Can the Pirates really contend in 2011?

Even with an 8-2 loss to the cellar-dwelling Houston Astros last night, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the thick of the NL Central race. Their 45-42 record has them in third place, a game and a half behind the first place Cardinals, a half game behind the Brewers, and a game and a half in front of the defending division champion Reds. Could the Pirates really make what was supposed to be a three-team race into a four-team logjam? 

Right now, there are three basic reactions to the Bucs’ surprising start. Pirate fans, who haven’t seen their team make the playoffs or even finish with a winning record since 1992 and have only seen the Bucs seriously contend for either maybe twice in the intervening 18 years, are excited beyond belief to have real baseball just a year after a 105-loss disaster. The national media loves a good story, and they’re lapping up the Buccos’ surprising run without casting a critical glance at the Pirates’ start, and everyone else looks at the Bucs with a raised eyebrow and says something along the lines of, “This can’t be real, can it? Look at that roster.”

Those that are skeptical of the Pirates have every right to be so. Right now the team’s record is mostly built on its pitching staff, which is fifth in the National League in runs allowed and ERA. The problem is that they’re also last in the NL in strikeouts and tenth in walks allowed. With four starters that have never topped 200 innings in a season (Paul Maholm is the only one of the five to do so in his big league career), the Pirates’ pitching staff, and by extension their chance at contention, looks like a balloon that’s just waiting to be popped. 

As The Outside Corner’s resident Pirate fan and expert, though, I’m here to tell you why that might not happen. The Pirates are still longshots to play in October this year, but it’s not impossible. Under the jump, I’ve got four reasons that they might be able to stick in this race. 

The Injuries: The Pirates went 16-11 in June against good competition with a slew of players on the disabled list. Third base has been manned by Brandon Wood, Josh Harrison, and Chase d’Arnaud since Pedro Alvarez went on the DL in mid-May. Mike McKenry, who began the year with the Pawtuckett Red Sox, and Eric Fryer, who started 2011 with zero games above Advanced-A ball, are splitting the catching duties with Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder on the DL. Right-handed utilityman Steve Pearce, who was supposed to spell Lyle Overbay and Garrett Jones against tough lefties, hasn’t played since May, either. Starting left fielder and leadoff man Jose Tabata and the surprisingly slick-gloved Ronny Cedeno have also been put on the shelf lately with a calf injury and a concussion, respectively. 

Alvarez and Cedeno are expected back after the All-Star break, and Doumit and Pearce and Tabata should be back by the end of the month. Alvarez was struggling before his injury, but if he gets healthy and finds his swing he’s capable of being the big power bat the Pirates sorely need in the middle of their lineup. Doumit, too, would be a big offensive upgrade over McKenry. Cedeno should help the defense, and by extension the pitching staff, quite a bit, and the return of Tabata could help get the struggling Lyle Overbay off of the field now that rookie outfielder Alex Presley is in Pittsburgh and the early returns look good. In short, the Pirates don’t even need to swing a trade to improve themselves considerably over the next month. 

The Bullpen: We’ve known for a long time that the best way for a team to outperform their Pythagorean record is through their bullpen. Joel Hanrahan’s dominance this year isn’t a secret; his 25 saves in 25 chances, 1.37 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and 4.18 K/BB ratio have him on the All-Star team. What fewer people realize is that the Pirates have a pretty deep bullpen behind him. Chris Resop is striking out a whopping 11.5 hitters per nine innings this year and though he had some early-season struggles he’s been lights out of late. Since May 20th, he’s got 24 strikeouts and six walks in 17 2/3 innings to go with his 2.04 ERA. Jose Veras has a career low walk-rate of 3.9 BB/9 while still averaging a strikeout an inning and he’s parlayed that into a nice 2.50 ERA. Like Resop, he’s been lights out of late; he hasn’t allowed a run in his last ten appearances. Rookie left-hander Tony Watson has also shown flashes of brilliance out of the pen despite some control problems, and Dan McCutchen has established himself as a useful swing man. If the Pirates rotation does start to falter, the Bucs have a bullpen that can hold small leads, eat some innings, and get big outs. 

The Schedule: Of the Pirates’ last 75 games, 19 are against the Cubs and Astros and 11 more are against the Marlins, Dodgers, and Padres. That’s pretty favorable. 

The Deadline: The Pirates won’t trade any of their best prospects at the deadline this year, but they have both tradeable fringe prospects and the ability to take on a bad short-term contract thanks to their $42 million payroll. If they decide they need an upgrade and they’re shrewd about where they look for said upgrade, they could swing a deal similar to the one that landed them Chris Snyder at least year’s deadline. 

The Bottom Line: The Pirates are not the best team in the NL Central. They’re probably not the second or third best team in the division, either, and they’re still a longshot for a playoff spot. But they’re not a bad team, either. They’ve got a lot of players coming back from injury in the near future and some ability to deal at the deadline this year. Given that they’re already in the thick of the race beyond the season’s halfway point, it’s not impossible to think that they’ll be in the same position two months from now. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.