The 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates' season has been freaky, but ultimately will not live up to the 1997 "freak show."
In late July, the team was in first place of the NL Central and hogging headlines that usually were stuffed with Pittsburgh Steelers content by that time of the year.
Then the Pittsburgh Pirates remembered they were the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Following this season's heartbreaking loss on July 26th to the Atlanta Braves that needs no more description, the Pirates have lost 15 of 19 games.
Now standing a robust 13 games out of first place, here are five reasons why the Pirates will not make another run at the division lead. Even more depressing, these reasons will also state why the near-future does not look as bright as some may suggest.
Without question, the starters were the reason the Pirates were in contention for as long as they were. The team's batting average hovered under .230 for the first 60 games of the season.
The Pirates are still in fifth place in team ERA (3.67), but that number should continue to increase.
It was painfully obvious that the overachievers would start seeing a decrease in production.
Paul Maholm's home run to fly ball ratio was the best it's ever been through the first half of the season. Some of those fly balls were bound to leave the park and they certainly have.
Jeff Karstens stranded a preposterous 88 percent of runners, a number nearly 20 percent higher than the league average. Eventually, runners were going to touch home and they certainly have.
Despite a poor offense, Kevin Correia was receiving more 6 runs a game in run support through mid-July. That number might be even more ridiculous than Karstens' stranded percentage. Correia should have tested his luck in Vegas while he had the chance. The help is gone and Correia is back to being the average pitcher he is. Remember, this guy had an ERA over 5.00 last year.
All five starters have been on pace or close to exceed their career highs in innings pitched in a season.
Manager Clint Hurdle had to go to a six-man rotation. That is something he does not believe in. James McDonald should have explained to Hurdle how he feels when he gets five full days of rest between starts.
McDonald is 6-2 with an ERA almost four runs lower in starts which he has five days of rest compared to four.
The future of the starters does not look promising. Correia, Maholm and probably Karstens are not long-term answers. McDonald and Charlie Morton possibly are. Brad Lincoln or a veteran deadline pickup would have looked nice in the rotation.
The system's only legitimate starters have incredibly high ceilings. First-round selections Jameson Tailon and Gerrit Cole (thankfully signed) are at least two years away.
How much can the Pirates count on them in 2013? Will McDonald and Morton still be reliable in 2013, 2014 and 2015 when the two young studs finally hit their groove?
A lot of transactions will take place over the next few years, but the short and long-term diagnosis is not all that promising.
Check out the middle of these batting orders:
One of these does not belong with the other three. Once the Pirates' pitching started to tail off, it was up to the offense to carry the team with a lineup that carries the fifth-worst team batting average in the entire major leagues.
Over the length of a series and the length of a season, the Pirates cannot compete with these lineups. Some of the National League's best hitters are in the Central Division. Unfortunately for the Bucs, these hitters tend to be even better against the Pirates.
Albert Pujols has made PNC Park his second home, hitting .408 there over the past three seasons. Fielder and Braun have lead the Brewers to 36 wins in the last 39 games against the Pirates.
Take a second to digest the latter number.
Instead of looking to close the gap against those three teams, they might have to worry about the Chicago Cubs overtaking them for fourth place.
It's time for the Pirates to wish upon a star and hope Fielder and Pujols go far, far away from the NL Central as free agents in the winter.
Andrew McCutchen has cemented himself as one of the best center fielders in the game.
Neil Walker has been consistency clutch and should be the Pirates' second baseman for a long time.
Outside of those two, there are zero position players that shine in the short term or long term. Let's go through the positions.
Ryan Doumit is a rarity. He is a switch-hitting catcher with power. That is the good news. His fielding ability can only be described as bad news bears. That is a tough pill to swallow when his pitching staff has been struggling lately. The Michael McKenry happy hour is over.
Garrett Jones seemingly always has one huge month a year to keep him on the major league roster. The 30-year-old has raked the ball in August, but history says it will not last.
Ronny Cedeno is a serviceable shortstop, but his stick at the plate is pathetic and his emotion for the game is worse.
It is tough to claim Pedro Alvarez is a bust just yet, but Alvarez is doing his best to make that the case. Alvarez is still an obvious question mark.
Ryan Ludwick is a likable guy, but 2008 was a long time ago. Jose Tabata has a lot to prove when he returns to the lineup, he was not exactly raking it before his extended stint on the DL.
The bench is not even worth a witty insult and the future of the position players is still very much in question.
The catching situation is worrisome with Tony Sanchez struggling behind the plate and with the bat. The team still needs a long-term shortstop. Chase d'Arnaud's ceiling is as a utility infielder. Do not let anybody tell you otherwise.
The team is begging for a power bat to occupy one of the corner outfield slots. Starling Marte appears to be the real deal, but he still needs to prove it when he gets the opportunity at the major league level.
It was an excellent job by Pirates management to sign Josh Bell, but the 18-year-old has a long way to go to reach the majors.
Two out of eight positions occupied by solid players does not make a team a contender.
Joel Hanrahan's dominance makes it so teams only have 24 outs to defeat the Pirates.
But that is not hard to do these days.
The inconsistency of the bullpen can be contributed to a number of factors. One is that they are not that talented.
Similar to the starters, many of the bullpen pitchers are on pace or have surpassed the most innings they have pitched in a season.
Chris Resop is a perfect example. After clipping the 40-inning mark this season, his ERA has ballooned to over 4.00. He experienced incredible luck in the first half of the year, getting away with his flat 94-mile-per-hour fastball. He lacks a dominant second pitch which means he will never be a reliable end-of-the-game guy.
Jose Veras is the most frustrating piece of the bullpen. He does have a dominant second pitch and a better fastball than Resop. He just doesn't seem to have the mentality of an eighth-inning guy.
Some games, veras looks incredible, such as Monday against the Cardinals. Granted, Albert Pujols let him get away with a hanging breaking ball, but he had the confidence to throw another breaking ball on a 3-2 pitch and caught Pujols looking. He also has control issues: 26 free passes in 56 innings. Veras cannot be depended on in close games.
The disappointment and demise of Evan Meek appears to be a fatal one to this team. If he could have been the setup man this team needed, then the whole bullpen could have been adjusted. Veras could have been the seventh-inning guy and Resop could have been a spot reliever similar to Daniel McCutchen.
Clint Hurdle has received a lot of criticism for the managing of the bullpen and rightfully so. He needed to be perfect with the bullpen following the 19-inning marathon in Atlanta. He has not been, and this team has felt the wrath from it.
Compare the Pirates' bullpen to the Brewers or the Braves and you will find a significant reason why those teams will be playing in October and the Pirates will be golfing.
Any New York Mets fan will say that a 13-game division lead this late in the season is not safe.
Clint Hurdle was the manager of a Rockies team that won 22 out of 23 games, leading them into an incredible playoff run.
But the glass slipper is stored away in the back of Jerry Meal's closet.
The Brewers are simply too talented from top to bottom. They are quickly making an argument that they might be the best team in the National League and not just the Central. They, along with the Philadelphia Phillies, are the clear contenders in the NL.
September will be intriguing for a number of different reasons. Will Alex Presley continue to hit when he finally returns? Will Pedro Alvarez show any positive signs when he is recalled from Triple-A? How will James McDonald and Charlie Morton perform down the stretch?
Most importantly, will the team finish over .500 for the first time since Sid Bream crushed many dreams in western Pennsylvania?
The Pirates will not push for the division crown, but that doesn't mean this season hasn't been a success.
The Pirates finished last season with 57 wins. They currently have 57 wins. This team has clearly improved this year under Clint Hurdle.
The playoffs are out of the question, but the season is not lost. If the Bucs finish over .500, it could prove to be a gigantic stepping stone moving forward.
Follow me on twitter @2firstnames88