Should You Take the Pittsburgh Pirates Seriously as a World Series Contender?

Joe Giglio@@JoeGiglioSportsContributor ISeptember 10, 2013

MILWAUKEE, WI - SEPTEMBER 03: Travis Snider #23 of the Pittsburgh Pirates celebrates in the dugout after hitting a solo home run to put the pirates up 4-3 in the top of the ninth inning against the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park on September 03, 2013 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

The most amazing part, at least to me, of the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates rise to prominence—The quick and seismic shift from "The Pirates finally got over .500!" to "The Pirates are World Series contenders!"

Yes, folks, they are.

By achieving win No. 82 tonight with a 1-0 victory over the Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh exhumed two decades of demons, frustrations and ineptitude. By doing it so early in September and leading the NL Central, Pittsburgh isn't talking about just a .500 finish.

Instead, they're thinking bigger. As in October.

As the summer progressed it was pretty clear that the Pirates weren't going to collapse and miss out on .500 again. Of course, we can easily call the 2011 and 2012 finishes collapses in order to fit within the narrative of losing seasons in the Steel City, but, in reality, the Pirates have been on an extreme upswing for years.

After winning only 57 games in 2010, they jumped to 72 in 2011 and 79 in 2012. The latter two seasons coincided with Clint Hurdle's first two years on the job.

Now, in 2013, they are over .500 and on the path to a National League playoff berth.

When they arrive there baseball fans should take them very, very seriously to make noise in October.

Why? Here are three reasons.

First, and most importantly, Pittsburgh has two front-line starting pitchers. While the names Liriano and Burnett may not strike fear into the psyche of opposing batters, they should. Based on the production from both this season, few pitchers in the sport have been better.

Heading into play on Monday, four starting pitchers in baseball had K/9 rates of at least 9.0 and ground ball percentages of at least 50. In other words, that's the ability to strikeout a batter per inning and generate grounders on half of balls put into play.

Those four names: Felix Hernandez, Stephen Strasburg, Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett.

Not Matt Harvey or Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer or Yu Darvish. Just four names, two of which headline the Pittsburgh staff.

When manager Clint Hurdle sets up his postseason rotation, he has two aces to throw at the National League.

Second, Pittsburgh has an all-around star that can lead them to great heights.

Andrew McCutchen's ability to change the game with power (.518 slugging), speed (27 stolen bases) and defense (eight runs saved, according to Baseball-Reference's defensive runs saved stat via Baseball Info Solutions).

With lineup protection from Pedro Alvarez and the recently acquired duo of Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd, pitchers will have to challenge McCutchen. It's likely he'll make them pay at some point.

Lastly, literally and figuratively, is a dominant 1-2 punch at the back end of the bullpen.

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With the recent return of All-Star Jason Grilli (currently in low-leverage situations before transitioning back to closer), and Mark Melancon, Pittsburgh has an 8th-9th inning combo that has combined to strikeout 128 batters in just 107.2 innings.

In other words, when Pittsburgh has the lead after seven innings, the door is almost always slammed shut from there.

High-end starting pitching, an MVP candidate patrolling center field and a dominant bullpen combo.

At the risk of upsetting the city of New York, that formula sounds awfully reminiscent of what the Yankees used in the mid-to-late 90s to launch a dynasty.

Take the Pirates seriously, baseball fans.

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