NL Central Bunched Up: Pirates Alive and Strong

Brian WolffCorrespondent IJune 16, 2009

CHICAGO - MAY 27: Manager John Russell #7 of the Pittsburgh Pirates (R) takes pitcher Jesse Chavez #43 out of a game against the Chicago Cubs as catcher Jason Jaramillo #35 watches on May 27, 2009 at Wrigley Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs defeated the Pirates 5-2. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

The relative parity that is being displayed in the National League is partly a symptom of good teams that are underperforming, and partly due to the improvement of teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Colorado Rockies.

The National League Central, like it has for many years, is looking like a tossup.

With the favored Cubs struggling to keep a healthy team on the field, the division is looking hard to call.

Convention says that, after the Pirates finish interleague play, they will take a nose dive in the stands and will finish rock bottom.

That may be what convention says, but this year’s Pirates might have something to say about it.

At a little more than a year ago, on June 8th—that is 63 games into the season, the Pirates were 30-33.

Today they are also 30-33.

This year’s team just executed a huge trade that sent their star center fielder away, not unlike the Bucs did with Jason Bay and Xavier Nady last year.

This is where the similarities end and differences begin.

The team of last year had a run differential of -23. That is, their pitchers had given up 23 more runs that the offense was able to score.  That rundifferential had balooned to -149 by season's end.  

This was the offense that had Bay and Nady. Looking at todays starting rotation and the Pirates' offense, you just don't see that happening. Today, the Pirates have scored eight more runs than they have given up.  Someitmes they are scoring runs, and at others the pitching and defense is holding opponents to few runs.

This year’s offense headed at this stage by no one really, is holding their own, getting run production at times from one or both of the LaRoches, from the bottom half of the order, and also from the top of the order with Morgan, Sanchez and now McCutchen.

A dent in last years number, but not too big a dent, they have scored 26 less runs than last year’s team to date.  They are amont the league leaders in hits, but sadly they are also amongh the leaders in runners left on base.

More noticeably, the Pirates have reduced their team ERA by nearly a full run over last season at this point. The more important number is that they have given up 59 fewer runs to date through improved pitching and solid defense. 

If the numbers hold up, the Pirates should expect to win anywhere from 10 to 20 more games than they did last season. They have a legitimate shot at finishing .500 if they can keep the core players intact and avoid any more big injuries.

At this stage in the season, the Pirates are four-and-a-half games out of first place due partly to the Cubs' woes, a team which was handily leading the division at this point last season.

Sitting 9.5 games out of first feels a lot worse than 4.5 games.  This team knows they have talent and believes they can win.

General Manager Neal Huntington and company seem to be holding to their promise of trying to build a winner from the ground up.  

This year could be the year that the tide turns in the other direction.


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