Playoff Chances in the Air, but Winning Season Almost Certain for Resurgent Bucs
The world is starting to notice the Pittsburgh Pirates, who after an unprecedented stretch of futility, are having a renaissance this season, having brought a winning record into the All-Star break for the first time since 1992. And with the Pirates opening the second half of the season with 4-0 win over the Astros, coupled by losses by the Reds and Cardinals, the Bucs have a share of first place in mid-July. Even the most optimistic did not expect such success by the 2011 Pirates so soon.
As the team has continued to remain competitive this year, the amount of media attention, both local and national, has increased along with an awaking of a long dormant fan base. It is about time that Pittsburgh, a city with a rich baseball history and beautiful ballpark, has a team which its fans can be excited about. Despite some skepticism by national media and long-abused fans, who may be clouded by the nearly two decades of ineptitude, the Pirates have shown on the field that they are a legitimately good team with even a brighter future. The owner, GM, and manager appear to have a vision and plan to bring the club to a championship level, not simply satisfied with just surpassing the pedestrian .500 plateau that much of Pittsburgh would be more than happy with.
These new look Pirates have a young, talented core of players, led by Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata which have been nicely complemented by veterans such as All-stars Kevin Correia and Joel Hanrahan. Their pitching staff has been a huge success, a group of mostly reclamation projects that have mastered the art of pitching strikes and effectively using a much improved defense to keep the team competitive in most games.
An effective front office led by GM Neil Huntington, that through both effective amateur drafts and trades for prospects (many initially unpopular) in the recent past, have vastly improved organization depth and put the team in position this year to become buyers at the trade deadline for the first time since 1997. Not only has this influx of talent given the Pirates prospects to offer in a trade, but has more importantly been able to compensate for several injuries of players on the big league roster, as evident in relatively unknown players such as Alex Presley, Josh Harrison, Chase d'Arnaud, Tony Watson, Michael McHenry, and Daniel Moskos being called up from the minors and making significant contributions.
Moreover, the Bucs have a vastly improved coaching staff led by manager Clint Hurdle, who has changed the culture by preaching and teaching fundamentals while holding his players responsible and accountable to play the right way. Every button Hurdle has pushed so far has seemingly worked. This was no more evident than when Hurdle benched the normally hustling McCutchen for a game early in the season for failing to run out a grounder. How many managers today have the intestinal fortitude to bench their franchise player? Other than Clint Hurdle and Jack McKeon, not many if any at all. Hurdle was rewarded by this move by McCutchen catching fire after a slow start and, along with 2B Neil Walker, carrying a Pirate offense which has been decimated by injuries.
So now the oft-maligned Pirates are tied for first place and five games over .500 despite having half of their opening day starting position players on the DL and already winning more series (17) in the first half than in all of 2010 and winning more away series (9) so far in 2011 than they won in the last two seasons combined.
If that isn't enough evidence that these new Bucs are for real, nothing is more indicative of a improved Pirate club than the fact that despite going into this season as having by far the worst interleague record of any MLB team, the Pirates went 8-7 against a tough AL slate (BOS, DET, CLE, TOR, and BAL) during 2011 interleague play.
Another good sign is that the Pirates were more than competitive against the league's top teams, winning each series played against the Cardinals, Tigers, Phillies, Diamondbacks, and the Red Sox. And against NL playoff contenders, defined as teams with winning records or that are within 4 games of first place, the Pirates went 20-17.
While the Pirates face a tougher second half schedule in which 45 of 72 (63%) remaining games are against NL playoff contenders, 24 of those 27 "other games" are against the four worst teams in the NL, Cubs (7), Astros (9), Padres (3) and Dodgers (5), all teams that the Pirates should fare very well against. This second half slate should also be may easier by the fact that the young Bucs are continuing to improve as they get more experienced and confident under Hurdle's expert tutelage.
As for the offense, which has had its struggles, when injury casualties Ronny Cedeno, Jose Tabata, and catchers Ryan Doumit and Chris Synder return at various times in the second half, it is sure to improve. That is not to mention the possible recalling of ultra-talented ‘08 second overall draft pick Pedro Alvarez, who is working himself back into playing shape in Triple A Indianapolis, and the instant infusion of offense a mid-season trade could provide. So now, instead of the annual July fire-sale Pirate fans are so accustomed to, the front office is primed to add a piece or two by the deadline, most likely a right-handed corner infielder with power, a move which would instantly improve an underrated offense that is loaded with speed.
Lastly, a most telling statistic of the Pirates’ prowess is their 25-20 road record. Mediocre and bad teams often have winning records at home - it is the teams that can win where it is the toughest, i.e. on the road, that are the teams that are most successful overall. The raw data is convincing. During the last three complete seasons, '08 through '10, 16 teams had winning road records at the All-Star break. 15 of those 16 teams (the sole exception being the 79-83 '09 White Sox) finished with winning records, and 12 of those 16 teams made the playoffs. Furthermore, during this same period, teams that have both home and away records that are over .500 at the all-star break are even more successful. Of the four teams that have met this criteria, the '10 Rays, '08 and '09 Phillies, and '08 Angels, all have made the playoffs and two reached the World Series. What two teams, you may ask, meet that criteria in 2011? The Los Angeles Angels and yes, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Some have questioned the Pirates mediocre 23-22 home record as a concern. However, the Pirates have won 14 of their last 22 at home, energized by an energetic fan-base and increased attendance. Furthermore, the Pirates are 7-3 in home sellouts this season, a fact that is promising considering that there should be even more big crowds and sellouts in the second half. If you are still concerned about the home record, consider this: Of the 9 NL playoff contenders at the All-Star break in 2010, who had the worst home record? None other that the San Francisco Giants, the eventual World Series Champions.
While I'm not predicting a World Championship for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011, the facts support a support a strong finish in 2011, possibly a playoff berth but almost assuredly a winning record. Along with the tougher second half schedule, the 2 main challenges that face the Pirates and stand in the way of them becoming the national media darlings of the second half and NL Central Champions are the stiff competition in the NL Wild Card and NL Central races and availability of trade-deadline help.
Most likely, either the Phillies and Braves, barring an unexpected collapse by one of them, will earn the NL wild card. As for the NL Central race, both the Cardinals and Brewers have talented, veteran teams with experience in both a playoff race and post-season. This is made worse by the fact that the Brewers seem to have the Pirates' number regardless of the season. Pittsburgh is 0-5 against Milwaukee this year with 10 games remaining with them. Lastly, both the Cardinals and Brewers consider themselves serious contenders and are certain buyers. The Brewers’ recent acquisition of Francisco Rodriguez from the New York Mets is definitely evidence of that. So even if the Bucs stay afloat and continue winning baseball through the end of the year, they simply may not be talented enough to surpass both the Cardinals or Brewers, at least this year.
The unknown quantity is the what level of success will management have in acquiring the piece or pieces needed to overtake the Cardinals and Brewers and win the division. A related component to this is how soon can the team get healthy and improve an offense which often struggles against the elite pitching teams it will often face in the stretch run. While willing to deal, Huntington is rightfully not intent of selling the farm just to make the playoffs for one season. Instead, the Pirates would prefer to depart with some prospects to strengthen the team this year but not “overpay” in a way that would disrupt the aforementioned goal to eventually field a championship caliber team year in and year out. While this is something that is especially tough for a small market teams to do, organizations such as the Brewers, Twins, and Rays have done so by signing the right players to long term deals, letting the overbid/overpriced players go, and building from within on a consistent basis. This is something that the Pittsburgh Pirate front office still has to prove they are willing and able to do.
There is no doubt that a meaningful second half of the season will be exciting for both the team and the fans, something that is long overdue. How well the Pirates fare in the highly competitive and risky mid-season trade market (currently a large majority of teams still consider themselves potential buyers) will largely determine whether the Pirates will simply exceed the highly elusive .500 threshold or earn a Division title and a playoff berth. However, regardless of the result, the remainder of the season is sure to be full of drama, definitely a welcome sight for the city of Pittsburgh.