big contract offer somewhere else? Absolutely not. But it also shouldn't come as a shock if the Pirates get some sort of discount on him for playing such an integral part in reviving his career.
That nucleus right there is pretty good. It's not a great unit overall, though McCutchen is one of the three or four best players in baseball today and can hide a lot of issues elsewhere.
Pedro Alvarez isn't a great hitter, or even a good one. He doesn't get on base and can't hit lefties, but there aren't a lot of players in today's game hitting 36 home runs.
Russell Martin isn't a dynamic catcher, but he hits for power and is a strong defender behind the plate.
Starling Marte is still raw on both sides of the ball. He isn't someone who should be hitting at the top of a good lineup moving forward, but his combination of speed and power are exciting. This gives him a future as a potential regular corner outfielder.
The Pirates already have the makings of a solid nucleus in the big leagues, though that isn't the reason to believe in them.
I love Pittsburgh's farm system. In my post-MiLB season top 10 rankings, I had the Pirates ranked No. 6 overall. If you want to tell me this is a top-five group, I wouldn't argue with you.
What's even better is that their top prospects are so close to the majors. Gerrit Cole made his debut in June and has gotten stronger the more he pitched, giving him a future as bright as any young pitcher in baseball.
Not far behind Cole on the pitching side is Jameson Taillon, the second overall pick in the 2010 draft who got a late-season promotion to Triple-A Indianapolis. Taillon will debut in the big leagues at some point in 2014.
Taillon has true top-of-the-rotation stuff with a big fastball and wipeout curveball as his bread and butter. Sometimes his heater can be too straight and get hit harder than it should, which is also something that was being said about Cole prior to his call up.
If the Pirates allow Burnett to walk away after this season without making an offer, it will likely be in large part due to Taillon's ability and proximity to the big leagues.
Gregory Polanco, who would be a center fielder for most teams in baseball, will have to move over to right field when he gets called up next season because McCutchen isn't going anywhere.
The good news is, Polanco's bat and arm profile just as well in right field as they do in center, though there is obviously more value with the up-the-middle player. He can hit, hit for power and is a strong defender despite what he showed on some poor routes in the Futures Game.
A little further down the prospect pipeline are shortstop Alen Hanson and breakout pitching prospects Nick Kingham and Tyler Glasnow. Hanson and Kingham have an outside shot to debut next season, though 2015 is more likely. Glasnow is further away, but he could arrive shortly after those two in 2015.
Then you have this year's two high-ceiling first-round picks in Austin Meadows, the most dynamic high-school talent in the class, and Reese McGuire, the best defensive catcher. They won't be ready for at least three years, yet they could end up being as good as anyone in the system right now.
General manager Neal Huntington, who we will talk about more in just a moment, and his staff have done a fantastic job of being aggressive in the draft with high-ceiling talent that is going to cost a little more money. Those players might have slightly more risk attached than some of the more polished players available, but if you hit with them, you are going to have an incredible roster.
Are all of these players going to hit their ceiling? Of course not. But even if two of this group hit and the rest turn into average big leaguers, that's one hell of a core you have under control for a long time.
Smart Front Office
It's crazy to think right now, but Huntington wasn't guaranteed a job after the Pirates fell apart at the end of the 2012 season. He even acknowledged the possibility of being fired in comments made last September (h/t Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
If [owner] Bob [Nutting] or [team president] Frank [Coonelly] decide to make a change and they bring in a new general manager, that's their call. I sure hope they don't because I believe in the people we're working with. I believe in what we're doing, and I believe in how we're doing it.
I understand that winning at the MLB level is the most important thing, and Huntington had five years to do that before 2013.
But considering the mess this franchise was in under the previous regime, run by Dave Littlefield, it was going to take a lot of time to produce results. The fact that the Pirates were even competitive enough in the first half of the 2011 and 2012 seasons before falling apart said that progress was being made.
Look where the Pirates are now, with a loaded farm system and good enough talent at the MLB level, which speaks to how well Huntington and his staff have done building the entire franchise back up.
Not only that, but look at some of the shrewd moves that Huntington has made.
He acquired Burnett from the Yankees at a time when no one wanted to touch him. Francisco Liriano was a forgotten man before signing with Pittsburgh. He gave Russell Martin a two-year contract last winter when New York refused to meet his asking price on a three-year deal the previous season.
Mark Melancon was a disaster with Boston in 2012, but he had some success with Houston in 2010 and 2011. He was traded to the Pirates for Joel Hanrahan, who missed most of this season with an arm injury, and put up a 70-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 71 innings this year.
When you are in charge of a small-market team that can't spend tens of millions of dollars on free agents, you have to get creative at times. Huntington has built a staff capable of doing that, and almost all of his moves this season have paid off.
Having a smart front office that knows what it is doing, pays attention to what the advanced metrics can tell you about a player beyond what the standard numbers are saying and is confident enough to take chances on forgotten players and cast-offs is what gets you into the postseason.
The Pirates have one of the best front offices in the business, which is why they are where they are right now.
It's amazing how quickly things can turn around for a franchise. I am sure most of Pittsburgh would agree that a 20-year losing streak isn't quick, but what I mean is how fast this franchise has gone from a joke to potentially one of the best in baseball for the next five to 10 years.
There are still holes that have to be filled in the offseason that could prevent the Pirates from making a return trip to the postseason in 2014. However, they are only going to get better starting in 2015 when all of those young players in the minors start to reach the majors and get experience under their belt.
This is not a one-year fluke, like the Marlins during either of their World Series runs where they spent a ton of money on a team in 1997, only to trade it away the next offseason, or the young crop in 2003 that found another gear and couldn't repeat it before trading away assets.
The Pirates are going to be a fixture at the top of the National League Central, alongside St. Louis, for years to come. They will compete for championships and might even win one sooner or later.
Don't underestimate the Pirates as simply a great story. They are very dangerous and are proving that on a national stage this postseason.
Note: All salaries and information obtained first-hand. If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments.